SoftBank Opens Institute in Tokyo to Accelerate AI Research

(Bloomberg) -- SoftBank Group Corp. founder Masayoshi Son unveiled a $184 million initiative Friday to accelerate artificial intelligence research in Japan, enlisting Alibaba’s Jack Ma to expound on his goal of commercializing the technology.

Son’s company announced a partnership with the University of Tokyo that includes spending 20 billion yen ($184 million) over 10 years by mobile arm SoftBank Corp. to establish the Beyond AI Institute. He roped in the Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. co-founder for an on-campus chat, during which the two billionaires discussed their vision for the future of technology.

SoftBank Opens Institute in Tokyo to Accelerate AI Research

The institute will support 150 researchers from various disciplines and focus on transitioning AI research from the academic to the commercial using joint ventures between universities and companies. Health-care, city and social infrastructure and manufacturing will be the primary areas of focus, SoftBank Corp. said in a statement. That dovetails with its own goals: in November, SoftBank and Korea’s Naver Corp. said they plan to merge Yahoo Japan and Line Corp. into an internet giant under SoftBank’s control, to combine resources on AI and challenge leaders from Google to Tencent Holdings Ltd.

Son has long advocated AI as the most revolutionary new field of technological development. The Beyond AI Institute marks an investment in accelerating that research on his home turf, where he has previously bemoaned the relative under-performance of Japan’s startup scene. At the same time, he’ll be eager to put behind him a tough 2019 thanks to the calamitous implosion at WeWork and the shrinking values of Uber Technologies Inc. and Slack Technologies Inc.

Offering a reminder of his most fruitful investment, Son hosted a talk with Ma, whose online retail empire has been the crown jewel in SoftBank’s investment portfolio. The two exchanged compliments and advocated passion, optimism and world-changing visions as essential to successful entrepreneurship.

“In the past 20 years, we’ve been friends, partners and like soulmates in changing people’s lives,” said Son. Ma, in turn, said: “He probably has the biggest guts in the world when doing investment.”

In a rare expression of contrition, Son recently said “there was a problem with my own judgment” after the WeWork debacle. He has imposed greater financial discipline on startups since then. On Friday, he said his enthusiasm for grand projects was undimmed. “My passion and dream is more than 100 times bigger than what I am right now. I am still only at the first step to my 100 steps.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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