Autonomous cars, artificial intelligence (AI), and virtual reality (VR): these are innovative technologies that came to reality in the 2010s. Though such technologies may only have been in one’s imagination in the past, the last decade made them into an indispensable part of everyday life. However, despite the shining light technological innovation beams, what it has to offer may not be all positive. Saying farewell to the year, this last month is an appropriate time to cherish the pivotal technological advances made in our decade and examine the future of technological innovation.
Technological innovation is broadly defined as modernized technology, with many people acknowledging the term as creating a new product or system and utilizing a previously undiscovered technology. When viewing the term from a narrower perspective, however, it is defined as three processes of making technology — conceiving a new idea, developing the idea to practical use and effectively implementing it in society.
Yet, this consequential and positive interest toward technological innovation has led people to turn their attention to its impact and influence on society as a whole. In 2018, the United Nations (UN) stated that technological advancement signifies “The advancement of human welfare, with the potential to generate more inequality and more violence.” This statement by the UN brings light to the fact that new technology is not solely beneficial, but also holds the possibility of imposing new threats. Likewise, in the present era of technological innovation, it is critical to examine the current technologies and their possible double-sided influence on our future.
Key Technology Innovations of 2019
The significant keyword in the field of technology in 2019 is Information and Communications Technology (ICT). The British international newspaper Financial Times defines ICT as the use of computers and the Internet, further amplifying convergence of networks and connectivity between users across the globe. Example technologies include software, telecommunication devices, and Internet of Things (IoT). Among such diverse technologies, the implementation of 5th-generation cellular network technology (5G technology) and AI have risen to become the key technologies which will lead future scientific industries and economy.
5G technology is one of the most prominent technologies developed in 2019. First introduced at the end of 2018, it stimulated hyper-connectivity — a term which describes the connection between users and users, users and machines, as well as machines and machines. According to The Washington Post, the main difference between 5G and the previous network technology is that its data speed is up to 100 times faster, reaching 10 gigabytes (GB) per second. As such, the advanced network technology has significantly reduced the response time and accelerated its speed of internet connection. The 5G technology is predicted to bring about change not only in internet browsing, but also in business growth and technological development.
AI technologies have continued to rise in 2019 as well. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) defines AI as “The technology that enables a computer to think or act in a more human way.” This implies that AI technology has the ability to gather massive amounts of information and further utilize it to make optimum decisions with its self-learning algorithms. In 2019, AI has been adopted to completely alter our society in different fields beyond technological science, such as governmental administration, medicine, and education. For instance, the National Tax Service (NTS) of South Korea announced its employment of AI technology in the national tax administration services to enhance taxation convenience and work efficiency. With precise data analysis through AI, it is expected to expedite and improve the accuracy of business registration and taxpaying.
In the near future, the semiconductor industry related to AI is expected to be further developed as well. Professor Yang Min Kyu (Department of IT Convergence Engineering, Sahmyook Universit y) stated, “Intelligent semiconductor is an area of research to be noted among the various fields of AI. In particular, artificial neural networks known as neuromorphic computing is anticipated to bring a new shift to the research, as it allows a faster learning process with less power, regardless of the size of data.” Although many unsolved tasks remain in the field of AI technology, a positive outlook is forecasted with its new related discoveries and studies.
Support for Domestic Technological Development
▲ President Moon at the Cabinet meeting PROVIDED BY CHEONG WA DAE
On September 10, President Moon held a Cabinet meeting at the Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KIST), displaying his determination toward supporting technological development and its related industries. According to Korean Broadcasting System (KBS), President Moon stated that the government will mobilize all available resources to strengthen technological research and the competitiveness of technology industries. Furthermore, the president accentuated the government’s bold decisions to support the materials, components and equipment industries by pursuing long term investment and research and development (R&D).
At present, South Korea is finding methods to implement sustainable industrial cycles of researching, ensuring substances, and producing the products. Professor Yang commented, “The Ministry of Science and ICT (MSIT) is currently pursuing a development in material convergence innovation technology. This is part of the Future Material Discovery Project, which aims to support the augmentation of key source technologies and early demonstration in major industries with high dependence on foreign countries.”
▲ Professor Yang Min Kyu PROVIDED BY PROFESSOR YANG MIN KYU
Indeed, it is vital to acknowledge that technological independence is directly linked to securing a stable domestic economy and science research habitat. However, several recent actions taken by the government went contrary to the aforementioned pro-technology research attitude, resulting in a disturbance in the industrial ecosystem.
Professional Research Officers Losing Their Place to Stand
One of the controversies is the reduction of the quota for an alternative military service called professional research officers. In South Korea, the Military Service Act stipulates Korean men aged over 19 to serve in the military for a minimum of 21 months, the length varying according to different fields of the military. However, there also exist other fields of special military service systems which allow particular men to perform alternative services — professional research officers being one of them.
Article 37 of the Military Service Act specifies that men engaged in research work for the study of academics and technology could replace military service obligations by serving as professional research officers. The primary goal of the system is to provide research opportunities and contribute to the development of national technology industries. Men holding a master’s degree or higher are qualified to serve as professional research officers. They must receive basic military training for four weeks and work for a research institute or industry for the following three years. During these years, research officers conduct research and experiments in an environment with concentrated resources. Every year, this alternative military service system selects a quota of 2500 professional research officers.
However, according to Maeil Business News Korea (MBN), the Ministry of National Defense (MND) of South Korea is planning to gradually reduce the quota for the special military service system in order to maintain the military personnel. This plan was introduced as a solution for South Korea’s rapid approach toward a demographic cliff. As a result of a serious population reduction in South Korea, MND predicted that the number of domestic military service resources will reduce from about 320,000 to 250,000 in the early 2020s.
Due to such a steep decline in population, MND proposed a plan which aims to increase the military personnel number by reducing the number of selected professional research officers between 2022 to 2024, with a goal of about 1,200 officers by 2024. The number of officers working during the doctoral course will be downsized from 1,000 to 700. Those who work in corporations will be cut down from 1500 to about 500, which may cause a substantial reduction.
Professional Research Officers and the Technology Industry
In response to this plan presented by the government, educational institutions strongly asserted their desire to protect the system of professional research officers. According to Yonhap Television News (YTN), 46 organizations including the College of Natural Sciences of Seoul National University (SNU) delivered an opinion statement to the Ministry of Education and the MND, resolutely contending to maintain the system of professional research officers.
The statement specified that such a system not only prevents the risk of brain drain in the areas of science and engineering but also encourages students to enter graduate school. Without the special privilege offered to serve the military as professional research officers, smaller number of students will choose to take master’s or doctorate courses. Moreover, it insisted that technological competitiveness is directly related to the strengthening of national defense, emphasizing that the number of men serving in the military is not the only factor contributing to national defense. Likewise, reducing professional research officers will act as a critical drawback, weakening the development of technology and national defense in South Korea.
Indeed, statistics on the positive economic influence generated by professional research officers worked as an evidence against the MND’s decision. In a report published in 2017 by the Korea Small Business Institute (KSBI), it states that “The professional research officer system generated 1.324 trillion won in production inducement effect and 462.3 billion won in value-added inducement effect. A job inducement effect of 4393 people was created as well.” However, despite the rising opposition from the academic and technological fields, the MND maintained its position to curtail the number of professional research officers.
Guidelines to Overcome Innovation Adversities
If our society desires to fully experience the various upsides of a more technologically advanced future, the issues begot by technical research should be promptly overcome through strategic decision-making. The lack of sufficient infrastructure, competition, or monetary support can all be overcome when such decisions are based upon a deeper understanding of the impacts of a more stable technical research system. This understanding is now slowly settling into a worldwide consensus, as various nations and experts in the field of technology work together to create a new paradigm for technological innovation.
In September of 2018, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres published the “Strategy on New Technologies” in preparation for the bullish but worrisome future of technological innovation. The five commitments of the strategy are as follows: deepening the UN’s internal capacities and exposure to new technologies; increasing understanding, advocacy and dialogue; supporting dialogue on normative and cooperation frameworks; enhancing the UN system support to government capacity development. These policies aim to overcome the unsettling possibility of new technological innovations generating more inequality.
Conventionally, the Oslo Manual has served as an international guideline for industry innovation ever since its issuance in 1997. The Oslo Manual both quantitatively and qualitatively measures the scale, characteristics, and systemic factors related to technological innovation to assist “The pursuit and analysis of policies aimed at fostering it.” Both the UN’s strategy and the Oslo Manual are updated to reflect the new thoughts for the vision of technological innovation until 2030, so the two can be used hand in hand to advise nations and institutions on the direction of the ICT industry in a more uniform way.
Still Moving On from Catch-Up Strategy?
▲ The ICT Industry Outlook Conference PROVIDED BY METRO SEOUL
South Korea has been well incorporating the guidelines above into the nation’s plan. From November 5 to 6, MSIT hosted an “ICT Industry Outlook Conference 2020” at the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry Seoul. This conference showcased the research plans and future trends of 1,000 experts in the ICT industry. In a similar vein, Lim Dae-sik, the former Vice Minister for Science, Technology and Innovation of MSIT, pronounced a new direction for the government in 2018 in a lecture titled “People-Centered Science Technological Innovation Policy,” but these new policies seem to be circling back to the obsolete vision of escaping the catch-up strategy.
The catch-up strategy is what experts attribute South Korea’s rapid economic development to and therefore also serves as the cornerstone of Korea’s former policies for technological innovation. The essence is to follow the ideas and actions of the leading party of the industry, whether it be a nation or an organization in the field of development economics, technology, or the more general sciences. The first attempt to escape from Korea’s catch-up policies in the field of technology was published through a paper in 2006 by the Science and Technology Policy Institute (STEPI). But even after 10 years, the new policies were still aiming to move away from catch-up policies through post-catch up strategies. It seems evident that the process has been stagnant — and that the country needs a fresh new framework, different from mere post-catch up strategies.
Not all new policies are unimpressive, however. Former Vice Minister Lim’s plan addressed an important point aiming to “Shift its focus on short-term performance to a long-term, people-centered policy.” Lim proposed to focus the technological innovation policies on the researchers, rather than on aimless funding or excessive machine development. “By reforming the previous system, we will strengthen support for innovation capabilities of research entities such as universities and companies and maximize the synergy between innovation and each research entity through convergence and cooperation,” Lim asserted. For providing more support to R&D, the government will strengthen the independence and expertise of preliminary studies. An updated budget of 200 billion won to eight major areas for pilot application has been added this year to reflect this move.
Overcoming Obstacles as a Team
▲ The representatives of Kakao and SK Telecom PROVIDED BY KAKAO CORP
On a smaller scale, implementing a platform of cooperation among fields of technical studies can also work to alleviate the issues at hand. On October 28, SK Telecom (SKT), a telecommunications corporation in South Korea, and Kakao Corporation, an Internet and mobile communications giant, informed the public of their mega-scale strategic partnership. Professor Kang Daekook (Inje University, Industrial Management Engineering) comments, “SKT and Kakao are expected to create a new ICT ecosystem, given that they are participating in a stronger, blood-mixing form of MOU through equity swapping.”
Chief Director Yoo Young-sang of the Mobile Network Operator (MNO) business at SKT says, “The partnership with Kakao will be an important starting point for us to strengthen the competitiveness of Korea’s ICT system through the basis of future ICT — 5G technology.” Besides helping the two corporations in venturing out into the global markets, the deal, based on an exchange of shares worth nearly 300 billion South Korean won, suggests that the impediments to innovation can be overcome through cooperative efforts.
Cooperation can create a synergetic effect between the industries and researchers, and further construct an economy of scale in terms of production and idea-making. This progress can also contribute to the increase in possibility of information spillover into the industry. SKT and Kakao are well aware of such positive effects, and plan on creating a “Synergy Committee” to fuel the forward action even more. On top of the government’s generous budget allocation and policy-based support, industry cooperation can end up being beneficial for all citizens, not just those in the R&D field.
However, industry cooperation should still be sought with caution. Professor Kang states, “Although cooperation can bring a competitive advantage, over time, there is also a risk of a certain portion of the business sector becoming subordinate to the affiliates.” Therefore, in order to benefit from a successful partnership, industries would also need to develop learning abilities that can complement and strengthen each division by setting clear, common purposes for the cooperation.
The Inevitable Question of Ethics
Until now, the world has been assuredly believing that each new invention and scientific discovery will provide a better tomorrow for all. Now, it may be necessary to pose a fundamental question to ourselves, especially given that we are just a month away from the approaching future of 2020. Will more technological advancement provide people with practical assistance and a substantially better future?
The American news and opinion website Vox gives insight into citizens’ supremacist attitude toward technological innovation through their article from October 8. Vox strongly suggests that our society sees cutting-edge technology such as facial recognition, smart diapers, and surveillance devices as inevitable evolutions — when, in fact, they actually are not. To support such a conviction, the article goes on to introduce a rather disturbing new AI-driven system for university students created by a company named Nestor. The system involves surveillance and new facial expression analysis technology that can operate through students’ monitors.
In response to such form of innovation, Marcel Saucet, a French inventor, explained that “Everybody is doing this. It is really early and shocking, but we cannot go against natural laws of evolution.” However, this latest technology is actually situated in the gray area of privacy. Human rights activists claim that this type of privacy erosion is unacceptable in all circumstances, while developers of Nestor may assert that it is a necessary sacrifice for more efficient studying and an overall development in technology. Following the idea of a people-centered policy and innovation, this seems to be an evident reason to establish some clear-cut boundaries regarding new technology.
While acknowledging the dilemma that many scientists and academics face, Professor Kang shares that “Institutional research should prioritize people.” As explored previously through Lim’s proposal, such a people-centered era of the fourth industrial revolution could mean anything from “Introducing a care and nursing robot to innovate assisted living, to spreading intelligent signals to upgrade and forecast traffic accidents.” All of these innovations will share a common umbrella of “Prioritizing the health and safety of people,” which can be a suitable guideline to start off with.
▲ Professor Kang Daekook PROVIDED BY PROFESSOR KANG DAEKOOK
Just like how the general sciences follow a universal ethical conduct for scientific research, the field of technological research and innovation should be considered in the same manner. Even the trivial examples concerning proper online etiquette, privacy rights, and excessive use of resources for development should not be brushed aside as transient issues. In any case, at least, violation of privacy cannot be justified as a natural law of evolution. Developers and researchers are going to need to be more aware of such elements of ethics when dealing with new technological innovation.
Robots Cannot Be Human – Ever
“Robots will outnumber humans by 2048.” This haunting statement was a popular heading for information technology reports and articles in 2018. Although the source is not exactly known, the statement nevertheless seems to be quite realistic. The statement implies that perhaps robots can become the majority while humans become a subsidiary part of life as we know it. Such a rapid pace of technological growth in our world is bound to bring about other fundamental pitfalls to our world, just as one can expect with abnormally soaring housing prices or excessive use of natural resources.
One of those pitfalls includes an intensified form of the human alienation theory, originating from the German philosopher Karl Marx. The theory proposes that “Although aspects of the society we live in appear natural and independent of us, they are the results of past human actions.” Karam Adibifar, author of “Technology and Alienation in Modern-Day Societies,” elaborates that “Technology has already weakened our collective conscious and has become an opiate of the masses and a source of disintegration, deviance, strain, and divisiveness.” If the process of technology innovation continues at the current pace, we are likely to observe more “Class conflict, war, environmental degradation, poverty, and more internal and external alienation.”
One thing is for sure: the world is quickly acknowledging the importance of a people-centered technological innovation, and many believe that the first steps are related to establishing practical solutions away from the issues of human alienation. The book Trouble in the Making? The Future of Manufacturing-Led Development puts emphasis on such a direction of technological innovation by stating that although increased polarization is a risk, the world should go beyond focusing on potential disruptions and work towards positioning workers, firms, and locations for new opportunities.
Technological innovation has, without a doubt, presented us with an immeasurable amount of efficient solutions, a bewildering range of entertainment, and of course, the greatest prosperity ever experienced. Our lives are becoming speedier and more technology-friendly by the day, and it is exciting to even daydream about what our future will look like in another decade. But as the famous saying goes, “With all great power comes great responsibility.” It is now time for our generation to not only ponder the unknown territory of the future, but to also do so with the utmost caution and human intelligence.