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Editorial: Hone skills for appropriately utilizing AI technology / Necessary to set rules on ethical issues

  • May 7, 2019
  • , The Japan News , 7:38 p.m.
  • English Press

Throughout the Heisei era, progress was made in the digitalization of society. Artificial intelligence rapidly spread in that age, too. Questions have arisen about how people should deal with cutting-edge technology.


Computers process a massive amount of information, analyze it and make judgments. That is what AI is all about. Its speed and processing capacity exceed those of humans at times.


In 2012, groundbreaking image-recognition technology was developed. If an image of a cat is entered into the system, it can be distinguished as that of a cat, not a dog or a pig.


Applying this technique has made it possible to create a natural conversation nearly comparable to that of human beings while also making complicated and advanced-level judgments.


In 2016, AlphaGo, an AI-based computer program developed for the game of Go, astonished the world when it defeated the top human Go player. Today, AI is being utilized for such purposes as automatic translation, self-driving cars and robotics development.


AI will find its way into various fields in the future, too.


Remedy labor shortage


AI technology is marked by the ability to provide appropriate information for users and improve the quality of services. It can also precisely predict demand for products based on previous data, so the efficiency of business activities can be increased.


For instance, medical-use AI learns many pieces of endoscopic data, thereby judging the necessity of surgery nearly as accurately as a skilled physician based on image analysis. In the agricultural sector, AI can predict the best timing for sowing and harvesting, judging from weather data.


Japan, a nation whose population is aging due to a low birthrate, faces a serious decrease in its labor force. It is hoped that the utilization of AI will make up for the labor shortage, thereby contributing to an improvement in productivity.


What is dangerous in this respect is accepting AI-based judgments without question.


A case in point is the fact that in some areas in the United States, police were selectively and heavily patrolling communities in which many black people live, using AI-analyzed information as a reference. This has been condemned as discriminatory.


Utilizing AI is also being considered for the purpose of examining prospective holders of insurance policies. Some have expressed concerns that, if AI overestimates such persons’ risks based on their medical records and genetic information, they could be charged excessive premiums.


Know merits, demerits


AI-based judgments cannot be unconditionally accepted. By closely examining its advantages and shortcomings, humans need to determine the extent to which AI should be left to make judgments.


Ethical rules must be developed and social consensus created regarding the use of AI.


The government compiled in March a unified opinion regarding AI ethics. It centers around such principles as humans should be held responsible for the outcomes of decisions made by AI, and that privacy should be emphasized.


Although the unified opinion is not binding, it should serve as a starting point for society as a whole to consider how to deal with AI.


Discussion over AI ethics has become brisk in foreign countries, too. The European Union, which attaches importance to the protection of private information, compiled in April a draft of ethics guidelines for AI. The draft guidelines set forth such principles as avoidance of racial and sexual discrimination and the imposition of accountability for AI systems in case of mishaps.


There are also many common points with Japan. In more than a few cases, the development of AI systems is conducted through international joint research. The data to be used are also exchanged across national borders. The aim should be to craft rules that will become international standards.


Japan should take the lead in discussing AI ethics at such occasions as the summit of the Group of 20 advanced and emerging economies to be held in Osaka in June.


The current structure of AI systems development is being led by U.S. IT giants, with their Chinese counterparts following them. Both countries have been vying fiercely over supremacy in the international market for AI.


Compared with these developments, Japan’s efforts markedly lag behind.


Broaden manpower base


Particularly serious is a shortage of manpower. According to an estimate by the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry, there will be a shortage of 120,000 workers in 2030 who can conduct research and development of AI systems.


International competition to secure top-level experts in AI has become intense. Companies and research institutes must make arrangements for sufficient pay and improved equipment for workers, sparing no efforts in securing talented personnel.


It is also important to expand the base of human resources who can master AI systems.


The government has a scheme of imparting introductory-level knowledge to nearly all the students at universities and higher technical colleges, irrespective of whether they are in humanities courses or science courses. Under the scheme, the government aims to foster 250,000 people with technical knowledge high enough to be applied in their respective areas of expertise.


There are doubts as to whether such a scheme is feasible, but the government’s intention of encouraging as many people as possible to gain basic knowledge of AI is understandable.

With the spread of AI systems, such standard tasks as paperwork are ever more likely to be taken over by machines from now on. On the other hand, there are many tasks that AI cannot manage yet, such as those that require creative thinking and meticulous communication.


While polishing the capabilities that only humans possess, a new society should be created in which AI systems are utilized appropriately.

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