Robots Serve as Wardens in South Korea

SOUTH KOREA — Robots will be roaming the halls and serving as wardens at a South Korean jail in March 2012.

Asian Forum for Corrections, a South Korean group of researchers who specialize in criminality and prison policies, has developed the 5 ft. (152 cm) robots for a jail in the eastern city of Pohang.

The month-long trial will feature three robots designed to monitor inmates for abnormal behavior. They will also have the power to stop a jailbreak. They will be equipped with four wheels, video cameras, and other sensors that can reportedly detect inmate violence, suicide, and unusual activity. The robots will be able to relieve guards at the jail and can even facilitate conversations with the guards from a distance with their built-in cameras.

Professor Lee Baik-Chu of Kyonggi University led the design process for the robots. According to Baik-Chu, the robots are designed to alert human guards if they detect a problem with an inmate.

The designers were very particular about both the exterior and mechanical design of the robots. They have a soft white complexion and yellow outline around their oval eyes and box-shaped torso. They look almost soft to the touch — which helps to make the robots seem less intimidating.

“As we’re almost done with creating its key operating system, we are now working on refining its details to make it look more friendly to inmates,” said Baik-Chu to the Yonhop News Agency.

The total one-month trial will cost $865,000 and is being sponsored by the South Korean government.

This is not South Korea’s first attempt at using robots for security purposes. They have previously tested guards along the North Korean border and have been investing money into robotic research since 2002. The robotic warden is just the latest in a series of investments made by the state to develop its robotic industry.

In October the Ministry of Knowledge Economy said the Korean robot market had recorded 75 percent growth over the past two years and was now worth about $1.56 billion. South Korea aims to be the world leader in robotics, and business leaders believe the field has the potential to become a major export industry. Other countries are also competing in the robotics industry, including Japan.

The success of robots in other industries has proven beneficial for South Korea. Robots have been used as English-speaking teaching assistants and even sent to some schools to help children practice their pronunciation.

Other robotic firms in South Korea hope to start selling robots to help care for the elderly before the end of the decade, and they also plan to develop a robot to serve as a personal assistant somewhere further down the line.