New partnerships fuel SK Telecom’s AI aspirations

  • SK Telecom is aiming to become an AI company
  • It has unveiled several partnerships and investments to further that ambition
  • The South Korean operator believes it now has a ‘blueprint’ for new growth

South Korean telco giant SK Telecom (SKT) has highlighted a number of new partnerships with artificial intelligence (AI) specialists that, it hopes, will help boost its ambition to become an AI company

SKT’s AI vision involves transforming its existing operations, revamping the way it interacts with customers, and acquiring, investing in or teaming up with companies that fit with its development plans: To that end, SKT announced partnerships with seven AI specialists earlier this year at the Mobile World Congress 2023 (MWC23) event in Barcelona, and has now unveiled four further relationships that the service provider’s CEO, Ryu Young-sang, believes complete the “blueprint for driving new growth in the global market.”

Its four latest partners are CMES, Scatter Lab, MakinaRocks and FriendliAI.

CMES (see image above), which has facilities in Seattle in the US as well as Seoul and Daejeon in South Korea, is an AI-powered robotics company that enables 3D vision for factory robots, and has been working with SKT on the development of pricing plans for robot-as-a-service (RaaS), whereby robotics systems are made available via a subscription-based contract.

According to SKT, RaaS is increasingly seen as “an alternative to additional manpower or infrastructure investment for automation”, with demand for such a model expected to grow across various sectors, including logistics, delivery, construction and healthcare.

It’s slightly strange, however, that SKT is presenting CMES as a new AI partner, as the service provider has been investing in CMES since 2016 and earlier this year became CMES’s largest single investor when it pumped 10bn South Korean won (US$7.9m) into the company.  

Scatter Lab is another South Korean addition to SKT’s AI partnership crew. It has developed an AI-based mobile application to create social AI chatbots. Known for the Lee Lu-da chatbot, the startup is set to aid SKT in launching “an emotional AI agent”. The telco plans to integrate the agent into its own AI-enabled chatbot called A. (pronounced A dot) which it unveiled in March – see What’s up with… Inmarsat and Viasat, SK Telecom, e& and Vodafone. As with CMES, SKT has already taken a stake in Scatter Lab, having made a KRW15bn (US$11.7m) equity investment in the company in April.

SKT is also collaborating with another two South Korean startups: MakinaRocks is developing machine learning (ML) and AI solutions for the industrial sector, under the slogan “machine learning rocks!”; while FriendliAI has developed a platform called PeriFlow that enables companies to develop their own generative AI (GenAI) models. 

These companies join Sapeon, Bespin Global, Moloco, Konan Technology, Swit, Phantom AI, and Tuat, which joined the service provider for presentations and demonstrations during MWC23, as SKT’s key AI partners.

SKT gathered representatives from its ‘new’ partners at the Silicon Valley-based headquarters of its venture investment and corporate development arm, SK Telecom Americas (SKTA), to strike new agreements and discuss major AI trends, showcase the partners’ R&D projects and “technological achievements”, and identify global business and investment opportunities.

“Now with our AI partners on board, we have completed the blueprint for driving new growth in the global market,” noted Ryu Young-sang in the announcement about the latest partnerships. SKT’s CEO added that the telco plans to develop “diverse cooperation opportunities in AI, and bring our AI technologies and services to the global market.”

The move highlights how far ahead SKT is of most (if not all) of its peers in terms of developing an AI-driven strategy and culture, something that, as we have seen this year, is increasingly important across all industry verticals. 

How the telecom sector will adapt to the potential and challenges of AI was, of course, one of the key talking points at the recent DSP Leaders World Forum, when Deutsche Telekom’s VP of technology strategy, Ahmed Hafez, co-hosted a riveting session focused on how the industry needs to figure out a way to evolve from being opportunistic to becoming AI-native – see Towards the AI-native telco.

- Yanitsa Boyadzhieva, Deputy Editor, TelecomTV