Spotlight on the AI Market in Japan

One of the most promising tech trends of the near future is AI, or Artificial Intelligence. Definitions of what exactly AI is varies, but generally the term refers to computer systems’ technologies that are able to perform functions that replicate human intelligence and thought. As research and development of AI technology grows stronger, companies are constantly finding new potential applications, but also face the risks of overly intelligent machines that have long been the subject of dystopian sci-fi films.

The U.S. and China are seen as the two leading countries for AI technology and development. The U.S. leads the development side with over 1,000 AI-related companies including Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Facebook among others, while China leads the research side with over 41,000 research papers related to AI (compared to the next biggest number coming from the US with 25,500, then Japan with 11,700) published between 2011 and 2015.

However, if you’re reading this, you probably already know that AI is interesting not only from a scientific perspective, but as a viable product for consumer markets in the future. In Japan there are between 200-300 AI-related companies so the country is also highly significant in the development of this technology.

AI is not only important in its own right, but also because it is the basis of many other technologies like natural language processing, machine learning, cognitive computing and neural networks. Although Japan has begun to realize the importance of new developments in AI, it currently suffers from a lack of experts in the field.

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AI technology already has powerful capabilities. This ring from SLEEPON monitors sleep activity and advises the user how they can sleep better. Voice assistants like Siri and Alexa are another example of AI usage

The state of AI today

In recent years, AI technology is moving beyond “weak AI,” which currently works for automation of repetitive tasks, towards “strong AI,” capable of more intelligent thought and more difficult tasks. This is being achieved through breakthroughs in deep learning technology in the U.S. Japan has been slow on the uptake of deep learning, but is considered a ‘fast follower’ and is quickly catching up.

Automation and AI go hand-in-hand, meaning more tasks can be completed by machines, but automation will eliminate few jobs entirely. There is a strong incentive for Japan to embrace automation as it struggles with a declining and aging population, in which a new increase in immigration cannot completely counterbalance.

Currently deaths outnumber births by an average of 1,000 people a day. Additionally, the most productive manufacturing sectors – automotive and electronics – are the ones where production is heavily reliant on automation, and shops like Family Mart have increased self-checkout registers and restaurant group Colowide has touch screen order terminals.

Japan’s stagnating economy means that the country has to develop in the industry of AI as part of a strategy to success. Japan’s greatest strength in relation to this is robotics, with the Softbank Pepper robot proving very popular when it first went on sale. The robot could read a person’s emotions and respond with actions and words reflecting a person’s mood.

However, the development of AI in Japan has sizeable room for improvement, and is currently falling behind the efforts of other Asian countries with smaller economies. The insufficient talent pool in Japan could lead to a lower adoption of AI technologies by Japanese companies, and the country’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry estimates there will be a shortage of 120,000 AI business experts by 2030.

The Japanese government is trying to rectify this by implementing the Society 5.0 strategy, which plans to foster 250,000 AI experts per year by 2025 through increases in math and science requirements at university.

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The Softbank Pepper robot that took Japan by storm

AI development in Japan

Japan is significantly behind to the U.S. in the field of deep learning, a core technology for AI. The focus has largely been on the mechanics of robots so far, with no emphasis on their intelligence. In 2015, deep learning experienced a breakthrough when Google’s AlphaGo project defeated the best human players at the board game Go.

But Japan is still 3rd in the world for AI R&D, behind the U.S. and China. Furthermore, Japan is the leader in robot production and industrial use, exporting $1.6 billion worth of industrial robots in 2016, more than the next five biggest exporters combined.

Additionally, Japan isn’t ignoring deep learning completely. One example is Fujitsu’s Zinrai Deep Learning platform service which aims for AI to be in coordination with people and human centric.

IDC Japan (International Data Corporation) expect that AI systems will have significant growth in Japan, with Mr. Manabe suggesting that corporations are most likely to use ‘soft’ AI to supplement human work to a limited degree, while face-to-face interactions will remain as these are highly valued in Japanese business culture.

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The Society 5.0 plan in the context of previous stages of society’s development


From the technology side, progress needs to be made to revitalize Japan’s AI research and development. The fact that Japan is currently falling behind other countries is partially due to past ignorance of deep learning technologies and partially due to the school system, which discourages creative thinking and encourages young people to go to the highest ranked universities rather than pursue the subject that interests them most, as employers expect that they will teach all the relevant skills to new recruits themselves.

From the consumer side, visions of the role of AI in the future are very different in Japan to much of the rest of the world. The consumer market for AI in Japan is highly enthusiastic about AI, especially with robotics that simulate human behaviors. Whereas Hollywood films like to warn viewers of the dangers of machines if they are not carefully controlled as technology improves, Japanese media presents machines as able to co-exist happily with humans.

This is helped by the fact that Japan is already highly technologically advanced society where robots are more commonly seen than in many Western countries.

Furthermore, AI’s “artificial” intelligence improves with big data. With online chatbots and AI talking robots, data collected from conversations can be analysed. This is especially possible in Japan where there is widespread acceptance of services contributing to big data in order to improve the customer experience, meaning progress can be made more quickly than many countries where companies have to tackle the issue of people being suspicious of the use of their personal information.

In the world of the future, Japan is very likely to be a prime testing ground for the latest developments in AI technologies.

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Much of the world may be terrified of the consequences of AI, but at least in Japan popular opinion is optimistic