Earlier today, Japan’s global telecommunications and internet giant, Softbank, agreed to purchase advanced robotics maker, Boston Dynamics, from Google’s parent company for an undisclosed sum. The move further reaffirms Tokyo’s ambitions of being the world’s predominant supplier of automated technologies in the decades ahead.
As an avid believer in the power of robotics to improve our quality of life, I have mixed feelings about the acquisition. Its divesture from Google’s balance sheets will invariably please shareholders who want to see faster returns than the robotics industry is currently able to provide. However, seeing its flagship robot called ‘Atlas’ figuratively walk out of Google’s backdoor and cross the Pacific harkens back to the panic of the 1980s over Japan’s global technology and real estate buying spree, a surge which prompted books like ‘Rising Sun’ by Michael Crichton.
Boston Dynamics was born from the American Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and acquired by Google in 2013. While the sale of the company has military implications and will require regulatory approval from the Committee on Foreign Investment, Softbank’s acquisition has more to do with demographics than with defense. Japan’s overall population is shrinking due to a low birth rate, resulting in more sales of adult diapers than baby diapers. Investing in automation to solve the demographic challenge will be more politically palatable in Japan than large-scale immigration.
The Road to 2020
After decades of stagnation, Japan is retooling its economy in the lead-up to 2020 when Tokyo will host the Summer Olympics. The purchase of Boston Dynamics will accelerate the deployment of tourist-friendly robots to handle the anticipated 40 million visitors.
Tokyo is positioning itself as the world’s preeminent financial hub by 2020. The intellectual property that Softbank has acquired will also include Boston Dynamics’ artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities – a key component in today’s global financial system.
Following in the wake of today’s murky election results in the United Kingdom and the accompanying uncertainty facing London as a global financial hub, Tokyo has announced massive tax cuts and infrastructure spending to lure more than 40 financial technology firms to the city. Softbank’s new AI systems will invariably play a role in Tokyo’s financial aspirations on the road to 2020.