In this section, we look at the different ways Korean writers have been imagining the future of humanity.
We will forever remember March 2016’s “Battle of the Century” between Google’s AlphaGo and grandmaster Lee Sedol as they fought it out for supremacy over the game of Go. It was a competition between human and machine, but at the same time also a foretelling of our future. As the competition began, most people believed in the superiority of the human intellect, or at least wanted to believe in it. But once met with a sobering defeat of 4:1, we were swept up in all kinds of thoughts and anxieties. One could say we started to genuinely see the need to think more deeply and widely about the future of humanity, and to seek new ways of coping with this brave new world.
But it’s hardly necessary to look into the future to realize how humanoid or transhuman machines might affect our lives, since they are already among us, having become an indispensable part of everyday life. Artificial intelligence sets the temperature in our rooms, drives our cars, and dispatches news flashes about earthquakes or posts articles about baseball. There are even machines seeking to usurp us in that final frontier of humanness: our creativity. We already live in an age where robots make music, draw pictures, and write poetry and novels. Some people go to great lengths to denigrate these amazing efforts, saying such work is only, in the end, the result of data originating from humans, and that language created through such recombined data can never truly move the hearts of readers.
But Lee Sedol’s loss to AlphaGo shocked us out of our complacency about the possibilities of technology. So we can’t help but ask ourselves: Are we going to be governed by this scientific civilization and the social systems of our own making, or can we utilize these tools towards building a more meaningful life?
It is thoroughly reassuring to find that some prominent Korean writers are both directly and indirectly tackling these issues in their work. Such writings are replete with futuristic themes that include robots, cyborgs, outer space, and computers, with some of these works centering on humanity’s acceptance of new technology while others emphasize “that which can only be human” through the dramatization of our conflict with machines. Often these works are set in the present, bringing forth a futuristic interiority through interstellar imaginative tropes, while others take the problems inherent in our current capitalist society to their natural conclusions in order to depict a bleak and cruel vision of our future.
Yun I-Hyeong, who recently published a collection of short stories titled Love Replica, is an example of a writer garnering attention through her imaginative crafting of sci-fi worlds and keen awareness of issues concerning humanity’s plight. “Goodbye” is a story about cyborgs that have transferred their human consciousnesses into machines living on Mars; “Parang, the Big Wolf” features a virtual wolf created by a computer; and “Rose Garden Writing Machine” depicts a program that turns a single sentence of input into an amazing novel. These stories attempt to question what it means to be human by forecasting the effects of a recent or imminent innovation. For example, in “Danny,” what is shown through a twenty-four-year-old android babysitter and an old woman raising her grandchild is not the difference between human and machine so much as their surprising similarities and sympathetic communication.