Math buffs get fired up over corporate challenges

Industry-linked projects expand as scholars shirk 'pure' problems

by Tatsuya Tsujimura

Kyodo

In an effort to solve real-life problems and apply knowledge that would otherwise be purely academic, Japanese mathematicians have begun boosting their ties to industry.

Around 20 of them gathered at a “study group” session designed for that purpose at the University of Tokyo’s Graduate School of Mathematical Sciences on a recent Monday.

During the session, corporate researchers took turns explaining problems they had been grappling with. Mathematicians then pledged to find solutions for them by the Friday of that week.

The session was conducted in a genial, open atmosphere with professor Masahiro Yamamoto, 55, saying the problems presented would help graduate students understand how much they can utilize what they have learned. Meanwhile, corporate researchers would have to “curiously wait and see.”

One question discussed actively during the session was “how companies can find useful information from messages posted by consumers on the Internet.”

Britain’s Oxford University launched a study group program in 1968 — assembling mathematicians from across the globe to work on problems presented by industry during a weeklong workshop. The University of Tokyo — better known as Todai — and Kyushu University jointly started their program in 2010.

Professor Masato Wakayama, 58, who represents Kyushu University in the joint program, is the first head of the Institute of Mathematics for Industry, established by the university in 2011. IMI consists of 25 experts on mathematics.

Mathematics for industry is a new research area aimed at “responding to the needs of the industrial sector by reorganizing and merging pure and applied mathematics into flexible and versatile forms,” IMI said.

Currently, a total of 20 study programs involving 17 Japanese companies, including Asahi Glass Co., Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. and Fujitsu Ltd., are underway.

“There were no joint studies between companies and mathematicians 10 years ago,” Wakayama said. “We’ve now even been approached by the medical school of Kyushu University for joint studies.”

Japanese scholars have been at the vanguard of mathematics during the postwar era. The Fields Medal, often described as the Nobel Prize of math, has been awarded to three of them — Kunihiko Kodaira (1915-1997), Heisuke Hironaka, 83, and Shigefumi Mori, 63.

Mathematician Kiyoshi Ito (1915-2008), who taught at numerous universities in Japan and abroad, including Kyoto University and Stanford University, also developed a theory that provided the foundation of mathematical finance. He received the inaugural Gauss Prize for his outstanding contributions from the International Mathematical Union in 2006. Mikio Sato, 86, meanwhile, has left a profound mark on the history of mathematics with his theory of hyperfunction.

But the field of mathematics in Japan has taken a different course from the rest of the world.

In 1981, American mathematician Robert Miura, 75, sent a letter after his two-month stay in Japan to Masaya Yamaguchi (1925-1998), then professor at Kyoto University, saying that mathematical studies in Japan were exclusively limited to pure mathematics and that scholars in the field should seek collaboration with those in other sciences and areas of application.

Miura’s view was “accurate,” said Kazuyuki Aihara, 59, professor at Todai’s Institute of Industrial Science.

As applied mathematics addresses actual problems, including many that cannot be answered or proven in the strict sense of the term, it used to be seen as “inferior” to pure mathematics in Japan, Aihara added.

That view began to change in 2006 when a government report pointed out shortages in budgets, the number of doctoral degree holders and the number of researchers in industry as problems for the field of mathematics in Japan.

The report made the promotion of mathematics into a policy issue for Japan and contributed to the establishment of IMI. A study project proposed by Aihara was granted a four-year budget of ¥1.9 billion by the government, an unprecedented outlay for mathematical research, and developed mathematical means to address problems related to medical care, information and many other social problems.

“The problems presented by industry are exciting,” said Yamamoto of Todai, who has carried out joint studies with industry researchers on steel production and other issues. “I worked out some solutions on my own as there were no applicable mathematical theories.”

Akira Takada, a 59-year-old senior researcher at Asahi Glass’ Research Center, expects mathematicians will make great contributions to industrial development. “The next industrial advances may come thanks to mathematics,” he said.

With IMI planning to open an office in Australia in the fall, Wakayama said he would like to undertake math studies related to the country’s thriving primary sector industries.

“Mathematics can also contribute to the establishment of social infrastructures, such as urban design,” Wakayama said. “It’s wasteful not to utilize it.”