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Business

SoftBank, Honda dream of wheels that feel

Masayoshi Son, left, and the late Soichiro Honda, founder of Honda Motor

TOKYO -- Honda Motor and SoftBank Group are working on a project to equip vehicles with an artificial intelligence-based "emotion engine" that can read people's feelings.

While artificial intelligence often comes up in discussions about self-driving cars, the Honda Motor-SoftBank project aims to create vehicle that can read emotions and "snuggle up" to the driver, acting as a partner. An encounter three decades ago between the two companies' charismatic founders inspired the joint effort.

Partner for life

At a Tokyo event held by SoftBank for corporate customers on Thursday, Yoshiyuki Matsumoto, president and CEO of Honda R&D, took the stage after Masayoshi Son, chairman and CEO of SoftBank Group, and showed a video clip. In it, a girl climbs into an old car and it asks her, "How about Vivaldi's 'Spring' for a day like this?" Immediately recognizing her emotions, the car begins playing the piece.

The car is "shy" with the girl at first, but gets to know her over time. It plays a part in a surprise party the girl's boyfriend has arranged, deepening its bond with her.

The girl become an adult and marries her boyfriend. When the couple leaves home, they say goodbye to the old car and climb inside a new one. After a little moment of silence, the new car strikes up Vivaldi's "Spring" and speaks to the couple in the same voice as their old car. 

SoftBank Group Chairman and CEO Masayoshi Son, left, and Yoshiyuki Matsumoto, who heads Honda Motor research and development unit, greet one another at the SoftBank World event in Tokyo's Minato Ward on July 21.

The video is a fantasy. But the car Honda Motor and SoftBank are working on may remind people of the U.S. TV series "Knight Rider," a popular show in the 1980s.

"Cars will become running, smart robots," Son said. He recently decided to buy U.K. semiconductor designer ARM Holdings for 3.3 trillion yen ($31.2 billion) to get SoftBank in on the ground floor of the internet of things -- a world of interconnected devices -- because computer chips are what will make these once "dumb" offline devices smart.

Cars, 90 million of which were sold in 2015, are some of the first objects to become part of the nascent internet of things. Semiconductors will be in much greater demand when self-driving vehicles become common.

The long game

Son has a bigger vision, however. He thinks robots should have an emotional connection to their users, in addition to making their lives easier. These days, he often talks about "the singularity" -- the day in which the brainpower of machines exceeds the sum total of human brain power. The purchase of ARM is part of SoftBank's preparations for that day. To critics of Son's pricey acquisition, Son replies it is "50 steps ahead in the game of Go, which laypeople cannot understand." 

Son believes ARM's chip technology is indispensable to the internet of things and the singularity. But he began preparations for the big day even before he decided to buy ARM. "Human intelligence will absolutely fall short of AI sooner or later," Son said. "I have wondered how to bring AI close to me and concluded that it should be in a robot with emotions, which is Pepper." Pepper is SoftBank's humanoid robot, which the company sees as a daily companion.

Son believes a robot with human feelings will be needed for the day when machines become smarter than people. He thinks ARM's semiconductors will make it possible.

"Robots don't bring profit at the moment, and so are wasteful if I look at them as an entrepreneur," Son said. "But once you can afford to invest in 'wasteful' things, you can start businesses for the future, as Toyota Motor -- [once] a powered loom manufacturer -- did in postwar [Japan]." 

Emotions in motion

But Son understands that he needs help with the convenience side of the equation to reach mass markets, so he approached Honda Motor. The Japanese carmaker is more expert in robotics than SoftBank, thanks to its humanoid robot Asimo, which grew out of a secret research project launched in 1986.

When SoftBank began working on Pepper, it proposed a joint project with Honda Motor to develop a more human automaton based on its studies of emotion and the automaker's technology. The proposal did not come to fruition, possibly because the two companies had different objectives. But led to the "emotional car" project, after talks that began about a year ago.

The automaker, too, is interested in machines that feel. "Emotional AI is close to Honda Motor's philosophy," said Matsumoto in his Thursday speech, noting that the development of cars that understand their drivers matches the late Soichiro Honda's philosophy of "technology for humans."

The founder of the automaker was and is an icon for Son, who vividly remembers meeting Honda some 30 years ago. Son learned that he and Honda had the same dentist, and asked the dentist to arrange his appointment so that the two would be at the clinic together after Honda's birthday. Son, then a brash young software wholesaler, presented Honda with a birthday cake. Touched, Honda invited Son to his home to fish for ayu sweetfish.

The following year, Son received an invitation to Honda's fishing party in Nishiochiai, Tokyo. The annual event was a type of salon for political and business leaders.

When Son, who was unknown at the time, arrived, Honda came to him, saying, "I remember you!" Paying little attention to his big-name guests, Honda peppered Son with questions: "What is a CPU (central processing unit)? What will happen it advances?"

"There, I understood how Honda Motor had grown," Son said. "Anyone who saw his attitude would have been eager to please the old man."

As a manager, Son learned that it takes more than smarts to win people over. Honda placed the greatest value on the philosophy of "technology is for humans," and Son has taken this philosophy to heart, even as he became a well-known business leader in his own right.

But there is a big difference between the two companies' management philosophies. Son has acquired one company after another to grow his business, while Honda Motor has stuck to its own business. In a speech to his employees, The founder said, "The things you buy are no more than purchases. The things you work on together after racking your brains are truly valuable, no matter how difficult the work may be."

But things are changing, even at Honda Motor. Coming up with new environmental and artificial intelligence technologies is extremely costly, and there are time pressures as well. In 2013, it joined with U.S. automaker General Motors to work on fuelcell vehicles.

Artificial intelligence is another area where Honda Motor needed a partner. Its tie-up with SoftBank is a natural step. 

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