Japanese hottest unicorn Mercari expands AI research with Sharp and academia leaders

Mercari CEO Shintaro Yamada introduces in-house AI research initiative Mercari R4D
Image credit: Sekiko Suzuki/The Bridge

See the original story in Japanese.

Japan’s Mercari, providing the peer-to-peer marketplace app under the same name, announced in December that it has established Mercari R4D, a Research & Development organization with the aim to deploy emerging technologies to the society. Toshiya Kimura, Manager of Engineering Department at Mercari, was appointed the head of the new initiative.

The name R4D stands for ‘Research for Development, Design, Deployment and Disruption.’ Mercari has been utilizing Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning technologies so far, and the firm will begin projects for social deployment and commercialization of these technologies in cooperation with other enterprises or educational organizations through the initiative. At this time, eight research themes jointly with Sharp and university laboratories have already been chosen, as follows:

  • Communications with multiple locations utilizing 8K TVs with Corporate R&D Business Unit, Sharp
  • Outletless office with wireless power feed system with Kawahara Lab, The University of Tokyo
  • Deep Hashing Network for similar image search with Ochiai Lab, Tsukuba University
  • 3D form estimation from product image posted on the marketplace with Ochiai Lab, Tsukuba University
  • Background auto-specification from product image with Ochiai Lab, Tsukuba University
  • Trust framework using blockchain with Keio University
  • Internet of Things ecosystem with Cross-tech Design Lab, Kyoto University of Art & Design
  • Application of quantum annealing technology to art field with Ohzeki Lab, Tohoku University

According to Mercari CEO Shintaro Yamada, the investment amount to these research activities has not been clearly set yet, but it will be at several hundred millions of yen (several millions of dollars)-scale next year. The research themes are chosen from mid-to long-term plans requiring 3 to 5 years, as well as ones utilizing IoT or blockchain technologies having application possibility of social infrastructure.

Research is already being undertaken in the above eight themes and more themes will possibly be added. The commercialization and deployment of research results may be brought about as a Mercari product in the future. Yamada explains the background to the foundation of R4D:

Mercari achieved 100 million downloads just the other day. Meanwhile, we have implemented the wrongful exhibit detection system utilizing AI technology or the auto-estimation of weight of items to the app for the U.S.. One of our purposes is to differentiate the app by technologies through R&D.

The firm plans to enhance its engineer structure to 1000-staffer organization from current 100-staffer one. In addition, it started establishment of an organization capable of scaling by micronizing each function. Kimura explains the firm’s future vision:

As Fujifilm engaged in development of cosmetics, we may start different business in the future and are considering how to make good use of our owned technologies.

As the Japanese artist Sputniko!, a renowned British/Japanese artist and designer, who joined the team as Senior Producer, various direction of deployment can be seen, for example utilizing technologies which are hard to deploy immediately into a form of design or art. The firm focuses on research as well as commercialization and visualization of technology jointly with external research organizations.

Translated by Taijiro Takeda
Edited by “Tex” Pomeroy