SoftBank CEO’s 30-year vision covers ARM, OneWeb, AI—but not Sprint

SoftBank's Masayoshi Son presents his vision of the future at the Mobile World Congress trade show.

BARCELONA, Spain—SoftBank’s chief executive laid out an elaborate vision for the technology and telecom industries for the next 30 years, predicting that superintelligent robots will dramatically change society and potentially prevent disasters like nuclear war. However, the carrier’s U.S. wireless network operator, Sprint, was not mentioned by Masayoshi Son during his keynote presentation here at the Mobile World Congress trade show.

“The birth of superintelligence is definitely happening in the next 30 years,” said Masayoshi Son, founder, chairman and CEO of Japan’s SoftBank. SoftBank purchased a controlling interest in U.S. operator Sprint in 2013. “There will be many kinds of smart robot. Flying, driving, swimming, tiny.”

During his presentation, Son predicted that the singularity—the idea that the invention of artificial superintelligence will trigger massive technological growth and cultural change—will happen in the next handful of years. That turning point, he said, will imbue robots with IQs of up to 10,000. (For perspective, Albert Einstein had an IQ of 160.)

Son said his belief that artificial intelligence, or AI, will undoubtedly exceed human intelligence in the coming years informed his decision to acquire chipmaker ARM as well as to gain an investment in satellite company OneWeb.

For ARM, Son said that AI will be embedded in a wide range of devices that will all be connected to each other and to the network through the internet of things (IoT). “By owning ARM, I can discuss with our engineers what will be the design, next 10 years. So I have much better understanding than before our acquisition,” he said, predicting that the number of IoT devices with intelligence will eventually grow to 1 trillion.

“They will all be smart,” he said of the gadgets. He drew laughter from the MWC keynote audience when he noted that a chip in a user’s shoes will be smarter than they are. “We will be less than our shoes. And we will be stepping on them.”

Son added that he’s working to focus ARM and its products toward two main goals: Security and connectivity. He said the connectivity aspect will create and build on the IoT, while the security element must protect users from hacking. “There are a bunch of bad guys today who can hack,” he said, pointing to examples of hackers breaking into automobiles. “This is very scary.”

And SoftBank’s $1 billion investment into OneWeb reflects Son’s belief that OneWeb’s plans to offer satellite-based wireless services will eventually connect up to 1 billion subscribers. “This is an exciting company,” Son said, explaining that OneWeb’s satellites will be roughly 30 times closer to the Earth’s surface than existing communications satellites, resulting in download speeds of up to 200 Mbps, upload speeds of up to 50 Mbps, and lower latency.

“Those satellites become like a cell tower,” he said, adding that such figures will make the network like “fiber from space.”

In closing his presentation, Son pointed to 12 possible threats to human civilization, a list that included nuclear war, a global pandemic, extreme climate change, nanotechnology, AI and others. However, he said that AI also has the potential to aid humanity. “One of those 12 crises can be a solution for the other 11 crises,” he said.

“If we use it in good spirits,” Son said of AI, “it will be our partner.”

To be clear, Son has discussed topics such as the singularity, AI and robotics before, and has a reputation as a forward-thinking technologist along the lines of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Tesla’s Elon Musk. But his discussion of those issues here at the MWC show is notable considering the rest of the global wireless industry is also defining a future beyond building LTE networks for high-end smartphones.

However, it is worth noting that Sprint didn’t play a role in Son’s 30-year vision (though, to be clear, neither did SoftBank’s own cellular network in Japan). Indeed, SoftBank is reportedly willing to give T-Mobile control of Sprint if necessary to achieve a merger between the two smallest major U.S. operators; a Reuters report citing unnamed “people familiar with the matter” said SoftBank has yet to approach Deutsche Telekom, which owns T-Mobile, about the subject due to the FCC’s anti-collusion restrictions during the ongoing incentive auction of 600 MHz spectrum.