‘AI to make unification of Koreas more difficult,’ says best-selling author
AI is likely to make the north’s asset — a disciplined and cheap workforce — irrelevant as a potential benefit of unification
By Kang Seung-woo
The rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and the a widening technical gap between South and North Koreas will make unification of the two countries more difficult, said Yuval Noah Harari, author of the international bestsellers “Sapiens” and “Homo Deus.”
“The rise of AI might make any future integration of North and South more difficult, for both cultural and economic reasons,” the Israeli historian said in an exclusive interview with The Korea Times.
“AI is likely to transform the culture and even psychology of South Koreans, and if North Koreans do not undergo a similar revolution, the gap between the populations will become bigger than ever before.”
He said the gap is widening every day.
“Just think of the cultural gap between a South Korean teenager glued to her smartphone, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter, and a North Korean teenager who might well be dumbfounded to see people walking down the street and constantly looking at the small screens in their palms.”
The fast technological advance would also weaken the lure of the much-touted benefits of unification — a cheap labour force in North Korea.
“There were potential economic benefits (of unification), because the north had one important economic asset to contribute to a united Korea: a disciplined and cheap workforce. However, AI is likely to make cheap labour irrelevant,” he said.
As algorithms and robots replace truck drivers, factory workers and even doctors, cheap labour could lose its value, he said.
“That might make future integration even harder. South Korea might face a crisis taking care of its own unemployed masses; it will not want to take care of millions of Northerners too.”
He comes up with one positive influence for a faster integration of the two Koreas.
“The profound changes caused by the rise of AI might destabilise the North Korean regime and lead to its collapse, while the South Korean hi-tech industry may generate so much prosperity in the South that it will actually find it easier to integrate the North,” he said.
In the 21st century the rise of AI and biotechnology will certainly transform the world, but it does not mandate a single deterministic outcome, he said.
“We can use it to create very different kinds of societies. How to use it wisely is the most important question facing humankind today,” he said. “It is far more important than the global economic crisis, the wars in the Middle East, or the refugee crisis in Europe. The future not only of humanity, but probably of life itself, depends on how we choose to use AI and biotechnology.”
Risks of rising nationalism
Harari expressed concerns about growing nationalism worldwide which has been spurred by U.S. President Donald Trump.
Trump is part of a larger nationalist wave that is sweeping over much of the world, he said. “This is a very dangerous development. In the past, nationalism was dangerous because it bred war. In the 21st century, nationalism is even more dangerous, because in addition to fostering wars it is likely to prevent humankind from solving the existential problems we face.”
He said all major problems facing the word are global in nature — global warming, global inequality, and the rise of disruptive technologies such as AI and bioengineering.
“In order to face these challenges successfully, we need global cooperation,” he said.
He took an example that no nation can regulate bioengineering single-handedly as it won’t help much if the U.S. forbids genetically engineering human babies if China or North Korea allows it.
“Similarly, no nation can stop global warming by itself. Can Donald Trump build a wall against rising oceans? Because nationalism has no answer to global warming, it tends to simply deny the problem. But the problem is real,” he noted.
“Hence I think the current wave of nationalism is a kind of escapism: people refusing to confront the unprecedented problems of the 21st century by closing their eyes and minds and by seeking a refuge in the fold of traditional local identities. I hope that people will wake up in time. For that, we probably need a new global ideology that can unite humankind.”
If we want to survive and thrive, the world has little choice but to complement patriotism with substantial obligations toward a global community, the historian said.
“If people nevertheless insist that the interests of their nation override all other loyalties and considerations, I would be curious to know how they plan to solve global warming and how they plan to handle the risks of nuclear war, artificial intelligence and biotechnology,” he said.