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Editorial: Japan gov’t must seize on widespread digital change to improve lives

  • August 25, 2021
  • , The Mainichi , p. 5
  • English Press

Digital technology’s dramatic progress is altering society on an enormous scale. Now is the time to look closely at its benefits and harms to refine our knowledge of how we can use it to lead richer lives.


In March during the shogi Ryuo title ranking matches, Sota Fujii — current holder of the Oi title — wowed fans with his “godlike moves.”


At the point when he could have taken his opponent’s rook, he used a silver general in hand to check his opponent. Although it looked like a pointless strategy that would lose his silver general, it was actually a stunning move that changed his opponent’s formation and gave him a solid attack in the endgame.


This outcome was predicted by artificial intelligence (AI) used in the match’s live broadcast. A shogi commentator expressed surprise at the difficult move, calling it one that “would not occur to a human being,” demonstrating the AI’s advanced capability.


While AI overwhelms opponents with its data analysis, humans display inspiration and creativity. In the world of games, competition between the two sides is a topic of interest, but when it comes to using this technology for war, the discussion is different.


There are suspicions that Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems using AI to automatically identify and attack enemies were deployed in Libya’s civil war last year.


If fighting is to be entrusted to AI weapons, the hurdles to war will be reduced, and there are fears it could lead to unexpected expansion in the course of war. At the United Nations, there are debates over the need for rules on AI warfare, but the use of such technology in military conflict has already proceeded.


Cyberattacks targeting enemy nations’ infrastructure have also become commonplace, and come with an increased risk of developing into conflict.


Social media and the internet familiar to us has also at times become a threat to society.


Also problematic are the personal data leaks and false information dissemination by the four U.S. tech giants known as GAFA — Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple — that are most representative of today’s huge information technology firms.


In the United States, tweets by then President Donald Trump seeming to incite violence led to the attack on the U.S. Capitol by his supporters.


As a result of the tech giants’ thorough tactic of completely enclosing their users, dominance and wealth has continued to be unevenly distributed, and societal divisions have deepened.


In response, major countries and regions have embarked on stronger controls. The U.S. is attempting to weaken GAFA’s hold on the market using anti-monopoly policies. The EU, meanwhile, intends to legally control use of AI in surveillance or for discriminatory purposes.


However, restraining these companies with regulations will not be enough. Consideration must be made for what a society in keeping with the digital age will be like for users and developers alike.


AI can, for example, find fixed patterns and rules via analysis of huge volumes of data, thereby improving judgment and prediction accuracy. But in a society with deep-seated prejudices and stereotypes, biases will also emerge in AI decision-making.


Searching for a better society while acknowledging our diversity and making compromises in our views: This kind of work, obvious as it is, is essential. But currently the side effects of digitization are very conspicuous.


Keio University professor Satoshi Kurihara expressed concern over the current predicament, saying, “Diversity and sociability are being lost.” He added, “We must use the power of empathy and tolerance humans fundamentally have to deepen debate and pave the path to understanding. Only when that is done will AI fulfill its anticipated roles.”


The Japanese government will launch its digital agency in September to optimize administrative procedures and move forward policies using data. Behind these changes are the digital failures brought to light by the coronavirus pandemic.


Medical information has been exchanged by fax, delaying efforts to understand the situation. The system to support businesses and people who have lost income is insufficient, and the My Number tax and social security identification system has been of no use.


The digital agency aims to resolve these policy issues. Minister for Digital Transformation Takuya Hirai has emphasized: “The way of governing in place since the Meiji era (1868-1912) will change.”


Digitization of government processes has been a major issue in Japan for two decades. The government bears a serious responsibility for spending so much public money on it to no effect. First it must reflect on the past, and clarify what issues lie ahead.


Ensuring transparency is a prerequisite in using new technology. We need a technology revolution that corrects biased data and clearly shows the AI decision-making process.


There must also be consideration for people who are not comfortable with digital technology. Policies that are needed include those that can encourage development of easy-to-understand software and devices for older people and that do not lead to educational disparities stemming from different IT environments.


Digital technology should be used as a means to protect livelihoods. The government lacks this perspective, and the fact that it has not gained understanding from the people appears to be expressed in the slow uptake of the My Number cards.


People’s anxiety is bound up with AI and how personal data is used. The government must show the basic philosophy it intends to aim for in a digital society, and begin working to obtain public sympathy.

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