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Editorial: Debate needed in response to digital age's grand transformations

The coronavirus pandemic has transformed the economic and societal landscape in Japan and other countries, accelerating digitalization in those spheres all at once. With constraints on face-to-face activities, online classes and teleworking have now become an everyday affair. Experts point out that "a changeover that would have taken a decade has progressed in just a few months."

    Some call this drastic change the "Fourth Industrial Revolution." Artificial intelligence (AI) is getting more and more sophisticated by learning and analyzing massive volumes of data circulating on the internet. AI robots are replacing human labor in a growing number of sectors, bringing transformation to people's lives, work and even the political landscape.

    Digitalization in Japan went into full throttle with the widespread use of smartphones from the latter half of the 2000s. The benefits of digital transformation -- from the convenience of being able to use an array of services with just a touch of the screen, to self-driving cars and telemedicine using high-speed, high-capacity 5G technology -- have come into the spotlight.

    However, ever-evolving digital technology also has a negative aspect and can threaten people's lives and safety depending on how it is used.

    When factories and shops go unmanned with the introduction of digital technologies, it deals a blow to employment. The World Economic Forum, known for its annual meetings in Davos, Switzerland, projects that approximately 85 million jobs would be eliminated worldwide by 2025 due to the effects of digitalization.

    A slew of problems associated with search engines, online shopping and social media have surfaced despite the convenience of those services. The four U.S. tech giants known as GAFA -- Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple -- extract enormous volumes of personal data in exchange for free services they offer, and even oligopolize such data. As a result, privacy protection and fair commercial transactions have been undermined.

    In the United States, manipulation of public opinion and intervention in elections by foreign forces through social media have been frequently observed, prompting Congress to address those issues. Leaders like President Donald Trump who feed fake news on Twitter also emerged, distorting the shape of politics.

    Digital transformation also carries the risk of promoting a surveillance society and cyberwarfare.

    The Chinese government has beefed up its public surveillance system including face recognition by utilizing digital technology, seizing on the confusion brought on by the coronavirus crisis. It has even exported the system to developing countries in Africa and other regions that take part in China's "One Belt, One Road" economic initiative, thereby expanding its influence overseas.

    The U.S., China and Russia are locked up in a battle over espionage activities involving confidential information, as well as cyberattacks targeting key infrastructure such as electricity, transportation and financial services.

    The U.S. and China have also been developing unmanned weapons that can autonomously attack enemies identified by AI, raising concerns that the hurdles for starting a war could be lowered.

    In reality, the technological evolution is deepening people's fears, instead of enriching society. Behind this dilemma lies the fact that there are no international rules on digital transformation in place.

    As if to take advantage of such a situation, the Trump administration attempted to exclude China from 5G networks and banned the use of popular Chinese apps.

    The Chinese government has built up the "Great Firewall" to block internet connections to overseas websites, suppressing criticism toward its politics.

    U.S.-China tensions are spilling out into cyberspace, threatening to deprive it of its freedom to connect to the world. Former Google chairman Eric Emerson Schmidt sounded an alarm over the situation, saying that cyberspace could be divided by country and region on the grounds of politics and religion.

    Meanwhile, GAFA and other tech giants including China's Alibaba have grown powerful enough to predict users' behavior based on the colossal volumes of personal data they accumulate and even guide their behavior. Those companies not only control the digital market but also wield influence in the shaping of public opinion.

    Many countries were opposed to Facebook's move to launch its own digital currency as they deemed it as a threat to currency sovereignty held by countries, considering the social media giant's 2.7 billion-plus users the world over. The U.S. and Chinese governments have even turned to stepping up regulations on big tech firms, keeping a cautious eye on their ever-growing presence.

    A sound digital society will not be brought about if superpowers and tech giants keep engaging in struggles for supremacy by prioritizing their own interests. Japan is scrambling to catch up with other countries in the digitalization of its economy, but has not been able to present a vision of the society it aspires to create.

    Taiwan's digital minister Audrey Tang, known for coronavirus countermeasures using IT, emphasized that digitalization is just a tool for the betterment of society.

    In order to realize an ideal digital society, it is essential to develop common rules and principles. Major countries including Japan, the U.S. and China are urged to guide tech giants and initiate discussions to that end.

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