In their outstanding book, Wicked and Wise, Alan Watkins and Ken Wilber look at some of the most pressing ‘wicked problems’ facing the human race. ‘Wicked problems,’ they suggest, are difficult to define, but they are essentially unsolvable in the usual scientific sense.
The authors go on: wicked problems, such as climate change, are multi-dimensional, have multiple causes, multiple stakeholders, multiple symptoms and multiple solutions. They are by definition complex and difficult to process.
Crucially, they are created or exacerbated by people.
Our species has proved capable of producing challenges of unfathomable difficulty. We may, however, also prove capable of developing the novel thinking and technology required to overcome them.
Society 5.0 is the vision of such a future, in which humans and machines “co-create” the solutions to societal problems by integrating cyberspace and physical space. And it’s not as fantastical as some may think; much of the technology we will need is already here.
We are in the emergent stages of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR)–an era of rapid “cyber-physical systems” technological advancement leading to abrupt changes in society and re-imagining of production through the digitization.
The First Industrial Revolution employed steam and water power to improve output. The second used electricity to do the same. The Third Industrial Revolution used computers and automation to accelerate production.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) refers to the current fundamental shift of our economic world towards a new paradigm based on the fusion of digital and physical worlds in cyber-physical systems and growing use of emerging technologies such as AI, cloud, IoT, robotics.
The best known example of 4IR transformation is Industry 4.0 – a subset of 4IR focused on utilization of cyber-physical systems and AI to transform manufacturing. Industry 4.0 is already revolutionizing the way we manufacture products. It builds on the power of computerized automation by introducing machine and systems autonomy. Through wireless networks of sensors, receivers, and processors, vast amounts of manufacturing data are collected and processed by computers, big data, machine learning, and increasingly by artificial intelligence (AI), currently of the “narrow” or “weak” kind.
These autonomous arrangements of physical and virtual computing elements are effectively capable of learning in real-time. They continuously improve production processes, making decisions based on super-fast analysis of live and historical data collected from the production environment.
The First Industrial Revolution reduced the need for human labor. The second increased efficiency by mechanizing large production lines. The third used computers to automate these processes even further, but still required humans to manage production.
The 4IR goes further to make human intervention in production applications almost redundant. Smart factories, for example, are envisaged to be independent collections of cyber-physical systems (CPSs) in which people are necessary only for specialized jobs, machine maintenance, high-level network management, and strategic guidance.
Society 5.0 is similar to 4IR in terms of technologies used and the idea of merging of cyber, physical and biological worlds. However, Society 5.0 is a more sweeping concept that goes beyond manufacturing and commerce and envisages a complete transformation of our way of life. Society 5.0 is a human-centered proposition that seeks to use the same relationships between cyberspace and physical space as 4IR to solve social problems.
What, for example, will be the societal effects of 4IR?
As AI and automation make many human jobs redundant, what will the impact be on the nature of work, communities and social structures?
What will happen to economies as medical improvements lead to an aging population?
What will happen to the environment as human production and consumption continue to grow?
These are wicked problems, even though they are the result of largely positive trends towards more widespread human wellbeing. And they would not be vexing us were it not for technology.
Of course, this does not make technology bad, or even good–it is agnostic–but it does raise the question: if we used technology to get ourselves into these dilemmas, can we use it to get ourselves out?
The notion of Society 5.0 is an emphatic ‘YES’ to that question. It proposes that, through deep incorporation of technology, we can achieve a forward-looking society in which each and every person can lead an active and enjoyable life.
The Fifth Step
Human society has gone through a number of distinct evolutionary iterations.
Initially (Society 1.0), we organized ourselves in small groups or tribes of hunter gatherers, living off the natural output of the land. Then, through horticulture and agriculture (Society 2.0), we used tools to harness the growing potential of the earth, giving us more control over our food production. Society 3.0 saw us move into the industrial era, and Society 4.0 represents the information age we are living through now.
First proposed in Japan’s 5th Science and Technology Basic Plan as a future that the country should aspire to, Society 5.0 is seen as the next step towards a more successful human collective.
Rather than simply using technology to improve our means of production, this plan is intended to create a new social contract and economic model by fully integrating cutting-edge technological innovations into our social fabric.
The result? A super-smart society that leverages robotics, big data, AI, and the internet of everything to deliver services that improve the lives of all. It will need to be safe and it will need to be built on a new generation of wireless infrastructure, but the impact will be felt in multiple domains.
New solutions for new problems
The pace and extent of globalization have meant that new challenges have emerged that were either not anticipated, or at least not expected for some time to come. And, having a more integrated world means having more integrated problems that are more difficult to solve.
Sustaining economic growth while reducing income inequality and environmental degradation; improving the welfare of an aging population while ensuring opportunities for the youth; providing for more people using limited resources; slowing down, stopping, and then reversing the effects of climate change: these are, by Watkins’ and Wilber’s definition, wicked problems.
Society 5.0 imagines technology and humans working together to approach these Gordian knots in a number of different areas.
Japan is well-known for having a population that is weighted heavily towards older citizens–approximately a third of the country is 60 years or older–which is partly why Society 5.0 has a strong emphasis on better health and wellbeing, especially for the old.
However, as medical technology across the world improves in quality and affordability, all nations will face the challenges of having an aging population. These include increasing medical and social security expenses, and the demands of caring for the elderly.
In Society 5.0, wearable medical devices will allow health and physiological data to be captured, uploaded and analyzed remotely, permitting early (AI-driven) detection and diagnosis of illness. Medication and healthcare services will be delivered by drone and autonomous vehicles, giving elderly people in rural areas equal access to quality healthcare. Robots and AI will assist in giving elderly citizens living support, even offering them the conversation and companionship that is critical to greater mental health.
In combination, these results will lessen the burden on public healthcare systems, lowering the need for hospital visits and improving the accuracy and efficacy of diagnoses and medical prescriptions.
Expanding urban populations throughout the world are leading to the intensification of congestion and transport system overload. On the opposite end of the scale, depopulated rural areas have fewer public transport options or none at all.
As we move towards society’s 5th iteration, technology will play a significant role in addressing these problems.
In cities and concentrated urban centres, traffic management systems will be guided by ubiquitous sensors and cameras. These will generate vast amounts of data that will be combined, through AI, with weather data and regional event data to optimize traffic flows.
Individuals will also have their own preferences for travel, food and entertainment overlayed with universal transport data to deliver personalized journey recommendations.
In rural areas, driverless taxis and buses will be promoted for public transport. Distribution and delivery services will build a broader reach.
As with individuals’ health, social care for public infrastructure and services will become proactive in Society 5.0. This move will be the backbone of civil management in smart cities.
Installations like roads, buildings, tunnels and dams will be monitored by sensors supplying a continuous feed of data. This information will allow preemptive maintenance and efficient deployment of technicians with specialized skills.
As a result, accidents will be minimized, time and resources spent in construction and repair work will be reduced. Safety and productivity will increase.
A declining rural population worldwide is leading to a labor shortage in agriculture, This, in a sector that is under increasing pressure to raise production while working against the challenges of more extreme climate patterns.
In Society 5.0, AI analysis of big data, such as meteorological data, crop-growth data, market conditions, and food trends and needs, will lead to hyper-efficient agricultural management.
These “intelligent” data-based decisions will be carried out by autonomous farming vehicles and machinery. From soil preparation to crop collection to seed planting, robots, drones and driverless farm equipment will take over many traditional farm labor roles.
The world population is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050. Only through AI and machine-optimized agricultural management will we be able to feed so many people.
Disaster prevention and response
As we see more examples of extreme weather around the globe, the future value of predictive climatological and geological information is becoming clearer and clearer.
As Society 5.0 unfolds, data acquired from terrestrial weather radar, satellites, geological sensors, drones and public observation systems will become invaluable. Processed in real-time using AI, this information will deliver those precious minutes or hours’ warning of impending disaster that can save lives.
Widespread access to mobile networks will allow safety and prevention broadcasts to be disseminated directly to end users, while devices can be used to geolocate individuals in trouble.
To those trapped by environmental disasters, relief and rescue materials can be delivered by drones, which will also be able to feed back video footage of victims’ state of wellbeing.
In a world of 9 billion people, much of the competition for resources will effectively be a competition for energy. Optimal energy creation and management will be crucial to a harmonious society.
As energy production moves more towards green alternatives like wind and solar, weather plays a more important role. Analysis of weather data and accurate prediction of weather patterns will a key aspect of reliable electricity manufacturing.
Big data processing by AI will also optimize electricity flows across the grid to meet vacillations in demand and supply. This will be particularly important in smart cities where responsive systems in buildings and public locations will manage energy down to the minute, and most forms of transport will become electric.
The true power of Society 5.0 will lie in its degree of integration. The more the cyber and physical worlds are combined, the greater the benefits we will experience.
However, the same is true of cyber threats. The more technology is incorporated into every corner of our social being, even our physical being, the greater the risk to our personal and collective safety.
Society 5.0 is built on an intricate network of sensors, devices machines and systems–a vast internet of everything. Each of these components broadens the cyber attack surface, but also elevates the stakes in the case of fallout.
When technology is woven into the tapestry of all we do, it is not hard to see the potential dangers. Autonomous vehicles, AI-operated public transport systems, fleets of drones, critical disaster prevention processes–these can all be hacked.
That is true today, but the difference in Society 5.0 is that all relationships are cyber-kinetic. Virtual events have physical results. People get hurt. Or worse.
The connectivity requirements of Society 5.0 are almost incomprehensible. In all areas–urban to rural–devices and humans will be engaged in perpetual real-time communication. This will not be possible without 5G.
With its lighting speeds, near-zero latency, and high device connection capacity, only 5G has the potential to deliver the Society 5.0 vision. It will facilitate access to AI’s full capability, processing ocean’s of data in an instant, using it to make key decisions that impact millions.
With the broad geographical distribution of services that Society 5.0 calls for, 5G services like edge computing and network slicing will become even more important than they are now.
5G is perhaps already the most critical of Critical Infrastructures. But, in the fifth generation of society, it may be the gateway to a better way of life for all of us.