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Japan looks beyond Industry 4.0 towards Society 5.0

Peter Sayer | March 21, 2017
At the Cebit trade show in Germany, Japanese businesses want to go beyond smart factories, deploying industrial technologies to build a smart society

Credit: Komatsu

Declining birth rate, aging population, natural disasters, pollution: Do these sound like issues the IT industry can deal with? Japanese businesses say yes, and a number of them are at the Cebit trade show in Hanover, Germany, to explain why.

Industry 4.0 -- the building of "smart factories" in which machines monitor one another and make decentralized decisions about production and maintenance -- has been a theme of recent Cebit shows.

Now, under the banner Society 5.0, the show's partner country for 2017, Japan, wants to take the transformation beyond industry, making "smart society" one of the show's talking points.

Behind the drive are some very real societal problems. Japan's population is falling, but the average age of its citizens is increasing. A consequence of a low birth rate and extreme longevity, this is leading to an imbalance between young, active workers and those needing care. But with the country in a seismically active area, and having an ageing industrial infrastructure, this shrinking workforce is likely to deal with natural disasters and incidents of pollution.

The Japan Business Federation (Keidanren) has set out a plan for addressing the transformation.

It wants to open up Japanese workplaces to foreign workers and to women, two groups notoriously underrepresented in Japanese industry. This alone could go some way to alleviating the country's demographic problems.

Outside the workplace, it is looking for ways in which technology can help all citizens to participate actively in society, even the elderly.

To allow companies to build technology ecosystems together, Keidanren wants less competition and more cooperation with foreign businesses in some fields.

And, of course, it sees a new role in transforming society for many of the technologies that are already changing industry, with the internet of things, cybersecurity, artificial intelligence and robotics among the areas sure to play a part. Japan's use of robotics in industry is already second only to that of South Korea, with 211 robots per 10,000 workers. Germany is in third place with 161 per 10,000, putting those countries well on the way to Industry 4.0.

Show visitors will be able to hear more about Japanese industrialists' vision for Society 5.0 in the Cebit Japan Summit, webcast live from the Sakura stage  in Hall 8 on Monday March 20, from 11.30 a.m. to 1 p.m. And later in the week, they'll be able to hear the robots' point of view too: Pepper the humanoid robot will be on stage in Hall 8 on Wednesday and Thursday mornings, participating in discussions about designing customer experiences with humanoid robots, and machine recognition of human emotions.

Pepper, now owned by Japanese internet and telecommunications company Softbank, was originally developed in France, but other Japanese companies exhibiting at Cebit will be demonstrating technologies made in Japan.


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