At a Starbucks in the futuristic headquarters of Naver, South Korea’s biggest internet company, a line of robots is on standby to fetch coffee for the company’s employees.
About 100 robots on wheels — called Rookies — wander around the offices, carrying out simple tasks such as delivering meals and parcels and testing the boundaries of human interaction with machines in one of the first examples of a robot-friendly building.
Naver has been experimenting with integrating service robots into office life for more than a year in the 36-storey building on the southern outskirts of Seoul. These “brainless” robots roam around the building, rolling through security gates and taking lifts, powered by Naver’s cloud system that enables them to see, recognise and operate seamlessly.
The company is now keen to export the cutting-edge 5G-based cloud robotics technology, with many countries in Europe as well as Japan and Saudi Arabia expressing interest in benchmarking its system.
“There are not many companies globally who can offer this high-quality robot service at this scale,” said Seok Sang-ok, chief executive of Naver Labs, Naver’s research and development unit, in an interview with the Financial Times.
“This requires a lot of seamless co-operation with many of our affiliates. Naver’s wide-ranging services, including search engines, online shopping and social networking, have allowed us to experiment with various robot technologies and services, all in-house.”
Like Amazon, Naver sells products online and operates a sizeable cloud business. It spends about a quarter of its annual sales on R&D with Naver Labs in charge of developing artificial intelligence, robotics and autonomous driving.
Naver’s “digital twin” technology — a 3D scan of cities and buildings — also helps the robots to recognise their surroundings and find the most efficient routes. As they operate with just a normal video camera and without advanced processors and navigation tools, it costs much less to make them, Naver says.
“We’ve tested the robots for more than a year and now have a lot of data on human interaction with robots,” said Seok. “We’ll focus on exporting IT services, as I believe our robotics technology using the cloud will become much better in two to three years.”
Park Sang-soo, a researcher at the Korea Institute for Industrial Economics and Trade, said Naver faced export challenges, with the complexity of its technology meaning it was not as easy as “selling just a fleet of robots”.
“Naver’s robots are working well in its offices because the building was designed for that purpose, but it should consider the non-technological factors of the target countries such as their IT infrastructure and regulation to sell its platform solution,” he said.
South Korea has a thriving domestic robot industry, most of them being deployed in factories, as the country sees AI and robots as key to alleviating labour shortages in the face of the world’s lowest birth rate.
According to the International Federation of Robotics, South Korea has the highest “robot density” in the world, with 1,000 industrial robots per 10,000 manufacturing employees, compared with 399 in Japan, 322 in China, and 274 in the US.
Robots are widely used in Korea’s car and semiconductor plants, but they are also becoming an increasingly visible part of day-to-day life. Sales of service robots in South Korea are expected to almost double from $530mn this year to $1bn in 2026, an average annual increase of 23 per cent, according to the Korea Institute of Science and Technology Information.
Naver is looking to sell a combination of systems for industrial and server robots. Last month, it opened Asia’s largest data centre to accelerate its push into AI and the cloud. In the vast building in Sejong City that houses 600,000 servers, multiple robots carry heavy servers between IT warehouses and server rooms, while self-driving shuttles are in operation for employees and visitors to the campus.
“We have a full portfolio [of technologies] that can cover many new use cases,” said Albert Wang, Naver Labs’ principal researcher. “A lot of companies focus on single applications. We are really looking at the system levels. We have multiple types of robot systems co-operating together.”
Despite being a technology powerhouse, South Korea remains weak in software development, with its tech exports mostly confined to hardware such as chips, electronics and electric vehicle batteries. Naver is trying to change that picture, with exports of IT services like digital twins, robotics and AI tools, although it has so far failed to gain a foothold abroad with its powerful search engine.
Earlier this year, the country won its first major high-tech export contract to the Middle East to build and operate digital twins or virtual versions of five cities including Riyadh, Medina and Mecca, for five years. It is also looking to offer tailored versions of its latest ChatGPT-like artificial intelligence model to foreign governments concerned about US data controls.
“We are just beginning to export our IT services, which can become the country’s new export driver,” said Seok. “We aim to become the leading exporter of the country’s IT services in the medium to long term.”
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