A new corporate office companion: an ‘airhead’ robot

John Yoon and Daisuke Wakabayashi | The New York Times

SEONGNAM, South Korea — New workers flew through the office to complete mundane tasks like bringing coffee, delivering meals and delivering packages. They did not get in anyone’s way or violate personal space. They calmly waited for the elevators with constant friendliness. Also, perhaps the most striking thing was that they did not complain.

Because they were robots.

Naver—a start-to-finish South Korean internet conglomerate—has been experimenting with integrating robots into office life for several months. Inside a futuristic 36-story fully industrial skyscraper on the outskirts of Seoul, a flotilla of about 100 robots amble by themselves, from floor to floor in robot-only elevators and sometimes side by side with humans, through security doors and They walk into boardrooms.

Naver’s network of web services, including a search engine, maps, email, and news aggregators, is dominant in South Korea, but its reach abroad is limited, lacking the global renown of a company like Google. The firm has been on the hunt for new avenues of growth. In October, it agreed to acquire Poshmark, an online thrift retailer, for $1.2 billion. Now, for Naver, the software that powers the robots in corporate office spaces is a product that other companies might want over time.

Robots have found a home in other workplaces, such as factories and in the retail and hospitality sector, but are all but absent in the world of cubicles and conference rooms. There are thorny questions about privacy: A machine full of cameras and sensors walking the halls of a company could be a dystopian corporate surveillance tool if abused, experts say. Designing a space where machines can move freely without disturbing employees is also a difficult challenge.

However, Naver has done extensive research to make sure its robots—which look like rolling trash cans—see, move and behave in ways that make employees feel comfortable. Also, while developing its own privacy rules for robots, Naver hopes to lay out the blueprint for office robots of the future.

“Our effort is to minimize the discomfort they cause humans,” said Kang Sang-chul, an executive at Naver Labs, a subsidiary that is developing the robots.

Tech firms often encourage their employees to test their own products, but with its robots, Naver has turned its entire office into a research and development lab, putting its employees as test subjects for future technologies in work place.

When Naver employees drive to the office, which completed construction this year, the company automatically sends them reminders of where they parked in the workplace app. Employees walk through security gates using facial recognition, including wearing masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. At Naver’s internal health clinic, artificial intelligence software suggests areas to focus on for the annual employee health exam.

And then there are the robots.

Naver designed the office, which began construction in 2016, from scratch with robots in mind. All doors are programmed to open when a robot approaches. There are no narrow aisles or floor obstructions. The roofs are marked with numbers and QR codes so that the robots can orient themselves. The cafeteria has dedicated lanes for the robots to deliver meals.

As part of his research, Naver has also published studies in the field of human-robot interaction. For example, after a series of experiments, Naver came to the conclusion that the optimal place for a robot in an elevator full of humans was the corner next to the entrance opposite the elevator buttons. According to Naver’s research, if the robot was in the back, humans felt uncomfortable.

Of course, Naver isn’t the only tech company trying to promote robot technology. Rice Robotics has deployed hundreds of cartoony box-shaped robots delivering packages, groceries and more to office buildings, shopping malls and convenience stores across Asia. Robots like the Optimus, a prototype Tesla unveiled in September, are designed to be human-like and carry boxes, water plants and more, but are still a long way from being deployed.

Victor Lee, the CEO of Rice Robotics, said he was impressed when he saw videos of the machines and the Naver building, which is robot-friendly. Although Rice Robotics’ delivery robots work differently, Naver’s strategies “make sense,” he said. “It is clear that Naver has a much larger budget for development on these ambitious projects.”

Naver noted that a distinctive feature of his robots was that they are purposely “airheads,” meaning they are not rolling computers that process information inside the machine. Instead, the robots communicate in real time via a high-speed 5G private network with a “cloud” computing system. The movements of the robots are processed using data from cameras and sensors.

Each of the robots has several cameras that record images of their surroundings. Within Naver, there were some disagreements about exactly how much the robots should know and how the collected data was going to be used. When prototypes were under development, engineers initially wanted the robots to record a wider field of view to assess their location faster and more accurately, according to Lee Jin-kyu, director of data protection at Naver.

Lee was concerned that the result was that the data could be used to monitor employees without their knowledge, as this would create legal problems for the company in South Korea, which has strict privacy and employment laws. Lee and the engineers agreed to capture only one photo per second from a front-facing camera and to use the other cameras only when more than one image is needed.

The cameras can only see below the waist of people and the images are erased after the robot has oriented. An emergency mode kicks in if a robot is shot down or camera angles suddenly change. In these cases, the robot announces that it could record people’s faces.

Despite Naver’s precautions, there is concern among privacy experts that potential customers could modify the bots or create their own policies on how data is collected. Kim Borami, a privacy lawyer in Seoul, said many South Korean companies were not transparent about their data policies and had found examples of companies violating privacy laws.

Kim also noted that it was impossible to know for sure whether Naver was following its own privacy policies without taking a close look at its software — something Naver doesn’t share with the public.

“You don’t usually find out about privacy violations at a company until there’s a whistleblower or a security breach,” Kim said.


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