Japan to ensure its people learn AI alongside three Rs

Plan will address shortage of IT engineers, avoid lagging behind in start-up innovation

Japanese will learn the ABCs of artificial intelligence (AI) together with the three Rs under the government's new game plan for a smart nation.

Given that Japan is in dire shortage of trained IT engineers and lagging behind the region in start-up innovation, the idea is to create a society where "artificial intelligence will become as basic a communication tool as reading, writing and arithmetic - with no one left behind".

This is one of the steps spelt out in the new Integrated Innovation Strategy game plan, signed off by the Cabinet last week, to catalyse Japan's smart nation push under the Society 5.0 vision.

Introduced in 2016, Society 5.0 is Japan's buzzword for a high-tech digital and societal transformation. However, two years on, the Cabinet Office has recognised its shortcomings as it vows to cut bureaucratic red tape, attract more private funding and spur innovation.

Yesterday, Mr Koichi Akaishi, who sits on the Cabinet Office's Council for Science, Technology and Innovation, candidly identified obstacles to the Society 5.0 push. These included the absolute lack in quantity and quality of IT human resources, the inferior number and size of research and development start-ups, and a "rigid socioeconomic structure and the significant lack of globalisation".

As it is, Japan lags behind much of the region in areas such as cashless payments and the number of start-up unicorns, a reference to start-ups with valuations above US$1 billion (S$1.3 billion).

Under the new game plan, it will foster AI literacy among its citizens, starting from primary school.

Japan, where immigration remains a politically-charged issue, is projected to be short of 50,000 advanced IT engineers and 300,000 general IT engineers by 2020.

This is why it sees an urgent need to train 20,000 to 30,000 more advanced IT engineers and 150,000 more general IT engineers a year.

Mr Akaishi also acknowledged that Japan's 86 national universities are "outmoded" and slipping down global rankings.

"We need to redefine them as central hubs for innovation, business creation and social contribution," he said.

This means creating more opportunities for major tie-ups between universities and the private sector, as well as with universities abroad. "This is only the starting point and we hope the strategy can bring Japan to a different direction," Mr Akaishi said, adding that a Cabinet-level meeting will begin next month to discuss implementation.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 22, 2018, with the headline 'Japan to ensure its people learn AI alongside three Rs'. Print Edition | Subscribe