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Politics

Virus-fighting tech becomes central to Japan's smart-city vision

Drone delivery, self-driving buses and facial recognition payments featured in plan

The coronavirus has spurred interests in making communities "smarter" through the introduction of technology.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- As the Japanese government moves forward with its promotion of smart cities, the ruling party seeks to turn this marriage of technology and infrastructure toward combating pandemics.

The Liberal Democratic Party envisions using data from antibody testing to publish information on how infections are distributed geographically. The condition of patients with mild or no symptoms could be monitored with wearable devices and made freely accessible to the public. Broader use of telemedicine is in the proposal as well.

A system for introducing such innovations as self-driving buses and cashless payments via facial recognition technology is also a must, according to the LDP. And establishing a network of drones -- which are now allowed only in certain regulatory sandboxes -- to make deliveries could ease the country's chronic labor shortage as well as reduce face-to-face contact that risks spreading the virus.

These ideas build on the government's "super city" initiative, which took a step forward in May with the passage of legislation allowing municipalities with smart-city plans to apply for reduced regulatory barriers.

The LDP looks to apply information and communications technology in such fields as medicine, transportation and logistics, with artificial intelligence platforms collecting and monitoring the data from various smart services.

"Municipalities and companies across the county have been moving to introduce smart cities," said Satsuki Katayama, a former minister for regional revitalization. "That has been accelerated by the coronavirus."

Katayama noted that the data collected by towns could be used to prepare for disasters like the massive flooding Japan has frequently suffered in recent years.

Smart cities gather and leverage vast amounts of personal data, which could be leaked or misused. Privacy advocates criticize the surveillance involved in such initiatives, as security cameras and smartphone position data can be used to track individuals' movements. Plans by a unit of Google parent Alphabet to build a smart neighborhood in Toronto met with opposition on these grounds and were ultimately canceled.

The legislation passed in May urges would-be smart cities to build a local consensus around data handling and security measures. The LDP will push for a stronger response to these issues.

Suppliers across the globe are in a race to sell cutting-edge technology to smart cities. Among them, Chinese competitors have leveraged low price points to market urban systems offering security cameras, facial recognition and location apps all controlled by AI.

On the other hand, the U.S. has moved to minimize China's footprint in its tech sector. Japan has fallen in line with Washington, meaning that Japan will have to develop proprietary technology to power its smart cities.

"A smart city in the post-coronavirus era will have to prevent crowding to ensure safe business and living conditions," said Masayuki Nakagawa, who teaches at the Nihon University College of Economics here. When considering Japan's shrinking population, "the use of technology will be vital for managing cities," he said.

Nakagawa underscores the need to strike a balance between data privacy and convenience.

"There are trade-offs between data that can identify an individual and the comforts and safety of society," he said. "Society will have to come together and make decisions, such as through citizens' agreements."

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