Uniting with Southeast Asia, Japan, and the Middle East Lee Kwang-hyung The author is president of KAIST and head of the fourth industrial revolution committee of the JoongAng Ilbo’s Reset Korea Campaign. President Yoon Suk Yeol’s declaration of the “Digital Bill of Rights” at New York University last month — an extension of the “New York Initiative” he disclosed at the same university last year — could be a proclamation of basic human rights to ever-advancing digital technologies, as in artificial intelligence (AI) today. The president presented five basic principles of the digital bill of rights: protection of freedom and rights under the digital environment; fair access and equal opportunity; ensuring safety and trust; facilitation of digital innovation; and enhancement of humanity’s wellbeing. Despite the support for Yoon’s declaration, I felt some leeriness in my heart, as history shows that any great idea or thought can be put into action only when one has the power to realize it. The English Bill of Rights in 1689 and the French Revolution in 1789 could bear fruit because they were backed by power. At the time, freedom and equality were mostly meant for the powerful, not for ordinary citizens. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that the universal rights to digital technologies the president proclaimed in New York will be given to everyone on Earth. The ominous disparity between those with power and those without will most likely be felt by the vulnerable in the digital realm in the future. How can Korea become a country where its people can enjoy their digital freedom, unfettered, after 10 or even 20 years? A key characteristic of the digital era is its ruthlessness not to allow second place. In that sort of cruel world, a runner-up has no place to go. While Google dominates the U.S. and European markets, Baidu and Weishin, or WeChat, monopolize the Chinese market. Simply put, today’s digital world is divided into two by Google and Baidu, given the search engines’ predominance over e-commerce, for instance. But there are exceptions. Russians use Yandex, Russia’s own search engine, and Koreans mostly use Naver, Korea’s own search engine developed by NHN. Led by Line — a global messenger app developed by NHN Japan — Naver sweeps social media markets in Japan and Southeast Asia. The remarkable development testifies to Korea’s emergence as one of the top three digital powers, along with America and China, thanks to its own markets overseas. The dramatic appearance of ChatGPT has forced many digital companies to bet on huge language-based AI systems to prepare for the AI-based rebuilding of the digital world. The existing search engine market led by Google or Naver will surely be absorbed by the vast AI market. Not surprisingly, AI has already penetrated the market of creativity — writing books and songs, drawing pictures, providing medical diagnosis and legal services, you name it. The AI behemoth at the center of all economic and cultural activities will determine nearly every aspect of the state. If Korea uses foreign AI, its economy, culture and national defense cannot but be affected. The country can use the AI at a cheap price in the beginning, but must start paying enormous royalties once the monopoly is complete. Once enslaved by the digital system, you can never escape its shackles. The global digital market changes rapidly. One AI company after another rushes to release their cutting-edge devices, just like some 30 years ago when internet search engines started appearing. Many apps popped up in the beginning, but they were eventually incorporated into a solid monopolistic system. As AI controls nearly all aspects of the state, a major distinction from other devises, all governments and companies are fiercely competing to have the upper hand in the game — certainly more desperately than before, as there will be no second chance once they lose the battle. Given the way the battle has evolved, the global AI market will most likely be divided into two after 10 to 20 years, just like the current search engine market. American continents and Europe will surely be dominated by a U.S. company, while China by a Chinese company, as AI companies would want to inherit the same data base as their current search engine, primarily due to the need for cultural interactions through their search engines. But strangely, there are markets without their distinct identity: Korea, Japan, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. These regions have a strong potential for Korea’s AI. As Japan and Southeast Asia are deemed to be under Korea’s digital influence due to Naver, the country can create a new world by drawing the two into our digital realm. Given their apparent agony over where to stand and how to confront the United States and China on their own, it could be better if Korea extends its hands to them first. What are the conditions for Korea to possess mighty AI? First, it requires unrivaled technology. As Korea has a competitive edge in AI technology, that’s not a big issue. Second, it demands sufficient capital, enough to build massive graphics processing units (GPUs) and storage facilities, and to cover elephantine utility charges needed to operate such systems. This can be an issue for Korean companies. Third, they must secure at least 500 million users to effectively compete with American and Chinese rivals. Korea can neutralize its numerical weakness by incorporating the vast Southeast Asian market. Based on this analysis, Korea has vulnerabilities in two of these conditions, except for technology. Other countries, except for the United States and China, do not seem to qualify for becoming the third largest player. European countries can hardly achieve digital independence due to their overreliance on Google. As Japan largely depends on Google and Naver in the digital field, it may think that its alliance with a foreign country could be more attractive than its own development of AI. Here lies Korea’s chances. It could be even better if Korea can unite with Japan and Southeast Asian countries to build a new AI ecosystem. But Korea must not monopolize the market. Instead, it must respect the interests of Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and others in the region to jointly develop the system and provide related services. Korea is not a country pursuing hegemony in the region, but a country to befriend those countries. They would welcome Korea’s proposal amid the deepening Sino-U.S. hegemony war in the theater. If the Arab world, wary of the U.S. presence, joins the crusade, it would be perfect. The AI alliance can be arranged this way. It should be based on the OpenAI model so that anyone can participate and use it. After each country is assigned to a specific field, they can let the new system accumulate knowledge about the specific field — and manage the process through a “distributed AI system.” For instance, Korea can take charge of comprehensive knowledge, while Japan does the same for medical knowledge, Vietnam for history and Indonesia cultural areas. The GPU and memory of the system also can be dispersed in each country. Building an independent AI system will certainly call for more money and inconveniences than not. Certainly, it will be more convenient to use other countries’ AI. But we can hardly take that path, as we know it is a shortcut to our digital enslavement. The same goes for other countries. To make the dream come true, the government must change its perception of AI. It should designate it as the country’s mainstay industry and assist it devotedly instead of offering lackluster support. The government must provide administrative and fiscal support to the promising industry of AI just like it did to the shipbuilding and auto-making industries four decades ago — and just as it is doing to the chipmakers. The government must also provide diplomatic support for Korean AI companies to form an alliance with their foreign counterparts. AI is an industry probably more important than semiconductors, as it will have a far-reaching impact on not only technology and the economy but also on defense and culture. The Digital Bill of Rights the president stressed at NYU cannot be respected if Korea’s AI is subjugated to other countries. President Yoon’s emphasis on national defense — as exemplified by his underscoring of “building national power to safeguard freedom” — applies to AI, too. Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.