The Japanese tech conglomerate SoftBank announced yesterday that it was buying the chip maker ARM for a whopping $31.4 billion in cash. There are some straightforward explanations for why this deal took place. The UK's decision to exit the European Union caused the value of the pound to plummet, making a cash takeover much cheaper now than any time in recent history. And ARM has also been growing rapidly while generating profits. But there is another, more interesting rationale behind the acquisition.
SoftBank's founder and CEO, Masayoshi Son, has a reputation for eclectic interests and big bets. While most of his business career has focused on the telecom sector, his purchase of ARM brings SoftBank deep into the world of hardware. That would position it to reap the rewards of new explosion in computing driven by the rapid advancement of artificial intelligence. Here's a revealing quote he gave to the Nikkei Asian Review last month:
"I think we are about to see the biggest paradigm shift in human history. The Singularity is coming. Artificial intelligence will overtake human beings not just in terms of knowledge, but in terms of intelligence. That will happen this century."
This version of The Singularity was popularized by Ray Kurzweil, the noted inventor and futurist who is now working on chatbots for Google. It has also found currency with Silicon Valley heavyweights like Peter Thiel and Elon Musk. Of course, you don't have to believe in this startling vision of the future to believe that ARM will find great business at the intersection of mobile devices and artificial intelligence. Advanced computer vision and emotional intelligence are already being deployed into robots like the DJI Phantom 4 drone and Anki's Cozmo.
How soon till Pepper considers me the toy?
SoftBank has its own robot, Pepper, that will use AI to try and form an emotional attachment with its human owners. And both Apple and Google made AI a central theme in the launch of their latest mobile software, and ARM's chips will be used to power at least some of the phones running those programs.
Son, like many tech billionaires, has a very optimistic view of how these developments will play out. "There will be a world without language barriers. We will be able to peek into the future. Human beings will be able to live in a more prosperous age," he told Nikkei Asian Review. It was this bold vision of the future that led not just to the purchase of ARM, but to Son's recent decision to postpone his retirement. "I still have unfinished business regarding the Singularity. I want to continue for at least another five years."