The Korea Herald


[Kim Seong-kon] Living under constant surveillance by AI

By Kim Seong-kon

Published : Aug. 14, 2018 - 17:04

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Is computer technology a blessing? The answer is yes, to be sure. Can you even imagine what life was like before the smartphone came out? Without a smartphone, there is virtually nothing you can do when, for example, you are late for a meeting or unable to attend due to some urgent reason, especially if there is no phone available at the rendezvous site.

By the same token, can you imagine the world before the internet and Google? Without the internet, you cannot be connected to the world, and without Google, you cannot possibly obtain all the information now available through this powerful search engine. It is undeniable that computer and information technology have made our lives so convenient and resourceful. Indeed, digital technology has now become something we cannot do without.

On the other hand, however, computer technology has its downsides. Among other things, widespread hacking or computer viruses, rampant false or distorted information, indecent personal slurs and verbal assaults come to mind. Also, digital media can be manipulative, getting you addicted to using it, until it gradually becomes a part of you and eventually turns you into its slave. Everything will be stopped until the power is back on. In other words, the Copernican Revolution of computer technology can result in a Kafkaesque situation, if it goes awry.

In his most recent novel, “Origin,” Dan Brown warns that a new species called “artificial intelligence” will dominate human society by the year 2050. This new phenomenon, Brown suggests, would arise from a mixture of humans and artificial intelligence, which will eventually create a whole new species that is half-human and half-machine.

Recall that in Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code,” the mastermind who manipulates the fanatic albino to assassinate religious enemies is a human being. In “Origin,” however, the mastermind who manipulates humans is a computer technology. In the novel, Winston, the artificial intelligence, is superior to man in every sense. It conspires to orchestrate various events for its creator Edmund. Winston even takes its own life on a specific date and time, as its creator has programmed. But what if the AI refuses the order and defies the program? What if a computer technology with superb intelligence revolts against humans and takes over the world?

Science fiction writers and moviemakers constantly warn us that those days are imminent and we should be prepared. As early as 1968, Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick already warned us of a possible revolt of artificial intelligence in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The same thing happens in Isaac Asimov’s “I, Robot.”

Meanwhile, you could also be manipulated by those who misuse computer technology. Sometimes, the manipulation comes directly and conspicuously. Other times, it comes in a more subtle way, disguised as something benevolent. A few days ago, I purchased a pack of Nestle Coffee-mates on the internet. Ever since, I have been bombarded by advertisements. Whenever the ads on coffee cream popped up, I erased them. But they kept coming in, forcing me to buy it more. Finally, I gave up and let those ads invade my computer screen unscrupulously.

While living in Washington, I used to buy things I needed at a local drugstore near my apartment. Every other day, the drugstore sent me an email that displayed the products I bought at the store, this time with discounted prices. The sales department was carefully monitoring my consuming patterns and kept offering my favorite items at lower prices. At first, it was so convenient to me. Soon, however, those products were overstocked in my apartment; enticed by the discounted prices, I kept buying them even though I did not need them.

When I studied in the US in the 1970s, there was a rumor that the local FBI office kept track of what kind of books a foreign student checked out and what sort of video tapes a foreign student rented. At that time, it was scary. Today when everything is being computerized, it is so easy to keep an eye on somebody without difficulty. Your internet activities and your Google search list can be easily monitored by those who want to put you under surveillance. Your hobbies and favorite things, too, will be helplessly exposed to those who have the technology. Eventually, the internet will become like “thought police” that make you exercise self-censorship unconsciously.

That is exactly what Aldous Huxley and George Orwell depicted in their novels, “Brave New World” and “1984” respectively. Embarrassingly, in 2018, we now live in the dystopian world these novels warned us of. It surely is a scary and unnerving experience to know that someone out there is watching us constantly, monitoring our lifestyles, our daily schedules and our shopping patterns. The American television show “Person of Interest” begins with the narration, “You are being watched.” The TV show depicts how we are constantly being watched by numerous surveillance cameras, artificial intelligence, and computer technology. I often wonder what Aldous Huxley and George Orwell would say if they were still alive today.

Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and visiting professor at Kyunghee Cyber University. He can be reached at -- Ed.