SEOUL, Sept. 16 (UPI) -- As South Korea continues to battle the spread of COVID-19, digital contactless services -- known as "untact" locally -- have been on the rise everywhere from hospitals to movie theaters to cafes.
The latest example of the trend can be found in Seoul's posh Gangnam neighborhood, where telecom company KT is partnering with restaurant chain Mad for Garlic on a pilot program using an artificial intelligence-powered serving robot named Aglio Kim.
The robot, a prototype with serving trays and a touch screen "face" atop a rolling body, utilizes 3D spatial mapping and KT's self-driving technology to maneuver through narrow passages between tables and avoid obstacles and people.
Lee Young-ho, floor manager at Mad for Garlic, said that the trial, which began quietly at the beginning of the month, has been a hit with customers.
"The customers are surprised when they see the robot, and are very interested and curious about it," he said. "They also say they feel safer from the coronavirus."
Lee said the robot works in conjunction with the human staff, allowing them to focus less on carrying dishes and more on customer service.
"The robot can't substitute for a human 100%," he said. "Employees and robots cooperate instead of replacing each other. If its abilities keep developing, the robot may be able to replace human waitstaff someday. But it will take time."
Standing four feet tall and weighing around 50 pounds, Aglio Kim can handle orders for up to four tables at a time. It springs into action after customers place orders on a touchscreen tablet, making its way to the kitchen and a separate beverage station to pick up the dishes from human servers.
The new trial builds upon KT's experience in AI-powered robots at hotels. The telecom, Korea's largest, opened its first AI hotel in Seoul in 2018 and the service has since expanded to 13 locations. At the end of June, KT launched a second-generation hotel robot, which delivers items such as bottled water and towels to guest rooms via voice-activated commands.
Lee Young-jin, head of KT's AI platform business team, said the company had been planning to bring robots to restaurants, but the emergence of COVID-19 sped up the process.
"Having already developed the hotel robot, we thought there would definitely be some demand for a robot in restaurants," he said. "We thought that maybe next year we would develop a serving robot, but the coronavirus gave us a reason to change plans."
South Korea has been banking on technologies such as 5G, AI and Big Data as pillars of future economic growth by spurring new industries from autonomous driving to digital healthcare in one of the most connected countries in the world.
In July, President Moon Jae-in unveiled details of $133 billion New Deal stimulus package, which includes plans to respond to a "surging demand for remote services" with investments in robots, drones and high-speed Internet.
Other players in the growing field of service robots include LG, the massive electronics conglomerate, which developed a robot waiter that was launched in February at noodle franchise Cheiljemyunso in downtown Seoul.
In June, KT invested $42 million for a 10% stake in Hyundai Robotics, one of the country's leaders in the industrial robotics market, with plans to jointly speed up development of intelligent service robots, autonomous driving and smart factory solutions.
KT's Lee said that a commercial model of the serving robot built by Hyundai Robotics will be ready by the end of the year and noted that there are plans to launch robots at more Mad for Garlic outlets. Other projects in the works include an indoor/outdoor robot to be used at residential apartment complexes and robots for hospital settings.
And while the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the use of AI-powered robots, Lee said that he believes that the trend is here to stay.
"Because of the pandemic, untact services have become quite popular," he said. "I hope the pandemic will end soon, but I think the demand for robots will last for a long time."