Can Artificial Intelligence Solve Japan’s Demographic Decline?

With a low birth rate and grappling with how to maintain a work force and economic development, Japanese officials believe they have a solution in AI.

A humanoid robot in Tokyo
A humanoid robot in Tokyo
Daisuke Kondo

BEIJING â€" Since Google's computer program AlphaGo won four out of five matches against South Korea's champion Go player, Japanese governmental officials are seriously wondering whether artificial intelligence (AI) is the way to rewrite Japan"s blueprint for the future.

There is precedent for programs beating humans. IBM's Deep Blue beat chess champion Gary Kasparov in 1997, and in 2012, computer programs beat professionals of Shogi, also known as Japanese chess. But the Japanese government has never been as shaken as this time. That's because Go, which is played on a grid of 19 horizontal lines and 19 vertical lines, is considered "the last bastion of human intelligence." It's a game of greater depth than chess or Shogi, and the player depends mostly on intuition and experiences.

Google has said the program uses four combined technologies â€" big data, algorithms, super computing and deep learning. In other words, AlphaGo simulates the human nervous system and has conducted a thorough study of 30 million tournaments played by professionals.

As one Japanese player remarked after watching the five AlphaGo matches against Lee Se-dol, "AlphaGo can do what humans are incapable of doing, because in the middle phase of the game a player's moves can only rely on intuition. Yet AlphaGo is moving successively with confidence. Right from the beginning AlphaGo already grasps the overall situation, something that's impossible for a human."

Committing to AI

Over the past few years, Japanese firms have competed in investing huge amounts of funds in the research and development of artificial intelligence. Toyota, the largest Japanese automobile maker, is among them. In a recent press conference, company president Akio Toyoda announced that the firm will spend $1 billion over the next five years in a joint AI research project with Preferred Networks, a small company located near Tokyo University.

At CES 2016, the world's largest consumer electronics show, which was held in Las Vegas earlier this year, Toyota showcased the results of its cooperation with Preferred Networks â€" "vehicles that will not collide with each other." During the demonstration, five Toyota smart cars freely glided around without hitting each other.

"Toyota is a large enterprise that led Japan's rapid economic development in the latter half of the 20th century," one Japanese official said. But he added that it wants shift focus to avoid losing competitiveness, given that the future is electric cars without engines. "Other major manufacturers like Sony and Matsushita Electric will join the automotive industry, a move that could lead to the end of Toyota's empire. In order to prevent such an outcome, Toyota's ambition is to be at the forefront of autopilot technology."

On the other hand, Japan's Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare is also nursing an eager expectation. In the summer of 2013, Japan underwent a huge "immigration debate." At the time, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe advocated his economic policy, nicknamed Abenomics, by setting the country's GDP growth target at 600 trillion Japanese yen. But no matter how hard the Japanese work, they know this is an impossible mission given the fact that Japan is an aging nation with a low birth rate. Over 25% of its population is composed of people over 65 years old.

For a sustainable Japanese economy, the Abe government proposed accepting immigrants from neighboring countries. But as a mono-ethnic island state, the Japanese are adamantly opposed this idea. And Japan also began to see Europe's migration crisis as a warning, ultimately abandoning the proposed immigration policy.

Instead, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has begun envisioning AI development as a way to avoid relying on immigrants. "Whether it's about taking care of the elderly, children or most kinds of factory and household labor, robots equipped with AI are the solution.”

Japan's doomed future lit up

"What AI development requires is cutting-age technology and a spirit of persistent pursuit," says Toru Nishikawa, the 33-year-old founder and CEO of Preferred Networks. Japan excels in these areas.

One example is Onogawa Naoki, a 25-year-old Japanese artist who has suddenly become highly recognized lately. His work involves folding miniscule origami cranes from paper sized at 12mmx12mm. He can make 500 of them per day. Then he glues these tiny colorful cranes, in the tens of thousands, to tree branches.

At Onogawa's recent New York exhibition entitled "Art on Paper," viewers were very generous in their praise. Such delicate techniques and persistence is deeply rooted in Japanese DNA, and passed from generation to generation. And that's what developing AI requires.

But can Japan really resurrect itself through developing the AI? Experts seem to have diverging opinions.

Takuya Matsuda, a Kobe University emeritus professor and former president of Japan's Astronomical Society, is an expert in the AI field. His book, Issues in the Year 2045, is a bestseller in Japan and has sounded the alarm for mankind's future. According to Matsuda, AI will surpass the intelligence of mankind collectively by 2045. If that happens, our future is unpredictable, because not only can AI bring us convenience but also abuse.

Take war as an example. In 2045, country A's AI may battle with that of country B. But if during the war, one country's AI realizes that the initiator of the war was actually the humankind of both countries, the AI could decide to team up and simply eliminate both countries.

A similar situation has indeed occurred in Japanese history. During the Heian era, a particularly extravagant period about a thousand years ago, aristocrats used to hand down the tasks of laboring and fighting in wars to their samurai. These warriors worked like slaves to defend their lords, who only knew how to give orders. In the end, these samurai turned around their swords and eliminated the lords to become Japan's rulers. The Japanese society established by samurai lasted nearly 700 years.

"In the 21st century, humans created artificial intelligence," Matsuda has warned. "This can be said to be a creation of God, or the devil. How can we make sure that the AI we create is a god, instead of a devil? America and the EU have embarked on the very issue, while in Asia this is left completely unattended."

Lee Se-dol has a chance of continuing the challenges even after his tournament setbacks. Were a war between artificial intelligence and mankind really to happen, the humans probably won't have a second chance. China and Japan are Asia's locomotive for the 21st century. They should make it a priority to team up and envisage how to deal with the "issues in the year 2045."

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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