What an innovative Japanese AI unicorn can teach Silicon Valley


Huge inflow: An employee of a camera chain promotes the release of Microsoft’s operating system in Tokyo in this file photo. Microsoft will spend some US$2.9bil, its biggest-ever investment in Japan, to increase cloud computing and AI infrastructure. — AFP

SILICON Valley’s “move fast and break things” mantra propelled tech innovation for the Internet age.

In the era of artificial intelligence (AI), it should take a leaf out of Japan’s playbook and slow down.

A rush to deploy AI tools to the public has resulted in embarrassing blunders, from an AI-powered Google search feature recently recommending glue on pizza, to consequences that can impact real people’s livelihoods, like the technology behind OpenAI’s ChatGPT showing signs of racial bias when ranking job applicants, as a Bloomberg analysis found.

It has also led to tech companies consuming enormous amounts of energy to power AI. The International Energy Agency estimates the total electricity consumption for data centres across the globe will be roughly equivalent to the power demand of Japan in 2026.

Other forecasters said that by 2030, these centres are on course to use more energy than India, the world’s most populous country. Large language models, the technology underpinning the latest crop of generative AI tools, require gargantuan troves of data and training them takes immense amounts of computing power and energy.

As the tech continues to develop, many AI firms think the key to growth is to make these large language models even larger.

Some US tech titans including Microsoft Corp co-founder Bill Gates and OpenAI chief executive officer Sam Altman are even backing nuclear energy firms to help power AI data centres. But there are other options beyond rushing to fire up new nuclear reactors to train AI models.

Tokyo-based startup Sakana AI – which Nikkei Asia reported on June 15 will become the fastest-ever Japanese company to achieve unicorn status – has taken a different approach. When it comes to the most consequential technology of our time, it’s playing the long game.

Sakana, which means fish in Japanese, was created last year by David Ha, Ren Ito and Llion Jones with the goal of applying nature-inspired ideas such as evolution and collective intelligence to create AI models, and not gobbling up as much energy as possible to train a single AI model.

Jones, notably, co-authored the seminal 2017 research paper while at Google that underpins the technology of today’s most popular AI products, including ChatGPT, and spurred much of the current boom.

Ha told me that much of the issues facing AI stem from companies prematurely deploying the technology in search of short-term profits, while disregarding the high energy toll.

While Sakana’s technology could be used to create a virtual girlfriend chatbot now, it’s more focused on researching ways to apply AI to solve real-world issues.

This is in line with other Japan-based AI companies the West may have never heard of, such as Preferred Networks, which is trying to develop more energy-efficient AI chips.

Silicon Valley needs to start playing the more long game, too. The world doesn’t need more useless chatbots that generate bad poetry – or perpetuate racist biases at scale – while consuming unsustainable swaths of resources. This way of thinking could have also spared some of the embarrassing headlines that have turned much of the public against embracing AI for good.

Sakana’s most recent research is looking at new ways of producing AI models that don’t require extensive amounts of energy, and it has longer-term ambitions of helping Japan at a national scale come up with real solutions to some of its most pressing issues, including a looming labour crunch.

Its mission has received support from the Japanese government.

In Japan, depopulation and a shrinking workforce have led to a public and private sector ecosystem that seeks to embrace the emerging technology’s possibilities with curiosity and hope instead of despair.

There is a sense of urgency around the idea that these tools can help solve labour shortages – with less of the existential fears that they will end up replacing human workers.

Microsoft Japan president Miki Tsusaka touted generative AI’s power to accelerate growth in a nation with an ageing population in an interview with Bloomberg TV earlier this week. Her comments come on the heels of Microsoft announcing it will spend some US$2.9bil, its biggest-ever investment in Japan, to increase cloud computing and AI infrastructure.

Along with Microsoft, OpenAI opened its first Asia office in Tokyo this spring, while Oracle Corp pledged to put more than US$8bil over the next 10 years into cloud computing and AI. — Bloomberg

Catherine Thorbecke is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asia tech. The views expressed here are the writer’s own.

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