South Korean tech bosses fret about a flood of cheap Chinese robot waiters

AI serving robot from KT carries foods and drinks during a demonstration at a restaurant in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020.
A serving robot from KT at a restaurant in Seoul, South Korea.Lee Jin-man/AP
  • South Korean restaurants are using AI robots to cope with labor shortages.

  • Robots made in China are vastly cheaper than those from South Korea.

  • There are fears that the cut-price competition could hit Korea's robotics industry.

Tech executives in South Korea are concerned that a flood of cheap Chinese robots is undermining their own attempts to sell their own devices, a report says.

South Korea has embraced robot waiters in restaurants as a response to labor shortages caused in part by a demographic crisis.

Data from the Korean Association of Robot Industry shared with the Financial Times showed there were 5,000 server robots in Korean restaurants.

According to an April report in the Korea Times, one owner placed tablets on every table in his restaurants to eliminate the need for waiters.

During the pandemic, Reuters reported that South Korean tech company KT Corp started selling "Aglio Kim" – a trolley-like AI robot to restaurants.

It can carry food for as many as four tables on each trip, Lee Young-jin of KT told the news agency.

However, tech executives in South Korea told the FT they're now concerned the market is being flooded by cheap Chinese robots, stymying the country's own robotics makers.

Server tech has become more sophisticated in recent years, moving beyond tablets on tables to fully autonomous robots collecting orders and delivering food.

One Chinese-made serving robot costs 10 million to 30 million won ($7,500 to $22,600) – about a fifth of the price of Korean equivalents, the newspaper reported.

One unnamed executive told the FT said they were trying to win the battle with better-quality robots, "but this is not easy."

Korean companies are looking for ways to compete with cheap Chinese goods more broadly as well. Aju Korea Daily reported in May that South Korean startups were offering restaurants robots to rent for 300,000 won a month.

However, some in the industry think subsidies will be needed to compete with Chinese imports.

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