This Korean smart city is a testing ground for robots, AR, and AI

Oleh Ming En Liew

Interview with Hwang Jong Sung, Lead Researcher of the National Information Society Agency and the former Master Planner of the Busan Eco Delta Smart City.

At a seaside town in South Korea, science fiction meets reality. At 7 am, your home greets you and reminds you to stretch. As you get dressed, smart mirrors keep you updated on the day’s news. Outside, tiny robots zip through the streets, keeping the roads clean.

This is the Busan Eco Delta Smart City, as described by the New York Times. A pilot project first announced in 2018, the city was designed to be smart from the onset. It will feature cutting-edge tech like robots, AR, and AI that hopes to bring greater convenience to its residents.

Hwang Jong Sung, Lead Researcher of the National Information Society Agency and the former Master Planner of the city, shares more about the tech and mission of the city.

Advent of robots

The vision for the Busan Eco Delta Smart City is to create an “augmented city”, shares Hwang. “The goal is to make basic services much easier.”

One way the city will do so is through robots, which can improve citizens’ physical mobility. These will accompany the elderly when they are going about their lives.

This is pertinent as Busan is facing an ageing population. About 19.4 per cent of the city’s population was aged 65 and above in 2020, as compared to just 13.3 per cent in 2013, according to Data Korea.

The elderly may be more prone to falling or struggle with health problems like dementia or heart diseases. These robots will follow these individuals around, and are able to detect if the individual falls or collapses, explains Hwang.

They will then send an automatic alert to medical services and the individual’s family to notify them. Family members will also be able to track the location of their loved ones through the robot, which is especially helpful for individuals who may suffer from dementia.

Busan hopes that private sector organisations will contribute to the development of such robots and expand their use cases, shares Hwang. These robots can also function as personal delivery robots to pick up items from the market, he suggests.

Other uses of robots could include valet parking robots or robots that help with the transport of goods in warehouses, according to the Busan City Government.

AR and AI for better citizen services

Besides robots, Busan is also looking into tech like augmented reality (AR) to help citizens communicate more clearly with government officials.

For example, if citizens notice a broken lamp on the streets, they can use their smartphones to capture a 3D image of it, along with its surroundings.This will allow government officials to assess the problem and make a decision about how to fix it without having to physically visit the affected area.

AI can improve traffic in the city as well, highlighted the nation’s water management agency K Water. It can analyse traffic data and detect if there is an accident or congestion on the roads.

Subsequently, it can notify drivers in the vicinity of this disruption, and automatically redirect them to a more favourable route. This has the potential to save drivers 60 hours of time wasted on the roads annually, the organisation highlighted.

A city for innovation

The Busan Eco Delta Smart City was designed to be an experimental ground for the testing and development of new tech instead of just implementing existing tech, shares Hwang. The city will introduce regulations and provide the infrastructure to support emerging tech.

The Korean government is currently constructing a physical prototype of a city where businesses and researchers can test new tech. This prototype will contain functional elements, like a power grid and telecommunication network, but not lamp posts or benches, Hwang says.

For instance, for delivery robots to function effectively, they need to be able to use elevators. But there may be many different types of elevators within a city. The prototype city will have different types of elevators on site so that researchers can test their robot across the possible scenarios.

Once these technologies are successfully tested, the researchers can roll them out in the Busan Eco Delta Smart City for residents’ use. Eventually, they can even be expanded to other cities in Korea and beyond.

“We don’t know what kind of technology will prevail in the future,” says Hwang. “But we have tried to remain open to new possibilities and new technologies.”

Smart cities are springing up all across the globe, with technologies like smart lighting and automated temperature controls becoming commonplace. But Korea’s novel approach to smart cities may bring with it the advent of new technologies. Exciting times are afoot!

Hwang Jong Sung will be speaking at GovInsider’s flagship event AI x GOV, at the AI: the key to climate response panel on 6 April, 10am (SGT). Catch him here!

Featured image taken from Smart City Korea.