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What Japan's AI unicorns can teach Silicon Valley

What Japan's AI unicorns can teach Silicon Valley


The United States and other AI powers could learn something from Japan's measured and collective approach to AI.

Katherine Sobeck/Bloomberg Opinion

Silicon Valley's motto of “move fast and break things” has driven technological innovation in the internet age. In the age of artificial intelligence, it's time to take a leaf out of Japan's book and slow down.

The rush to introduce AI tools to the masses has led to embarrassing gaffes, most recently when an AI-powered Google search feature recommended putting glue on pizza, and a Bloomberg analysis found that OpenAI's ChatGPT technology showed signs of racial bias in ranking job applicants, with results that could affect real people's lives.

Tech companies have also come to consume vast amounts of energy to run AI. The International Energy Agency projects that the total electricity consumption of data centers worldwide will be roughly equal to Japan's electricity demand in 2026. Other forecasters say that by 2030, these centers will use more energy than India, the world's most populous country. Large-scale language models, the technology underlying the latest generative AI tools, require vast amounts of data, and training them requires vast amounts of computing power and energy.

Illustration: Yusha

As technology continues to develop, many AI companies believe the key to growth is to make these large language models even bigger. US tech giants such as Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and OpenAI CEO Sam Altman are backing nuclear energy companies to help power AI data centers. But there are other options than rushing to commission new nuclear reactors to train AI models.

Sakana AI, a Tokyo-based startup that Nikkei Asia reported on June 15 would be the fastest Japanese company ever to become a unicorn, is taking a different approach: When it comes to the most important technology of our time, they're playing the long game.

Sakana, which means fish in Japanese, was founded last year by David Ha, Ren Ito and Llion Jones with the goal of applying nature-inspired ideas like evolution and collective intelligence to the creation of AI models, with the goal of spending as little energy as possible on training a single AI model. During his time at Google, Jones co-authored a groundbreaking 2017 research paper that formed the basis of the technology behind today's most popular AI products, including ChatGPT, spurring much of the current boom.

Ha said many of the problems facing AI stem from companies prematurely adopting the technology while ignoring the high cost of energy in pursuit of short-term profits. Sakana's technology can currently be used to create virtual girlfriend chatbots, but the company is focused on researching how to apply AI to solve real-world problems. This is in line with other Japan-based AI companies less known in the West, such as Preferred Networks, which is working to develop more energy-efficient AI chips.

Silicon Valley also needs to start thinking longer term. The world doesn't need useless chatbots that consume unsustainable amounts of resources while composing poor poetry and perpetuating racist prejudices on a mass scale. This thinking might have avoided the embarrassing headlines that have turned much of the public against the permanent adoption of AI.

Sakana's latest research explores new ways to create AI models that don't require large amounts of energy, with longer-term ambitions to help Japan find real solutions to some of its most pressing problems on a national scale, such as a looming labor shortage. Their mission is backed by the Japanese government.

In Japan, a shrinking population and workforce have led the public and private ecosystem to embrace the potential of emerging technologies with curiosity and hope, rather than despair. There's a sense of urgency to the idea that these tools could help solve the labor shortage with less existential anxiety about whether they will replace human workers. In an interview with Bloomberg TV last week, Microsoft Japan president Kan Tsusaka highlighted the power of generative AI to accelerate the country's growth as an aging society. Her comments came shortly after Microsoft announced it would spend about $2.9 billion, its largest-ever investment in Japan, on ramping up its cloud computing and AI infrastructure.

Being a close ally of the United States has helped Japan in its current economic boom, and it has welcomed a surge in U.S. technology investment that might have previously gone to China.

OpenAI, along with Microsoft, opened its first Asian office in Tokyo this spring, and Oracle has pledged to invest more than $8 billion in cloud computing and AI over the next decade.

Risk-averse Japan has lost its status as a global tech leader over the past few decades, but its AI boom, which is still in its early stages, is a whole other story. This time around, Tokyo's measured and collective approach to the technology has positioned it to play to its own unique advantage when it comes to getting AI right. The rest of the world may be catching up soon.

Katherine Sobeck is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology in Asia. She previously worked as a technology reporter for CNN and ABC News. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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