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Why The Pyeongchang Olympics Are Also A Tech Showcase For South Korea


The Winter Olympics in South Korea will be a chance for the country to show off its newest robot creations. NPR's Elise Hu reports that the peek into the future starts as soon as you land at the airport.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: We're in the arrival hall of Terminal 1 of the Incheon International Airport. It is the main airport of Seoul. And a robot is rolling up upon us in the arrival hall with a theme song.


HU: It's about 5 feet tall, smooth, white.

Cylindrical with a swiveling dome-shaped head and a tablet screen for a face. There's a vertical screen on the front of its body. And here we find out its name is Airstar. It cruises around on a base that resembles a Roomba floor cleaner. And Airstar's main purpose is to guide you where you need to go at the airport.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Let's start. Speak into the vocal guide or touch the button below.

HU: Pyeongchang Olympic Game desk.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: The route to your destination is shown below.

HU: Yes, but it also says request escorting, so I'm going to request that Airstar take me.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Preparing to escort you. Please wait a moment.

HU: For South Korea, home of Samsung and LG Electronics, super-fast Internet speeds and heavy government investment in science and tech, this international sporting event is also a tech showcase.

LORNA CAMPBELL: The robotic things are amazing.

HU: Lorna Campbell is a spokeswoman for the Pyeongchang Olympic organizing committee. In all, some 85 robots are working the games, doing everything from carpet cleaning to serving snacks...

CAMPBELL: And you can open the front of them, and they've got cookies and biscuits inside.

HU: ...To painting murals of MVPs.

CAMPBELL: It's very Korean. So Korea is known across Asia as, like, probably the most technologically advanced country. They've always been one step ahead. They've got all the research and development centers.

HU: The games give Korean engineers a chance to really see how their robot creations interact. Airstar, their airport robot, can speak six languages. But things still get lost in translation.

How do I get to the train station?

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: I did not understand what you said.

HU: Just as we hit this glitch, we spot a young man in a blue hoodie tailing Airstar and typing into his tablet. He's Ee Joo-hyung (ph), and he tells us he's a robot caretaker. He follows Airstar around all day, logging its interactions as well as potential bugs.

EE JOO-HYUNG: (Through interpreter) The robots were functioning well in the labs, but once they're actually interacting with people, things might be different.

HU: He admits the robots still need a bit more work before they're perfect. And that makes sense, says Sam Byford, Asia editor for the tech site The Verge.

SAM BYFORD: I tend to be skeptical of things that are sort of tied to major sporting events and that kind of thing because it's a pretty arbitrary time to show these things off, right? Like, it's not going to be tied to the actual research breakthrough.

HU: But he says he expected Korea to use this opportunity to show and tell its tech story, especially since the next Olympics will be hosted by Japan, a fierce competitor in robotics.

BYFORD: Robotics in general is always about baby steps.

HU: Airstar the airport robot glides more than it steps, really. And it did eventually guide me to the Olympic help desk at the airport, where I found humans to talk with.

And then now she says, forgive me, but I must return home.


HU: And her screen says bye.


HU: Elise Hu, NPR News, Incheon, South Korea. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elise Hu is a host-at-large based at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Previously, she explored the future with her video series, Future You with Elise Hu, and served as the founding bureau chief and International Correspondent for NPR's Seoul office. She was based in Seoul for nearly four years, responsible for the network's coverage of both Koreas and Japan, and filed from a dozen countries across Asia.