Japan: Fusing digital and physical

April 9, 2019
The country is forging ahead with plans to create a ‘super smart society’ aimed at overcoming many of the challenges that will be faced by an aging population.

This is an extract from “The ecosystem“, the first report of the four-part series, “Asia’s AI agenda”, by MIT Technology Review Insights.

Japan is carving a unique niche in ‘mechatronics’ at the junction of robotics and electrical engineering, which may provide an important role in the development of artificial intelligence in Asia, particularly in the aim to make automation more human.

After China, Japan has the largest AI industry in Asia, as well as similarly ambitious plans for its further development. Japan’s Strategic Council for AI Technology launched a plan in March 2017 which contains an industrialization roadmap using AI to make progress on three main priority areas: productivity; health, medical care, and welfare; and mobility. A fourth area that cuts across the others is information security. The report’s authors state the importance of linking AI to Japan’s existing industrial strengths: “In order for Japan to lead the world, it is necessary to come up with a challenging roadmap oriented towards industrialization based on AI technology and other related technology, based on the on-site strengths that Japan possesses with regard to social issues that Japan and the world are directly faced with.”

Ambitions aside, Japan’s AI economy seems incongruously small and has yet to reach the mainstream. Technology research firm IDC estimates that its value of AI-specific applications will more than double over the next four years, to ¥250 billion (US$ 2.3 billion) by 2021—or roughly half of where China’s market is today.

Ambitions aside, Japan’s AI economy seems incongruously small and has yet to reach the mainstream.

However, this measure overlooks the potential which many believe will result from AI’s synergies with Japan’s ‘mechatronics’ industry, a term used to describe articulated robotics, automated process-enhanced machinery, and other electronics areas of particular Japanese strength. Japan still produces most of the world’s advanced articulated robots—over 115,000 annually, exporting over 75,000 of them to the tune of $2.7 billion, which the International Federation of Robots estimated is more than half of the world’s consumption. Japan is also the world’s second largest consumer of robots, behind China, and the volume increased 18% from 2016 to 2017, although its density of robots to workers has declined in recent years compared to South Korea and Singapore.

Robots are still a long way behind humans in their ability to navigate varied and challenging physical environments. The Japanese are making rapid progress, though. Boston Dynamics (acquired by Japanese investment bank SoftBank from Google in 2017) recently unveiled a robot capable of “a few jaw-dropping parkour moves, including an effortless-looking backflip” according to Will Knight, writing for MIT Technology Review. In an example of blending cyber and physical worlds, Japanese conglomerate Yamaha partnered with SRI International to achieve its vision of creating a humanoid robot that can ride a motorcycle autonomously. The result is ‘Motobot 2.0’, a fully autonomous motorcycle-riding robot that can drive around a racetrack at high speed.

Kenji Suzuki, professor at the Center for Cybernics Research and Faculty of Engineering, Information, and Systems, at the University of Tsukuba says that it is the harmony of robotics and other parts of its hardware industry, when coupled with the country’s data ecosystem, that may serve Japan’s overall AI aspirations. “We have a very good medical record system, which the government is looking to leverage to enhance healthcare and health insurance under a broader initiative called Society 5.0,” he says, describing the national efforts to connect physical spaces with social intelligence and cloud intelligence.

Estimated annual supply of industrial robots, Japan, 2006-2016

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NOTES: Units are in thousands

Yet as the government forges ahead with plans to create this ‘super smart society’ aimed at overcoming many of the challenges that will be faced by an aging population, Suzuki is concerned that other societal issues could create a dampening effect. “In Japan, we are more afraid of data privacy, and people are very much afraid of using personal data,” observing that credit card penetration is among the highest globally, but usage on e-commerce sites remains low (less than 17% in 2017). “Big data development efforts are suffering a drawback because of Japan’s conservative usage of data,” he says.