Japanese government seeks industry partners for AI future

By on 11/10/2016

The Japanese government has set a new research and development strategy, with a focus on using artificial intelligence and big data to solve some of the country’s biggest problems.

The strategy involves building partnerships between government, industry and academia, to develop science and technology to tackle challenges such as ageing, low productivity growth and improving wellbeing.

A new laboratory is to be opened in Tokyo by the Riken Center for Advanced Integrated Intelligence Research, which was launched in April 2016 with government funding. Researchers from companies such as Toyota Motor and NEC will study at the lab.

In a speech at the Science and Technology in Society (STS) annual forum in Kyoto earlier in October, Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe outlined his vision for the the country’s future, where “the aged and frail could suit up in robot armour suits to regain muscle power”.

“I, for one, would like to have a robot micro sensor always looking over my intestines to see how far I have gotten my Crohn’s disease under control,” he said.

He pointed out that Japan spends 10 trillion yen – more than the education budget – on tackling age-related illness alone.

“The question is not about how science and technology can make a difference in our society. Science and technology must do it,” said Abe.

The R&D strategy will play a key role in building what the Japanese government has termed a super smart society, or ‘society 5.0’ – a new society created by technological and scientific innovation. The first society, Abe explained, was hunter-gatherer, followed by an agricultural age, the industrial revolution and the information age.

“In contrast, under ‘society 5.0’, technologies of sensing, robotics, communication, big data and cloud computing all merge to solve the problems previously deemed unsolvable,” he said.

Abe highlighted the importance of unleashing the creative power of women. He said that revolutions rarely come from the centre, and in a male-dominated society he expected to see lots of new ideas and innovations coming from women.

The government is also working to strike a balance between scientific advancement and privacy and cyber security concerns.

The multinational company Hitachi recently teamed up with the University of Tokyo to look at ways that big data analysis and artificial intelligence can help build ‘society 5.0’. Hitachi will assign 12 research and development personnel to the university, who will work with academics in a number of different fields.

The health ministry has announced a 350m yen ($3.66m) project to use artificial intelligence to streamline the development of new drugs from April 2017. Eventually, self-learning AI technology will be available to pharmaceutical companies in Japan.

About Tamsin Rutter

Tamsin Rutter is a journalist based in Brussels, Belgium. She writes on a variety of topics, including public services, cities, local and central government and education. She was formerly the deputy editor of the Guardian's Public Leaders Network and Housing Network.

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