From the delicate sway of her hair to her subtle blinking eyes, the 17-year-old girl on screen is so remarkably lifelike it is hard to believe she is not real. But as artificial intelligence continues to push boundaries, that fact may not matter.

Known as a multimodal agent, Saya is able to understand people's intentions and respond accordingly through cutting-edge sensors and AI that can analyze multiple forms of input data, such as images, voice and movement, in an integrated manner.

Koichi Nakamura (L), founder and CEO of Idein Inc., and Shin Osuga, a senior expert engineer at Aisin Corp.'s Advanced Development Department, pose with the virtual human Saya on April 7, 2023. (Kyodo)

Such intelligent systems represent the so-called Society 5.0 envisioned by the Japanese government, where the frontier between cyberspace and physical space is completely blurred, and everything that can run itself does.

Proposed by Japan, the concept extends the Fourth Industrial Revolution initiative coined by Germany, incorporating its innovations, including AI, the Internet of Things, big data and robots, into every aspect of society.

Developers involved in the Saya project, which was showcased at the Gunma Digital Land exhibition in March ahead of the G-7 Digital and Tech Ministers' Meeting in Takasaki on April 29-30, envisage emotive AI systems will be used in autonomous transport, elderly care and other scenarios that would benefit from human touch.

"One of our goals as an automotive parts manufacturer is to develop self-driving buses and automated valet parking systems. AI will play the role of watching over and easing the loneliness of people as such vehicles become unmanned," said Shin Osuga, senior expert engineer at Aisin Corp.'s Advanced Development Department.

The auto parts manufacturer that is part of the Toyota Motor Corp. group is leading the consortium of Japanese universities and firms developing Saya whose design, based on a character by CG artist duo Telyuka, is said to surpass the uncanny valley.

"As the elderly population increases, it will not be feasible to have them operate (systems) with smartphones. It will be a natural evolution to have a human interface like this that allows intuitive interactions from young to old," said Koichi Nakamura, founder and CEO of Idein Inc.

The Tokyo-based startup, which developed the AI camera for Saya, is also pioneering edge AI with its flagship product Actcast, an IoT platform service designed to process data locally on the device itself, removing the need for external servers or cloud computing resources.

"We are now finally entering a phase in which the world is beginning to understand how AI can be used in concrete and useful ways. When implementation rapidly proceeds, it will be difficult for many businesses to scale up due to issues such as cost and privacy if the AI is cloud-based," Nakamura said.

Edge AI not only reduces the cost associated with transferring large amounts of data and the risk of confidential information being leaked but also offers "ultra-low latency" -- an imperative to avoid delays in fields that require real-time data processing such as self-driving technology, robotics and remote monitoring of infrastructure.

Screen shows input from AI Cast, an edge AI camera developed by Aisin Corp. and Idein Inc. that is capable of face recognition, depth estimation and other analysis. (Kyodo)

With Japan facing the challenge of a declining birthrate and a graying population, the government is pinning its hopes on smart cities to overcome adverse trends like labor shortages, depopulation in regional areas and constraints related to energy and the environment.

To support the backbone of the future smart world, which will rely on high bandwidth networks that enable fast and reliable communication between devices, major Japanese telecom provider Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp. is developing a next-generation network known as IOWN, or the Innovative Optical and Wireless Network.

At the core of this initiative is the All-Photonics Network, which uses optical-based technologies to achieve 125-fold improvements in transmission capacity, 100-fold improvements in power efficiency, and end-to-end latency that is 1/200 that of conventional networks.

"IOWN acts as the platform for 6G, which will be needed to support more network requirements on the digital transformation path," said Yuta Takino, section manager of the IOWN promotion office at Nippon Telegraph and Telephone East Corp.

NTT aims to put its next-gen network into operation by 2030 and so far has held multiple trials, including a proof-of-concept demonstration last November in which the system was successfully used to remotely control a surgical robot over 100 kilometers away.

Operators at the NTT Musashino R&D Center in western Tokyo could also view the on-site environment in real-time via 8K ultra-high definition video with almost zero delay fluctuations.

In March, the company rolled out its first commercial service implementing the IOWN concept, known as "APN IOWN 1.0."

"APN will solve time and distance issues. The ultimate goal is that people can use the same service wherever they are in Japan," said Takino.

In the future, NTT expects the innovative technology will also support other core features of smart societies, such as mobility as a service, or MaaS, and digital twin computing, in which a parallel virtual world is built to run predictions and testing.

Takino suggested that when Society 5.0 does eventually arrive, "you are going to need a fast network" to send the population's data to processing centers around the country.