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With Tech, Festina Lente

This Chosun Ilbo report describes how Korea is in a hurry “to turn what sounds like science fiction into everyday life.” To me, as someone who knows SF pretty well, this is a little bit of a scary proposition, especially considering other elements of Korean culture.

For one thing, Korean netizens came out shockingly in favour of censorship during the blog ban a few summers ago, despite the fact that censorship violates a civil right that people only a generation before were fighting to wrest from the country’s dictators; personal security doesn’t seem to have been enough of a concern among Korean Internet firms, either, considering the recent news that over 60% of Korean net subscribers’ information has been illegally sold and redistributed.

I am not one of those people who thinks that absolutely everything in Korea is slapped together with chewing gum and a prayer, though some programs here obviously are. But on the other hand, I’m leery at this point of any nation that decides to go ahead and start implementing “smart robot” applications for its military. Anyone who knows anything about AI would be unnerved by the idea, because they know that right now, AI is very dumb. We’re lucky to get AI that can make a proper patty-cake with robot arms.

And what’s scary about that is the notion that the country is “in a hurry” to make real life more like SF. SF is just as full of cautionary tales as it is of celebratory visions of the future. There is as much risk of dystopia and there is of utopia. Koreans’ adoption of the cell phone is one thing — telephones had been around a long time, and that was a long-tested technology when it arrived in Korea. But home robots? Or, scarier, the robots the military is talking about building to guard the DMZ?

As for putting robots in every home by 2010: uh, yeah, good luck. Functional, interactive robots? That understand speech input? And perform tasks safely? Gooood luck.

And as for robots teaching English — haha. Show me a computer that teaches better than a person. To teach, one must understand the students’ thinking processes and the problems a particular student is having with particular materials. Robots won’t be well equipped to do that till they have something that emulates human consciousness enough to model the minds and thinking processes of students — which I guess will probably be a big part of building AI consciousness, and which I guess is still all a long, long way away.

Make no mistake — robots will probably soon be able to do what the village hunjang used to do: make kids recite stock phrases from memory over and over. And after years of that, some bewildered parents will wonder why their kids still can’t speak English. Language acquisition is not a solitary activity: you need other people, and you need to use the language in some way, not just recite the stock phrases.

So until robots have AI or telepresence connections to human operators, don’t bank on them displacing the military or the armies of English teachers — Korean and foreign alike — in Korea. That’s not science-fiction, it’s science fantasy.

Hm. I think I may write up a letter to the Choson Ilbo and even work with someone to translate it, as spreading about pipe dreams really cannot do anyone much good.

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