Thanks to Japan's competitive university entrance tests, it is a common stereotype that high school students in the country become "exam- passing machines". And now scientists in the Far Eastern nation have gone a step further - by actually building one.
Researchers in Tokyo have developed a "robot brain" that can answer exam questions at a level that would qualify it for around half of Japan's private universities. When the computer software answered multiple-choice mock exam questions in subjects including maths, history and literature, its average score was only slightly lower than a standard-performing human applicant.
The researchers who built the software at Japan's National Institute of Informatics are confident that it will be capable of scoring well in exams for the more prestigious public universities within two years. By 2021, they are hoping that it will be able to pass the toughest entrance test: for the University of Tokyo. The machine has been nicknamed "Todai" after the abbreviation of the university's name.
The good marks in the recent test came as a surprise and are something of a coup for the researchers. But it is a feat that fills project leader Professor Noriko Arai with both pride and terror.
"I'm just as shocked as happy that we did so well," she told TES, alluding to the profound implications such software could have as artificial intelligence (AI) progresses. "AI is a sort of mad-scientist dream pursued by lots of talented, mostly male Japanese."
Previously, the task of asking computers to understand fairly clear multiple-choice questions, such as those found in Japanese university entrance exams, had proved too complex. Even now, the language used in the exams is very difficult for computers to understand, and in the recent test the computer benefited from human help in decoding the questions.
Professor Arai explained that the project was a warning to everyone to start debating the potential consequences of creating machines that are as smart as or smarter than humans. "I wanted to get a clear image of how many of our intellectual activities will be replaced by machines," she said. "We have underestimated the pace at which AI is developing.
"A machine bright enough to pass the (University of) Tokyo and even the national exam will show just what a threat such machines could be to our graduates' employability: 10 to 20 per cent pushed out of work by AI will be a catastrophe.
"I can't begin to think what 50 per cent would mean - way beyond a catastrophe - and such numbers can't be ruled out if AI performs well in the future."
Despite the news that a computer is catching up with them, high school students in Japan seem unperturbed.
"I think AI can't do things perfectly because you need to know a lot about life and have an ethical view to do many jobs," said Naoki Miyauchi, an 18-year-old who is studying for more than five hours a day in preparation for the University of Tokyo exam. "However, in terms of correctness of information processing or speed we humans can't beat AI, even if we make (a) great effort," he added.
A source at the University of Tokyo said that any loss of faith in the entrance exam system would bring Japan's private universities to their knees. "All private universities. live on the fees that they charge wannabes to take their exams," he said.
Meanwhile, Professor Yasushi Ogasawara, an expert on the Japanese social system at Meiji University in Tokyo, believes that AI will eventually take many jobs in his own country and elsewhere. "Personally, I am (not) optimistic that the education system in Japan will swiftly change in order to foster new capabilities required in the new environment," he said.