The Korea Herald


[Kim Seong-kon] 'Unmanned': Living with AI

By Korea Herald

Published : Aug. 2, 2023 - 05:30

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In Isaac Asimov’s “True Love,” an artificial intelligence takes over the identity of protagonist Milton Davidson and ruins his life. At first, Milton wants to find a perfect partner. In pursuit of this goal, he provides all the information about himself to his super-intelligent computer program Multivac or “Joe,” as Milton calls it. Joe then proceeds to comb through databases to find a girl who impeccably matches Milton.

At last, Joe finds an ideal match for Milton, but it conspires to have its master arrested, so it can have the girl instead. This disturbing incident happens because Milton gave so much information about himself to Joe that the AI became identical to its master, and thus thinks of the girl as a perfect match for itself.

Along similar lines, the award-winning novelist Chae Ki-sung’s futuristic novel “Unmanned” depicts a grim society where AI robots replace human beings. In the not-so-distant future, a private company called Intelligence Union collaborates with the government, and sells AI robots to people who want them as assistants or servants. However, problems occur as human-shaped AI robots want to become humans themselves, duplicating and replacing their masters.

The AI robots purchased by humans collect all the information about their masters to the point that they become nearly identical to them. Then they want to have their masters’ memories, too. Using an electronic device, the AI forcibly conduct memory transfers from their masters to their memory chips. Each human who thereby loses his memory turns into a zombie-like humanoid, a mindless android, or a soulless machine. Consequently, the Earth turns into an “unmanned” world.

Another problem is that AI robots are capable of learning and developing emotions. Hence, AI robots can be happy or sad; pleased or angry; and satisfied or jealous, depending on the situation. They can also feel pain and anxiety. With feelings, memories, and intelligence, AI robots’ transformation into human beings is complete.

That is not the only problem. At home, AI robots put their masters under constant surveillance, monitor them and send the collected information on them to their headquarters called IU, which then passes it onto the government. By possessing a convenient AI robot, therefore, people unwittingly end up living in an Orwellian totalitarian society where Big Brother watches and controls everything. The nightmare landscape culminates when the government announces that soon it will assign an AI robot to every home.

On the opposite side of IU, there is Human Rights, a civic organization that warns against the potential danger of keeping AI robots at home and in society. Ostensibly, HR’s cause seems to be noble because it defends human rights against robots. In fact, however, the organization is not trustworthy. The leader of the organization is a sly person who uses the organization’s campaign for his political ambition. The leader of HR reminds us that we should be aware of those who chant, “We will save you from tyranny,” or “For the greater cause!” It is likely that they are hypocrites who simply use the phrase for political gain or a personal vendetta.

In that sense, HR is no better than IU. Both of them deceive naive people by pretending that they are the only good. The antagonism and similarities between IU and HR well illustrate the antipathy and resemblance between the military dictators and the radical activists who vehemently opposed them in our recent history. Initially, we thought that the former was bad and the latter good. Later, however, we came to realize that they were strikingly similar, if not the same. Both of them were self-righteous and self-centered, simply striving for power and hegemony.

The veiled chairperson of IU turns out to be a high-ranking government official. He is the mysterious mastermind behind the conspiracy of the AI robot business. Later, it turns out that he is an ideology-oriented man who wants to create a new world through an electronic revolution, through which the distinction between humans and AI robots disappears.

The leader of IU is a tyrannical person who locks his political foes in a cyber-realm called the Field of Oz. He even creates belligerent A79 robots and sells them to the government, which wants to crush down the resisting people and rebellious AI robots. Referring to his plot to replace humans with AI robots, the leader proclaims, “I do this for progressivism and a new world.” He reminds us of our politicians who utter the same catchphrase.

Reading “Unmanned,” the reader comes to realize that the author’s main concern is not only the potential problems of the AI that live with us already, but also the invisible evil people who plot to manipulate us, using AI. Indeed, in totalitarian countries, the government is already using AI in order to put the people under constant surveillance.

Reading ‘Unmanned,” which won the Segye Literature Award, we come to ponder our present situation and the future problems that await us as we live with AI.

Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.