The Fate of Society and Culture Ripped Apart by Fast-Moving Technology

The COVID pandemic will be remembered and retold for many years to come as the 21st century’s world-changing event and historic tragedy.

By Kyo Cho


The COVID pandemic will be remembered and retold for many years to come as the 21st century’s world-changing event and historic tragedy.

There are no absolute preventions, nor a silver bullet for a complete cure. Until the vaccines were developed, the classic method of isolating the infected was the only way to prevent outbreaks. Right up until the pandemic, people were euphoric with technology’s exponential development and overconfident of mankind’s wisdom. Yet, they were helpless in the face of the abrupt emergence of the fatal virus. The wheel of everyday life came to a sudden halt, and people disappeared from the streets.

The circulation of social activities involving labor, consumption, and exchange was forced to stop. Far from achieving “sustainable development,” even everyday activities, such as taking a walk or going out to buy essential goods, were limited. We could not see relatives or friends, and strict restrictions were imposed on activities like meetings, dining, and going to the theaters or stadiums. With lockdowns, the extraordinary stay-at-home confinement replaced ordinary life. Problems within our communities came to light, revealing social strain in an exaggerated form.

It seems the human psych has developed little. The unseemly scenes—discrimination, scapegoating, witch-hunting, and finger-crossing—seen during outbreaks in the distant past, were repeated in the modern era. The world was suddenly back in medieval times, and historic lamentations echo feebly in the skies above the empty towns.

Many are optimistic, saying once we overcome the pandemic, everything will be back to normal, and the economy will expand more than before. But can the future be so rosy? The point is not whether we can return to the pre-COVID days, but whether we are prepared for the new normal after overcoming the pandemic. In the outlook for the future, I would like to discuss from the perspective of cultural politics.

The Loss of Homogeneity

The 2020 U.S. presidential election shocked the world not only by its dramatic development but also because the democratic procedure of an election revealed the social divide. The chasm stretching across American society has deeper roots, historically and economically, and racial issues and political preferences are mere triggers. The U.S. is not the only one. In varying degrees, West European countries also face social divides and class conflict from shifts in the industrial structure. The common principal cause is the loss of homogeneity that had been formed by the modern industrial society.

Modern industry hired and thoroughly organized many workers at the production site. Mechanization enabled large-scale farming, and along with forestry and fishery, labor provision and compensation payment became the primary sector’s dominant form of labor-management relations. Besides minor differences by industry, there were no extreme differences in compensation among the employees. They were not only homogenous workers at the corporate production site, but also homogenous consumers in the market.

They have received secondary or university education and gained the knowledge for social life. They can read and write and are aware of the demeanor and manners for leading a smooth social life. They not only meet the leveling conditions as the provider of labor but also have many things in common, from their mental world to the way of expressing their intentions and emotions. Of course, everyone has different senses, behavior, and values. Yet, everyone reads the same papers and magazines, and receives homogenous information on everything from culture and art to daily life through the radio and TV. Even their interest in politics and society are not much different.

Having learned the basics of art and music in compulsory education, they use the myth of the average civilian as the benchmark for recognizing their own aesthetics. Such tendencies are amplified by large-scale art exhibitions and concerts for the masses, or educational TV programs.

A multitude of options, including sports, outdoor activities, travel, gardening, and fishing, are provided as recreation offering physical stimulus and mental satisfaction, with related industries in place. Specialized information is available for each field, and those who share the same interests can communicate in the provided forums.

So, it is not only in work and everyday life; homogeneity follows them even in the world of pastime. From the end of World War II to the 1970s, the West, as well as Japan, basked in the warm peaceful climate.

If the middle class supported the cozy era, then later, with the shrinking or loss of the middle class, both Europe and the U.S. entered the depressing twilight years.

Since modern times, West Europe and the U.S. have developed sound social security systems, and surpassed other world regions in technologies and production. Multiple distinctive factors made this possible. In the case of the U.K. and other West European countries, raw material supply and market expansion through colonial rule were essential to attain the Industrial Revolution. In the U.S., settlers from Europe not only gained vast land and abundant resources but also had almost free labor provided by black people.

But after World War II, as the colonies gained independence, the interests from the imperial era diminished. Yet, many of the developing countries became involved in civil wars or regional conflicts, and only a few sovereign nations could fully focus on building the country.

The existence of the socialist camp, functioning as a “collaborator,” was integral to the capitalist economy. Chronic decline in productivity forced the socialist countries to buy huge amounts of products from the capitalist world, unexpectedly mitigating the problem of excess production.

Japan immediately after the war, South Korea after 1960, Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong appeared on the world stage as laborers for the West. But in time, the developed nations saw them as an ill omen. Now, with advanced technologies, countries and regions that were considered only capable of subcontracted processing, enhanced their presence, and eventually rivaled the advanced Western nations in technological expertise and scientific creativity. With the streak of regional upheavals, Western nations were driven eventually to shift their industrial structures.

The Decline of Old Industries and Social Divide

The coal-mining industry, with an intensive labor population, was one of the first to achieve a dramatic transformation. In the U.K., there were over 200 coal mines in 1981, but after the Thatcher administration’s shift to neoliberal economic policy, the number of mines rapidly dropped in less than 20 years, and only seven remain as of 2000.

Other developed countries followed similar paths. As of 2019, Australia and Germany were the only advanced nations that remained among the world’s top 20 coal producers. Also, as residents became increasingly aware of the environment, heavy chemicals, steel, and other industries with high environmental burden transferred their production sites to developing countries.

In the 1990s, authoritarian countries like China and Vietnam, with minimum political influence from the U.S., concentrated their political and economic resources and succeeded to catch up in a short time. Sovereign states such as the island nations of Southeast Asia, India, and Bangladesh soon followed. The emergence of these countries changed the structure of the world economy and drastically altered the geopolitical map.

In response, the West and Japan took the strategy to secure their dominance in technology’s vertical distribution structure. The machinery and car manufacturing industries made higher value-added products and constantly updated technologies. The U.S., fostering the semiconductor industry and a prominent leader in information technology, developed at a fast-evolving pace and gained an overwhelming advantage over the developing countries.

However, such efforts also added pressure to the underlying gap in the community. As symbolized by the Rust Belt in the U.S., the heavy industry sunk like sunset on the distant horizon, and the former middle class moved down the social ladder.

Modern industry, represented by steel, machinery, and heavy chemicals, encompasses a broad range, usually involving large-scale employment. In contrast, semiconductor and IT firms are tech-intensive industries, with most of the workforce being highly skilled professionals. For example, Du Pont, a heavy industry company, had sales of 24.6 billion USD and 46,000 employees in December 2019. General Electric (GE) had consolidated sales of 95.2 billion USD and 205,000 workers.

When we look at IT firms, Facebook’s 2019 sales were about 70.7 billion USD, with only 49,900 employees. Alphabet’s sales reached 191.8 billion USD, with only about 100,000 workers.

When we look at the number of workers per 100 million USD sales, GE has 215 and Du Pont has 187, while Facebook has 71 and Alphabet only has 52. In other words, the IT sector hires half at most, or even just a quarter the size of the workforce compared to conventional industries. In terms of employment, there is a clear gap in the level of contribution between conventional and IT-related companies.

As AI technologies develop and electric vehicles become widespread, the employment situation will be evermore bleak. When we look at the world, there is a shocking study that states 47 percent of jobs the U.S. will be replaced by machines,*1 and according to an estimate released in Germany, the electrification of vehicles will lead to the loss of 410,000 related jobs by 2030. The “most pessimistic scenario” by a research institute calls that auto-related employment will drop to half.*2

Japan is no exception. One study revealed that clerical jobs were hardest hit with the introduction of new technologies.*3 According to data from the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association (JAMA), the number of auto-related jobs in Japan, from manufacturing to related sectors such as gas stations, amounts to 5.42 million. But as green technology develops further, there is no avoiding a bleaker employment climate.

Apart from domestic services such as construction work, nursing care, and delivery, there will be more outflow of unskilled labor that does not require specialist knowledge or abilities, from advanced countries to developing countries with low wages.

Would bringing staggering old industries back from abroad, like the Trump administration did, solve problems? Obviously not. Because even if you built a wall, wage-level differences will immediately wash it away. Above all, if you step out from the global economic network and fervently protect sunset industries, they will lose appetite for innovation, and be left behind in the intense international competition.

IT and AI related industries not only hire fewer people, but their paychecks are much bigger than other industries. In the age of industrialization, despite some differences from the level of technology and skill, work experience, and company size and business conditions, there were no gaps in salaries. Whether they were white collars or blue collars, the conventional large-scale industries demanded easily replaceable homogeneous labor. There was no need to differentiate by compensation.

However, in the field of IT and AI, professional talents play an essential role. So, the compensation for creativity is relatively high.

Thus, there is a yawning chasm between the digital/AI related sector and the old industries, as if coexisting in two separate worlds. In the future, supposing AI technologies and robots replace many physical and clerical labor, that trend is expected to intensify. Eventually, there will be no major groups like the middle class. Instead, the society will be divided between those with and without expertise, and haves and have-nots.

The Challenge in Forming Diversity and Majority

When the middle class disappears, will a new major group form to replace it? Setting aside the far future, in the near term, there probably is no positive outlook.

The more advanced the technology, the required personnel must, in turn, acquire more specialized knowledge and skills.

Around the mid-20th century, you were deemed highly educated just by graduating from a university. But now, the ratio of those with a master’s degree is quite high among science and engineering students. Since they spend a relatively long time at school, working hard to gain professional skills, they deserve a relatively high compensation. From the point of social contribution, a weighted distribution could be said to embody fairness, by factoring in the equivalent value spent to gain the knowledge and skills.

Unlike the other elite class, employed professional engineers are mere salaried workers. As science and technologies further develop, machines will replace clerical workers, and professional engineers will play a more prominent role. Yet, they are selected from a large pool, based on a certain criteria and aim, so professional engineers end up as statistical minorities.

The problem is what will become of the middle class that used to be the social majority. For unskilled factory labor, workers in advanced countries cannot compete with those in developing countries. Unlike the era of industrialization, unskilled workers in advanced nations have fewer employment opportunities. Or even if they can get a job, they cannot expect high salaries. And the compensation gap with professional engineers just gets wider.

The inequity problem also existed in the industrialization era, but in that case, the distribution of wealth through the tax system functioned effectively. There were two reasons this was possible. One was that the high tax rates for the affluent were accepted as a necessary cost for social stability, since the high-income executives and managers have earned profits in collaboration with salaried workers. The profits were returned to society in an invisible form. The other is the existence of the middle class, which formed the foundation for an effective progressive taxation. Although salaried workers, they had some economic power, and in varying degrees, they could contribute to tax revenues.

When the labor market gets fragmented, and economic divide emerges among salaried workers, the redistribution of wealth by the tax system becomes less effective. Highly skilled professional engineers seek compensation that corresponds to their efforts, so imposing high income taxes just because they earn more would not only be unfair, but would also discourage individual effort. In contrast, a thorough meritocracy would deepen economic and social divides.

In the future, as more people work from home, greater focus will be on relocating clerical work overseas to reduce costs. It could lead to facing the threat of AI someday. As multinational firms expand overseas, unskilled workers will lose their jobs, or be pressured to work for lower wages.

Those who drop out from the middle class will enter various industries, including the delivery service, food service, cleaning service, construction, and security, with many working as contracted or dispatched workers under temporary employment. The region and industry will be wide ranged, with a fluid employment system. With varying economic situations, they do not necessarily share the same social interests.

They do not always enjoy a good income for a demanding labor, so we cannot expect social contribution through their tax payments. The magic wand of redistribution by taxation does not work so well. The graceful narrative of a welfare society has been blown away by the gust of advancing technology.

Change in Intimacy and the Lost Arena of Discourse

On the formation of a social common recognition in the 18th century, Jürgen Habermas proposed the “public sphere” concept. But the arena where civilians discussed political and social affairs was not limited to the 18th century, and certainly existed in the 19th century and onward. European pubs, cafes, and public restaurants were such places, and in Japan’s izakaya pubs, people used to enjoy drinks while complaining about policies or gossiping about politicians. In the U.S., though the urban areas differed from the suburbs, in the latter, house parties with friends, colleagues, neighbors, and members of the same church served a similar social function.

Bookstores and public libraries in the U.S. often hold readings and talks by authors of new books, poets, and novelists, followed by free talk over snacks. It is where strangers convene and exchange views on social and literary issues.

Such spheres for public communication have several features. First is the credibility of the information. In the old days, the information civilians gained was provided exclusively by the mass media. In the mass media, journalists raise questions based on experts or their opinions, and the points of dispute are well organized. There is an established system of checks on reporting, and outside the mass media, there is an extensive web of oversight, not only by the judiciary, prosecutors, and other authorities but also by the ombudsman and citizen groups. While fabrication and misinformation are not entirely absent, the situation did not let lies go unchecked.

The second is the coincidence of encounters. People of different age, gender, occupation, background, economic status, and social standing can meet in the same sphere and always experience heterogeneity up close. Different opinions are accepted not as abstract concepts, but understood realistically, as a remark by the person present. Here, participants not only get to know the world’s diversity and complex human relations, but the experience can also lead to a reflexive awareness that they exist in human society because of others.

The third is that because participants find the point of issue and solve confrontations through discussions, it is easy to find a point of compromise. Humans are group animals and instinctively seek to cooperate and harmonize. In a face-to-face exchange, people tend to feel connections with others and generate a feeling of intimacy. Conversations enable them to share pains and sorrows. Exchange of views through intimacy easily leads to a point of compromise beyond confrontations, by deepening one’s understanding of the other, instead of intensifying conflicts. When such exchange of views becomes a habit, it is easier to gain consensus through discussions, even when confrontations occur in a broader sphere, such as a community or a nation.

The fourth is that by communicating in person, civilians can enhance their sense of solidarity. By discussing not only politics, economy, and welfare but also various things, from literature to hobbies, people can reaffirm their sense of belonging to the community. Even if people have different views, they feel they are fellows and members of the same community and would not consider each other as deadly foes. In face-to-face discussions, the conscience and basic manners of civil society will work to restrain the behavior in public space and prevent uncontrolled emotions and encourage logical exchange.

However, the progress in information technology altered the way people communicate. In recent years, on the rapidly expanding social media, public opinion is formed entirely differently. Participants cannot see each other, and they only receive biased information on their information devices. There is one prominent feature in group formation on social media. Those who have similar views form a group and only views with the same tendency are allowed within that group. As similar opinions go back and forth, they become extreme, and lies, discriminatory expressions, and even personal insults are approved. With many being anonymous participants, such tendencies amplify easily.

Since there is no need for social distance in a virtual space, morals decline in behavior and manners. Vulgar language is rampant on social media, and people get aggressive towards opposing views. As acutely represented with Trump supporters and Democrats in the U.S., the previous method of cool discussions on the issue and finding points of compromise that lead to a consensus no longer works. Social media is definitely changing the shape of modern politics.

Will Big Data Dictate in the Future?

While there is an autonomous aspect to social ways and systems, the distribution of value always corresponds to the shift in the social structure. If we seek the cause of social divide only in the circulation route of material and capital, we will probably miss the truth. Looking back at the modern era, the radical advancement of technologies, such as the steam engine, electronic devices, and information technology, significantly changed the internal stress of society. When we contemplate today’s situation, we must also consider the influence of cutting-edge technologies such as AI, robotics, and quantum computers. In particular, big data and AI will eventually cause a paradigm shift.

Even experts are divided on the future of AI. Some say it is a threat to humanity, while others despise such views.*4 Although I do not intend to discuss the details here, I would like to consider the impacts AI and big data will have on human culture.

Doubtlessly, the development of digital technology brought on a situation no one imagined. The most prominent example is the emergence of a technology that provides abandonment of self-selection as a pleasure. As anyone will notice, when you go online, ads of products related to your recent search suddenly appear. This is because based on big-data analysis, the interests, concerns, tastes, and preferences of the internet users are calculated by algorithms, and suited products automatically pop up on the screen. In other words, specific information is offered, not based on someone’s intent, but automatically selected by auto-analysis of data.

Similar things are happening in various areas. When searching on English news sites, the user’s tastes are grasped before they know it, and only reports that match those preferences appear. This is because AI, based on big data, accurately finds the information the user wants to read and displays it with priority.

This tendency is especially prominent on social media, and TikTok is the best example. What attracted young people most on this short video platform was its ability to display content matching their preferences based on big data. It not only caters to the user’s whims but also grasps the preferences that even the user is unaware of and displays matching content. It is as if the AI using big data has supernatural mind-reading powers, and that is precisely the reason it is stepping into the divine realm.

Since we live in an information society, we can no longer have privacy in the classical sense. As long as we use smartphones, all activities and communications are recorded in detail. Not only our spending behavior such as eating out and shopping are grasped scrupulously, but walks and outdoor exercises, relaxing in a park, and other personal data are also automatically collected as big data. If electronic payment becomes widespread, details of your life, such as what you ordered at a restaurant, and what kind of clothes and cosmetics you purchased at the shopping mall, will also be collected exhaustively. Analysis of such information can expose an individual’s daily life entirely. That is not all. The characteristics and tendencies of a person’s senses, such as vision, taste, and smell, will be revealed, and even the slightest ripple deep inside your mind will be thoroughly scanned automatically. Besides identifying faces, surveillance cameras can estimate people’s daily physical condition from the way and the pace they walk. In the future, if AI can read people’s emotions from their facial expressions, even your inner life will be exposed to the light of day.

With such superhuman power, big data should not be thought of as something that just passively uses information. The accumulation of ballooning data and uncanny analytical ability can influence humans. As mentioned earlier, after you watch clips on an online video platform for a while, suggestions for your next view tailored to your preference will be automatically displayed. Using this “convenient” feature, you not only “watch because you like it,” but start to “like it even more because you watch extensively.” Ultimately, it can induce your preferences.

Besides satisfying the user’s interests, it also grasps their preferences in advance, and can even change them. This is precisely the point that AI critically differs from previous technologies. Machines operate as instructed, or according to pre-programmed commands. However, AI makes its judgment and acts accordingly. This is radically different from conventional machines that worked as intended by the designer or operator, and humans had control over starting, operating, and halting the machine.

AI automatically acquires power through deep learning. Humans do not know why AI made the decision, nor the mechanism behind it. Judgments are made and the next move is decided beyond human knowledge. It seems to think and act with intentions. The supernatural power reminds us of god. Will the day come when AI and big data monitor everything about people, see deep through their minds, and even influence their behavior?

In this light, I guess we should have misgivings about the day when individual freedom will be lost, instead of naively lauding scientific advancement and enjoying a convenient life. When a “weekly report” casually pops up on your smartphone screen and says, “For the last 1 week, your screen time increased 22% from the previous week and your daily average is 3 hours and 12 minutes,” or “Your daily step counts this week is less than last week,” rather than thinking it as unsolicited advice, many must have felt creepy as if every aspect of your private life is being monitored. Even authoritarian states cannot monitor every detail of daily life, and dictators will eventually die. Yet, in an information society, everybody carries smartphones and other electronic devices all the time, and the information devices monitor the user’s activities day and night. Moreover, AI can predict and monitor people’s actions, and big data will remain after you die. The first all-knowing and almighty dictator in human history has emerged. Going ahead, there is no predicting how the autocrat, AI, and big data will act, but AI may be already out of human hands and building its independent kingdom.

Would technological advancement bring a bright future like a gentle breeze? Or would humans fall into the spiritual hell of fierce storms? In a highly advanced information society, how to bring back humanity would become the new issue when considering the future ways of society.

The Future of the Human Mind and Its Representation

The advent of AI will also cast a great shadow over the realm of human culture.

It has long been said no one reads literature anymore and contemporary art has become something no one understands. With the COVID pandemic, many people are confined within their homes, with no signs of change in the situation. Literature and art have, in fact, become further removed from everyday life. Literature and art are not the only ones defeated by games. Even manga and animation are no match for games.

In the long history, nature, humans, and art had a central role in the spiritual life of humanity. Before the establishment of modern industrial society, nature was recognized as a superpower that affected lives, while we shared a physical intuition that humans were also part of nature. Life was closely linked to nature. Art was an ode to personified nature, and the holy water that nourished the spiritual earth for the fertility of life.

In the age of mass production and mass consumption, literature and art were created on the premise there was a vast middle class. This does not mean that artistic creation catered to the public tastes. Rather, it offered a slice of artful experience they could reach, as a happy tale. Novels, poetry, and paintings were metaphors for sophistication, while also being self-definition of cultural belonging, and social icons for hinting civic refinement.

Meanwhile, novels and paintings went through multiple segmentations, with many attempts to create works responding to diverse appetites. Everything from novels as linguistic experiments, surreal works of art, popular fiction catering to public curiosity and vanity, to decorative paintings, were provided for a feast of diverse cultural consumption.

However, the emergence of flamboyant literary bubbles was an exception in the long history of humanity. It is not so long ago that novels and poetry came to reign at the pinnacle of the hierarchy. China was a rare example, with poetry included in the imperial examination system for selecting state bureaucrats. For most people in the pre-modern West and Japan, literature was a remote existence from daily life. Sophisticated literature was like the scent of perfume that implied one’s noble social status, while popular entertainment was an extraordinary experience during festive times for indulging in sensory rapture. Enriching the human spirit and cultivating character were trivial fairy tales, after all.

Since the establishment of modern industrial society, the middle class became interested in spiritual consumption, along with goods consumption. As cities became immense, the transmission of cultural information, such as conversations with colleagues, talks over drinks, and reminiscing about old times at class reunions, became essential in various scenes of communication. Literary and artistic trivia served as an adhesive in confirming the connection to others in the daily lives of the petty bourgeois.

Novels, that ran in the paper’s cultural page, rose to the throne of modern media, not so much for its artistic use of language, but rather, because it satisfied the various conditions for responding to the public desire in the modern industrial society. Helped by the spread of education, novels were a cheap device for providing spiritual satisfaction to the homogenized workers, while alluding inner representation. As workers in the overwhelming vast space of modern factories, they felt relived there were others that thought and lived like themselves, and could gain spiritual delight by reading stories. For those serving the modern industry, popular fiction was also a mood-altering drug that relieved the fatigue of labor and eased the tension of body and mind.

Yet, the situation changed significantly before the end of the 20th century. As technology advanced, the media also went through drastic transformation. The advent of the internet was the final blow to print media. The internet is teeming with content that provides mental fulfillment, and words were no match against dazzling video and soul-stirring music. In the language realm, all people wanted was to pass on the message, and relishing the art-form of language was considered a vanity out of fashion.

In the past, modern literature not only symbolized knowledge and education, but was also a metaphor for the way of life, and a beacon for ethics and justice. Novelists and poets were seen as representing the average senses of the public, and when sociopolitical events occurred, they were often asked to provide comments for the media. But thanks to the internet, searching for any information and knowledge has become extremely convenient, and there is no room for literature.

Instead of listening to others, people were intoxicated in sending out their own voices. As on Twitter, those who experienced the pleasure of repeating trivial things were no longer interested in the lessons on worldly wisdom or views on life. Thus, literature was finally taken down from the sacred altar.

The Day AI Surpasses Humans

Obviously, the cause of the literary art’s decline amidst the waves of the times lies in how this form of representation relates to the world. There have been many discussions on this subject,*5 and I do not intend to repeat them here.

There are two questions we should ask. One is the future of the appreciative value of language. There are originally two aspects to écriture (writing); conveying the meaning and the beauty of expression. Novels in the 19th century contain both, but since the aesthetic value of a work is consistently exposed to the tension between the imagination of the creator and the views of the reader, to prevent wavering by instinctive perception, a multilevel assessment of the artistic quality is vital. Yet if ranking the works becomes an end, then the twilight is near. When the hierarchy of expression is established, there is no avoiding a great inconsistency with social acceptance.

In contrast, writing on the internet focuses on conveying the meaning, and the pursuit for aesthetic value is abandoned from the start. Some social networks have limits on the number of characters, and both the sending side and the receiving side are indifferent to the aesthetic experience of linguistic expression.

Obviously, online content ranges widely, from those in parallel relation with print media, to aimless ramblings. Readers in virtual space have diverse preferences and interests, and if regardless of readership, any language expression is possible. In that sense, just like sculptures or paintings, language art-form will never diminish. The declining value of a work only means it has fallen from the top of the cultural pyramid and does not represent the destruction of the genre.

However, scientists are picturing a scene far beyond. For those in the liberal arts field, computer language is just rows of meaningless symbols, but experts in programming language get an entirely different view. “Coding is a form of expression, just like English writing is a form of expression. To me, some simple pieces of code are quite poetic. They express ideas in a very clean way. There’s an aesthetic thing, much as there is to expression in a natural language.”*6 When a person in the field of programming sees something “quite poetic” in a row of codes, that probably is not rhetorical embellishment. This reminded me of the crucial importance of dialogue across various fields.

At any rate, instead of being a new issue, how the literary art form revives from its fall and waltzes again with the new media, may not matter so much in the face of the fast-moving technology.

The graver challenge is hidden in the second question. Would the AI surpass humans? And can AI understand emotions and create art?

Based on his experience in AI development, researcher Yutaka Matsuo suggests the possibility that AI could not only surpass humans but also generate “language-like thing” other than language.*7

In the world of go and shogi, it is already well known that AI far exceeds humans, while a few years ago, a computer surprised people by creating a “new” Rembrandt painting. In competitions, even if computers are unbeatable, there is still significance in humans competing with each other. Paintings by a computer is certainly a shock, but after all, it is generated through deep learning by AI, and not an original creation by a machine.

But, if computers can create works of art, the human intellect will be fundamentally questioned. Because it will be the ultimate question posed on humans—what kind of inner life does a machine (assumably) without intent have, and how will it represent that? We will also need to reconsider what the inner life of humans is.

More baffling, if AI can create art, then which would evaluate objectively how excellent the work is, humans or computers? If literature and works of art surpassing human performance are created, is there any meaning for humans to engage in creative activities? If “language-like thing” other than language will write about human culture, what kind of world would that be? During the next half century, we may need to face a reality beyond our experience.

Would the “technologies” created by humans endlessly devour nature? Or would humans become extinct from nature’s revenge against our environmental destruction? If technology continues its drive, what would the future look like? The scientist that invented the mathematical processing system presented an unexpected outlook.

“Let’s say there’s a time when human consciousness is readily uploadable into digital form, virtualized and so on, and pretty soon we have a box of a trillion souls. There are a trillion souls in a box, all virtualized. ……. In the box, there will be hopefully nice molecular computing, maybe it’ll be derived from biology in some sense, but maybe not…… The box is doing all kinds of elaborate stuff. Then we look at the rock sitting next to the box. Inside the rock, there’s all kinds of elaborate stuff going on, all kinds of electrons doing all kinds of things. We say, “What’s the difference between the rock and the box of a trillion souls?” The answer will be that the box of trillion souls has this long history. The details of what’s happening there were derived from the history of civilization and people watching videos made in 2015 or whatever. Whereas the rock came from its geological history, but it’s not the particular history of our civilization.”*6

At the blissful yonder where advanced technology takes us, the fruit of science is equivalent to a rock lying around. Rather than a wild idea, the future outlook by the scientist could be nailing the truth with its Buddhist-like leap of logic.

Where is the fast-moving technology taking humanity? No one can predict. One thing is certain; an incredible and major transformation is already happening in our lives.

This is a translation of the Japanese original published in the vol. 94 (May 2021) of the Asteion magazine. 


*1 Carl Benedikt Frey & Michael A. Osborne, The Future of Employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerisation? Published by the Oxford Martin Programme on Technology and Employment (accessed on February 1, 2021).

*2 Nikkei, December 30, 2020, page 3.

*3 Koichi Iwamoto, AI to nihon no koyo (“AI and Japan’s Employment,” in Japanese), Tokyo: Nikkei Business Publications, 2018, 181.

*4 Byron Reese, The Fourth Age, translated by Furutani Mio, Tokyo: Discover 21, Inc., 2019, 10-11.

*5 William Marx, L’adieu à la literature, translated by Masanori Tsukamoto, Tokyo: Suiseisha, 2019.

*6 Stephen Wolfram, “Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Civilization,” in Possible Minds: Twenty-Five Ways of Looking at AI, ed. John Brockman, translated by Masamichi Higurashi, Tokyo: Seidosha, 2020, 358, 363-364.

*7 Yutaka Matsuo, “Jinko-chino: Diipuraaningu no shintenkai” (“Artificial Intelligence: The New Stage of Deep Learning,” in Japanese), in Sotaikasuru chisei (“The Relativizing Intellect”), ed. Keita Nishiyama, Yutaka Matsuo, and Keiichiro Kobayashi, Tokyo: Nippon Hyoron Sha, 2020, 98.

Kyo Cho was born in China. He moved to Japan in 1985, and earned a Ph.D. from the University of Tokyo, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. He is the author of books in Japanese, including Umiwokoeru nihonbungaku (“Japanese Literature That Crossed the Border,” from Chikuma Shobo), Ibunka rikai no otoshiana (“Pitfalls of Cross-Cultural Understanding,” from Iwanami Shoten), and Kyo Cho no nihonbungaku shindan (“Kyo Cho’s Diagnosis of Japanese Literature,” from Goryu Shoin).