[CES 2020] China's aggressive push for AI prompts Samsung and SKT to join forces

09, Jan. 2020

SK Telecom’s President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Park Jung-ho today held a press conference at CES 2020. (Photo courtesy of SK Telecom)
SK Telecom’s President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Park Jung-ho today held a press conference at CES 2020. (Photo courtesy of SK Telecom)

LAS VEGAS, AJU - Samsung Electronics and SK Telecom will embark on "Open Innovation" through strategic alliances in the artificial intelligence sector. The biggest reason for their alliance is a sense of crisis that they can no longer lag behind in AI.

Analysts say that a surprise meeting between Koh Dong-jin, president of Samsung Electronics' IM division, and SK Telecom (SKT) President Park Jung-ho at the world's largest technology exhibition, CES 2020, in Las Vegas reflects this sense of crisis.

AI is a hot topic at CES 2020, which has become a stage for global IT heavyweights to show off their innovative technology. While IT dinosaurs are leading the technology trend, South Korean conglomerates are also making all-out efforts to strengthen their AI capabilities. Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong and SK Group Chairman Chey Tae-won are taking care of related businesses in person.

Samsung picked AI as its future growth engine along with 5G mobile telecom and semiconductors for automotive components. It currently operates seven AI research centers in five countries -- the United States, Britain, Canada, Russia and South Korea. The recruitment of AI talent is in full swing. Samsung has recruited world-renowned AI scholars, including Sebastian Seung of Princeton University, Gu-Yeon Wei of Harvard University and Daniel Lee of Cornell's School of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE).

Since resuming his management activities in 2018, Lee has been struggling to set up AI strategies by meeting with global industry executives and savants. He held talks with Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella in November 2018 and SoftBank Chairman Masayoshi Son last year on ways to cooperate on AI.

SK Chairman Chey is "all-in" to nurture AI technologies as one of the key drivers of "deep change." "If we select only one technology that will change the world, it will be AI," he said at a forum in Chicago in October last year. "In the next five years, the impact of AI will come with enormous speed and intensity."

SKT has strengthened AI capabilities at a group level. In 2018, Yoon Kim, who developed Apple's voice-controlled personal assistant Siri, was hired as head of the group's AI research center. SKT's research center was expanded and reorganized into AIX to integrate technology support functions divided by each business and place AI at the center of all businesses.

South Korean companies are struggling to strengthen their AI competitiveness, but they face a difficult situation. Many people say that there is a clear gap between South Korea and advanced countries in AI technologies. SKT President Park Jung-ho admitted at talks with Ko that South Korea's AI technology is still not enough to compete with global companies.

In December, the Software Policy and Research Institute published a report that there are only seven Koreans out of 500 key AI talents around the world. The number of key AI personnel is significantly lower in South Korea compared to major countries such as the U.S. and China. The technology gap with the U.S. has widened to at least two years.

"While China is making large-scale investments led by the government to foster human resources, Korean private companies are struggling without institutional support," an IT expert said. "We should not miss the golden time to become an AI power. If we miss this, we will never be able to regain the initiative in the era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution."