Tokyo with IVA15

Just a couple of hours left from my visit to Tokyo as part of the Royal Academy of Engineering Sciences (IVA) Innovation Leadership Program’s (IVA15) delegation. Japan is always interesting, in so many aspects. It’s the country with the longest life length in the world. The country always scoring among the highest in the world in innovation, with its high ranked universities and strong traditions.

It’s been an intensive week with 15+ visits to companies, universities, research institutes and authorities.

General Impressions

Human-centricity has been lifted in every presentation we’ve seen. Perfectionism in craftmanship has always been key component of the Japanese tradition, which is reflected in the quality of Japanese food, hand-made goods, and the precision of manufacturing processes. Respect for each other is another key component, reflected in all human behaviors. A short crash course by our guide from Business Sweden on how to dress, greet and sit, and where not to put the business cards that you receive was valuable. Still, I managed to break the social norms a couple of times by having my legs crossed when sitting.

There are many more jobs than job takers. People work very hard and taking full vacation is considered bad style. There are several ways to improve the situation – guest workers from other countries, encouraging more women to work. Artificial Intelligence is considered to be the game changer and life saver. AI is at the core of Japan’s vision of Society 5.0/5.1. Opposite to how the discussions go in Sweden when people worry about the effects of automation and AI, people is Japan look forward applying AI to automate jobs. “If you lose your job in Sweden you can come and work in Japan”, one of them said. And for the first time I saw that the authorities are looking not only at replacing that low-end, repetitive, dangerous and boring jobs that no one wants to have but also the high-profile jobs such as directors and strategists. Agree completely – when companies are fully digitalized they can just as well use AI as a managing director. As long as it works together with a human board of directors.

Every time AI was mentioned it had a human in the center – “human-centric AI”.

Great concept for many reasons, including the comforting one – “AI is my trusted partner, but I’m in control”. Quite some work still remains to ensure that we humans are in control, which is also something that we researchers like – stay tuned for upcoming papers on that matter.

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Toyota is a role model for production system design with its definition of lean production and the Toyota Production System (TPS). We saw it in action and it’s amazing. TPS adheres to a number of principles and the objective function is to minimize “waste”. The definition of waste can vary and a simplified version means time waste. It can include more parameters such as sustainability impacts or material waste. Many productions plants (such as Ericsson and Scania) have implemented their versions of TPS. An immediate thought of an AI researcher: the production plant planning problem can be automated, since it’s very well defined.

Sony Computer Science Lab

A company under Sony’s wings with some 20-30 crazy scientists on a mission to change the world. Can AI win a Nobel prize? Can AI become a Michelin star chef? And researchers’ KPIs didn’t only include papers, patents and industrializations but also impacts in art. One exhibition showed robots developing their own language. For any object they detected they mapped a sound and then could communicate through these sounds with each other. In the end they were chattering in their own “natural language” about the visitors of the exhibition. This is as such not ground-breaking nor directly applicable in industry but very cool and makes AI understandable for those not in the field. It is an illustration of a collaborative learning process, which has a big educational value as well as an artistic component.

Picture source: © Julien Gremaud for Digital Brainstorming


All Sci-Fi lovers were mind-blown. Others too, I believe. A lot can be said about the company and the cool CEO who took us through the history, development and successes. This was truly human-centric. Similar to Steve Jobs, the CEO of Cyberdyne, Prof Yoshiyuki Sankai, once had a dream. He wanted to help people and address the potential problems of the aging population of Japan. He built a system that non-intrusively reads bio-electric intentional signals of a human, amplifies these signals, actuates the robotic part of the solution – a cyborg-like exoskeleton, and closes the loop by sending the signals of performed movement back to the brain. Applications included patients with spinal injuries who learned to control the exoskeleton with their brain and later restore the function of their bodies without using an exoskeleton. The company applies brain research from the Nobel prise winning researchers.

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In other words, telepathy is now possible. If I can learn to control a robot through brain signals then I can also send binary information to others, using the power of thought only.

#IVA15 at Cyberdyne