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Masayoshi Son names Tokyo university AI professor to SoftBank board


MASAYOSHI Son can't stop talking about how artificial intelligence is going to change the world. Now SoftBank Group Corp will finally have a board member who is an expert on the subject.

SoftBank on Tuesday named a new director: Yutaka Matsuo, a professor at the University of Tokyo, who focuses on social network mining, natural language processing and AI. SoftBank also said former Goldman Sachs banker Mark Schwartz will resign from the board, subject to shareholder approval at the general meeting on June 19.

SoftBank's US$100 billion Vision Fund has made large bets on industries ranging from ride-hailing and autonomous driving to vertical farms and co-working spaces. Mr Son says that what unifies the disparate investments is the way these companies use AI, which he believes will redefine every industry and create many new ones. Yet until now, there were no people in Mr Son's inner circle that had an intimate understanding of the technology.

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Prof Matsuo, 44, received a master's degree in electrical engineering and a doctorate in information and communication engineering from University of Tokyo. He is the president of Japan Deep Learning Association and also serves as technical adviser to Tokyo-based deep learning start-ups Pksha Technology Inc and Abeja Inc.

The recent explosion in AI activity dates back to 2012, a year that was a turning point for computer vision. A breakthrough in deep learning algorithms at a science competition called ImageNet vastly improved the ability of machines to identify objects in photographs by using massive data sets to find patterns. It put deep neural networks on the map and sounded the starting gun for the current boom in AI.

For Mr Son, AI became a major topic in 2016, after SoftBank's US$32 billion acquisition of chipmaker ARM Holdings Plc. The following year, ARM chief executive officer Simon Segars joined the Japanese conglomerate's board and for a while was the only director with a technical background.

Mr Son likes to think bold when it comes to the future. He believes AI-powered superintelligence is inevitable and has a plan for SoftBank to survive successive waves of seismic, technological change for the next 300 years. That's something the two men may have in common. In 2016, Prof Matsuo took the stage at SoftBank World, an annual event for customers and suppliers, with a message Mr Son would surely approve of.

"There is no point in thinking small," Prof Matsuo said in a keynote speech entitled Will AI Exceed Humans. "We aren't talking about boosting sales 5 or 10 per cent. You have to think five-fold or 10 times." BLOOMBERG