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Place for Humans: Essays on Science, Politics, and Future in South KoreaJeon Chi-hyung

How hard did Korean society try to uncover the truth behind the Sewol ferry disaster? Can we overlook this incident and maintain our community? What did Korean society do to secure the lives of those working around the conveyor belt of a thermoelectric power plan? What kind of science and technology do we need to secure their lives? - An excerpt from “Prologue: Learning and Securing”

『Place for Humans: Essays on Science, Politics, and Future in South Korea』

Author : Jeon Chi-hyung
Publisher : Eum
Publication date : April 21, 2019
Number of pages : 296
Format : 140x210mm
ISBN : 9788993166897

Jeon Chi-hyung

Jeon Chi-hyung is a faculty member of the Graduate School of Science and Technology Policy at KAIST. He is active in researching and writing about the relationships between humans and technology, politics and engineering, and robotic and simulation cultures.

How Should Science and Technology Take Shape?


It was on March 9, 2016. We were attending a meeting on researching the surviving students of the Sewol ferry disaster. It was difficult to analyze the stories of those who have been wronged by grownups, society and their country, those who have not yet recovered from losing their friends in a sinking ship. When the difficult meeting finally came to a close, Jeon Chi-hyung was leaving in haste. He was on his way to see the match of the century between the baduk player Lee Se-dol and AlphaGo. I asked him why he was going in person instead of watching the game on television. He said,“When AlphaGo makes the calculations and decides on a move, there’s a person who physically places the stone on its behalf. I want to see that person.”

Jeon Chi-hyung always engages in this kind of observation, reflection and examination. A well known member of the National Assembly who was conversing with the AI robot Sophia suggested that she be given Korean citizenship as a token of positive reception of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. But they fails to extend the same kind of support to refugees who come to Korea to seek political asylum. Both are strangers from the outside, but why do we feel safer and more empathetic toward not fellow human beings but a manmade humanoid robot? Humans are not created in the controlled environment of a lab; we’re born into and grow up in a world “contaminated” by all kinds of factors that leave historical and cultural imprints and beliefs at the cellular level. The resulting uncertainties are what makes us human and why we’re human. Uncontaminated Sophia can never have the experiences of a refugee, and thus, never be a human being.

Robots cannot be human, but they reflect our traits. Engkey, an English teaching robot developed by Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), was named by Time as one of the 50 best inventions of 2010.  Engkey has a screen face of a Caucasian woman, and she was believed to benefit rural areas isolated from the fervor of English education that’s sweeping through the nation. But taking a step back from this remarkable technological development allows for a closer inspection of what it reveals about Korean society. The person outside the classroom controlling Engkey is a woman working at a call center in the Philippines. This Filipina can become an English teacher to Korean students only through a robot with a white woman’s face. Racial discrimination in Korea of preferring white teachers is manifested and reinforced in the classroom by Engkey the robot.

In facing an era of AlphaGo, Sophia and Engkey, people are often split into polarized sides. Some rejoice at the cheerful prospect of the future that science and technology will bring, while others despair at the possibility of a dystopia where humans are relegated to an inferior position. In this age where science dominates our future, Jeon Chi-hyung quietly asks what place science and humanity should take in our lives. He firmly declares to the excited Korean fans of the AI robot that surpasses Lee Se-dol that “when humans fail, robots fail.” He warns us that no self-sufficient system can operate by itself in our reality. The reality we face with the Fourth Industrial Revolution will still house the workplace of a specialized vocational high school student Lee Min-ho and a subcontract worker Kim Yong-gyun. He asks why, in a country where 50,000 articles are published annually in reputable scientific journals, the scientific investigation into the Sewol ferry disaster is neglected.

It is a good thing that we have him asking these pointed questions.


By Kim Seung-sup
Associate Professor, Korea University

Translated by