TOKYO -- SoftBank Group CEO Masayoshi Son on Tuesday urged Japan to tackle its aging society using artificial intelligence, lest the country fall further behind the U.S. and China in advanced computing.
"The U.S. and China are fighting the AI war," Son said at the Moonshot International Symposium, a forum organized by the Japanese government that aims to set futuristic research agendas. Displaying a slide that showed how China surpassed the U.S. in AI patent applications in 2017, Son said, "This is a big issue."
He then showed Japan's patent applications trailing far behind the two powers. "Japan has lost the past, and may be losing the future," he said. "This is the target on which we must focus."
Son said Japan should strive to develop databanks and AI engines to solve two key issues in the country's rapidly aging society: traffic accidents involving elderly drivers, and rising medical costs.
"There is still debate on whether autonomous driving is good enough versus human driving. But I would definitely say even today's autonomous technology is better than senior citizens driving on the street. It is very dangerous."
He went on to show a video of a passenger's eye view of an autonomous car navigating through traffic. "If you are still doubting the capability of AI in autonomous driving, this is already today," Son said. "Imagine what happens in the next five years, 10 years. It will be much, much safer than the average human driving on the street."
Son's remarks were a reminder of his belief in autonomous driving technology despite the recent poor performance of transport-related investments. SoftBank's $100 billion Vision Fund is a major investor in U.S. ride hailer Uber Technologies, which has seen its stock price fall by a third since going public in May.
The tycoon argued Japan has an opportunity to create "Asia's No. 1 AI platform" because "there are sensitive issues against the Chinese." But while the Vision Fund has invested in nearly 90 companies, none of them are in Japan.
Son has said that he wants to invest domestically, but that the country's startups are too small to meet the fund's criteria of generally investing in unicorns -- private companies worth $1 billion or more.
SoftBank's mobile subsidiary recently announced a joint AI lab with the University of Tokyo. Son also said Japan should make AI a mandatory subject on college entrance exams.