Japan has led the way in robotics for decades, but it seems that they have fallen behind, as US companies drive investment and innovation in AI and machine learning to push them to the top of the ladder.
Industrial robotics has always been a Japanese specialty. In 2014, a survey by Nikkei found that three of the world’s top five makers of industrial robots ranked by market share came from Japan, with Fanuc the highest ranked.
However, as noted by Professor Martial Hebert, director of the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, while Japan has historically been strong on the physical aspects of robots, ‘the US has been strong on the thinking part. What we are seeing is a shift in emphasis to thinking. The US is far ahead on AI research.’
Unfortunately for the Japanese robotics industry, it is now the thinking part that matters. Machine learning and AI enables robots to respond to and interact with humans. If you imagine how a robot driven by AI could render human workers redundant, imagine what it would do to a robot without a brain. They’d be assigned to the junkyard quicker than you could say short circuit.
The failure to keep up, despite having such a strong foundation on which to work, is down to a number of factors - primarily the insurmountable amount invested in AI startups by US tech giants such as IBM, Amazon, and Alphabet, the holding company for Google. They have spent big on startups such as DeepMind (Alphabet) and KivaSystems (Amazon), and used the tremendous wealth at their disposal to help them develop under their broad shoulders, while also applying the startups’ research to their own projects more easily and quickly. AI activity across the whole of Asia has generally been far quieter in comparison, having largely been restricted to the institutional and corporate level from which their advantage has always derived. Essentially, their failure to make the shift to commercial robots is what has held them back and they will need to work hard if they are to realize the profits available.
This is changing. Japanese company Toyota, for example, is investing $1 billion into AI research, primarily for autonomous vehicles. However, it is really through investing in startups that the sector will best grow, as they are far more agile and can find applications for the technology much faster - as has been shown in the US. A new startup accelerator in Hong Kong called Zeroth.ai should help matters, offering mentorship and $20,000 capital to AI startups across Asia in exchange for 6% equity.
There are already startups seeing success, such Tokyo-based Preferred Networks, which is working with established manufacturers including Fanuc and Panasonic to develop new applications for AI. Preferred Networks was recognized as one of most innovative and exciting Japanese startups at 2016 US-Japan Innovation Awards, a prize given to the ‘most exciting Japanese startup companies that have potential to disrupt or transformational globally and to be known to the Silicon Valley.’
Tak Lo, the creator of Zeroth, argues that the gap is not the result of expertise, but opportunities, saying, ‘I think the quality of AI research and development between Asia and the West is very even. What’s missing is the volume. In the Valley, for example, everyone is doing AI and Machine Learning stuff. In London, you definitely see a lot of the same volume. In Asia, the technical expertise is there, but we need to increase the opportunities for these founders to come out and for ideas to be developed.’
Japan may also have an advantage in terms of the government’s willingness to push AI and robotics. Opening Japan’s official Robot Revolution Initiative Council on May 15, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called on the nation’s corporate sector to ‘spread the use of robotics from large-scale factories to every corner of our economy and society.’ The Robot Revolution Initiative Council is backed by 200 companies and universities and chaired by Mitsubishi Electric’s Tamotsu Nomakuchi. Its goal is to increase sales from 600 billion yen ($4.9 billion) a year to 2.4 trillion yen by 2020. It's clear that the country is not willing to go down without a fight, and by following the US model and looking more to startups, they are heading in the right direction.