Sci-fi thriller calls for emancipating humanoid robots - Korea Times
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Sci-fi thriller calls for emancipating humanoid robots


'A Human Court' asks if robots can be tried

By Kang Hyun-kyung

Author and lawyer Cho Kwang-hee was picky about his food when he was a child. He hated eating meat. He eventually developed a taste for meat thanks to his persuasive parents, who patiently taught him about the importance of eating a balanced meal. But the little boy couldn't stand the abuse that animals suffered before ending up on people's dinner tables. Whenever he saw neighbors or merchants in a nearby market abusing or slaughtering animals, Cho said that the cruel scenes continued to linger in his mind and traumatized his innocent young soul.

Cho's concern for humans abusing the rights of animals developed into a disgust toward society's ignorance of the mutually beneficial coexistence between humans and other living things on Earth.

In his recent sci-fi thriller novel, "A Human Court," released by local publisher Sol, Cho addresses his concern about the possible consequences humans may face if their ravage and greed are undeterred. Indeed, technology could turn its back on humans.

"A Human Court" raises important question about ethical standards in the forthcoming age: Is it morally, ethically acceptable if humans seek their wellbeing at the cost of other creatures' lives?

"I think the answer to the question of, which creatures deserve the same or a similar level of decent treatment that we humans enjoy, hinges on whether they are a conscious, living thing capable of feeling pain or agony," Cho said during a recent Korea Times interview. "So for me, whether they were created by humans or not is not a primary issue. The emphasis needs to be placed on if the creatures in question ― whether they are robots or animals ― are conscious or not. If they have these traits, I think they're supposed to be treated accordingly."

"A Human Court" by Cho Kwang-hee
Set in the dystopian future of 2121, Cho's new book revolves around an android robot who, gripped by rage, kills his abusive human master. Being installed with a device that gives it cognitive abilities, the robot feels confused about his identity, like we humans often do, and tries to find his roots.

Unlike other robots that were programmed to simply serve and do what their human masters command, the cognitive robot becomes defiant, traveling to his birthplace ― a manufacturing plant where he was made using various parts ― in an effort to figure out who he is and where he came from.

For robots, consciousness is a game changer, driving androids to become disobedient, act according to their own interests and display their likes or dislikes.

Human-like robots accelerate a shift in the nature of their relationships with humans. Previously, they were considered machines made to serve the interests of humans. But now, after being equipped with cognitive abilities, they are empowered to act for their own sake, challenge their human masters, and even join hands with other androids to fight against their human masters.

"The consciousness that I mention in my novel refers to a state of mind in which certain creatures ― whether they are humans or robots ― can think and feel. They know they have these abilities," Cho said. "So for me, robots having consciousness is a key criterion that distinguishes humans from machines. Without this ability, they are just machines."

"A Human Court" offers a sneak peek into Cho's worldview, as illustrated on page 226 of the book, in which the attorney, Yun-pyo, narrates his motives to help the killer robot stand trial.

"Influenced by my mother, who was a radical animal rights activist and had campaigned for the emancipation of animals, I naturally became an animal rights advocate as I got older. I think animals need to be liberated from being the slaves of humans. My advocacy for android robots and their rights is also based on the same ground. Like animals, I think humanoid robots need to fight for their rights and get them back from humans. I hope the day will come when we humans live peacefully with other creatures, like animals and robots equipped with AI consciousness."

Author Cho Kwang-hee / Courtesy of Cho Kwang-hee
Author Cho Kwang-hee / Courtesy of Cho Kwang-hee

"A Human Court" warns of the self-fallacy of technological advances. Humans have created machines for the betterment of their lives, but they encounter problems when they try to fulfill their greed while being ignorant of other creatures' welfare.

The sci-fi thriller seeks to spark a debate about cognitive robots' rights to be tried in the human-dominated world a century from now.

Cho is a multi-talented author. He initially practiced law as an attorney, after graduating from Seoul National University and passing the state bar exam.

Cho said that being a lawyer was a partial fit for his aptitude. "I am a logical thinker, so I feel that practicing law is suitable for my personal traits. As time went by, however, I got bored, as I had to deal with almost the same work and procedures over and over again," he said.

His life took a meaningful turn when he got a chance to work as a legal advisor for the film industry. He said he had fun with his new work.

Years later, he took a break for several years from practicing law for a career transition into being a film producer. "When I talk about being a film producer, I don't mean that I was on a certain film project. My job was to oversee the overall operation of a film studio. It was a fun experience, but challenging work, too, because I found it tough to find investors who could finance the film projects that our company was working on," he said.

After his experimental stint in the film industry, Cho returned to working as an attorney. But that didn't mean that he gave up his literary and filmmaking journey.

While working as a lawyer, he said he tried to find time to produce films and write fiction. "I think being a novelist is the best fit for me. I don't mean that I am a talented writer. What I am saying is that I truly enjoy writing, because I am in charge when writing stories," he said.

Kang Hyun-kyung


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