Sony chief looks beyond smartphones towards robotics

Sony CEO Kazuo Hirai has said he believes technology will move beyond smartphones in the future and that the tech giant is open to working in robotics.

On Thursday, Mr Hirai had taken to the stage at the IFA electronics show in Berlin to discuss the Japanese firm's newest products, including their new Xperia XZ phone, as well as new noise-cancelling headphones, a gold-plated Walkman and a glass sound speaker which has now gone on sale in the UK. 

Speaking to the Press Association after his keynote, Mr Hirai said that Sony was keen to explore new areas of technology as part of their 'last one inch' mantra that refers to getting products close to consumers, and that artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics were a part of that.

"I think the combination of 'the last one inch' - things that you hold in your hand to access or upload information, entertainment and so on - that combined with AI and robotics is the area that, I think, is going to be a future growth area in a big way for Sony going forward," he said.

"One of the reasons we currently believe that - we're not saying this because it's a buzzword for this year - is that we used to create things like the Aibo (robotic dog) for example and the Qrio robot - that was never put into market obviously - but we have a lot of robotics and electronics know-how within the organisation.

"We have a lot of sensor technology, we obviously have a lot of AI technology as well and we feel that when you look at all the asset bases that we have, this combination of getting into robotics and combing it with AI is a natural result when we say 'what can we do to bring everything together?'"

He also dismissed the suggestions that AI-driven robots could be a threat, something Tesla and SpaceX chief Elon Musk has previously claimed. 

"I think that really depends on what sort of AI we're talking about and what area we're talking about as well. So, I think, to say 'AI, we should be concerned', just with a broad stroke brush, I think, is actually very dangerous.

"If Sony comes up with a robot for the house, is the AI involved in that dangerous or not? Consumers ultimately decide but I think it's a little bit of a general statement - too general."

Sony currently lies behind the market leaders Apple and Samsung when it comes to smartphone sales, but have recently seen their mobile business return to profitability, something Hirai, the former PlayStation chief, also wants to see the company continue, while keeping an eye on the future. 

"They (Sony Mobile) are tasked with ensuring that we continue to grow the Xperia business, number one. But just as importantly, is making sure that they are spending resources to look at what the next paradigm shift is going to be in personal communications.

"We had a real dramatic shift from feature phones to smartphones - this was about 12, 13 years ago now. At some point in time it is my belief that there is going to be a new paradigm shift in terms of communication devices that's going to move beyond smartphones or maybe even works with smartphones."

He added that Sony's latest products, including their new earpiece that reads your phone's notifications to you, showed thought was already being put into this future.

"Things like the Xperia Ear, for example, are ways in which we're exploring new opportunities beyond smartphones and so their mission is to make sure we look at and really strategise for the future of personal communications within the Sony group, leveraging all the technology we have within the group. And hopefully, as that paradigm shift comes, we're not riding anyone else's shift, but we're creating that shift."

Chinese firm Huawei has unveiled two new mid-range smartphones and a tablet at IFA, while fellow giant Samsung has been focusing on their Gear S3 smartwatch. 

"When the shift from feature phones to smartphones happened, the leaders in the feature phone business were displaced very quickly by the leaders in the smartphone business.

"So this is a market that's like Othello - you can be winning, but it can be turned around very quickly and it's really up to us and the other manufacturers to think about what really resonates with the customers, and that's our mission."