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Progressive road blocks

Dec 12,2019
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Lee Chul-ho
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

In February 2012, the New York Times ran a story on its front page about grocery retailer Target’s ambitious analytics project, which studied the market habits of its regular customers. It introduced a story in which one angry father walked into a Minneapolis store with baby-related coupons sent to his teenage daughter. He fumed at the manager for sending her coupons for cribs and other baby items when she was still in high school. “Are you trying to encourage her to get pregnant?” the father yelled. The store manager called their house to apologize. But after a conversation with the daughter, the father found out that she indeed was pregnant and hadn’t told him about it.

The media went berserk over how Target could know something even the girl’s parents didn’t. Its analytics on repeated purchases of dietary supplements concluded that the girl was pregnant. The public panicked about newfangled online corporations snooping on them to dig up private information. Despite the public storm, the Barack Obama administration announced its Big Data Research and Development Initiative a few weeks later to foster new industries based on personal data.

Even traditional industries are turning high-tech through data technologies. John Deere is one of America’s oldest manufacturers, founded by a blacksmith in 1837. It specializes in farming equipment. The leader in its industry has gained new traction through release of an automated tractor through a $300 million acquisition of Blue River Technology, which allowed it to adopt its computer technology on farming. The tractor sends videos of soil conditions for analysis by a computer back in the headquarters to come up with optimal inputs for farming. The technology can save the grower a maximum of 70 percent in production costs. Such precision farming can be less harmful to the environment and raise the competitiveness of the producer.

Liquid biopsy technology has emerged as an efficient, noninvasive and cost-effective diagnostic approach. It can detect cancer from a drop of blood. It involves the measuring of circulating tumor DNA and other byproducts in blood samples obtained from patients with cancer. In May, U.S.-based Grail reported that its liquid biopsy test kit had been successful in diagnosing most cases of cancer. It was also precise in locating the exact origin of a tumor through a DNA test. Once an ongoing clinical test on 100,000 patients proves its efficacy, early-stage detection of cancer and treatment can become possible. As a result, survivability and cures of cancer can significantly increase, compared with current treatments on later-stage patients. Medical costs also could come down by 10 percent, all thanks to big data.

The world is galloping along the data highway. According to Prof. Cha Sang-kyun, the founding director of Seoul National University’s Big Data Institute, data is the primary fuel for artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, the cloud and other technologies behind the fourth industrial revolution. “Korea has only two to three years left to catch up amidst the technology battle between the United States and China,” he said. Last month, Naver’s Japan-based messaging platform Line and Yahoo Japan under Softbank holding entity Z Holdings announced a merger. However, whether the merged company with a combined market cap of $109 billion can really pose a formidable challenge to multinationals like Google, Apple and Amazon — each valued at over $1 trillion — raises questions.

Korea is a laggard in its readiness for the data revolution. The country’s liberals are the biggest stumbling block. Even as rival parties agreed to pass three bills related to the data industries, their endorsement has been stalled due to strong opposition from liberal civic groups and labor unions. They claim the data laws could be abused by companies to steal personal information for business means and place consumers under constant watch and control. The progressive front has been a road block for almost all innovation-driven industries — telemedicine, internet banking and ride-sharing platforms like Tada. The liberals assert that reckless deregulation will most likely undermine public safety, people’s lives and common values.

Progressivism was first used by Karl Marx. He defined the transition of low-level production to high-level production as progressivism. Progressivism, which supports social reform, has always been pro-future and pro-innovation. But the term has taken on the opposite meaning in Korea. The progressive front opposes anything that is new or novel. Such obstructionist groups have become mainstream here, unwilling to yield any of their vested power.

The progressives are the incumbent governing power in Korea. They must not continue with leftist experiments as in their young activist days. Koreans today invest directly in offshore shares through online platforms. In the new age, the winner is the one who gets to the right data pool first. Like the Obama administration did, the government must overcome near-sighted worries and opposition in order to join the global race. Like other governments, it should first open the data highway and make necessary fixes — repair the potholes, so to speak — along the way.

JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 11, Page 35