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LG unveiled an ultra-thin TV that uses an OLED screen at CES. (Photo by Debby Wu)
Business

It is 'not easy' to compete with US players on AI

LG executive Ahn says Asian companies can collaborate or find their own niche

DEBBY WU, Nikkei staff writer | South Korea

LAS VEGAS -- A senior LG Electronics executive said Wednesday that it was no easy feat for Asian companies to compete with U.S. and other western companies in developing artificial intelligence technology, but they could look to forge partnerships or make gains in specific areas.

"Generally speaking, it's not easy. It depends on data, culture, national power ... But there's always a way," LG Electronics Chief Technology Officer Skott Ahn told Nikkei Asian Review in an exclusive interview on Wednesday on the sidelines of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Ahn's statement came hours after a member in Google's AI program, AlphaGo, acknowledged that it was the mastermind behind "Master," a mysterious entity that had been defeating top players globally in the online version of the ancient board game, Go, over the past few days.

U.S. companies including Google are still dominating AI and emerging technologies. But Ahn is optimistic that Asian companies can compete in different ways, as they are known for their hardware prowess and can maximize this competitive edge.

"We can position and find out specific areas based on our capabilities, our special potential area based on our potential knowledge. We have beaten western companies based on customer understanding" and other strengths, the LG executive said.

Ahn adds that Asian companies can also choose to collaborate with western counterparts, and they still need to look at business opportunities from a global perspective since to profit from the development of AI and software, they need to trade in volume.

A textbook example of partnership may be SoftBank's collaboration with French company Aldebaran Robotics to develop Pepper, a humanoid robot. The Japanese tech conglomerate eventually acquired full control of the French company.

Smartphone challenges

The focus at this year's CES is very much on emerging technologies such as autonomous cars and connected devices that can improve daily lives. But despite the smartphone market becoming saturated, businesses are still investing in developing such gadgets.

Market watchers have been speculating about when a foldable smartphone will be developed, given the growing availability of advanced organic light-emitting diode display technology that allows manufacturers to produce curved or even bendable screens.

But Ahn says there are still technical issues that need to be addressed before a foldable phone can become commercially available.

Ahn says that even if bendable display becomes available, all the other components including screen covers and batteries will need to be adjusted accordingly.

"Considering the cost, price and durability, I [think] it is not easy to introduce a product very soon. A specific phone factor maybe, but not a generally accepted product," he said, though he added such a phone could become commercially available as early as 2019.

Both LG and its main South Korean rival Samsung Electronics focused on smart home appliances and large-sized TVs during their CES press conferences, and did not spend much time on smartphones.

LG unveiled an ultra-slim, 2.57mm-thick OLED TV that comes in 65- and 77-inch models, and has partnered with Amazon Alexa to announce a touchscreen fridge that makes grocery shopping easier.

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