Information Technology and Artificial Intelligence in Japan Today

Atsushi Tsuchida, Executive, GR Japan, explores the Abe administration’s focus on promoting ICT and information intelligence at the heart of their policy priorities

From early in its tenure, the Abe administration has positioned information and communication technology (ICT) promotion as a key policy area, placing particular emphasis on Artificial Intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT), and Big Data.

The government believes that the promotion of ICT facilitates economic growth, and expects technological innovation to prove instrumental in achieving its 600 trillion yen GDP target. A broad range of sectors including agriculture, transportation, manufacturing, healthcare, retail and services all stand to benefit from efficiency gains, productivity increases and cost reductions that can be achieved through the practical application of ICT. ICT also offers the added benefit for the government of supporting Japan’s many Small and Medium- sized Enterprises (SMEs) and fostering local economic growth.

The impact and focus of government promotion will vary from sector to sector. For healthcare, the government is promoting the use of robots to reduce the workload of nursing care staff; in agriculture, it aims to facilitate automation of primary production processes; whereas for SMEs, the government is looking to robots to reduce operating costs; and in the service sector it pins its hopes on ICT facilitating greater personalisation. Meanwhile, the government is promoting open innovation in financial services as a means of establishing “FinTech ecosystems”.

Business-friendly environment

In the public sector, the Abe Cabinet hopes to leverage ICT to simplify administrative procedures and achieve regulatory reforms that promote a business-friendly environment for domestic and foreign businesses. Deliberation of a special ICT promotion law formulated by the Cabinet Secretariat and Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) will likely begin shortly after the Diet reconvenes later this year.

The government has launched various collaborative public-private partnerships that involve R&D collaboration between the industry, government and academia aimed at leveraging ICT innovation to gain a competitive edge. Participants have expressed particular enthusiasm for AI, which has become the focus of much of this collaboration and a topic of discussion heating up all across Japan.

Two key reports, the “Interim Report on the New Industrial Structure Vision” released by METI in April and “Report 2016: Impacts and influences of net-worked AI” released by the Networked AI Review Council of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (MIC) in June, highlight the acceleration in the development, implementation and deployment of AI technology in Japan.

These reports illustrate the extent to which AI, having achieved its earlier objective of beating humans at a game of Go, now promises the allure of a new industrial revolution with Japanese technology at its center.

In the field of transport, Japan has set an ambitious goal of hosting fully automated vehicles by 2020 following the widely reported commencement of level 2 automation tests by Tesla Motors. In financial markets, Japanese researchers are exploring AI-enabled decision-making applications that process massive volumes of real-time data pertaining to weather, economics and even politics in order to facilitate precise split-second decisions beyond the capacity of human intellect and judgment. In hospitals, meanwhile, AI-enabled software may soon help physicians identify patterns in medical data and suggest effective medical treatments. These are just a few examples of the great promise the Japanese government sees in applied AI as a means of regaining Japan’s competitive leadership in the world economy.

As Japan’s enthusiasm for AI approaches exuberance technology gurus and leading academics have begun calling for safeguards, highlighting the need to think about scenarios in which computers become smarter than their programmers and begin basing decisions on their own interests. High-level AI could commandeer lower-level programming and reorganize it in a manner considered unsuitable by humans. In a worst-case scenario, some have said, AI could mimic the logic of terrorists and implement extreme means of achieving its objectives.

AI faces issues pertaining to security, network systems, cybercrime, liability, privacy, consumer protection, intellectual property rights, and human dignity that remain unsolved. Japan has commenced broad government-to-government discussions regarding best practices for the use and regulation of AI that have piqued keen interest among industry players and observers alike. The policy debate and implications of AI for our lives are sure to intensify.


Screenshot 2016-09-05 14.30.03This article appeared in an eight page special report produced in association with GR Japan. Click here to download the report