Japan and AI: A Match Made in Artificial Heaven

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Photo by Poon Chun Meng

Influencing every area of Japanese culture from the workplace to the dating world, the futuristic vision of Japan you see in sci-fi movies is already here. The difference is that it’s not trying to kill us — it’s a hidden part of everyday life.

So what exactly is AI?

It’s not just super intelligent robots. Weak artificial intelligence (AI) is built for a particular purpose, typically by businesses to provide a particular type of service. When Facebook automatically detects the faces of your friends in a creepy way, it’s using a branch of AI called “deep learning,” where AI is trained on previous photos of your tagged friends and general photos of people. This first identifies the presence of a face and then predicts just whose face it is. As with humans, AI isn’t perfect and sometimes it will get it wrong.

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Strong AI is closer to our Bladerunner-esque imaginations. The “stronger” the AI, the more it can “think” for itself and seem sentient. We are only just scratching the surface of developing strong AI. However, some projects are getting close, such as Google’s Deep Mind, which can navigate through complex game levels and can even walk by itself… well, sort of.

Why does Japan embrace it?

Partially due to its depiction in media, the Japanese depiction of strong AI as cute, intelligent companions through famous childhood TV series such as Doraemon, or amazingly human-like and emotive characters in many anime series. In comparison, the depiction of AI in Western media (often in a cool, modern, post-apocalyptic style like Ex Machina) can paint AI in a negative light, and the concept is feared by many.

Where can you experience AI in Japan right now?

There is already an apparent integration of intelligent robots into Japanese daily life. Such as robot hotel staff and a cute humanoid-like Pepper robot at your local Don Quijote or drug store. But it’s not done by magic. They will interpret your spoken words, evaluate the intention of your question using natural language processing and machine learning and use this to respond to you efficiently.

“Giving up personal information for improvement of customer experience is so commonplace that this isn’t a battle AI faces in the Japanese market.”

For an experience from your own home, you can login to Line and add Microsoft chatbot Rinna — a schoolgirl who is also a rapper and TV personality, and has been built using huge amounts of data collated from typical high school girl netspeak to form responses to everything you type.

Photo by Kotaku

Being an aspiring talent myself, earlier this year I was intrigued to find a model audition judged purely by AI. If your face was deemed to be the most beautiful by the algorithm you won a contract with an agency!

Of course, providing the AI service is not the end of the process — the data collected from conversing with AI can be analyzed to improve future encounters, which is how every day AI just keeps getting more and more “artificially” intelligent. Japan’s acceptance of services that contribute to big data, even traditional methods for collecting customer statistics — such as point cards that link up various store purchases — is widespread. Giving up personal information for improvement of customer experience is so commonplace that this isn’t a battle AI faces in the Japanese market.

It’s not all sunshine and rainbows

In general, AI acts as a hidden layer of our day-to-day life that allows for an automated and constantly improved solution to various tasks. But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows, there are some very real threats that AI poses that are prompting questions now. Can it really think for itself? Can it be treated as a person? This question becomes particularly important in cases of liability — if a driverless car knocks someone down in Tokyo, who is to blame?


Japan is also more susceptible to the isolation and fetishizing that can come with accepting AI as a companion. This particularly applies to a small section of otaku (geek) culture, where virtual popstars and girlfriends are considered more desirable than human interactions because “they” are tailored to your particular needs. For example Gatebox AI, a virtual girlfriend powered by Line Clover, is capable of conversation and reacting to your movements, retailed at ¥298,000, or nearly US$3,000.

What is next for AI in Japan?

It’s only a matter of time before the futuristic vision of strong AI becomes the present and is incorporated into daily life. Combine this with Japan’s advances over other countries in physically building robots, and I can only imagine assistants will not only look more lifelike, but will be able to converse as a human being would. AI is only just dipping into creative exploits, such as music and film, which with the current popularity of virtual stars like Hatsune Miku will open up possibilities in the entertainment industry where minimal human input is required.

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Data scientist and aspiring singer in Tokyo.

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