Softbank founder advises Korea to go all-out on AI

2019.07.04 15:07:41 | 2019.07.05 08:40:44

S. Korea’s president Moon Jae-in (right) shakes hands with SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son at the presidential office on Jul. 4, 2019. [Photo by Lee Chung-woo]이미지 확대

S. Korea’s president Moon Jae-in (right) shakes hands with SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son at the presidential office on Jul. 4, 2019. [Photo by Lee Chung-woo]

South Korea, an Internet powerhouse, should put its future on artificial intelligence (AI) development, advised Masayoshi Son, founder and chairman of Japan’s SoftBank Group Corp.

“Japan and Korea both corresponded to AI late compared to China and the United States,” Son said, in a meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Thursday, according to officials in company. “… Korea should now put out efforts to become an AI powerhouse.”

The meeting between the Japanese billionaire businessman – who is also known to Koreans by his Korean name Son Jung-eui – and Moon was also joined by Moon Gyu-hak, managing partner at Softbank Investment Advisers, You Young-min, science and ICT minister, Park Young-sun, SMEs and startups minister, Noh Young-min, presidential chief of staff, Kim Sang-jo, presidential chief of staff for policy, Lee Ho-seung, senior presidential secretary for economic affairs, Kim Hyung-jong, second deputy chief of the National Security Office, Joo Hyung-chul, economic advisor to Moon, and Lee Kong-joo, science and technology adviser.

In 1998, Son, an ethnic Korean and founder of Japan’s largest IT investment firm SoftBank, had also met late President Kim Dae-jung. Son proposed to Kim that Korea should keep eyes on broadband, or high-speed Internet network. More than two decades have passed since his last visit to the Blue House and Son this time, instead of high-speed Internet network, emphasized AI development in the era of fourth industrial revolution.

“What Korea should focus on is first, second, and third – AI,” Son said, who proposed the country should utmost support on related education, policy, investment, and funding. “AI will bring the highest level of revolution in the history of mankind.”

An unnamed official from the Blue House told reporters before the meeting that the president wished to hear Son’s advice in promoting startups as he had shown an eye of finding jewels across the globe.

The official also noted that venture investment is an important pillar of innovative growth and that Korea’s new venture investment hit an all-time quarterly high in the first quarter of this year. The number of unicorn firms with value surpassing $1 billion has also jumped from three last year to 9 this year, ranking fifth in the world, the official said.

SoftBank Vision Fund (SVF), led by Son, is the largest investor of multinational transportation network company Uber Technologies Inc. that offer ride service hailing, Grab Holdings Inc., the largest ride-hailing company in Southeast Asia, and ARM Holdings, a British multinational semiconductor and software design company, among other global innovative firms.

Son has been aggressively investing in the mobility sector based on belief that innovation will derive from this industry just as smartphones in the past. Son invested $10 billion in Uber and $1 billion in Grab.

Kim Sang-hyup, visiting professor and director at Center for Sustainable Development at Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), analyzed that SoftBank is seeking after so-called “BMW strategy,” which stands for Bits (information and communications), Mobility (mobility that connects not only people and products but also money and information), and Watts (renewable energy, battery and power storage system and grid of things).

Kim said that mobility will be key to transformation and that Korean companies as well as the government and all workforce should urgently look back on their role and nature of their work so that Korea doesn’t fall behind in the grand mobility revolution.

The Blue House official said that the Korean government is also vying to expand research and development and investment in key AI technologies, such as by newly establishing an AI-dedicated graduate school. It is also promoting policies that accelerate convergence between AI and other sectors such as automobiles and energy.

In the evening, meanwhile, Son met with Jay. Y Lee, vice chairman of Samsung Electronics Co., Chung Eui-sun, executive vice chairman of Hyundai Motor Co., Koo Kwang-mo, chairman of LG Group, Kim Taek-jin, chief executive of NCSoft Corp., Lee Hae-jin, global investment officer at Naver Corp., and Kim Dong-kwan, executive director at Hanwha Q Cells Co. They are known to have discussed various cooperation measures related to information and communications technology (ICT) sector such as AI, fifth-generation, Internet of Things, autonomous vehicle, and mobility, as well as startup ecosystem and investment.

The last time Samsung Vice Chairman Lee and Son met was in September, 2016. Three years ago, Son met Lee at Samsung Electronics’ headquarters in Seocho-dong, southern Seoul, for more than two hours. In their latest meet-up, the two businessmen is known to have talked about business opportunities in 5G and AI.

Hyundai Motor Executive Vice Chairman reportedly discussed autonomous vehicle and mobility business with Son.

LG’s Koo also discussed partnerships in robotics and AI sectors.

By Park Yong-beom and Lee Eun-joo

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