November 2, 2004 A new type of network-based robot will debut in Korea in late 2005, greeting customers in around 200 post offices and interacting in real time service applications for commercial and home uses. One male based robot security guard will guard post offices around the clock and is equipped with a net it can shoot to capture intruders. Another female styled robot will tend to customers and make those long queues more bearable by screening fun video clips on embedded monitors.
The network-based robots are part of a project called the Ubiquitous Robot Companion (URC) being promoted by the Korean Ministry of Information and Communications (MIC), who are taking advantage of the country's highest per capita use of high-speed Internet connection and wireless broadband services to deliver flexible robot programming through wireless networks and pre-empt the emerging robotics market.
"If the pair of URC robots pass the feasibility test, they can be applied to banks or other government agencies by handily changing their software," said Oh Sang-rok, the MIC project manager who is in charge of the URC scheme.
Three other network-based robots will also go on trial in a pilot program in 100 Korean homes.
"All the five dummies are network-enabled models empowered by the broadband convergence network. They will revolutionize our daily lives, eventually accompanying us at any time and any place," Oh predicted.
Networked Robots – a new paradigm
Automotive and electronics industry leaders like Toyota , Honda and Fujitsu have taken an aggressive lead in the burgeoning domestic and commercial robotics markets, but genuinely intelligent robots that can understand and interact in real time with humans have until now been limited to expensive prototypes.
Countries like Japan, with the most advanced robotics industry, have a development head start that Korea could not hope to match outright. "If we had jumped onto the bandwagon of developing pricey robots with the aim of competing with advanced nations, we would have faced a debacle. Our strategy is to make reasonable feature-embedded robots with price tags that don't scare off normal buyers and the answer was to go online," Oh explained.
Korean scientists took full advantage of the country's state-of-the-art Internet infrastructure to develop a network-based approach to functionality. Intelligent robots need three basic functions: sensing, processing and action. Oh's team took the lateral step of outsourcing most sensing and processing abilities by connecting to Korea's robust broadband network.
"A URC robot just provides a platform with the capability of action and the sensing and processing abilities will mostly come through high-speed networks. It can be called software-on-demand without predefined programs," Oh explained.
Intelligent Robots in the home
The three URC home robots in development include a 1 meter tall, high-end robot, priced at between 2 and 3 million won, which will provide health-care programs for owners and mobile Internet connection services. A middle range robot will cost around 1 million won and will be approximately 70 to 80 cm in height and perform household tasks like cleaning rooms as well as ordering pizzas or Chinese food via built in local information. The low-end robot will be 50cm tall and focus on entertainment features like reading books while kids are sleeping, with a price tag of around 500,000 won.
The future of intelligent robots
Japan's Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communication reports that the global hardware market for networked robots will reach around 3.5 trillion yen by 2013, which sees Korea positioned to take full advantage of this growth. Furthermore, online robot-associated application equipment and services are expected to top 4.3 trillion yen and 12 trillion yen by the same year.
Korea's MIC is developing it's ambitious network-based robotics program over the next ten years. The Korean Times reports the MIC team is "drawing up three-stage plans tailored to eventually deploying genuinely sophisticated robots that evolve through interaction with humans by 2015.
"The first target is to develop semi-autonomous robots by 2007, which can respond to people's requests by recognizing owners' voices with mapping ability. The next stage is launching autonomous robots, which perceives the needs of people by 2011. For example, the smart robot will ask its owner to take medication if he or she looks sick.
"As the final goal, with a deadline of 2015, the robot will have self-awareness and mutually interact with human beings on the back of the ubiquitous network, which Korea aims to complete by 2010."
Networked based intelligent robots are still in their infancy and a host of potential problems still remain. A number of technical challenges related to network noise, reliability, congestion, fixed and variable time delay and stability will have to be overcome before widespread commerciality of networked robots is possible.
Of paramount concern is the safety of humans. "Because the URC robots are operated by the network, they are vulnerable to network headaches, like hacking or viruses. They can wreak havoc on people," Oh said.
URC robots would be equipped with inbuilt safety checks and features like mapping and self tuning to minimise the risks.
The five URC prototypes robots are being developed in conjunction with Samsung Electronics, LG Electronics and the Seoul National University, and will be rolled out in the trial test by February, 2005.