South Korea commits almost a billion dollars to AI research

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In reaction to the recent Go victory by a computer program over a human, the government of South Korea has quickly accelerated its plans to back research into the field of artificial intelligence with a commitment of $863 million and the establishment of public/private institute.

Scrambling to respond to the success of Google DeepMind’s world-beating Go program AlphaGo, South Korea announced on 17 March that it would invest $863 million (1 trillion won) in artificial-intelligence (AI) research over the next five years. It is not immediately clear whether the cash represents new funding, or had been previously allocated to AI efforts. But it does include the founding of a high-profile, public–private research centre with participation from several Korean conglomerates, including Samsung, LG Electronics and Hyundai Motor, as well as the technology firm Naver, based near Seoul.

The timing of the announcement indicates the impact in South Korea of AlphaGo, which two days earlier wrapped up a 4–1 victory over grandmaster Lee Sedol in an exhibition match in Seoul. The feat was hailed as a milestone for AI research. But it also shocked the Korean public, stoking widespread concern over the capabilities of AI, as well as a spate of newspaper headlines worrying that South Korea was falling behind in a crucial growth industry.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye has also announced the formation of a council that will provide recommendations to overhaul the nation’s research and development process to enhance productivity. In her 17 March speech, she emphasized that “artificial intelligence can be a blessing for human society” and called it “the fourth industrial revolution”. She added, “Above all, Korean society is ironically lucky, that thanks to the ‘AlphaGo shock’, we have learned the importance of AI before it is too late.”

Not surprisingly, some academics are complaining that the money is going to industry rather than the universities. For myself, I wonder if this crony capitalistic approach will produce any real development, or whether it will instead end up to be a pork-laden jobs program for South Korean politicians.


  • Tom Billings

    “Not surprisingly, some academics are complaining that the money is going to industry rather than the universities. For myself, I wonder if this crony capitalistic approach will produce any real development, or whether it will instead end up to be a pork-laden jobs program for South Korean politicians.”

    The real key will be in how widely minds are engaged in the problems of A.I., and how well filtered the ideas they come up with are to affect A.I. advances. So far, we just see complaints from academic hierarchs, who criticize Park at almost any time, for placing resources in the hands of hierarchs from other hierarchies, the crony capitalist groups of Korean society. To what extent can either reliably engage a wide network within Korean society on A.i., and link that to the worldwide networks working on it? I don’t know, and I’ll bet Park doesn’t either.

    A.I. is an inherently networked worldwide effort, and only resources applied with that in mind will be worth the expenditure. They cannot make sure Korea is unthreatened by a new trend, only that Korea participates enough in highly productive networks that Korea gets whatever benefits come from it as soon as possible. Expecting Park to hand the money to hierarchs in hierarchies that regularly piss on her name is, … politically obtuse, and that is just what Korean academics do to her, because of her father.

    The cronies will take the money, and *might* do some good. The academics would take the money, bitch that it isn’t enough, and still piss on her name.

  • Dick Eagleson

    Academics will always plead poverty, whether in South Korea or here in the U.S.

    That said, the likelihood of anything much coming of ROK government grants to ROK business chaebol (conglomerates) to boost AI research is pretty small. The Japanese tried something similar two decades or so ago. Nothing much came of that effort either.

    The whole field of AI owes its genesis to a few oddball folks thinking outside the box in the 50’s and 60’s. The field has since established itself and grown large and various enough that it now has a number of “boxes” of its own. There will continue to be incremental progress within each extant AI “box,” but I suspect breakthrough progress will await one or a few mavericks once again daring to go outside all the established “boxes.”

    Asian societies just seem fundamentally ill-suited to raising up people capable of genuine outside-the-box thought. AI, as a field, was invented by Americans, operating in America and that has been true of most of the significant advances in the field since. That a major breakthrough could occur outside the U.S. is always possible, but that doesn’t seem to be of high probability. Operating within conventional-wisdom-worshiping Asian government and corporate constraints, I would judge its probability of occurring, regardless of funding level, to be asymptotically close to zero.

  • pzatchok

    My only problem is this is not actually an artificial intelligence.
    Its just a very good strategy program. And all that takes is some good programming and computing power.
    Is this computer and program learning to walk, talk, write poetry or figure out how to break light speed?

    It was programmed to a single purpose and bent all its power to that job. It didn’t sit around at night wondering about its existence or if it would get a date tomorrow.

    Its no more intelligent than my Bridge program.

  • D K Rögnvald Williams

    S. Korea could make better use of these funds building recreational facilities, and stop this insane abuse of their children, viz, forcing them to spend practically every waking hour studying.

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