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Global Management Forum 2018

Robot maker Fanuc lives on the 'edge' of data processing

AI startup Preferred Networks lends AI know-how for futuristic factory

Fanuc, which makes this industrial robot, is looking to build the AI-driven factory of the future.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Japanese industrial robotics company Fanuc is zeroing in on edge computing, where data is processed as close to the source as possible, Chairman and CEO Yoshiharu Inaba said in Tokyo on Wednesday.

Unlike cloud computing, which relies on massive data centers, edge computing in the case of Fanuc means having robots on the production line process data. Some say this is the next leap in technology beyond the cloud.

Inaba noted the global movement toward connected industries, with the internet of things and artificial intelligence fueling innovation. To remain relevant, he said Fanuc is "focusing on being edge heavy."

"It's the difference between us and Siemens [or] General Electric."

Fanuc Chairman and CEO Yoshiharu Inaba, right, and Preferred Networks CEO Toru Nishikawa, center, discuss the future of AI and robotics at the Nikkei Global Management Forum on Nov. 7.

For a robot to pick up screws and other parts, highly sophisticated image processing technology is necessary. Cloud computing is too slow to process the data, whereas edge computing is far more efficient. Plus, Inaba said, "it's safer than cloud computing in terms of security."

To realize its vision, Fanuc has teamed up with Japanese AI startup Preferred Networks. Together, they plan to develop a futuristic factory armed with AI-based self-learning capability, with a network of robots and control equipment that are all connected to one another.

Preferred Networks President Toru Nishikawa, who leads one of the few billion-dollar "unicorns" in Japan, emphasized his company's motto, which is "learn or die."

"Technology is advancing significantly and it will become even more important to learn not only about software but also hardware," Nishikawa said. "Reading books will not do a lot, so I try to make my employees and my company as a whole break barriers, in order to learn from each other."

Preferred Networks is also working with other companies, lending its AI and deep learning technology. Fanuc is an investor in the startup, alongside players like Tokyo Electron and Hitachi.

When asked about robotics demand in China, Fanuc's Inaba replied: "It's decreasing. We have nothing to do with this situation. Our strategy is just to wait."

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