Artificial Intelligence: Huge Challenges and even Bigger Opportunities

Jelle Stronks, Holland Innovation Network Tokyo (Innovatie Attaché Netwerk Tokio).
15 februari 2019, Origineel gepubliceerd op de site van RVO.

Samenvatting (NL)

Japan is wereldwijd een van de grootste producenten van automotive systems, robotica en geautomatiseerde systemen. Daarnaast heeft Japan grote ambities op het gebied van kunstmatige intelligentie (AI), om ook in de toekomst toonaangevend te blijven. Toch zijn er nog grote stappen te zetten, in Japan, maar vooral ook wereldwijd. AI kan helpen met veel uitdagingen, zowel natuurlijke als sociaaleconomisch. Dit vergt echter wel investeringen van overheden en bedrijfsleven. In Japan is het gebruik van AI en robotica een integraal onderdeel van het “Science and Technology Basic Plan” met als onderdeel daarvan de “Society 5.0” visie. Deze wordt direct door de Cabinet Secretariat uitgevoerd en heeft als doel om arbeidsvormen en de Japanse samenleving mee te laten gaan met de technologisch vooruitgang. Een aantal maatregelen zijn: Vergroten van het aantal AI-experts en onderzoekers, Standaardiseren van big data en investeren in de vorm van het Public/Private R&D Investment Strategy Expansion Program (PRISM). Op dit moment worden de grootste Japanse investeringen in AI gedaan door de automotive, robotica en elektronicabedrijven. Een aantal voorbeelden hiervan zijn: Toyota AI Ventures, Maisart van Mitsubishi en het publiek-private onderzoeksinstituut RIKEN is gestart met een “Advanced Intelligence” project. Daarnaast zijn er in Japan ook nieuwe spelers, zoals de Startup Preferred Networks. Concluderend zijn er vele samenwerkingsmogelijkheden voor Nederland met Japan, vooral op het gebied van open innovatie en kennisontwikkeling.


Japan is worldwide one of the biggest developers of robotics, automated systems and Artificial Intelligence (AI). But, as for the rest of the world, the country still faces some big challenges. To tackle them the Japanese government has a vital role in the transition towards the integration of these technologies within society. About 63 percent of the Japanese citizens believe it is the role of the government to prepare the workforce for this automated, AI driven future. The reason for this advanced position of Japan is partly due to the many challenges the country faces, both social-economic and by nature.

First and foremost, the graying population of Japan is reason to reevaluate work and the labor force itself, because it could affect the economic growth of the country. This challenge will effectively push many industries to invest in new technology—as appears evident in Japan now, including among small and medium-sized enterprises, which have a more difficult time attracting and retaining labor. AI (and robotics) could be a huge beneficiary to relieve the labor force and cope with the graying, while still maintaining the same quality of service and volume. The aging population has another effect, this older generation is creating a high demand for health and eldercare that cannot be met by the current workforce alone. There is a need for robots and AI to support this demand.

Another very important challenge for japan are the many natural disasters that occur. AI could be used to analyze and sometimes even prevent damage by natural disasters. The huge amount of data and images gathered by satellites, constantly observing the earth, could be analyzed by AI to provide much more accurate and quick responses.

Policymakers need to accept this change and act upon it accordingly. This is really important in helping to prepare the public and leverage this transformation to make lives better and incomes higher. There is however a drawback, because mainly mid-level skill jobs are prone to be replaced by AI and automation. It has to be considered that the group will need to transfer to, preferably, high skilled jobs.

Policy in Japan

The use of the technologies AI and Robotics is a very integral part of the “Science and Technology Basic Plan”, which includes the “Society 5.0” vision.  This vision entails technologies that need to alleviate hard manual work and the adoption of “Smart” construction and manufacturing.  Strong and effective social safety nets will be of the utmost importance, because this change will affect some traditional labor and social contracts. Also, education and skill development will be crucial to enable more people to take advantage of this high-tech sector and the jobs. For Japan specifically, this is a great opportunity to bring more equality to the labor force. Not only between man and women, but also between regular and non-regular employees and across regions. This will provide equal share in the opportunities arising from the shift. A highly placed director within the Cabinet Secretariat acts as a Government CIO and is in charge of executing this vision and policy on AI.

Another example is in regards to the natural disasters. The ministry of internal affairs tries to predict the risk of landslides by observing steep slopes among other measures, hoping that the AI project will lead to the creation of new services by businesses and local governments. This could include new disaster reduction services, and even tsunami arrival times for other countries. Discussion and utilization of these opportunities are headed mainly by the Cabinet Office and the Industry ministry.

The Japanese government has released a White Paper on Economic and Fiscal Policy that shows that Japanese businesses that invest in AI, Internet of Things and other labor-saving technologies and policies will outrun their competition in regards to productivity. It is estimated that these companies have a 16% advantage in total productivity. All work activities that are routine based could be completely or partially automated. This creates the necessity to reorient labor towards non-routine tasks. The Japanese economic recovery will also be more resilient against external shocks due to this.

Resources & Measures

To support this policy the Cabinet Office of Japan has laid out an integrated innovation strategy that will feature human resources training in the field of AI. This is done to increase the number of young researchers within the field. Important sectors are information technology, health and medicine, agriculture, and many other areas. The government will integrate them to spark cross-sector efforts. The goal is to raise the number of AI experts by tens of thousands in 2025. To make this shift happen the government will introduce a merit-based pay system and allocate research funds towards these priority fields. A more practical measure is the planned unification of various data formats and standards in agriculture, health and medicine, disaster reduction and other areas by 2020. This should make it easier for companies and research institutions to use big data and therefore AI.

In addition to this strategy the Japanese Cabinet Office also allocates resources towards AI through the Public/Private R&D Investment Strategy Expansion Program (PRISM). These industry-academia partnerships are supported by the government through the Triple Helix model. PRISM is also part of the Society 5.0 vision. Through this program the government will provide 160 billion yen for IA research and development. This should make an International AI push possible for Japan. In total the investment of the Japanese government in AI research over the period 2016 -2020 is ¥26 trillion.

Investments & Examples

Most of the direct investment in AI is done by the big automotive, electronics and robotics companies in Japan. For example, Toyota has started the investment company “Toyota AI Ventures”. Start-ups and new innovative entrepreneurs can apply for funding through this initiative. Honda has already been active in robotics for a long time, the most notable example is Asimo. But recently the company ventured into AI with several types of applications, related to the cars itself and to customer relations. And Mitsubishi uses AI for a whole range of different kind of technologies, ranging from automotive to 5G through there AI program Maisart (Mitsubishi Electric’s AI creates the State-of-the-ART in technology).

Within the electronics sector companies like Fujitsu, NEC, and Toshiba focus on AI. In collaboration with the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology they started the RIKEN Center for advanced Intelligence project. They all provide employees and funding for a 5-year collaboration. Independently these companies have AI projects as well. Fujitsu combines AI projects on detection, recognition, decision making, assistance, deep-learning and machine-learning through the Zinrai platform. This platform already serviced more than 300 business projects. NEC has done a similar thing with their “NEC the WISE” program. This program combines speech recognition, Image- and video recognition, language and semantics knowledge, machine learning, and prediction and detection. This combination is being used in safety and security solutions, used by immigration and police.

But not only big established companies invest heavily into AI in Japan. Several newer companies have started to explore AI and two of them even entered the top 100 companies worldwide in AI. These companies are Leapmind with a funding of $13.4 million and Preferred Networks with $112.8 million. And there are even real-world examples of companies implementing AI to improve efficiency. Last year, the Japanese company Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance has replaced 34 employees with IBM Watson’s AI. And the economy, trade and industry ministry has run a trial for an AI that helps generating answers for Cabinet meetings and Parliamentary sessions.

Connection Japan & The Netherlands

Both Japan and the Netherlands are strong in the field of research and innovation. There is a lot of knowledge within companies and universities. But in comparison to China and the United States, Japan and Europe are not as advanced in the field of AI. However, there is a lot of potential and through open Innovation and collaboration Japan and the Netherlands could expand their knowledge base. Through this, both countries can be highly impactful on a global scale and generate new ways of tackling its own challenges. To start this collaborative open innovation strong connections between Universities and companies between both countries need to be established.

Meer weten?

Wilt u meer informatie of in contact komen met de experts? Neem dan contact op met de auteur van dit artikel, Jelle Stronks. Of met de Innovatie Counselor Jan-Hein Chrisstoffels van het Innovatie-Attaché netwerk van de Nederlandse ambassade in Tokio.

‘Het IA-Netwerk verbindt in opdracht van het ministerie van Economische Zaken kennis over internationale innovatieve ontwikkelingen en daaraan gerelateerde trends aan Nederlandse bedrijven, kennisinstituten en overheden.’

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