Advancements in AI herald big changes in production
The Yomiuri Shimbun
New businesses and services are being created through next-generation technology such as artificial intelligence (AI) and robots in a so-called “fourth industrial revolution.” How will it change our work and lifestyles? This is the first installment of a series in which we examine these questions.
Fanuc Corp., a leading global manufacturer of industrial robots, has been conducting research on cutting-edge technologies at its head office in Yamanashi Prefecture. General Manager Kiyonori Inaba explained that his company aims to develop “robots that operate while ‘talking’ to each other.”
What kind of “talking” can robots do among themselves? In one example, a number of robots on an automobile production line recognize each other in order to work together.
Fanuc’s robots can perform programmed operations at high speed. However, it is still difficult for them to work on operations that were not designated in advance or to work in tandem.
If robots that can learn and make judgments on their own are developed, they can even be made to work on jobs that humans perform now.
When it comes to the AI technology that holds the key to developing such robots, Fanuc has formed a capital and business alliance with Preferred Networks Inc., a Tokyo-based start-up founded two years ago. Fanuc’s position used to be that it would work on its own without joining other companies, but the fourth industrial revolution is bringing changes to its business operations. On Aug. 29, Fanuc announced partnerships with 200 companies, such as Hitachi Ltd. and Fujitsu Ltd., in the field of AI.
The automobile industry, meanwhile, is entering a period of major change. Global automobile giants have been put under pressure as the development of self-driving cars has been led by new faces such as Tesla Motors Inc. and Google Inc. Toyota Motor Corp. has announced that it will invest ¥100 billion in the field of AI by 2020.
DeNA Co., a major information technology service provider, is aiming to develop driverless taxis and delivery services, whose commercial use, the company believes, will be driven by the nation’s shrinking population as it is causing depopulation and labor shortages.
“We’re receiving requests from nonurban areas calling for us to offer these services as soon as possible,” Executive Officer Hiroshi Nakajima said.
Moves to replace manpower with machines are not limited to manufacturing.
In a soybean field on the outskirts of Saga, for example, Tokyo-based software developer OPTiM Corp. carried out an experiment spraying pesticides using a drone. Aerial images are analyzed using AI to predict possible damage by disease or insects so that pesticides are sprayed over the necessary areas only. Working with this method can be significantly more efficient than checking the field by foot.
Henn na Hotel (weird hotel), which opened last year at Huis Ten Bosch theme park in Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture, uses 16 types of 182 robots working in areas such as reception and housekeeping. The two-story hotel, with two wings and 144 rooms, is run by only a handful of people. A similar hotel will also open next year near Tokyo Disney Resort in Chiba Prefecture.
Industrial revolutions of the past also replaced the work of humans with that of machines, but the fourth could make an even greater impact. In April this year, the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry compiled provisional calculations that showed that if no measures are made to catch up to technological innovation, 7.35 million jobs, or about 10 percent of Japan’s population, would be lost during fiscal 2030.
“What humans do for work will likely change,” said Yutaka Matsuo, a project associate professor at the University of Tokyo and an expert on AI. “However, Japan should boost its competitive strength by combining manufacturing with AI. The Japanese will be able to respond [to changes] as they are flexible.”
Google, IBM lead the pack
Under the fourth industrial revolution, new businesses and services are created by combining AI, the internet of things (IoT) and automated technology such as robots.
The first industrial revolution was the invention of steam engines in the 18th century, the second was the use of electric power in the 19th century, and the third was the spread of computers in the latter half of the 20th century. The fourth industrial revolution will accelerate industrial advances.
The government estimates that it will create added value of ¥30 trillion by 2020.
Foreign companies are leading the field. In the United States, Google and other companies have the edge in making use of enormous amounts of information gathered via the internet, while IBM Corp.’s Watson is the front-runner among AI systems. General Electric Co. has played a leading role in establishing a joint research organization with other entities to apply IoT technology to every industry.
Germany has been working on a project called Industrie 4.0, under which local businesses and factories are connected to the internet to streamline the country’s manufacturing sector.
SoftBank Group Corp. has announced a deal to buy ARM Holdings PLC for £24 billion (about ¥3.3 trillion). The British company designs semiconductors, a component that bolsters IoT.
The government considers the fourth industrial revolution a pillar of its growth strategy and will compete against foreign rivals by working together with the private and academic sectors.
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