Living with robots and AI

Korean Serenade - Lee Sang-Hwa - The Philippine Star

Life has often been compared to a box of chocolates, a mixture of bitter and sweet experiences where each moment brings a surprise. These instances of astonishment leave an enduring imprint on one’s journey. For me, such moment occurred in March 2016 when AlphaGo, a deep learning machine developed by Google, defeated Korea’s Lee Sedol, a world champion in the most intricate board game Go. This match between man and machine marked a pivotal moment, demonstrating the latter’s ability to learn and think creatively.

AI and robot technology have emerged as a transformative force with the capacity to completely transform various aspects of society. According to the European Union, AI can create many benefits – better health care; safe and cleaner transport; more efficient manufacturing; cheaper and more sustainable energy. Let me share a couple of my recent experiences.

Episode #1: In November 2023, the CEO of a Korean tech start-up gave a presentation at the national convention of the Philippine Hospital Association. His company specializes in using AI technology to read X-rays or analyze lab results. He showed that, in some medical fields, machines are already on a par with, or even outperforming, doctors. The transformative use of AI in health care is illustrated by scenarios where AI enhances precision-requiring operations and facilitates more empathetic interactions between medical professionals and patients.

Episode #2: At the KoPhil Build Better More seminar hosted by the Korean embassy last month, Korean engineers demonstrated that smart construction technology for roads using AI and flood control using AI-laced digital twin could offer modern engineering solutions in public infrastructure. In Korea, robots are actively used to conduct safety checks of bridges, dams and tunnels.

Moreover, the upward trend in the robot industry is set to grow. According to a World Robotics report, the global stock of industrial robots reached a new record of around 3.9 million units in 2022. Korea is the largest market in the world in terms of robot density, recording 1,000 installed robots per 10,000 employees in 2022. As Elon Musk announced Tesla’s plan to unveil a ‘robotaxi’ this August, robot manufacturers are developing generative AI-controlled interfaces to enable a more intuitive programming of robots.

Yet, we should not lose sight of the unbridled use of AI. UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned of the “existential threat” posed by “the runaway development of AI without guardrails.” The rise of advanced AI can significantly destabilize global security in ways reminiscent of the advent of the nuclear age. As AI technology advances and the elements of the AI supply chain continue to proliferate, countries or even unscrupulous non-state actors may race to build sovereign advanced AI capabilities for military purposes.

For its part, Korea co-hosted with the Netherlands, in February 2023, the REAIM (Responsible Artificial Intelligence in the Military Domain) Summit, aiming to raise awareness on the potential benefits and risks of AI in the military, as well as the need for greater international cooperation on developing and using AI responsibly.

Experts have also warned of the potential dangers of AI-powered disinformation to democracy as it can easily influence people’s perception of policies with just a few text prompts. The New York Times reported how AI chatbots are being used to generate contents to push certain narratives at a much faster rate. Indeed, AI has already been blamed for creating online echo chambers based on a person’s previous online behavior, displaying only content a person would like, instead of offering an environment for pluralistic, equally accessible and inclusive public debate.

It is in this context that Korea cautioned of AI risks to democracy at the Summit for Democracy it hosted in March this year. President Yoon Suk Yeol stated, “Fake news and disinformation based on AI and digital technology not only violates individual freedom and human rights but also threatens democratic systems.” For the Philippines, which has suffered from cases of hacking and disinformation, the recent Executive Order adopting a “whole-of-nation cyberspace roadmap” is an encouraging development.

Against this backdrop, Korea will co-host, together with the UK, the AI Seoul Summit next week, building upon the inaugural gathering in November 2023 at Bletchley Park, UK. This summit seeks to foster collaboration among leading AI nations, developers, businesses and organizations to ensure the safe utilization of AI. The Bletchley Declaration, endorsed by all 28 participating nations, including Korea and the Philippines, acknowledges the risks associated with AI.

At the 2023 AI Summit, Korea advocated for the establishment of an international AI organization under the auspices of the UN. Such a call is not new. The Elders, a group of independent world dignitaries, have advised a new global architecture to manage these powerful technologies with robust safety protocols to ensure that AI is used in ways consistent with international law and human rights treaties. The G7 leaders at the Hiroshima summit in May 2023 also recognized the need to ramp up inclusive global governance on AI. More recently, Pope Francis urged the world to adopt a binding international treaty that will regulate the development and use of AI, warning that the AI-associated risk is “becoming rich in technology and poor in humanity.”

So, it is timely that the European Parliament, on 13 March 2024, adopted the world’s first Artificial Intelligence Act to cover data quality, transparency, human oversight and accountability. As AI captured the zeitgeist at this year’s Davos Forum, automation and AI become increasingly intertwined with our daily lives. As such, it is essential, contrary to the hype, to adopt a balanced perspective and embrace a nuanced understanding of the potential benefits and challenges of these technologies. In this respect, the upcoming AI Seoul Summit is an opportunity to rally support for the cause, especially in the lead-up to the Summit for the Future at the UN General Assembly this fall. All countries should demand a seat at the table and voice their opinions, since diverse perspectives are essential to propelling innovation forward whilst keeping people and their rights at the front and center. Leaving no one behind, as well as putting the technology in the hands of people, should be our marching order, because living with robots and AI is no longer an option but a necessity.

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Lee Sang-hwa is the Ambassador of the Republic of Korea to the Philippines.

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