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Taking humanity’s next big step

We cannot win with a single home run. We need many successes, big and small, in many fields.
May 23,2017
Some say the fourth industrial revolution is just a buzzword, but it is so important that it cannot be overly emphasized. The most fundamental cause of modern Korea’s disgraces and failures is that the Joseon dynasty shunned the first industrial revolution. When Japan advocated “Japanese spirit and Western technology” and quickly joined the ranks of the first industrial revolution during the Meiji restoration, Joseon rejected industrial revolution and Western influence. The Japanese military was armed with weapons manufactured with modern steel-making technologies through the industrial revolution, and it was impossible for the Joseon military to resist with the matchlocks made by blacksmiths.

The fourth industrial revolution must succeed for the fate of the nation and its people. But there are some misunderstandings and misconceptions about the fourth industrial revolution.

The first misunderstanding is the belief that the fourth revolution can succeed if the government identifies and supports industries of the future. In the first industrial revolution, there were key industries that required focused support from the government and the sacrifice of others. The key industries — such as coal, textile, chemical, electric and steel industries — needed special attention. But there is no such industry in the fourth industrial revolution. Countless new industries and technologies — such as AI, big data, robotics, 3-D printing, IoT, bioengineering and nano technology — are created and linked with one another internationally. Therefore, it is an outdated concept for the government to designate certain fields and offer concentrated support.

Bioengineering, which is a part of the fourth revolution, once emerged as the new hope for Korea, especially stem cell research. The tragic story of Hwang Woo-seok in 1999 was a policy catastrophe caused by excessive anticipation and support for a specific field. For example, baseball is not a game that one superstar who gets all the support can win with a single home run. A team can win with multiple hits. For the fourth industrial revolution, we need many successes, big and small, in many fields. The choices of industries and technologies should be left to the animal spirits of the entrepreneurs and engineers who are working in the field.

The second misconception is the concern that the fourth industrial revolution will create mass unemployment. According to the “The Future of Jobs” report presented In the World Economic Forum in 2016, about five million jobs are expected to be removed by AI, robots and automation by 2020. But it is wrong to assume that eliminating 5 million jobs will leave people unemployed. During the first industrial revolution, English workers who lost their jobs started the Luddite movement to destroy machinery. But far more new employment opportunities were created than the number of jobs replaced by automation and industrialization.

Meanwhile, replacement of labor by machines reduced the labor hours per worker rather than resulting in mass unemployment. In 1516, Sir Thomas More described Utopia as a country where people only have to work six hours a day. Considering that people used to work 12 hours a day at the time, the current 40-hour workweek is already close to Utopia. AI and robots replacing human labor may mean a step closer to Utopia, working three or four days a week.

The third misconception is the claim that we need to plan for the negative effects of the fourth industrial revolution. We need to firmly respond to the immediate side effects. However, delaying the fourth industrial revolution because of concerns over side effects is committing a sin against future generation’s and repeating Joseon’s mistake. In 1760, London’s population was only 740,000. 100 years after the first industrial revolution, it grew to 3.9 million. Housing, traffic, sanitation and public safety concerns arose. But if England was reluctant to push for the revolution out of concerns for side effects, it could never have attained the glory of the British Empire. One of the major traits of the industrial revolution is polarization between movers and followers. For the fourth industrial revolution, movers will maintain the lead, and the first ones to move will be the ultimate winners.

The great divergence began in human civilization from the first industrial revolution. Industrialized countries became the rulers, and those that failed became political and economic colonies. Independence activist Shin Chae-ho said that the people who had forgotten history cannot be revived. His advice may suggest that the second great divergence of the fourth industrial revolution is the last chance for the Korean people.

The most urgent task for the success of the fourth industrial revolution is to clear up misconceptions and distrust over the industrial revolution and its related scientific technologies. We need to create a general consensus that the fourth industrial revolution will be a true blessing for the development of human civilization and all our happiness.

JoongAng Ilbo, May 22, Page 33

*The author is a professor of industrial engineering at the Seoul National University.

Kim Tae-yu