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SoftBank

SoftBank CEO says Japan's robot makers face iPhone moment

Masayoshi Son bullish on potential for AI to revolutionize industry despite setbacks

SoftBank Group founder and CEO Masayoshi Son talked about his optimism for the robotics sector at an online event on Sept. 15.

TOKYO -- Robots equipped with artificial intelligence will replace legacy machines in Japan in the same way iPhones disrupted feature phones, SoftBank Group Chairman and CEO Masayoshi Son said on Wednesday, highlighting his bullish views on the sector despite its setbacks.

So-called smart robots that work longer and are more productive than humans will be the key to kickstarting Japan's lackluster economy, Son said in a virtual speech that kicked off SoftBank World 2021, a three-day annual corporate event.

"Smart robots using AI can work three times as long as humans and 3.5 times more productively, so they are 10 times more competitive than humans," Son said. "If 100 million units are introduced in Japan, it will be reborn as a country equivalent to one with a labor force of 1 billion people."

Son famously made his mark in Japan's telecommunications industry by becoming the exclusive distributor of Apple's iPhone in 2008. The smartphone became widely popular and quickly took market share away from feature phones made by local electronics companies.

"Japan is known as having the highest adoption of robots in factories in the world, but robots in factories will be replaced by smart robots just as quickly as smartphones replaced [feature phones]," Son said.

SoftBank currently has 18 investments in the robotics sector, he said, mostly through the two Vision Funds. One of them, a Vision Fund 2 investment called Gaussian Robotics, was introduced for the first time at the event. The Chinese company produces cleaning robots that autonomously identify and clean dirty spots. 

Son's optimism regarding robotics comes despite setbacks in the sector. SoftBank halted production of its own high-profile humanoid robot called Pepper last year amid lackluster demand. CloudMinds, a Chinese robotics company backed by the Vision Fund, filed for an initial public offering in the U.S. in 2019 but abandoned the plan amid worsening U.S.-China tensions.

SoftBank also sold a majority stake in U.S. robotics company Boston Dynamics to South Korea's Hyundai Motor earlier this year. Son called Boston Dynamics a "wonderful company" and highlighted that his company still holds a minority interest.

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