Business / Tech | CEATEC 2019 Special

FUTURE TECH

Sci-fi no more: Creations to address societal dilemmas

by Masumi Koizumi

Staff Writer

Advances in artificial intelligence (AI), 5G wireless networks and other technologies are making our lives more exciting and convenient, but a young entrepreneur, professor and media artist is also keen to harness them for other ambitions: addressing social challenges unique to Japanese society.

The fifth-generation, or 5G, high-speed mobile network set to enter commercial service in the country next spring will “have an enormous impact on our communication media,” Yoichi Ochiai said in a mid-September interview with The Japan Times.

“But it won’t end there. It will become a means for us to resolve challenges.”

Ochiai, 32, who specializes in human-computer interaction and computer graphics, serves as an associate professor at the University of Tsukuba and is CEO of Pixie Dust Technologies Inc. Also a commentator on technology, Ochiai will give a speech at the digital trade fair CEATEC 2019, which runs from Oct. 15 to 18 at Makuhari Messe. The Japan Times is a prime media partner for the event.

When introduced, 5G will handle large data volumes at higher speeds with little time lag. A two-hour movie will be downloadable in just a few seconds.

To illustrate the change that 5G will bring, Ochiai cited remotely controlling a robot arm to support human work as one example.

Ochiai demonstrated a claw crane game app for smartphones as evidence of the budding potential under the current 4G standard.

The application, called Toreba, allows users to remotely play on a machine that exists in real life. He demonstrated how smoothly the claw reacted to his directional commands.

He said the claw is “no different from a robotic arm.”

“If we can play the remote-controlled claw crane game at this speed,” he said, “we can do a similar job at any location.”

Given that the 4G standard already enables such a game, 5G presents even greater possibilities.

Remote-controlled robotic arms may someday find a niche at convenience stores, where Ochiai believes many part-time jobs could be done remotely.

“Grabbing a prize with the claw is basically the same as picking an oden hot pot dish (at a convenience store),” he said.

The problem to consider when the network speed has increased, he said, is “how we can combine (the abilities of robots) with humans in distant locations.”

Japan’s graying population is an inevitable conundrum that Ochiai wrestles with.

He believes that improving service infrastructure for the elderly, including taxi-hailing apps to go to hospitals and automatic transcriptions for those with hearing difficulty, is vital to their independent living. He said that the country is “in dire need of research, development and on-site experiments to determine whether the services are commercially viable and how they should be provided to users.”

“My research and development project xDiversity involves these things,” he said.

Ochiai leads the xDiversity project backed by the Japan Science and Technology Agency under the science ministry. Its main quest is to support people’s physical “diversity” using machines, AI and robots.

The motivation is to move away from “standardization,” or a society where people are expected to conform to what is considered normal, to embracing diversity, he said. This could include assisting people with disabilities and even augmenting their capability with technology.

Ochiai will introduce xDiversity’s research efforts in his CEATEC speech on the second day of the event. The speech is titled “Design and Deployment of an xDiversity AI Platform for Audio-Visual-Tactile Communication Towards an Inclusive Society.”

One effort is to have Hirotada Ototake, author of the best-selling book “Gotai Fumanzoku” (“No one’s perfect”) who was born without limbs, walk in prosthetic legs.

Since the Ototake Project launched last year, he has made much progress in walking, Ochiai said.

“It was difficult for us to make the artificial legs lighter,” he said.

He will also speak about Ontenna, a device worn like a hairpin to let wearers sense sound through light and vibration. Fujitsu Ltd. released the gadget, which was developed with the deaf and hearing-impaired community, in July.

Ochiai said that this year’s speech will unveil “more project examples” than last year’s.

Asked about the message he wants to convey through the speech, he said, “I want people to have the awareness of the issues affecting Japan, such as the low birthrate and aging population.”

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