In Box

Killer Machines

South Korea’s leaders, it seems, love to think big. Most South Koreans, for instance, live in cramped apartments without basic appliances such as dishwashers or garbage disposals. Yet, their government said last year that it intends to have a robot in every home by 2020, part of a plan to become one of the world’s ...

South Korea’s leaders, it seems, love to think big. Most South Koreans, for instance, live in cramped apartments without basic appliances such as dishwashers or garbage disposals. Yet, their government said last year that it intends to have a robot in every home by 2020, part of a plan to become one of the world’s top robotics manufacturing hubs.

The latest frontier in the country’s quest for robotic supremacy? Its border with Kim Jong Il’s Hermit Kingdom. The state-run Agency for Defense Development is spending $35 million to develop three types of robots — one each for mine detection and removal, surveillance, and combat — which it hopes to begin deploying to the 155-mile-long demilitarized zone later this year. One of the robots is an eight-legged machine called gyeonma, or "dog-horse," which combines the role of a guard dog and load-bearing mule. It is armed with infrared sensors, pattern-recognition cameras, and an automatic rifle. These cybercreatures, the government says, will patrol the mountainous borderlands.

The drive for military robotics is part of South Korea’s plan to make up for a shortfall in soldiers. At the same time the United States is reducing its troop numbers on the peninsula, the South Korean legislature is planning to downsize its armed forces from 680,000 soldiers to a lean 500,000 by 2020. Worse, the country’s mandatory, 26-month conscription program is plagued by a growing number of draft dodgers. That means robots could soon find themselves in the line of fire.

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