Business / Tech

SoftBank and University of Tokyo to open business-oriented AI research centers

by Masumi Koizumi

Staff Writer

SoftBank Corp. and the University of Tokyo have agreed to open artificial-intelligence centers staffed with specialists from the university and around the world, to swiftly turn research into profitable business ventures so Japan can keep up with the U.S. and China.

“If they are stuck with research … their funds and passions will drain away,” SoftBank Group CEO Masayoshi Son said at an event announcing the joint project at the prestigious university.

“By teaming with the University of Tokyo, we want to give students a chance to learn and start a business,” said Son, who has stressed the importance of AI for years.

Under the arrangement, a pair of facilities — one on the university’s Hongo campus in Bunkyo Ward and the other at a planned new SoftBank office in the Takeshiba district — will be established in spring and winter of 2020 at the earliest, respectively, under the brand Beyond AI.

The Hongo base will handle basic research on the evolution of AI and potential ways to apply the technology in physics, robotics, brain science and other fields.

The results will be sent to the Takeshiba base, which will work on advanced research and establishing new businesses.

Some of the enterprises envisioned include autonomous driving and medicine. The profits made from these ventures will be invested into new research and human resources development.

SoftBank plans to spend roughly ¥20 billion over 10 years on setting up the facilities, equipment and labor costs.

“AI engineers in Japan are very talented by global standards, but most of them give up at the basic research level. So we want to convert (their research results) into businesses,” said Junichi Miyagawa, chief technology officer at SoftBank’s domestic mobile carrier arm.

SoftBank and the University of Tokyo said they will seek talent from universities both in Japan and overseas.

Through their partnership, the pair hope to take advantage of basic research on AI and turn it into businesses that can counter U.S. tech giants Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon.com — collectively known as GAFA.

Competition on AI development is intensifying around the world. China saw the biggest growth in the number of AI patent filings among the U.S., Europe and Japan between 2015 and 2016, according to the Japan Patent Office.

Underpinning the breakneck growth are patent applications from Chinese universities. The five-year filing trend through 2016 in Japan, on the other hand, was almost flat, the data showed.

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