I will be teaching in Japan next week. It’s always an amazing trip. I learn a lot from teaching in other parts of the world and this year is particularly exciting to visit, as Japan recently announced the name of the new Imperial era. Reiwa was the chosen name.
Although the experts on Japanese language and culture have difficulties to agree on the exact meaning of Reiwa, the Japanese government translated the name as “beautiful harmony” last week. It follows the Showa (1926–1989) and Heisei (1989–2019) periods. Japan’s industrial policies and growth characterized these two eras.
The Reiwa era will start on May 1, 2019. And the question is whether it will consolidate/restore Japan’s reputation as a technology pioneer in the fields of robotics, automation, and artificial intelligence.
I go to Japan several times a year to teach and speak at conferences. And I have always been impressed by the technological developments. I have witnessed first-hand the automation of production processes and the deployment of robots at airports and in stores.
But the last couple of years have been disappointing. Things don’t seem to be moving as quickly and the people I talk to are less optimistic about the pace and direction of technological change.
So, it was fascinating to come across two stories last week about emerging technologies in Japan.
The first story was that a group of experts presented ideas on promoting artificial intelligence in education on March 28.
The group argued that it is necessary to have all of the approximately 500,000 university and technical college students follow beginner-level programs on data science and AI. Half of them should be encouraged to acquire skills to apply AI solutions to their fields of study, such as healthcare, agriculture, and transportation.
The second noteworthy story was Toyota’s decision to open up their intellectual property portfolio in the field of hybrid and electric vehicle technology, indicating that Japan’s companies see the need for opening up and collaboration in the current digital world.
These are two things I care passionately about. The need for everyone to have a better grasp of emerging technologies and the need for businesses to become more open and “decentralized” in how they operate, manage information and communicate.
Stated bluntly, too few people know enough about technology and too many businesses seek to protect and control (centrally) too much of “their” operations and information.
This makes no sense in a world where success, both for individuals and companies, depends on how connected you are to the fast-moving and global flows of knowledge and capital.
Restricting knowledge or hoarding information are no sensible strategies in a world where everything is changing so quickly as a result of technological developments and constant “updates” in knowledge and skills are required.
And this is how I see my role in Japan — teaching my students how to think about automation, algorithmic decision-making, and decentralization. Japan’s educational plans in the area of data-analytics and artificial intelligence are a necessary first step.
But is it enough?
We need to change education at all levels and disciplines and go beyond tech-oriented studies and programs. I want my students in Japan, who aren’t technologists, to have a basic knowledge of the new and emerging technologies, such as algorithms or artificial intelligence.
This will empower them to consider two really important questions:
What is the real-world impact of emerging technologies?
And, perhaps more importantly:
What should be the desired outcomes?
No matter where you live or what you do, you need to be thinking about these two questions. And, to do that you need to have a basic knowledge of the technologies and what they can do now or (potentially) in the future.
Let me give an example. We live in a world in which decisions are already heavily influenced by algorithms. Data and data-analytics (which are currently viewed as the new oil and currency of the digital world) more and more intervene in our lives and work. What we watch, buy and even eat is increasingly determined by algorithms.
Algorithm-driven decision making is everywhere. Educating everyone to understand what algorithms are and how they operate seems the most obvious thing in the world to me. And yet, I am constantly amazed at how little students (all over the world) know about the underlying technologies that are structuring so much of their everyday lives.
These algorithmic interventions are also leading to the entire reinvention of industries and societies. Think streaming in the entertainment industry and ride-sharing in the transportation and automotive industry. The digital and data innovations are moving us from an ownership model to a service model. We don’t need to “own” products anymore. Technical architectures of software code, algorithms, and apps let us use services instead.
And this brings me to my second question. We all need to think about the direction of technological change and desired outcomes. Again, this is something that needs to be learned and practiced, and education is essential.
Because we increasingly act, interact and transact in a world of algorithms, we are witnessing a transition from “intervention” to “prevention.” This trend is particularly clear in the medical and healthcare industry. The application of algorithms and big data will not only assist doctors to make better diagnoses, but also help them to make more reliable predictions about personal and general health issues. In short, open and big data leads to more transparency and plays an increasingly important role in the prediction and prevention of problems.
The question, of course, is whether this impact of the technological developments is desirable, or whether it should be viewed as an assault on basic freedoms. Can we live with these outcomes and the trade-offs that they require? Are we still on the right track? Are we doing the “right thing?”
Everyone should understand that we need to ask these questions continuously. There is a constant need for reflection. For “updates” and “reboots.” And such a capacity needs to be taught to young people from an early age.
I am thrilled to teach in Japan this year. Last week’s news about education, artificial intelligence and open organizations may be a turning point. A perfect start of a new era of “beautiful harmony” between human and machine.
I hope so. I will definitely try to contribute to this goal by changing my own approach to education and hope others follow.
Let’s see where it takes us.