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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The concept of a digital twin has been around for a while. It is used to describe a digital representation of a physical thing on some abstraction level that continuously maps to the state of the physical thing. Before the introduction of cyber-physical systems this has been called a model.
Digital twins are widely used nowadays when we interact with physical things such as cars or robots. The beauty of the concept is that you can interact with the digital representation mirroring the behaviour of the actual thing you want to control. Controlling hardware involves embedded programming, adaptors and protocols, and these are abstracted away for you. Examples range from an app for your thermostat to a full representation of a manufacturing plant. And telecom radio sites have digital twins as well.
Looking at my 10-year-old son I start wondering how much physical things the new generation craves about. He’s very much into the digital world as many other kids and, unlikely his sister, does not care much about physical stuff. His room is pretty empty and his most important things are his computer and his phone. He’s very quick at spending his monthly allowance on computer games and in-app purchases. His heroes are digital, and physical things are of no interest.
With my background in computer science I do admire the shift towards the digital, and the appreciation of pure-software products, with the willingness to spend money on those. This is a really good trend from the sustainability perspective as well. But empty rooms are really no fun, and I keep buying my 10-year-old nice pillows, pictures and other decorations.
And now it’s time for me to share my business idea with you – up for grabs, first come first served! What if we could bring that digital things that miss the physical side to life through “physical twins”? Similar to Disney et al selling their soft toys looking like Mermaid or Nemo. But a twin for real, acting in real-time and real-life, along with its digital original. And it should not be so big of a step given the 3D-printing techniques, the cost of motors and modems, and the fact that the digital model has already been designed. Wouldn’t you love your favourite character from SIMS walk around in your house? Do you see the scale if we could right-click and order home physical twins of our favourite game characters? Personally, I would immediately invest in a couple of friendly dinosaurs from Lost Eden.
Some years ago my parents got themselves a robotic vacuum cleaner iRobot Roomba. They immediately gave it a name – Vasya. Sometimes Vasya would get stuck, and sometimes he would start sneezing out all the dust he had collected, and they thought it was cute and gladly told stories about Vasya. And studies show that when people turn in their broken robotic vacuum cleaners to a repair shop, the prefer not to have them replaced but rather repaired.
We do get emotionally attached to things. The day we decided to sell our motorcycle was a sad day because of that emotional attachment. All that feelings came up: the excitement of the first decision to buy, picking a model and a color, waiting for the delivery, seeing it for the first time, driving it for the first time. And the decision of selling if was simply because of that guilt that i don’t have enough time to drive it and it deserves a better owner.
Attachment to intelligent things can be stronger. Our little Nao, for example. He came to us in 2009, worked and traveled with us, learned new things, and, last year, he actually moved out and now he lives with his new family in Gothenburg. And I must say that when I got to see a video of him traveling by train i get this warm feeling that everything is fine with him.
But what about things that don’t resemble a living creature? We used to kick our misbehaving printers, TV-sets (before the era of flat screens at least) and computers. At least i never got hard feelings when watching the “printer scene” from Office Space over and over again.
We fell empathy and get emotionally attached to things for different reasons:
Something resembles a living creature (works with toys as well)
Something exhibits an intellect similar to a living creature (in this case the thing does not necessarily need to look like one).
We have memories connected to the things (such as traveling together with your bike)
A combination of these certainly makes the case stronger. Boston Dynamics, for example, build humanoids and animal-looking robots that not only move in a way living creatures do, but also act with an intellect, and a purpose, such as rescuing people from fire. People find the situation adorable and react as if these were living creatures interacting with each other (see youtube comments).
Would people ever like to hurt such intelligent creatures? What feelings do you get when watching the poor things getting abused? This is for sure a necessary evil, such as experiments on rats in medical tests. I have no idea how the coming generations will see such things. I can only hope that there is a shift into treating all things with respect, the similar way you treat a living creature.
A T-shaped person has in in-depth knowledge in one field (vertical bar of T) and a broad knowledge of an application domain (horizontal bar of T). For example, a statistician specialised in political systems. Or, a politician who knows statistics. It is important that the two bars are connected: if you are really good at solving differential equations and know a lot about french porcelain of 17th century you cannot automatically call yourself a T-shaped person. Similarly to T-shape, there is a Pi-shape with one more leg of in-depth knowledge, and an E-shape – you get the point. In general, the more “bars” you have as a person the more interesting you are. In case you choose to be I-shaped, you can still be endlessly interesting for people who are into the same field while running a risk of being seen as a geek by everyone else.
Personally, I have been working hard on diversifying my professional profile (=adding more bars to my shape) while keeping it all connected. I gladly take opportunities of diving into new areas and shifting my focus from old areas. In the long run this strategy brings me to a shape of a Swiss army knife. There are plenty of “bars” of different shapes and directions, and they are all connected.
Companies love multipurpose tools – if they were to close down the corkscrewing department and put more focus on cutting department they would not need to go through a tedious process of firing and hiring people. But multipurpose aspects are not valued when it comes to bringing new people onboard because when a hiring manager is after skill A he’d often rather take a person who only has skill A than a person with skills A, B, C. The latter case is called “overqualified”, when in fact the hiring manager is simply worried that skill A won’t get enough focus. So here comes a free career advice: be clear (with yourself and others) of what skills you are good at and what skills give you most energy, and go for the ones you love. One of my personal favourites would be the corkscrew.
We have more and more supporters in life. Digital assistants pop up everywhere and now we have Mika, Siri, Alexa, Amelia, Lucida, Cortana and many more on the market. They help us navigate in web shops, be more productive at work and keep track of our calendars. And as the field is becoming increasingly popular, the number of digital assistants continue to grow and often similar assistants are being created for the same purpose. And for some time I had this uneasy feeling of having too many of those around me, like having too many phones, or too many irons. Why can’t I have one ultimate assistant that can manage everything that concerns me, I thought. But actually I do need several of those. Because I don’t want my personal shopper to give me advices in my career. I would like my lifestyle coach to be a woman, and my personal trainer to be a man, preferably with Russian accent. And for driving instructions I for sure want Ozzy Osborne. Sometimes I want to be treated gently, and sometimes I want to be challenged. And I don’t want to tell them which approach to use on me – they should know it by themselves. And as I am not a talkative person I do not really want to talk to them. They should act on my behalf, schedule meetings, book tables at restaurants, order food for me, plan my routs and give me recommendations. I will require transparency and sometimes I will check how they came to their conclusions. I will do it more often with my new assistants and give my old proven ones more freedom – just like I do with my colleagues at work.
But humans are full of conflicting objectives. My personal banking assistant may not be happy about the decisions of my holiday planner. And will my work assistant be able to agree with Paul’s work assistant to satisfy the constraints of our kids’ activity planner? This works as long as they all rely on the same multi-parametric system with all the knowledge that’s relevant to me. In other words, all my assistants are in fact one, with many different faces, voices and flavours. And we should not be afraid of hooking in more of them, as long as they are in agreement, and optimizing your life in a systemic way without leading you into local optimum.
Here’s a list of annoying phrases published by Betty Lui – I love it. I do get annoyed by 70% of those. And I do use about 20% of those myself (to be honest). I want to tell you some other annoying phrases that i often hear.
We were too early
Sure, it must feel comforting to say this. We failed because we were too smart for the rest of the world. The market was not ready. The supporting technologies were not ready. I suggest different phrasing:
We did design mistakes
Lack of supporting technologies made our product useless
We were not persistent
We did not dare to take it the whole way
I am not shooting down the innovations there but sometimes we need to be more humble about the reasons our great ideas fail.
How much do you think Elin learned about Communicating Embedded Systems after reading this book?
We were probably slightly too early…
It’s a good start
Yes, i have a tendency of scanning for a negative hidden message in everything. And this one does sound negative to me when it’s given. Don’t wrap negative messages into something that sounds more positive – put it like this instead:
You have not reached that far
This is junk
But maybe it’s too much to ask from Swedes and Americans. Negative feedback is not a strong side of these nationalities in general.
Sure, experiences are good in general. And when we have to go through something that hurts/annoys/irritates we learn something and come out stronger. But i don’t ever want to hear this phrase from those who actually cause this experience, especially when the outcome it known a-priori.