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The ongoing revolution

July 24,2017
The first fleet of robotic guides and cleaners developed by LG Electronics has gone to work at Incheon International Airport. The guides can offer information on flights, boarding gates and stores in Korean, English, Chinese and Japanese. They can escort the passengers on demand. The cleaners, with mastery of the map of the airport, go around the huge space in search of spills and smudges.

The Incheon Airport already runs automated passport clearance kiosks. Such simple tasks as cleaning, guiding, and ticket issuing as well as the more complex work of border clearance can now be done by machines. The change is taking place at the same workplace in which President Moon Jae-in first promised to upgrade underprivileged contract workers to salaried positions on the permanent payroll.

Self-serve kiosks are proliferating. Customers make their orders through touchscreens at fast-food chains. Kiosks are taking the place of part-time workers at food courts and mom-and-pop stores. Self-serve systems have become commonplace in our transportation system. Gas-pumping and car parking are automated. Staff is hardly needed in subway stations as ticket gates as well as trains are unmanned. The national road authority plans to make toll gates across the nation unmanned by 2020.

Automation has spread beyond low-grade labor. Google’s AlphaGo has defeated human Go champions. Graduate schools for translators and interpreters have lost appeal due to fast advances in related software. Accountants have seen much of their work go to computers. IBM’s artificial intelligence Watson has begun to take on the role of medical professionals in U.S. and Korean hospitals.

One day, a machine with limitless memory and learning capacity could threaten a judge’s position. Digitalization and automation will entirely change human civilization.

In his latest book “Thank You for Being Late,” New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman argues that technology outpaced human versatility in 2007. With the proliferation of iPhones and Facebook, man’s intelligence and skills have quickly deteriorated. Human society has entered an unequal era where only those who can adapt to new technologies can keep their jobs. Both blue-collar and white-collar workers could become casualties of digitalization.

The trend is irreversible. To minimize the casualties, we must accept the inevitable changes and learn to live with them. Four-year college educations no longer can secure jobs. The education sector must be overhauled in order to deal with the dramatic changes of the times. Social security must be tightened to protect those who have fallen behind.

JoongAng Ilbo, July 22, Page 26