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SEONGNAM, South Korea — New workers roamed around the office completing mundane tasks such as bringing coffee, delivering meals and delivering packages. They did not get in anyone’s way and did not infringe on personal space. They waited for the elevators with unfailing politeness. And perhaps most temptingly, they didn’t complain.
This is because they were bots.
Naver, a South Korean internet company, has been experimenting with integrating robots into office life for several months. Inside a futuristic, starkly industrial, 36-story high-rise building on the outskirts of Seoul, a fleet of about 100 robots roam alone, zipping from floor to floor on robot-only elevators, occasionally next to humans, rolling through security gates and entering meeting rooms.
Naver’s network of web services, including search engine, maps, email, and news aggregation, is dominant in South Korea, but its reach abroad is limited, and it lacks the global reputation of a company like Google. The company was looking for new ways to grow. In October, it agreed to acquire Poshmark, an online second-hand retailer, for $1.2 billion. Now, Naver sees the software that powers robots in the company’s office spaces as a product that other companies may eventually want.
Robots have found a home in other workplaces, such as factories, retail and hospitality, but they are largely absent from the white-collar world of cubicles and conference rooms. There are thorny questions of privacy: Experts say a machine teeming with cameras and sensors roaming company corridors can be a miserable tool for corporate surveillance if misused. Designing a space where machines can move freely without disturbing employees is also a complex challenge.
But Naver has done extensive research to make sure its robots — which look like a rolling trash can — look, move and act in ways that make employees comfortable. As it develops its own bot privacy rules, it hopes to write a blueprint for office bots in the future.
“Our efforts now are to reduce the discomfort they cause to humans,” said Kang Sang-chul, CEO of Naver Labs, a subsidiary that develops robots.
Yeo Jiwon, who works in the company’s social impact team, recently ordered coffee on the Naver workplace app. Minutes later, “Rookie” exited the elevator on the 23rd floor, slipped past the security gates, and approached her office. Once it was close, the robot opened its storage compartment with a cup of iced coffee brewed at a Starbucks on the second floor.
The robots aren’t always perfect, Yu said, sometimes moving slower than expected or sometimes stopping farther from where they’re sitting.
“They feel like a beta version sometimes,” she said, using technology jargon for software still in development. Still, births save her time, she says, and help her focus on her work, minimizing the distraction of walking to the coffee shop.
Tech companies often encourage employees to test their own products, but with its robots, Naver has turned its entire office into a research and development lab, deploying its employees as test subjects for future workplace technologies.
When Naver employees drive to the office, which finished building this year, the company automatically sends them reminders of where they left off on the workplace app. Employees pass through security gates that use facial recognition, even while masked to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. At the Naver In-House Health Clinic, an AI program suggests focus areas for the staff’s annual health exam.
Then there are the robots.
Naver designed the office from the ground up with robots in mind, starting construction in 2016. Each door is programmed to open when a robot approaches. There are no narrow passages or obstacles on the floor. The roofs are marked with numbers and QR codes to help the robots orient themselves. In the cafeteria, there are lanes for robots to serve meals.
As part of its research, Naver has also published studies in the field of human-robot interaction. After a series of experiments, for example, Naver concluded that the optimal location for a robot in a crowded elevator with humans was the corner next to the entrance on the side opposite the elevator buttons. Naver researchers found that placing the robot in the back of an elevator made humans uncomfortable.
The company’s engineers also designed movable eyes that stare in the direction the robot is heading. They found that employees were better able to anticipate the robot’s movement if they could see its gaze.
None of the machines look human. Kang said the company does not want to give people the false impression that robots will behave like humans. (Some robotics experts believe that humanoid robots make humans more, not less, uncomfortable.)
Naver isn’t, of course, the only tech company trying to advance robot technology. Rice Robotics has deployed hundreds of boxy, cartoonish robots that deliver packages, groceries, and more in office buildings, malls, and convenience stores across Asia. Robots like the Optimus, a prototype unveiled by Tesla in September, are designed to be more human-like, carrying boxes, water stations and more, but there’s still a long way to go before they can be deployed.
Rice Robotics CEO Victor Lee said he was touched when he saw videos of the machines and the robot-friendly Naver building. While Price’s delivery bots work differently, Naffer’s approach “made sense,” he says. “Naver clearly has more development budget on these innovative projects.”
One of the defining features of its robots, Naver said, is that they are intentionally “brainless,” meaning they don’t spin computers that process the information inside the machine. Instead, the bots communicate in real time over a private, high-speed 5G network with a centralized “cloud” computing system. The robots’ movements are processed using data from cameras and sensors.
Each robot contains several cameras that record images of its surroundings. There has been some disagreement within Naver about what exactly the bots should know, and how the data collected will be used. When the prototypes were being developed, engineers initially wanted the robots to record a wider field of view to assess their location faster and more accurately, according to Lee Jin-qiu, Naver’s chief data protection officer.
Lee worried it would lead to data that could be used to track employees without their knowledge, creating legal problems for the company in South Korea, which has strict labor and privacy laws. Lee and the engineers agreed to only take one picture per second from the front-facing camera and only use the other cameras when more than one picture was needed.
The cameras can only see below people’s waists, and the images are deleted as soon as the robot orients itself. Emergency mode kicks in if a robot falls or the camera angles change suddenly. In such cases, the bot announces that it may record people’s faces.
Despite Naver’s precautions, privacy experts worry that potential customers of the botnet could modify or create their own policies about how data is collected. Kim Burami, a privacy attorney in Seoul, said that many South Korean companies were vague about their data policies, and that she had come across examples of companies violating privacy laws.
She also noted that it was impossible to know whether Naver was following its privacy policies without looking closely at its software — something Naver does not share publicly.
“You don’t usually find out about a company’s privacy breaches until the wrongdoing is reported or a leak has occurred,” Kim said.
Naver said it was complying with South Korean laws on employee data privacy and monitoring. But part of the challenge with new technology in the workplace is making fast rules.
“There is no standard for the kinds of privacy policies we need,” said Lee, a Naver engineer. “We had to start from scratch. That was the hardest part.”
This article originally appeared in New York times.
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