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Business

SoftBank's Son wants to connect '1 trillion devices'

Machines will become smarter than humans, and that's a good thing, says the CEO

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SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son, left, shakes hands with Boston Dynamics CEO Marc Raibert at the SoftBank World 2017 conference in Tokyo on July 20.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Masayoshi Son on Thursday said he sees a future where everyone and everything is connected to the internet, traffic accidents don't happen and robots are smarter than humans.

And nowhere in that vision is there a hint of dystopia, stressed the SoftBank Group CEO, who was speaking at a company event in Tokyo.

"I am a believer in the singularity thesis," the Japanese telecommunications company's 59-year-old founder said, referring to futurist Ray Kurzweil's hypothesis that machine intelligence will at some point exceed that of humans.

Thanks to ever-accelerating progress in information technology, especially in computer chips, Son's vision is edging closer to reality. And he sees big opportunities in that. 

"Even if we took over the entire mobile phone market, that would still amount to just 7 billion lines," the CEO said. "We want to connect 1 trillion devices." 

Small wonder  

At the center of Son's vision of ubiquitous connectedness is ARM Holdings, a British chip designer that SoftBank bought last year for some $32 billion.

Microprocessors designed by ARM power over 95% of the world's smartphones. More recently, the company has been funneling more resources into developing chips that connect everything from autoparts to home appliances.

ARM CEO Simon Segars said that whereas once the company's chips were the size of a shirt button and had limited processing power, now "we can deliver thousands of times more computing power in basically the size of a pinhead. Processors can be so small that you can't see them," he said at the SoftBank event.

The chips "can be deployed into anything and at very, very low cost," Segars said. "That is going to create a fundamental change in the way we gather and process data."

One possible application for such technology is in driverless cars, which will require, for example, information about traffic and road conditions to be collected and processed in real time.

Don't laugh at Pepper

Robots also feature prominently in Son's prognostications.

At the event, Boston Dynamics, a robotics company that SoftBank acquired last month from Alphabet Inc. -- Google's parent -- demonstrated a robotic dog that can walk and trot on two or four legs, play fetch and search for suspicious objects.

"You can imagine it doing security out at a shopping center or a factory or a warehouse," Boston Dynamics CEO Marc Raibert said.

Son is all for this kind of idea, and his investments show it. Last year, SoftBank launched a $93 billion technology fund designed to put the company at the forefront of emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence, robotics, the internet of things and big data.

The company itself released a humanoid, Pepper, in 2014, though its capabilities are limited.

Still, Son had a warning for those who dismiss Pepper as a mere toy. "Those who deride Pepper will face a future in which they will be overtaken by robots," he said.

"Smart robots are fundamentally different from assembly robots that operate in factories," Son added. "Smart robots with artificial intelligence can learn by themselves and act on their own."

Do humans face a future where machines will become our masters?

Son doesn't think so. "AI is not created to put mankind at risk," he said. "It is created to make humans happy."

ARM's Segars agreed.

"Worrying about it is a wrong thing to focus on," he said. "I'm thinking about jobs that are going to be created. There are many new types of jobs being created all the time."

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