Softbank founder fires AI warning shot at Japan

by Ken Wieland

22 July 2019

LONDON — Masayoshi Son, the multi-billionaire founder of SoftBank Group, a Japanese multinational conglomerate, warned that Japan is in danger of becoming an AI laggard.  At Softbank’s annual conference, as reported by the Financial Times, Son urged Japanese businesses and government officials to “wake up”.

“Until just recently, Japan was at the cutting edge of global technology,” he said. “But within the space of a few years, Japan has now completely become a developing country in the most important area of AI where technology revolution is happening.”

Son is a technophile and something of a visionary. He talks about 300‑year business plans and believes passionately in the ‘singularity’ when computer intelligence outsmarts humans. In one interview, Son reckoned the singularity will happen around 2055.

Related: Japan’s Government Does Not Fear AI

He also has the willingness and ability to place enormous punts on young tech firms, many of which are determinedly futuristic and have little in the way of product. In early‑2017, helped by investment from Saudi Arabia, Son assembled the Vision Fund worth about $100bn .

Son ruefully noted by the end of March this year, however, that while the Vision Fund had invested around $60 billion of its capital not one deal was conducted in the Japanese market. “Maybe it’s not too late but things are looking extremely grim,” he said.

SoftBank has invested in more than 70 start-ups in the US, south-east Asia, Europe and Latin America through the Vision Fund. US ride-hailing group Uber, Indian hotel chain Oyo and Brazilian lending platform Creditas are among those attracting Vision Fund dollars.