SoftBank names AI expert to board in tech push

SoftBank Group chief executive Masayoshi Son at a news conference in Tokyo earlier this month. He says that what unifies the disparate investments made by SoftBank's US$100 billion Vision Fund is the way the companies use artificial intelligence.
SoftBank Group chief executive Masayoshi Son at a news conference in Tokyo earlier this month. He says that what unifies the disparate investments made by SoftBank's US$100 billion Vision Fund is the way the companies use artificial intelligence.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

CEO believes AI will redefine every industry, create new ones

TOKYO • SoftBank chief executive Masayoshi Son cannot stop talking about how artificial intelligence (AI) is going to change the world.

Now SoftBank Group will finally have a board member who is an expert on the subject.

SoftBank on Tuesday named University of Tokyo professor Yutaka Matsuo, who focuses on social network mining, natural language processing and AI, as a new director.

SoftBank also said former Goldman Sachs banker Mark Schwartz will resign from the board, subject to shareholder approval at the general meeting on June 19.

SoftBank's US$100 billion (S$138 billion) Vision Fund has made large bets on industries from ride-hailing and autonomous driving, to vertical farms and co-working spaces.

Mr Son says that what unifies the disparate investments is the way these companies use AI, which he believes will redefine every industry and create many new ones.

Yet until now, there was no one in Mr Son's inner circle who had an intimate understanding of the technology.

Prof Matsuo, 44, received a master's degree in electrical engineering and a doctorate in information and communication engineering from the University of Tokyo. He is the president of the Japan Deep Learning Association and also serves as technical adviser to Tokyo-based deep learning start-ups, Pksha Technology and Abeja.

The recent explosion in AI activity dates back to 2012, a year that was a turning point for computer vision.

A breakthrough in deep learning algorithms at a science competition, called ImageNet, vastly improved the ability of machines to identify objects in photographs by using massive data sets to find patterns.

It put deep neural networks on the map and sounded the starting gun for the current boom in AI.

For Mr Son, AI became a major topic in 2016, after SoftBank's US$32 billion acquisition of chipmaker ARM Holdings.

He believes AI-powered superintelligence is inevitable and has a plan for SoftBank to survive successive waves of seismic technological change for the next 300 years.

In 2016, Prof Matsuo took the stage at SoftBank World, an annual event for customers and suppliers, with a message Mr Son would surely approve of.

"There is no point in thinking small," Prof Matsuo said in a keynote speech titled, Will AI Exceed Humans. "We aren't talking about boosting sales 5 per cent or 10 per cent. You have to think fivefold or 10 times."

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 23, 2019, with the headline 'SoftBank names AI expert to board in tech push'. Print Edition | Subscribe