Softbank’s Son offers robots built for human joy

Japan’s richest man Masayoshi Son loves buying robots.

In the past few weeks, he’s invested in a company called I-Robot which makes a vacuum-cleaner which can crawl under the sofa and in Boston Dynamics, which makes a remarkable robot, can perform athletics and run playfully through the snow.

Mr Son said this week that: “People who deride robots face a future in which they will be overtaken by robots.”

Such remarkable claims often accompany his international deal-making. His talent for producing soundbites keeps him in the news.

In a three-hour presentation in Tokyo last Thursday, Mr Son, who is the chairman of the technology company Softbank, spoke of a bright future in which traffic accidents cease, cancer faces elimination and everyone and everything is connected to the internet.

He spoke in Japanese but thanks to the news agencies which covered the event and translated it (AP and Kyodo) we can read many of his statements in English:

• “Smart robots with artificial intelligence can learn by themselves and act on their own.”

• “Artificial Intelligence is not designed to put mankind at risk: it is designed to make humans happy.”

• “We want to connect one trillion devices to the internet.”

• “We are experiencing an information revolution which will benefit more people than the 19th Century Industrial Revolution.”

• “In the future, people who rule computer chips will rule the entire world and those who rule data will rule the entire world.”

Journalists love reporting such claims but they often question whether everything is true. For example, Leo Lewis in the Financial Times expressed scepticism this week about whether Japan’s recent splurge of international takeovers will turn out to be profitable.

More investments from Softbank and Mr Son are inevitable. He controls a $93 billion Vision Fund, based in London, which is constantly on the hunt for investment targets.

Alongside the robots, Mr Son wants to find business which share his vision of the “internet of things.”

His biggest risk to date was the purchase of the US telecoms company Sprint in 2013 for $21.6 billion.

He admits that’s turned out to be a very troublesome investment and a there’ was some sharp analysis of the deal in the magazine Nikkei Computer, recently, which revealed the frequent shouting matches Mr Son’s been having with Sprint’s American managers.

However, Son-San is a colourful character, among an otherwise monochrome set of Japanese executives.

Who else in Japan could keep an audience engaged during a three hour talk about science and then continue to generate global headlines almost every day?

Japan’s centurion on how to live a good, long life

One of the world’s longest-serving doctors has died at the age of 105.

Shigeaki Hinohara helped revolutionise medicine in Japan and continued to treat patients almost up until his death. His obituaries, including this excellent piece on the BBC, tell the story of his remarkable life.

When he was 95 years old, I met Dr Hinohara at St Luke’s hospital where he worked. I asked him why he established an organisation aimed at bringing a good quality of life to elder people.

You can hear a recording of the interview in English here

Here’s the transcript of our conversation:

The reason why I made the social group for New Elderly Citizens over the age of 75 is because quite a number of these people have good energy and power to keep working. So I wanted to help these people keep on working, even if they have some physical problems.

How old is an “old person” in Japanese society now?

Among the young generation, say kids under ten, they have the view that anyone over the age of 50 is old! But generally speaking, 60 is borderline and in many civilised countries, old age is seen as over 65. In Japan, most of the working people start to retire at 55 or 60. But the government is eager to raise the level to 65 as most government employees retire at 60. Generally speaking though, people over the age of 65 want to keep working.

And can they still contribute to the economy?

Yes, not with occupations with a salary but as volunteers. Only the farmers keep on working because the young people don’t stay in the country.

Well, I have been to the Japanese countryside and I have seen people working to the age of 70, or even 75 even. Why does that happen?

The young people leave the farm and want to go to the capital city for more jobs and more income.

So, if you look at Japan’s society as a whole, will there still be a big economic contribution from those rural communities, where people are generally getting very old?

Yes, but the number of the farmers is decreasing because the income from their harvests are so low. They often take other jobs and only go out into the fields on Saturday and Sunday. That’s not productive.

You said you are encouraging people over 75 to work. What do you mean by that?

I don’t mean work for themselves – I’m talking about contributing to society. If they have the talent for teaching mathematics or science, why not educate the kids? But they think only of themselves or their families and they forget to look out for others.

But even in the worst situation during the War, we helped each other. Kids and adults these days think too much about themselves or their home or their company.

We should be telling the stories of the real Japanese culture. I think we have a good culture and this should be known by the new generation. If we have a good culture, we can export to that to other countries, too.

Does Japan’s EU deal mean “Sayonara, UK?”

Will a free trade deal between Japan and the EU prompt Japanese companies to leave Great Britain?

That was the question raised in the British media, following the Japan-EU agreement, which was announced in Brussels by the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The Financial Times said Mr Abe hailed the deal as “the birth of the world’s largest, free, industrialised economic zone.” The European Commission welcomed it as “the most important bilateral trade agreement ever concluded by the EU”.

What about the UK?

So, where does it leave Japan’s relationship with the UK?

Trade between Britain and Japan is worth around ten billion pounds a year and many Japanese companies have factories in the UK, including Toyota, Nissan and Hitachi.

A leading Oxford professor has warned that some of those Japanese manufacturers will now relocate to Europe.

“Damaging and alarming”

Professor Ngaire Woods, Dean of the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University, told the BBC Today Programme that the Brexit is seen as “very damaging” to Japanese business interests in the UK and that investment will be diverted to the EU.

She said the Japan-EU free trade deal is “rather alarming” for Britain, which faces political and economic uncertainty following the Brexit vote.

The Japan-EU deal still needs to be ratified by both sides. Prior to its announcement, some companies such as Nissan and Toyota pledged to raise their investment in the UK despite Brexit.

Calm Ambassador

The Japanese Ambassador Koji Tsuroka spoke on the BBC. His calm tone contrasted with the alarm mentioned by Professor Woods.

Ambassador Tsuroaka said the Japan-EU deal was “good news for all, including Japanese companies operating in the UK.”

He said the cornerstones of the British-Japanese relationship are commitments to democracy, rule of law and free trade – and these are unaffected by Brexit.

He said Japan and Britain would work together for the common good. “It’s not going to be a confrontational relationship: it will be collaborative.”

Brexit cliff edge

However, he did warn that it would be “extremely damaging” if Britain’s negotiations over Brexit are not completed within two years, leaving the country “on a cliff edge.”

Ambassador Tsuruoka said any bilateral trade agreement between the UK and Japan would depend on the future relationship between Britain and the EU, to be decided during the Brexit negotiation process.

Fujitsu’s future: Magic cars and whales in the forest

A Japanese technology expert has shared his vision of the future with me. He claims that magic is on the way.

Yoshikuni Takashige of Fujitsu told me that “significantly advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” He then went on to reveal three ideas which the company is developing which resemble magic and which are likely to become reality in the near future.

Mr Takashige is Fujitsu’s Vice President for Marketing Strategy and Vision. He said that within a few years, driverless cars will be able to collect old people from their homes in isolated parts of Japan and take them to the doctor’s.

Many old people in Japan would appreciate help in travelling to a clinic for medical treatment and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that autonomous vehicles, or driverless cars, are about to arrive on the roads in Japan soon, supported by Fujitsu’s technology.

Yet it seems a shame to replace human drivers entirely with machines. Japanese taxis are clean, safe and friendly and surely, in a robotic car, a passenger would miss the friendly company of a driver, who might be able to offer them a helping hand?

Translating machine

Fujitsu is also working on an automatic voice-translating machine. An engineer from Tokyo showed me the prototype. First, he spoke to the machine in Japanese. The computer listened carefully to his words, wrote them onto a screen and then tried to translate them. The English made sense but sounded strange.

When I spoke to the computer in English and it translated my words into Japanese. I was impressed. However, when I spoke to it in Japanese, the computer became confused. It could not understand my foreign accent and my grammatical mistakes. However, the helpful engineer who was showed me the machine could understand what I meant, which just goes to show how clever the human mind is and how patient the Japanese are when listening to foreigners! However, I expect the machine’s translation technology will soon advance and it will become a useful in overcoming language barriers.

Whales in the forest

The third idea on show at the Fujitsu World Tour was intriguing. It is a tool which records sounds around you and then allows you listen to them in other contexts. Mr Takashige showed me a charming video, which tries to express this concept visually. I liked it but I didn’t fully understand it. Why are whales singing in a forest? Are the voices on the seashore coming from the ghosts of people who have drowned? The tool is called Intelligent Sound and it appears to challenge our normal thoughts about sound and the emotions it creates.

Anyway, it was fun to meet the people from Fujitsu in London as part of their world tour. I look forward to finding out if any of the concepts transform into everyday magic.

Japan’s cheese tax melts before EU deal

Until recently, cheese was a rare treat in Japan. There are not very many cows in the country, so any type of dairy product, including cheese, feels rather foreign.

However, since World War Two, Japanese people have been developing a taste for American food, so they have started to eat cheese on the top of burgers and on pizza.

Nowadays, small packets of mild, smoked cheese are sold in most convenience stores, as snacks to accompany beer.

However, there are connoisseurs in Japan who enjoy imported cheese, especially the strong-tasting varieties from France.

I’ve seen some lovely cheese counters in supermarket delicatessens in Tokyo and Osaka but I have now come to realise that the tax on the European cheese sold in those shops is high.

This cheese tax, as high as forty percent, has provided journalists with a tangible element to explain an otherwise rather abstract story about a free trade deal between Japan and the European Union, which is due to be signed soon.

The cheese tariff is designed to protect Japanese farmers who sell their dairy products in the domestic market. Many have farms on the Northern island of Hokkaido, which supplies much of Japan’s butter and milk. Most butter bears a map of Hokkaido on its packaging.

Kyodo news quoted a farmer from Hokkaido who said that if imports of cheese, pork, wine and sweets increase from the European Union, the Japanese market will be “taken over.”

Traditionally, the ruling LDP party has close links with farmers and supports their causes but it does not want a dispute over dairy products to block a free trade deal which has many potential benefits for Japan.

If Japan drops its tariffs on European food imports, it expects Europe to phase out tariffs on cars and auto parts.

The European Union’s Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom has said she is “quite confident” that a broad agreement on free trade can be announced at a summit on July 6th with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Britain was a supporter of a free trade agreement between the European Union Japan but its influence ceased following the UK’s vote to leave the EU in 2016.

Japan had sought a trade agreement with the United States known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership but that fell apart when Donald Trump steered America towards protectionism.