Son makes a pitch for Japan-led Asia AI superpower

  • Business
  • Wednesday, 18 Dec 2019

AI initiative: Jack Ma, former chairman of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd gestures while speaking with Son at Tokyo Forum 2019 on Friday. Son unveiled a US$184mil initiative to accelerate AI research in Japan, enlisting Ma to expound on his goal of commercialising the technology. —Bloomberg

TOKYO: SoftBank Group Corp founder Masayoshi Son has a solution to Japan’s decades-long economic malaise. Not surprisingly, it involves artificial intelligence (AI).

Japan can boost growth by joining with India and South-East Asian countries in creating a common AI platform, Son told scientists and government bureaucrats who gathered in Tokyo yesterday for the government’s Moonshot symposium. He envisions Japan taking a leading role and believes the combined populations and markets could give the countries a fighting chance against the behemoths of China and the United States, which share the lead in AI, he said.

“This is the moonshot, ” Son said, drawing laughter with a slide that showed a graph of Japanese gross domestic product climbing steeply to exceed those of China and the United States. “If we can achieve this, the result will be amazing.”

As the first country to confront intractable problems of an ageing society, Japan should focus on autonomous driving and DNA-centric medicine as solutions to rising traffic accidents involving the elderly and soaring medical costs, Son said. South-East Asian countries should join Japan in creating a shared data bank and developing an “AI engine”, he said. Son didn’t explain what he meant by that nor say why developing countries would want to help the wealthy neighbour with its first-world problems.

“If we create Asia’s number one platform, that is a big potential, ” Son said.

While many venture capitalists view Son’s sermons about the coming AI age as nothing more than marketing, the billionaire is already pushing his own companies to prepare for the future where every industry is redefined by the technology. Last month, SoftBank announced plans to combine its Yahoo Japan Internet business with Line Corp, Japan’s biggest messaging service. The complex deal on his home turf is supposed to create a national champion that can more effectively compete with global rivals like Google and Inc.

Son is as bullish as ever on AI even as his investment strategy has come under fire. SoftBank’s Vision Fund had to write down the value of its ride-hailing portfolio, which includes China’s Didi Chuxing Inc, India’s Ola and Singapore’s Grab Holdings Ltd after Uber Technologies Inc fell more than 30% following its listing in May. Son also lost billions of dollars after pouring money into WeWork, a company that has no discernible AI technology but plenty of hurdles as it tries to turn a profit.

The hype around self-driving cars has died down recently after a number of deadly crashes in cars on AI autopilot made it clear that true autonomy may be many years away. Still, Son said robotaxis can already do better than senior citizens. He played a video of an autonomous vehicle from Cruise, a General Motors Co self-driving unit where SoftBank has invested US$2.25bil, navigating San Francisco’s crowded streets.

“If you are still doubting the capability of autonomous driving, this is already today, ” he said. — Bloomberg

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