Professor has unique views on fourth industrial revolution

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Professor has unique views on fourth industrial revolution


Kim Tai-yoo, Professor of industrial engineering at Seoul National University [CHOI SEUNG-SHIK]

Kim Tai-yoo, 67, is a professor of industrial engineering at Seoul National University. He combines the study of economics and history to analyze the industrial revolutions that reshaped humanity.

“Korea’s preparation for the fourth industrial revolution seems to be staying at the level of China’s self-strengthening movement, which eventually failed 100 years ago,” Kim said.

The professor pointed out how the fourth industrial revolution is a popular topic, and yet there is barely any understanding of what an industrial revolution is. Kim’s answer to the same question is that it’s “not something that naturally occurs. It has to be made.”

In other words, it’s not a goal that should be left to the invisible hand of the free market. It’s a task the government should take charge of and actively push to implement policies and create a system for change.

Fifteen years ago, Kim was appointed as the adviser to former President Roh Moo-hyun on science, IT and technology policies. Many of his ideas were met with opposition from various government offices. Only a year later, Kim resigned. “Looking back I was really naïve. I was passionate, but I didn’t know anything about policies,” he said.

Over the following decade, Kim dedicated himself to research on economic development. Two of his works during this period, “Economic Growth” (2013) and “The Secrets of Hegemony” (2016), were both translated into English by Springer Publishing, a prestigious publisher known worldwide for academic publications.

Below is an excerpt from Kim’s interview with the JoongAng Ilbo on Nov. 26. Kim spoke about the fourth industrial revolution and how it could come about in Korea.

Q. The term fourth industrial revolution was used for the first time in 2016 during a speech by the World Economic Forum Chairman Klaus Schwab. Was it since then that you started using the word as well?

. Before that, I personally used the word knowledge industrial revolution. The industrial revolution was what shifted humanity from a farming society to an industrial one. A knowledge revolution would bring a transformation once again to a knowledge-centered society. Personally, I don’t agree with the terminology of the fourth industrial revolution, but everybody else in the world is using it, so I’m referring to it in the same way.

Then how would you define the industrial revolutions?

It took roughly 200 years for the farming society to transform into a mature industrial society. The early stages of the Industrial Revolution started in the late 18th century — this is the first. And it was around the early 20th century that the second industrial revolution took off. It will take a considerable amount of time for an industrial society to change into a knowledge-based society. The first part of this knowledge industrial revolution was what we know as the third industrial revolution that started in the late 1960s. The latter half is what we now call the fourth industrial revolution.

You seem to highlight a different aspect in the fourth industrial revolution compared to other experts in the IT technology field. Why is this so?

I think it’s because they often don’t have profound knowledge of past industrial revolutions. Of course, this doesn’t mean they’re wrong. What I want to say is that each specific technology, whether it’s artificial intelligence, big data and the Internet of Things, won’t evoke the fourth industrial revolution. They have to be connected. To bring about this change, policy support is necessary.

Is that linked to your claim that industrial revolutions don’t come naturally, but have to be pushed?

Yes. China was exposed to Western culture before Japan. But China only accepted the technology while Japan opened up to both technology and policies. That was the difference between the failure of China’s self-strengthening movement and Japan’s successful Meiji Restoration.

Do you mean the Meiji Restoration turned out to be a success thanks to innovations in policy?

Of course. After a painful defeat in the Opium Wars, China concluded that their loss to Western forces was due to their lack of good weapons and technology. The drive to adopt new technology was what sparked the self-strengthening movement. They sent students to study abroad and even built factories using Western methods. But it failed because China wanted to pull in technology while retaining its main “software.” Likewise, if Korea approaches the fourth industrial revolution with a narrow focus on technology, it’s likely that we will never see the fruits. The efforts made from technology experts and my voice on reforming policy should go hand in hand to bring success.

What kind of innovation do we need in detail?

We once fell behind in industrialization and went through an extremely difficult period as a colony. But now we’re facing two lucky occasions that should not be missed. The fourth industrial revolution is the first and the opening of the North Pole sea route is the second. Historically, industrial revolutions came with the discovery of a new sea route. Climate change will eventually melt down glaciers in the North Pole, and the route that opens as a result will play a crucial role in the fourth industrial revolution. It’s an incredible luck that this route is connected to the Korea Strait. We shouldn’t miss out on this opportunity, and what we need for that is innovation in the government, society and international relations.

Can you elaborate on innovation in the government?

The government should go through radical change to lead the fourth industrial revolution. Policies and the system eventually come down to government regulations. For past industrial revolutions, the number of industries was very small, so it was possible for the government to come up with clear regulations that targeted them.

But in the modern times of the fourth industrial revolution, new industries pop up and suddenly disappear. It’s impossible for the state to address each and one of them to bring innovation. This is why public officials in charge of developing policy should all be replaced to experts fit for the fourth industrial revolution. The right amount of regulation is only possible when the public servants that make them are experts that surpass the private sector on the fourth industrial revolution.

Will it be possible to change public officials?

It’s possible if they’re not tied to a division, but a particular task. For example, if a public servant is an energy expert, make this person in charge of any kind of task related to energy in any ministry, whether it’s industry or environment. This way, we can elevate real, professional experts.

It doesn’t sound like something that can be achieved in one or two years.
It will take six months for full preparation. If it goes into effect within a year, the effects will start to be evident within three years.

What do you find troublesome about the general perception of the fourth industrial revolution?

A big misunderstanding is the belief that the fourth industrial revolution will come naturally as long as everybody does their best in their respective positions.

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