Etching the Future: The Journey of AI, Robotics, and Semiconductors in Japan [Japan Pulse #6]

Picture a world where machines possess human-like cognitive abilities, where robots execute tasks with unmatched precision and efficiency, and where semiconductors serve as the driving force behind revolutionary applications that dramatically change our everyday lives. This isn’t a page from a science fiction novel anymore. Rather, it’s a reality sculpted by artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics within the precision manufacturing industry of Japan.

Japan has distinguished itself in the realm of precision manufacturing, known for its unwavering commitment to high-tech development and application. This particular industry concentrates on creating high-quality, high-performance products with an emphasis on reducing errors and waste. AI and robotics have emerged as key innovations in reshaping this industry, significantly boosting efficiency, product quality, and innovation—particularly in the sector of semiconductor production equipment.

Semiconductor production equipment is a crucial pillar of the global semiconductor supply chain, as it enables the production of integrated circuits (ICs). These ICs are essential components of a vast range of electronic devices and applications. This article will take you on a journey through the evolution of AI and robotics in Japan’s precision manufacturing sector, exploring current collaborations between the US and Japan that aim to push the boundaries of the semiconductor industry. We’ll also highlight some of the Japanese companies leading the charge in revolutionizing semiconductor production with AI and robotics.

The Evolution of AI and Robotics in Japan’s Precision Manufacturing Industry

From its early ventures in the 1970s to its cutting-edge developments today, Japan’s exploration of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) has evolved into an integral part of its cultural, societal, and industrial fabric. As an innovator and trailblazer, Japan has gifted the world with some of the most influential and iconic robots.

WABOT-1, the first full-scale anthropomorphic robot globally, was one of Japan’s early forays into the realm of robotics. Created in 1973 by Waseda University, WABOT-1 was more than a simple machine; it featured a limb-control system, a vision system, and a conversation system, allowing it to interact with humans, measure distances, and handle objects with tactile sensors.

Simultaneously, Japan pushed the boundaries of AI research and development. The Fifth Generation Computer Systems project, launched in 1982, focused on creating computers capable of handling vast amounts of information using logic programming and parallel processing. This project led to the development of pioneering AI systems for computer vision, natural language processing, and expert systems.

The marriage of these AI breakthroughs and robotics ushered in an era of advanced robotic intelligence. Japan harnessed its expertise to revolutionize various manufacturing sectors, including electronic machinery and automobiles. As the first nation to integrate industrial robots into tasks such as welding, painting, and assembling cars, Japan elevated productivity and quality to new heights.

Pioneering this industrial revolution were renowned Japanese companies like Yaskawa and Kawasaki. Yaskawa launched the first all-electric industrial robot, MOTOMAN, in 1977, setting the foundation for modern industrial robotics. Kawasaki initiated the domestic production of industrial robots in Japan in 1969, in partnership with the American venture company Unimation.

However, as Japan entered the 21st century, it was confronted with new challenges and opportunities. An aging population and an impending labor shortage created a pressing need for versatile robots capable of fulfilling a diverse range of tasks, from caregiving and education to entertainment and security.

In response to this demand, Japan led the development of humanoid robots like Honda’s ASIMO and Sony’s AIBO. Designed to interact with humans naturally and intuitively, ASIMO was the first humanoid robot to walk on two legs, while AIBO, a robotic dog, could learn and interact with its environment. Service robots, such as Toyota’s Human Support Robot (HSR), also emerged, providing basic care and assistance in nursing and long-term care contexts.

Furthermore, Japan’s unique cultural and social elements played a crucial role in its robotics and AI evolution. Influenced by the widespread belief in animism, the popularity of manga and anime culture, and a fondness for machines, Japan fostered a society where robots were seen as companions and family members, possessing souls and attributes of endearment.

This cultural influence is manifest in SoftBank Robotics’ Pepper, a social robot that can recognize human emotions and converse with people. Pepper serves various roles in Japan, from customer service assistant and teacher to companion for the elderly and even a Buddhist priest.

Source: Softbank Robotics

Japan’s pioneering journey in robotics and AI shows no signs of waning. Through continuous innovation, investment, and the deep-rooted integration of these technologies into its culture, society, and industry, Japan continues to inspire and influence the world in the field of robotics and AI.

Collaboration between Japan and the US in Semiconductor Development

Japan has also proven itself as a heavyweight contender in the global semiconductor industry, establishing its indelible significance particularly in semiconductor production equipment.

As reported by the International Trade Association in November 2022, Japan has demonstrated a formidable presence in the worldwide market of semiconductors and associated equipment. Specifically, Japan contributes roughly 6% to the global supply of semiconductor chips, which include logic, micro, memory, and analog chips. More prominently, the country’s contribution escalates to an impressive 35% when considering semiconductor manufacturing equipment. The strength of Japan’s involvement is most distinct in the realm of semiconductor materials, where it fulfills a staggering 50% of the international demand. This data clearly illustrates Japan’s significant role and influence in the global semiconductor industry.

The semiconductor sector not only ensures Japan’s economic stability but also fortifies its position within the global supply chain, an aspect that resonates deeply in the context of the ongoing US-China rivalry for technological dominance. Among a limited number of nations proficient in manufacturing sophisticated semiconductor production equipment, Japan takes a prominent position with its adeptness in creating logic ICs, memory ICs, and display ICs.

Japan occupies a commanding position in the global market for plasma etching machines. These complex devices use plasma beams to intricately carve circuits onto silicon wafers. Additionally, Japan has a dominant global share in chemical mechanical planarization (CMP) machines, which are integral for the process of smoothening and flattening silicon wafers. The nation also meets a significant portion of the global demand for lithography machines, an essential element in the production of advanced ICs.

The collaborative effort between Japan and the US is targeted towards the actualization of next-generation semiconductor technology. This endeavor aims at the creation of advanced logic ICs featuring smaller, more efficient architectures, such as gate-all-around (GAA) designs. The emergence of next-generation semiconductor technology carries profound implications for future innovation and security, promising faster and more robust computing that will catalyze advancements in fields like artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and the Internet of Things. It also enhances the competitiveness and resilience of the semiconductor industry and its supply chain, mitigating dependence risks on a single source or region for vital semiconductor devices.

To actualize this next-generation semiconductor technology, Japan and the US are actively participating in collaborative research and development initiatives, leveraging AI and robotics in several strategic ways:

First, in an endeavor to reduce dependency on Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), the US and Japan have committed to jointly develop advanced 2-nanometer semiconductor technology. This strategic collaboration, confirmed in a top-level meeting of the US-Japan Economic Policy Consultative Committee, aims to establish a research and development organization in Japan, featuring significant US participation. The goal is to streamline the development and validation of this cutting-edge technology, with a view to kickstart production by 2025.

Secondly, the inception of the Leading-edge Semiconductor Technology Center (LSTC) in Japan operates as a research and development entity that coordinates with the US National Semiconductor Technology Center (NSTC). The NSTC incorporates major semiconductor companies and research institutions. In contrast, Japan’s LSTC, led by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), involves universities, national research institutes, and semiconductor companies. The LSTC and NSTC will work in conjunction to exchange information, share best practices, formulate standards, and foster and protect important emerging technologies.

Source: Yomiuri Shimbun

Finally, Japan and the US share a commitment to expanding cooperation on key technologies beyond semiconductors, including AI, machine learning (AI/ML). The application of AI/ML technologies is vital for enhancing design automation and verification, yield prediction and defect detection, and product development and innovation. Both countries are capitalizing on AI and robotics to fortify their capabilities. For instance, Preferred Networks, a leading AI firm in Japan, has allied with Toyota to develop service robots that employ deep learning algorithms to assist people in their daily activities.

The Transformation of Japan’s Semiconductor Industry Leveraging AI and Robotics

Embracing a new era of growth and technological advancement, Japan’s semiconductor industry is pivoting towards domestic expansion and the development of innovative chip technologies. A significant strategy driving this evolution is the industry’s enthusiastic adoption of AI and robotics, two key components of Industry 4.0. The following are some intriguing examples of how Japanese semiconductor firms are taking advantage of these cutting-edge technologies.

Take Tokyo Electron, for instance, a trailblazer in Japan’s chipmaking equipment manufacturing landscape. The company plans to inaugurate a state-of-the-art production facility in Oshu, Japan, by 2025. With an acute awareness of the rising global demand for semiconductors and potential energy supply risks, the company is actively exploring solutions to optimize power consumption. These initiatives include adjusting the proximity of memory devices to logic devices, developing efficient System-on-Chip (SoC) architectures, and using 3D system integration technologies. In addition, they’re progressing in the realm of AI technology with the development of analog neural devices and nonvolatile resistive random access memories. Tokyo Electron’s holistic approach aims to fulfill next-generation computing needs, notably the creation of AI chipsets with faster processing speeds and greater energy efficiency, which will help bring computer performance closer to the capabilities of the human brain.

Sony, another influential entity in Japan’s semiconductor industry, is transforming into an AI and data-driven organization through the creation of Sony Research Inc. This initiative amplifies their endeavors in AI and robotics, while simultaneously enhancing intellectual property value and fan engagement with AI tools. An ethical approach to AI is among their top priorities. Sony is making significant inroads in trending technology arenas, launching AI projects like the racing agent Gran Turismo Sophy™, and delving into blockchain technology for tracking in-game assets. They’ve also introduced a motion capture device, Mocopi, designed for real-time operation in metaverse applications. These innovations reflect Sony’s commitment to realizing their vision: ‘Fill the world with emotion, through the power of creativity and technology’.

Kioxia, the primary memory chip manufacturer in Japan, is transforming its Yokkaichi Plant into an autonomous smart factory by leveraging AI and IoT technologies. These technologies are applied to gather and analyze big data from manufacturing and testing systems, enabling optimized chip performance and durability. Kioxia employs machine learning for root cause analysis of device failures, early defect detection, and traditionally human-dependent tasks like defect classification. In addition to this, the company uses digital twin technology for further analysis and optimization, thus enhancing overall productivity and quality.

Kioxia Smart Factory (Source: KIOXIA)

In a remarkable collaboration, several leading Japanese companies including Toyota, Sony, NTT, NEC, Softbank, Denso, Kioxia, and MUFG Bank, have formed Rapidus, a government-endorsed venture. This initiative, backed by the government’s substantial subsidy, targets domestic production of sub 2-nanometer chips by the late 2020s to meet the intensifying international competition. Emphasizing on advancing quantum and AI technologies, this collective effort is expected to strengthen the resilience of the supply chain, enhance industry competitiveness, and contribute to the digitalization and decarbonization of Japanese society.


Japan’s journey in the realm of AI, robotics, and precision manufacturing showcases its remarkable achievements and ongoing commitment to innovation. The integration of AI and robotics has not only transformed Japan’s manufacturing sector but also shaped its cultural and societal perspectives on machines. The collaboration between Japan and the US in semiconductor development underscores the importance of strategic partnerships and international cooperation in driving technological advancements. As Japan continues to harness the power of AI and robotics, it remains at the forefront of global innovation, inspiring and influencing the world in the field of precision manufacturing.

Recommended Reading

What we can learn about robots from Japan – BBC Future

Japanese robotics lags as AI captures global attention – Nature

The Ultimate Guide to Robots & AI in Japanese Culture – Link Interac

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