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Universities address demand for AI in Japan

AI said to be the next big topic of study.


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Updated: June 17, 2019

Many universities are establishing departments to help foster students in the age of artificial intelligence and big data, which refers to the collection of huge data sets that are often analyzed to reveal trends in human behavior. Amid calls from the government to accelerate efforts to train individuals in such fields, prestigious institutions are getting on board.

“I want to get a job examining fashion trends by analyzing photos posted on social media sites,” said Kurea Honda, a first-year student of Musashino University’s Data Science Faculty in Nishi-Tokyo, Tokyo.

The faculty was inaugurated this year with the aim of training data scientists, experts who analyze various data to make businesses more efficient.

Data science is said to be one of the most popular professions of the 21st century in Europe and the United States. The choices of Japanese university entrance examinees appear to reflect this trend.

In this spring’s general entrance examinations, the highest percentage of successful applicants for the faculty was one in 13. The number of applicants at the university also increased by 60 percent from the previous year to about 40,000, the largest increase among private universities nationwide, according to major cram school chain Sundai.

“Data is as important as oil in the 20th century,” said Noriyuki Kamibayashi, head of the faculty. “Demand for skills to ‘unearth’ and analyze data will increase more and more.”

Some other higher educational institutions have also reorganized or will revamp existing departments for the purpose of nurturing future experts in AI and big data.

On June 4, Kwansei Gakuin University announced a plan to establish four new science-related schools at its Kobe Sanda Campus in Hyogo Prefecture in April 2021 by reorganizing its School of Science and Technology. Under the revamp, AI will be one of their major subjects of research.

“We aim to train those who can create innovations by improving science-related departments,” said Osamu Murata, president of the private university, at a press conference on the day.

Ryukoku University in Kyoto conducted a survey among companies that have hired its alumni as part of its reorganization plan. The importance of having skills to interpret data stood out among the responses.

The private institution plans to reorganize its Faculty of Science and Technology into a faculty specializing in state-of-the-art science and technology in April 2020.

“Times are changing so fast,” a Ryukoku official said. “We’re trying to make sure that we’re not left behind.”

Chuo University established the Faculty of Global Informatics in April this year. “We aim to nurture human resources capable of dealing with complicated social issues in Japan and abroad that will appear with the advancement of the information society,” an official in charge at Chuo University said.

Against the background of efforts made by these universities is their sense of urgency that they will fall behind global trends if the nation fails to nurture AI specialists.

It has been pointed out that there is currently a shortage of 34,000 AI experts, increasing to up to 124,000 in 2030. For that reason, the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry plans to develop a common curriculum across the country so that all the universities nationwide will be able to provide students with a foundation in AI.

Hiroshi Kobayashi, the head of Recruit Shingaku Soken, said: “Amid severe situations and a decreasing number of applicants, universities that focus on AI would boost their appeal by becoming institutions that meet the needs of society.”

Companies pitch in

Not only students are paying attention to data science — companies are taking notice, too.

Akimichi Takemura, the director of the Faculty of Data Science at Shiga University, which established Japan’s first data science faculty in 2017, said: “Corporations are very interested in data science departments. Our university receives inquiries from companies about once every 10 days, indicating data science has become a necessary skill to have in society.”

The university had concluded cooperation agreements and conducted joint research with 104 companies and other entities as of the end of fiscal 2018.

Universities are expanding industry collaborations to maximize profits amid a climate of decreasing government subsidies.

A Cabinet Office official from the section in charge of university reform said: “If data science can be utilized successfully, industry-academia partnerships could be expected to advance. I think it is important for universities to have a clear vision for data science in their department reorganization plans.



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About the Author: The Japan News is published by The Yomiuri Shimbun, which boasts the largest circulation in the world.

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