When most people think about Japan and technology, they usually have visions of a tech leader, a country paving the way into the future with the rest of the world desperately treading in its wake. But the reality is that Japan may be falling further and further behind, especially when it comes to artificial intelligence.
The recent release of Japan’s 2018 fiscal budget has revealed that Japan is devoting only ¥77.04 billion yen (about $720 million) to the burgeoning field of AI. This may seem like a large amount of money, but when compared to the United States’ projected spending of about ¥500 billion ($4.6 billion) and China’s predicted ¥450 billion ($4.1 billion), Japan falls way short.
The main concern over this low budget is the fact that Japan faces a serious labor shortage and an aging population. Artificial intelligence is one of the ways that Japan could fill the gaps in productivity.
But, wait a minute. You may be thinking, “I see stuff all the time about Japan’s obsessions with technology and robots and other tech oddities.” Take a closer look at any of those videos and articles, though, and you’ll see that the use of technology has been largely cosmetic.
While it’s great to have a life-sized Gundam that moves and lights up or self-parking slippers, the place where technology could play a defining role is in more practical places, like factories and assembly lines.
If this is the reality of things, why does Japan continued to be seen as some sort of tech utopia? The country’s tech dominance in the economic bubble of the late 80s mostly bolstered this view.
The futuristic Japanese image
The birth of cyberpunk began in a Japanese setting – the port area of Chiba city. William Gibson’s seminal 1984 science fiction work, Neuromancer, painted Japan as a futuristic metropolis, and many other works of fiction mimicked this description.
The collective consciousness of the Western world grabbed hold of these kinds of images and hasn’t let go since. In the 80s, there seemed to be no stopping Japanese innovation. The Famicom, the WalkMan, top of the line computers and televisions – Japan led the charge for the cutting edge.
Yet while Neuromancer showed a city brimming with high-tech frenzy, it also pictured a decay that would take hold: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”
The innovation and rampant spending that dominated the 80s basically subsided after the economic bubble burst in the early 90s, yet the image of a technological wonderland persisted. There were still many milestones to be achieved, Sony’s game-changing (pun intended) entrance into the interactive entertainment market with the introduction of the PlayStation and Nintendo’s dominance comes to mind. But in the latter half of the 90s and now more than a decade and a half into the 21st century, Japan’s technology torch seems to have burned low.
That’s not to say that things ever got as bleak as Gibson described it or that he was some sort of prophet. (Well, maybe a bit. He did get that whole Internet thing right, anyway.) Japanese companies continue to focus heavily on technology and innovation. Private investors poured large amounts of money into robotics and AI development in 2017.
Even with that innovative drive and investor help, Japan still has a long way to go to catch up with its competitors. Japanese firms and scientists could benefit greatly from the financial backing that the U.S. and Chinese governments put into their tech sectors. It could help turn the typical image of a futuristic society into a reality.