As Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s time in power has continued, the policy initiatives for addressing Japan’s major structural challenges have proliferated. Most prominent has been his signature Abenomics policy package, based around the “three arrows” of monetary easing, fiscal stimulus and structural reforms. This has been complimented by a womenomics spinoff focused on empowering women in the workforce. While these reforms have made some headway, they have struggled with vested interests and deeply entrenched patterns of behavior.
More recently a new initiative has been added to Abe’s policy portfolio: “Society 5.0.” Through the integration of physical and cyber realms, in Society 5.0 technological developments can be applied to overcome the long-term problems that Japan has been struggling with. While it offers great potential for fortifying Japan’s economy and society as the population shrinks, there are major risks and downsides with these technologies that need to be adequately considered.
Society 5.0 actively takes advantage of the continual advancement and expansion of the “internet of things,” artificial intelligence and related technologies. According to a Cabinet document, integrating the physical and cyber realms will lead to a future in which “people, things and systems are all connected in cyberspace and optimal results obtained by AI exceeding the capabilities of humans are fed back to physical space. This process brings new value to industry and society in ways not previously possible.”
The idea has received support from Keidanren, with head Hiroaki Nakanishi describing it as a new stage of society driven by imagination, one in which “a combination of the digital transformation and the imagination and creativity of diverse people will make it possible to solve the problems facing society and create new values.”
The growing incorporation of cyber and AI into business and society certainly holds great promise for Japan, a country that has been struggling to implement solutions to address long-standing problems of limited economic growth, an aging and shrinking population, and the decline of rural areas.
In this context, highly repetitive jobs that require low skill can be increasingly automated, while big data opens up possibilities for identifying more effective allocation of resources, doing more with less.
In the agricultural sector, the internet of things and deep learning could allow for a better understanding of weather conditions and seasonal changes, improving output at a time when the number of farmers is in decline.
Drones could be used to reach people living in remote areas, overcoming issues resulting from shrinking rural populations. Smart energy grids could reduce the overall demand for power by maximizing existing infrastructure. With disaster preparation, new technologies could be particularly important in prevention by improving communications and early warning systems. These are just some of the ways improvements in data management could open up new possibilities for Japan.
Earlier this year at Davos, Abe emphasized the increasing importance of data for the global economy, placing the issue at the front of the agenda for the upcoming Group of 20 summit in Osaka. This reflects hopes that Japan can become a global leader in these new technologies, giving the country a much-needed boost to its economic competitiveness.
In this context, Japan’s Growth Strategy Council has identified five key themes for Society 5.0: next-generation mobility/smart cities; smart public services; next-generation infrastructure; fintech/cashless society; and next-generation health care. Progress in these areas would be beneficial not only for Japanese society, but also offer many opportunities for business. There has been considerable corporate buy-in, with government-industry collaboration developing across a wide variety of fields.
Given the extent to which the internet of things and AI are weaving themselves into society, it makes sense to think about how this process can be directed in a way that is more likely to lead to positive outcomes. Nonetheless, there are important dangers that need to be considered and discussed carefully.
The use of big data and algorithms gives rise to troubling concerns about surveillance and manipulation, while the potential social ramifications of AI are only just starting to be comprehended. Considering the many unexpected turns the internet has taken during its short existence, this should serve as a warning about taking an overly sanguine view about how other new technologies may develop.
The technological changes of Society 5.0 have the potential to fundamentally reshape the way the economy and society operates, even challenging basic political and moral categories about agency, responsibility and personhood.
For instance, while the use of big data and AI may help address a shrinking workforce, it could also result in many people capable of working being unemployed or under-employed. There is a related risk of over-reliance on technology, leaving major weaknesses in the structure of society. Big data may be a boon for efficiency, but it raises difficult questions related to privacy, responsibility and transparency.
Furthermore, existing regulatory models are based on the assumption that humans are the dominant agent. Yet Society 5.0 would blend together human and nonhuman interaction, raising particularly difficult issues related to responsibility and liability. These are only some of the challenges that AI, big data and deep learning give rise to. As such, there is a need to seriously think through the potential ramifications of their greater integration into society, and in doing so, considering the risk for things going wrong.
As Japan moves toward Society 5.0, there is a need for a much more transparent accounting of the possible downsides surrounding this transition, and further consideration of how some of the risks can be minimized.
Christopher Hobson is a senior lecturer at the College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University. Tobias Burgers is an assistant professor at the Cyber Civilization Research Center, Keio University.