In A.I., a 2001 Hollywood film, a robot gains sentience and rallies his metal friends to take over the world. But in Japanese media, robots are generally portrayed as friendly heroes like Astro Boy and Doraemon.

“How can you make use of robots in a way that is complementary to the human ability,” asks Satoru Ohtake, Deputy Director of Science Policy at the University of Tokyo. The Japanese administration is also asking this question as it now shifts to Society 5.0, where science and technology are expected to take the lead in solving Japan’s pressing economic and social challenges.

Ohtake shares with GovInsider the role AI will play in Japan’s Society 5.0; the pitfalls of AI dependency; and his vision for Science in Japan.

Society 5.0: creating a new social order with machines

Society 1.0 is described as the hunter-gatherer stage of human development, passing through the agriculture and industrial stages. The society is now at 4.0 – the information age or the fourth industrial revolution. For the next phase, Ohtake says Japan is creating an economy where robots and AI co-exist with humans and perform key functions together.

With Society 5.0, the country wants to create an environment where social challenges can be resolved by incorporating tech into areas of healthcare, mobility, infrastructure, and FinTech. Japan believes its edge in data collection and technology will give it a head start in creating this new society. Ohtake also hopes science can play a greater role in policy decisions in Society 5.0 than previous iterations. Scientists should be looking at “what kind of societal issues should be solved by the emerging scientific knowledge.”

A digital society for the elderly

Japan’s population is rapidly ageing. In 2050, 40 percent of its population will be older than 65. Meanwhile, its manpower is expected to shrink by almost 13 million in the next 20 years. In its Society 5.0 masterplan, the government is looking at autonomous vehicles (including self-driving toilets), nursing robots, and remote healthcare powered by big data to solve this challenge.

Ohtake says that self-driving cars and unmanned aerial vehicles will play a big role in ensuring physical mobility and in medicine delivery, especially in areas where public transport options are not easily available. “Local communities like to use so called automated driving technology. Such kind of technology is good for taking care of ageing people in the remote areas. But in addition to that, it is necessary for us to change regulation of traffic rules.”

An ageing society amid a manpower crunch is also challenging Japan’s ability to provide medical and nursing care. As it looks at tireless helpers in the form of robots to take care of its ageing population, Ohtake thinks this should be done with caution.

Pitfalls of Artificial Intelligence

Ohtake worries that artificial decision making may become a tool for the government to control its people.

He fears that artificial intelligence could take over human decision making in a country where citizens are happy to relegate decision-making to someone or something else. “If AI or ICT provide people with something that looks good, they will follow. What happens is that it becomes very easy for some politicians to control the people,” he says. Ohtake adds that Artificial intelligence, if not carried out properly, may threaten human free will.

Before that happens, Ohtake says there is an urgent need for “scientists or the general public to think about emerging technology, like AI or ICT or robotics, that we are not becoming a slave of this.” “How do we maintain the basic principle that human beings are always the main player, not AI or ICT?” That is the question to ask, according to Ohtake.

Made-in-Japan technology for Japanese

With science and technology playing a central role in Society 5.0, Ohtake’s greatest concern is whether scientists can create technology which fits into Japan’s unique needs and cultural context.

While technology is readily available, only Japan can solve its own problems, he maintains. It is not a matter of protectionism, but of context, he says. “Because of the varying cultural, societal, and historical differences of companies from other countries, we need to build our own country.” Ohtake adds that “it’s not Google’s, Microsoft’s or Amazon’s job to make our people happy.”

Japan is an world leader in producing cutting-edge technology. As it moves towards creating a technology-based society, he hopes the shift from “policy for science” to “science for policy” will bridge the gap between science and society. If this consensus is not reached between the government, society, and scientists, he says, it will be difficult for Japan to solve its more pressing problems in the coming decade.