Prof. Seung-Woo Seo, Where are we heading when the rest of the world is committed to war for the future (, 20191005)

2019-10-18l Hit 728

SNU ECE Professor Seung-Woo Seo, expert on autonomous vehicles… “Right now in Silicon Valley…”

On September 23rd, the Hyundai Motor Group announced its plan to invest 2.4 trillion won to found an autonomous vehicle company in cooperation with the American company APTIV. Hyundai Motors is anticipating the completion of an entirely autonomous car (unmanned vehicle) by 2030.


Seung-Woo Seo, professor at SNU ECE, is recognized as the Korean engineer who has conducted research on autonomous vehicles for the longest period of time. In 2015, he founded ‘ThorDrive’, a startup for autonomous vehicles in Silicon Valley, USA, and is currently acting as a technical consultant. I met him earlier this month in his office at SNU.


There have been concerns about Hyundai Motors. Could this move become a turning point?


“APTIV is a company specializing in autonomous vehicles that was established by Delphi, the world’s largest company in auto parts, through mergers and acquisitions of previously existent companies related to autonomous vehicles. As Hyundai Motors and APTIV have a 50 to 50 share of the founded company, I believe that Hyundai will be able to compensate its lacking software technology by equally sharing technology and cooperating with APTIV. I think this is an opportune moment that could of course act as a turning point.”


Until now, Hyundai Motors has concentrated on developing Hydrogen cars.


“The question of using either Hydrogen or electricity is a matter of motive force, not autonomous vehicle technology. However, as long-distance drives are difficult and power consumption increases as the level of autonomous vehicles rises for conventional electric cars, I expect that combined with Hydrogen technology, there will of course be synergy effects.”


Some anticipate that Hyundai Motors will rise to third place in the world, after Google and GM, in the field of autonomous vehicles.


“Because there is already an abundance of competent and well-established companies, running third is a lot to ask for. I am confident that the company will be able to run fifth ~ tenth in the race.”


The hottest issue in Silicon Valley is bio


Since Professor Seo visits Silicon Valley every term break, I thought he would be informed on the trend in the Valley quicker than anyone else, which also made me curious.


What is the current issue in Silicon Valley


“Big Data and AI centered on autonomous vehicles still form a strong current, and bio-related fields are also enthusiastically discussed.


Bio? We are struggling in bio.


“We are mainly concentrating on developing new pharmaceuticals, but the technologies in bio, including not only pharmaceuticals but also disease diagnosis and CRISPR, are inexhaustible. In recent days, technical development has also been expanded to pet related fields and now span from disease diagnosis to anticancer drugs.”


He said that he had a firsthand experience of this trend when he looked around UC Berkeley for two weeks with SNU students last summer break.


“I would like to talk about two companies founded by Korean graduates. One is a startup with CRISPR technology. It possesses the technology to insert material to a damaged region in the gene. It removes genes that have the potential to lead to disease in advance. It was founded by young Koreans in their late 30s who had just finished their Ph.D. at Berkeley. It received a large-scale investment from Silicon Valley’s top brand venture capital, and they are quite overwhelmed. Another startup concerning anti-cancer treatment for pets was cofounded by two young Koreans who graduated Stanford University. There are ten staff members, and within a year of the establishment, they signed contracts with about 70 veterinary clinics within Silicon Valley. They are conducting research related to anti-cancer drugs as well as treatment of pets with cancer. Genes are also being used in LASIK surgeries. Conventionally, doctors conducted surgeries solely based on a mechanical judgment after looking into the thickness of the cornea. However, there are people with specific genes that cannot undergo LASIK surgeries. There is a bio company that judges whether LASIK surgery is possible based on the genes.”


How about research on autonomous vehicles.


“You can say all the U.S. groups with high market value are in the business. Running first is Google’s Waymo, with the most aggregate mileage. The long-term goal of Waymo is to sell the autonomous vehicle software technology. Globally renowned logistic service providers such as FedEx and UPS, as well as car sharing services Uber and Lyft are working hard. They have the realistic goal to apply autonomous vehicle technology to alleviate the exhaustion of drivers and to cut back on payroll expenses. In comparison, Apple, Intel, and semiconductor companies such as Qualcomm are concentrating on development to dominate the future sensor market in advance.”


What do you mean by the sensor market?

 “The base technology in autonomous driving is sensors. The concept includes not only radar and cameras for perception of surrounding environments including software and hardware, but also algorithm software that processes data from the hardware. If the sensor processes data and acquires precise perception, the comprehensive understanding of the surrounding environment becomes faster. As a result, the car follows an accurate path based on good judgment. This is as if with the development of hardware technology in cameras such as resolution and distance calibration, data is accumulated, and with good processing, it reaches the level of the human eye. Research on autonomous vehicles is essentially AI research. In AI research, accumulating huge amounts of data, securing computers capable of processing this data, and deep learning, the processing algorithm process by which you acquire meaningful results from the data and computer, are the key. Five to six years ago, the quantum jump was achieved, and the autonomous vehicle field is the field that has benefited the most. As hundreds of companies focused on the topic, astonishing development has been achieved in areas that could not be processed as data before, such as weather, intensity of light, and external emergency situations. If this speed is maintained, within five years, autonomous vehicles in U.S. will at least be able to drive around residential areas excluding congested downtown area. I am even ‘scared’ by the energy, passion, and effort Silicon Valley developers invest into commercializing technology and transforming the quality of life.”


Companies, betting everything on autonomous vehicle research

At this point in the interview, he mentioned the cultural differences in technical development between the U.S. and Korea.


“American engineers focus on the aim of ‘commercialization’. On the one hand, Korean companies and the government both call for technical development, but the emphasis is on the development itself rather than the needs of the consumer. On the other hand, engineers in the U.S. concentrate on the value assessed by possible users and possibilities of commercialization even from the development stage. Due to such atmosphere, product designers are involved from the start. Thus, the development speed and application are faster.”


I am curious about the investing atmosphere in Silicon Valley. I heard that people there are more generous about failure. Is that really the case?


“Absolutely not. No one could possibly enjoy losing their hard-earned money through investment. However, there is a unique investment culture among Silicon Valley’s venture capitalists. Their strategy is to recover money by hitting one or two jackpots out of ten businesses. In Korea, if there are losses due to investment, people are intent on recovering the initial money, whereas the Valley’s venture capitalists simply give up. After all, they understand that they made an investment based on their own judgment and that not everything can succeed. Because they believe that even with several losses, they can recover with success in a different business, they are not obsessed with failed attempts. In other words, people who attracted investment have no legal responsibility. Based on their failures, they create new business models and look for other venture capitalists. Generosity toward failure means that there is a chance for revival. Of course, this cannot be compared with our situation because of the difference in market size and the system itself.”


These days, Korean startup founders also knock at the door of the American market


“I strongly recommend that too. I would like to say it is better to ‘venture overseas’ if you have the time to blame the suffocating reality within Korea. Nowadays, one cannot succeed in Korea if one fails in the global market. I would like to urge people to match their expectations to the global level, whether that is China, the U.S., Japan, or Europe. In the U.S. alone, first and second generations of immigrants ran laundromats and supermarkets to teach their children. There are many cases in which these children succeeded and have entered mainstream society. People in the U.S. still acknowledge Koreans for their hard work. They think that only people from Israel and Korea are able to work for more than ten hours a day. DNA for striving flows through our blood.”


He paused for a moment and said, “there is, however, something to be careful of.”


What is it.


“A strategy to completely tailor to the local area. You have to appeal to the Americans. Many domestic companies dream of creating a startup in Silicon Valley, but give up if they do not succeed within a few years as they face expense issues or believe that the barrier is too high. In other words, there is a tendency to only poke around. If that is what you have in mind, it is better not to try at all. If you intend to open up a branch since you succeeded in Korea or send one or two employees, you will utterly fail. You have to tune to the expectations of American consumers and tailor the technology and product accordingly. You must raise the level to a point acceptable in their eyes.”


His advice continued, “It is also important for us to venture out, but we should also put effort into trying to make them come here”


“The issue was not widely reported, but recently, the governors of Indiana, Alabama, and Georgia, U.S., consecutively visited Korea to invite companies. What does the fact that the governors of the wealthiest country in the world are themselves traveling around to attract investment? Energizing the industry and economy of a country cannot be achieved with the effort of companies alone. Private companies, the government, and academia must work together.”


He accounted his own experience.


“When our company was first contemplating entering the American market, I have no idea how he found out, but a governor contacted us. The governor explained not only financial backing, such as tax benefits and work sites, but also comprehensive support plans such as the education of the children of employees. If we came to the state, the governor offered to suffuse us with benefits. I was amazed to see how the governor even presented a plan to foster next-generation fields and future generations so that our technology could take root in conjunction with the universities within the state.”


Even accounting for the fact that things are better observed from the outside than within, after listening to his words conveying how Silicon Valley was running forth with all its might, I was sighing over what we were doing at the present moment. While I was at it, I also asked about China and Japan.


In the American market, not going full-out will bring certain defeat


Are there any impacts due to the trade war between the U.S. and China


“Until recently, China venture capitalists, loaded with Chinese money, searched for new technologies and went hunting for technologies. After the trade war, it certainly seems that has lessened. There are less Chinese investors around.


The reporter also had the opportunity to visit Silicon Valley twice last year. She received the impression that the economic and human related network between the U.S. and China was so finely intertwined that it was difficult to break these ties.


“That’s correct. China has already secured a surprising level of technology during the past decade. In autonomous vehicle technology, for example, I believe that China will develop faster. In the case of the U.S., the gap is wide between Silicon Valley and other regions. However, in China, regulations on new technology are relaxed, and trained researchers from the U.S. are working in all regions. The top ten Chinese cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou all have autonomous buses. Even the garbage trucks are autonomously driven. You can say that China has already secured technologies that can currently be developed independently within the country. In the facial recognition field alone, which is strictly regulated because of privacy issues in the U.S. and Europe, China has attained top technology based on information from tens of million CCTVs. The big data set related to cars is also massive in China. Added to this, there is an expansive market, and they have the government’s full support. In China, people are less sensitive to human right issues, which is why experiments that cannot even be tried in the U.S. are boldly tested out. The trade war between the U.S. and China could shake up China in the short term, but time may not be on the side of the U.S. Half of AI patents and papers in the world are from China. When I meet professors from Stanford University and U.C. Berkeley, I sense that they fear the technical development in China.”


How about Japan.


“To put it in a word, people in Japan are investing so much into Silicon Valley that it even feels as if they are putting more effort into the U.S. than in their own country. There is an abundancy of branches and research centers. Toyota, Honda, and Nissan are in the mainstream of the American market. Their work is not limited to selling cars. Toyota has already invested four trillion won in Silicon Valley companies including Uber and has established a research center. It is focusing on not only autonomous driving, but also AI and robotics. Last year, it started a collaborative technical research with MIT, Stanford University, and New Michigan University by investing a trillion won. Honda has also invested 2.5 trillion won in the Silicon Valley, and Nissan also has an investment center of similar scale. Why would these companies act like this? They are looking into the future. We should absolutely not underestimate Japan. In our case, only Samsung is managing a sizeable research center in Silicon Valley and hiring local employees.”


Japan is pouring money into Silicon Valley


Professor Seo, who has served as the head of the SNU Intelligent Vehicle IT Research Center and has accumulated technology and experience while developing and managing ‘SNUver’, chose ‘delivery’ as the application field of autonomous vehicle when he founded ‘ThorDrive’. He selected parcel delivery as he entered the market late, when most companies were intent on passenger transportation.


Currently, where does ‘ThorDrive’ stand in terms of technology


“It has driven 60 thousand kilometers around downtown Seoul including Yeouido over the course of three years without a single accident. Beginning in mid-September, with E-mart, we will start autonomous delivery in Seoul. Items ordered online will be delivered to the house. A safety-driver watches with his or her hands free, but does not interfere in the driving. There are six levels of autonomous driving technology, spanning from level zero where humans completely control the vehicle to level five where the AI has a hundred percent control without the interference of humans. We aim for level 4 (no interference by the driver even in particular areas or situations), but I think we are about 80% close.”


Just as the Third Industrial Revolution began with the appearance of the train replacing the carriage, innovation in transportation could be said to be the motive force of the new Industrial revolution. In that sense, the autonomous vehicle is a rising business that converges cars, AI, and IT (Information Technology), which represent the Fourth Industrial Revolution. As Professor Seo said, the world is running for future businesses with all their might. However, our government affairs have been locked down in the 50 days of the ‘Cho Kuk blackhole’. How long will this last. I left with a heavy heart after the interview.



Translated by: Jee Hyun Lee, English Editor of Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering,