Fernando Fischmann

The Next Industrial Revolution Is Rising In Japan

18 December, 2018 / Articles

It wasn’t too long ago that the concept of carrying a sophisticated computer, camera and phone, all rolled into one gadget fitting in your pocket, was the stuff of science fiction. Now smartphones are everywhere and they’re getting smarter all the time. Imagine when your phone will be able to diagnose most of your medical problems for you based on artificial intelligence (AI) in the cloud, saving you a trip to the doctor. The app could issue a diagnosis and a prescription, and your local pharmacy could 3D-print your medicine. That isn’t a far-fetched fantasy – it’s part of the not-too-distant future.

This exciting new frontier is part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), a period of rapid change driven by progress in science and technology. But for many, the notion of smart machines is a source of fear, evoking the evil Skynet AI from The Terminator film franchise. Will smart machines take over our jobs and our society? Japan and the World Economic Forum (WEF) firmly believe that will not happen. They are committed to the prospect of the revolution producing a caring, high-tech, human-centered society in which people will live healthy, productive lives with less fear about disruptions caused by technology.

We are now in the early stage of the 4IR. It’s merging digital, physical and biological systems and will raise our standard of living. The original Industrial Revolution was powered by the discovery of the steam engine. The second and third industrial revolutions saw electricity give rise to mass production, and computers and communication technologies unleashing the digital age. Now the Fourth Industrial Revolution’s main drivers are AI, big data and the Internet of Things (IoT), powerful technologies that are often the subject of controversy and fear. It’s clear that we have to take a proactive role and shape the revolution so that it results in the kind of society we want to live in.

Getting ahead of the pace of change

While various countries are working on this difficult problem, Japan will play a leading role in global innovation with a new WEF center devoted to maximizing the potential of the 4IR, says Klaus Schwab, WEF founder and executive chairman.

“Japan is not sufficiently recognized for its innovative capabilities,” Schwab said in a recent interview with Forbes Japan. “The world is speaking about what’s happening in Silicon Valley and Shenzhen, but it is not aware that Japan has created a very successful startup community and of course, large companies have shown again and again that they have a strong innovative power – otherwise they couldn’t maintain the importance and relevance they have in global markets.”

Schwab visited Tokyo for the establishment of the WEF Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Japan (C4IR Japan), a new technology hub that will launch this year in partnership with Japanese corporations and government. Announced at the annual WEF meeting in Davos in January, the C4IR Japan follows the opening of the Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, San Francisco, in March 2017. The WEF is aiming to build a network of centers and affiliates around the world to tackle 4IR challenges head-on.

Schwab believes Japan can play a unique role in this transformation for several reasons. For one, the challenges posed by Japan’s aging population mean it’s ahead of the demographic change that will affect many developed countries. Schwab also said the long-term vision of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his government, the close ties between Japan’s public and private spheres, and the low unemployment rate put the country in an advantageous position to implement the far-reaching social changes of 4IR.

“With the Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we aim at global cooperation to shape the principles around the new technologies,” Schwab said. “Because all those technologies could be of tremendous benefits for humankind. They could solve, to a large extent, the challenges of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), they could be of strong importance in addressing issues of an aging society, just looking at, let’s say, providing society with mobility. But those technologies could be misused or just used for corporate benefits or not necessarily used in the interest of society.”

A “do tank” making a difference in the real world

Murat Sönmez is a WEF board member, a veteran of Silicon Valley and former senior leader of data analytics company TIBCO Software. He’s now head of C4IR, overseeing its first expansion outside the U.S., and busy gathering some of the best minds in Japan for the center, which opens in Tokyo in July.

“We set up the center to accelerate the positive impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies for citizens and society using human-centric design thinking,” Sönmez said in an interview with Forbes Japan. “We’re imagining a future, looking backwards and looking at what kinds of protocols are needed.”

Sönmez doesn’t call the C4IR a think tank, but a “do tank,” and cites an example from Africa. Rwanda is a mountainous country that poses challenges for the rural distribution of lifesaving medical devices and blood products. The Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI) financed a drone startup called Zipline to deliver blood to clinics in less than 30 minutes. The project helped save the lives of 929 women in its first year. That was a positive result, but the use of drones raises other issues: preventing hacking, protecting data and ensuring drones don’t interfere with civil aviation. A traditional approach of certifying each drone as if it were a commercial aircraft wasn’t practical – policy was lagging behind technology. The C4IR in San Francisco worked with the Rwandan government to draft and pass drone regulations in nine months so the country can benefit from the know-how.

“You have a lifesaving situation and the civil aviation protocols were not in place or getting in the way,” Sönmez said. “There’s what we call a ‘governance gap’ or a gap between what the technology can do today and what kind of rules and regulations are needed or are in place. If you look at the speed at which these regulatory frameworks are developed, it’s what we call in the ‘too-late zone.’ That’s the nature of governance.”

Japan’s leadership in precision medicine

How can Japan lead the way in directing the Fourth Industrial Revolution to bring us a better future? Among the many important contributions the WEF expects from Japan, advancing autonomous driving technology and precision medicine have drawn considerable attention. While Japan is already a leader in automotive technology, its prowess in precision medicine has received is less known.

Precision medicine became widely known when former U.S. president Barack Obama mentioned the Precision Medicine Initiative in his 2015 State of the Union Address. The initiative describes precision medicine as “an emerging approach for disease treatment and prevention that takes into account individual variability in genes, environment, and lifestyle for each person.” Precision medicine is focused on identifying approaches that are effective based on patients’ genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors. Compared to today’s one-size-fits-all medicine, the new approach will allow us to predict more accurately which disease treatment and prevention strategies will work in which patient groups.

Precision medicine has been used in non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as obesity, as they become more common globally. These illnesses are thought to be caused by the complex interaction between genetics and the environment. To understand this, researchers are focused on biomarkers, which are substances in the blood that play a fundamental role in precision medicine. Based on big data analysis, researchers can identify biomarkers and estimate patient risk for disease. Thus, precision medicine requires data in both quantity and quality. Japan is expected to develop this ahead of other countries.

Japan has been actively advancing precision medicine as seen in projects such as the National Cancer Center’s use of big data from cancer studies to find new biomarkers for clinical applications and the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization’s (NEDO) efforts to develop biomarkers for stroke and kidney failure. One reason such projects have been quickly moving forward in Japan is its aging population and shrinking workforce. The aging society and increasing incidence of NCDs are giving Japanese researchers as well as corporations a big opportunity to apply precision medicine in a transformative manner.

Powering change from Tokyo

Sönmez has high expectations from Japan. “Japan has the third-largest economy in the world and has the opportunity to create this infrastructure, the operating system and data policies to not only improve the lives of its citizens but create an opportunity for a lot of innovation to happen, for startups to come here to launch,” Sönmez said. He added that Japan has great potential and could drive innovation through setting a data-use policy because, unlike some other major countries, Japan has not implemented restrictive data laws and has accumulated a great deal of high-quality data. As a “do tank,” there are high expectations for the newly established 4IR center in Tokyo, especially its role in using Japan’s unique characteristics to disseminate specific problem-solving strategies to the world.

To ensure a fruitful collaboration between the WEF and Japan, the WEF recently appointed Makiko Eda, a longtime Intel executive, as chief representative officer of the WEF’s Japan office. The Japanese government believes that the Fourth Industrial Revolution will result in Society 5.0, which refers to a supersmart society designed to benefit people. Similarly, Eda believes the 4IR will create a much safer, more peaceful world where we can live with less anxiety about the future. She thinks Japan’s history of embracing technology to improve society can help it steer the 4IR in the right direction through the auspices of the new Tokyo center.

“The Fourth Industrial Revolution is already happening and it’s affecting industries, the way we work and the way we live,” said Eda. “Because of the demographic shift that we’re experiencing, and the aptitude of Japanese skill sets, knowledge and heritage, it’s a magic combination to come up with potential solutions for societal problems with technology in a way that benefits broader populations, rather than a few.”

“Japan could be the first nation to instrument the whole society with the Internet of Things, collect data at the edge that are as ethical as they are intelligent, or the first country to create national supercomputing data centers where different data sets could be combined and permitted to really move forward with innovation,” Sönmez said. “When that happens, Japan can be a role model for the rest of the world. That’s why we’re interested in Japan.”

Dystopian science fiction fantasies are great for filling movie theaters and selling books, but we don’t have to worry about smart refrigerators rising up against us. Japan, the WEF and other stakeholders in the 4IR are committed to forging a revolution that is centered on people, for the benefit of people. So relax and enjoy the show as machines get smart. They might just make your life a little easier.

The science man and innovator, Fernando Fischmann, founder of Crystal Lagoons, recommends this article.



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