Research and development at NTT spans a wide range, from world-leading basic research, to R&D that supports business development of operating companies, to research for creating new value with partner companies. What kind of organizations are the NTT laboratories that produce research findings in so many areas, and what sort of future do they foresee? We asked these questions and more of the person in charge of R&D at NTT: Katsuhiko Kawazoe, Executive Vice President, Head of Research and Development Planning.
◆Profile: Joined NTT in 1987. Appointed as Vice President of Research and Development Planning Department in July 2008, Vice President of the Service Evolution Laboratories in July 2014, Senior Vice President of the Service Innovation Laboratory Group in July 2016, Senior Vice President of Research and Development Planning in June 2018, and assumed his current position in June 2020. Holds a Ph.D. in Engineering.
Most companies usually define the scope of their R&D for their own business domain. What makes NTT R&D unique is that we work on such a wide range of subjects. This breadth has two distinct meanings; on the horizontal axis, there is the wide breadth of research subjects themselves, while on the vertical axis there is the wide range of research phases, including basic research, applied research, and commercialization research. If you look at the recent status of R&D investment by companies involved in ICT, it is clear that there is a tendency to focus on short-term practical results that society as a whole pays attention to, including AI and IoT. If you compare foreign companies to Japanese companies, the amount they invest in R&D may differ by two orders of magnitude. NTT laboratories do conduct trend research, but it also pays close attention to new technologies toward the future. There is a risk that technology which has not yet been noticed will not bloom in the future, but I believe that it also offers a great opportunity. Also, looking at our trend research subjects, “Lifetime: The validity period of R&D findings” as research is becoming shorter, so our challenge is to remain competitive for a long time. For that reason, it becomes more important to study base technologies that other companies cannot easily catch up with.
The technologies required to realize our recently announced IOWN (Innovative Optical and Wireless Network) initiative include many subjects that cannot be fully explored with short-term research. For example, we have been working on the subject of optical technology continuously since the 1960s. I realize that far fewer companies are working on these long-term research themes worldwide than in the past. This kind of research that utilizes our accumulated R&D efforts from past to presen t is a unique feature of NTT Laboratories, and I think that this is a source of our competitive strength.
We announced the IOWN initiative last May. The IOWN is based on optical technology, which goes beyond simply replacing the current system. This is a base technology that bridges various research themes, removing current technological barriers and enabling further development. Using AI technology as an example, the recent trend has been to only pursue algorithms and learning data. In fact, with good algorithms and good learning data, it is possible to get some degree of performance. For that reason, everyone is searching for fields where AI has not been applied, and conducting R&D to bring AI into that field. New services using AI are being developed one after another, but if this is all people do, then it may lead to a deadlock in research. In order to avoid this deadlock, it is important to think that, if we establish new technical foundation on top of current technology, then we can expect to make further progress. To that end, it is necessary to further expand upon our current technical domains. For example, the idea of switching from our present electrical processing to optical processing can bring unprecedented performance improvements and breakthroughs. That begs the question, what should we do and what kind of progress should we make? It is important that we not simply make gains through algorithms and data, but bring about greater changes and progress, and I think IOWN is a prime example of this.
Furthermore, I want to make it possible to “change the future” through technical innovation. For example, this includes areas that humanity has avoided because they are frightened. There is a line often repeated in science fiction movies with time travelers. Someone always tells a time traveler who has gone back in time “Don’t do anything that will affect the future”. At our present technical level, all we can do is predict the future using known data, and take some measures in order to respond. We will only be able to change the future if we create more accurate simulations and new measures. Failing at this task could be a difficult experience indeed. There is no room for mistakes. For that reason, we have to do massive simulations and give detailed feedback to the world. We must include all possible factors that will influence the future in our simulations. In order to do that, it is not enough for us to continue with conventional approaches; we must create new technologies and methods of doing things. But if we can do that, then I think we can change the future too. It will require tremendous computing resources, but with the IOWN initiative, we will eventually reach that level.
I am convinced that if we have the faith to continue pursuing new value creation through the use of technology we have inherited, then we will have the potential to make innovations in ways we had never imagined. In other words, it is important to not only delve deeper into the area of our basic technology, but also co-innovate with technologies we had never before encountered in the area of applied research. I think it is necessary for us to evolve into an organization that propel research forward in both areas. In order to discover technology in unknown areas, we need to cooperate with partners in different fields, and it is important that we share the same vision of the future in the course of cooperation. There are certain matters we must consider as a business, but it is important above all else that we collaborate with partners capable of deeply discussing what we can do with that technology. Another important question is whether or not we can respect each other’s technologies. Moving forward, we will actively work on new research subjects, and improve our organization as necessary. I intend to realize technology many have envisioned but no one in the world has achieved, and become an organization that can contribute to society in concrete terms.
It goes without saying that researchers understand the significance of their own research better than anyone. While they do think about the significance of research to their own company, this is mainly the significance as academic contribution including technological advancement . Yet, executives also consider the significance of research, mainly in terms of significance to corporate management. As a rule, there is a gap between them. In a good sense, researchers consider it their mission to contribute as much as possible to that research itself, and sometimes draw up plans centered on themselves. Executives want to find the value of that research and commercialize it as soon as possible. So, for example, they might ask “Can that research be accomplished in 1/100th of the time by adding 100 researchers or multiplying the research budget by 100?” Sometimes there are such differences in perspective. In order to maximize the performance of corporate research, it is important to bridge that gap from both sides. Of course executives consider recent research findings to be important, but they must also be serious about working with researchers to make forward-looking decisions about what the source of competitive advantage will be in the future. Researchers must also go beyond their boundaries to consider what is best for contributing to the betterment of society, then execute that. Even if there is a conflict, I believe that it is important that we do research in a manner where both parties show respect to each other, and make optimal compromises following discussion, in order to be a company that promotes research with value.
I would say that I want them to thoroughly explore research areas that interest them. Some research topics lead to a long journey that can take an entire lifetime, but others allow you to find an answer in a short period of time. In the course of your research, you may achieve great findings, or you may need to give up on the way. In any case, I’d like you to engage in research while honestly asking yourself what your interests are and whether you are certain about them. Sometimes when people encounter difficulties in their research topic, some people not only give up on that research topic, they give up on research entirely. They question whether they are cut out for research, or whether they would be better suited for more practical work. As you have decided to become a researcher, however, you must have the aspiration deep in your heart saying “I want to do research,” “I want to find the truth,” “I want to contribute to society through research.” Instead of abandoning that mindset, I want you to find a topic that fits your new interests, and undertake new challenges. It is important to distinguish between ambition and aspiration (that is, a high motive inspired by a sense of mission and ideals) when engaging in research. NTT laboratories has opened its doors wide to researchers. We value broad and deep research in various fields. Do not give up just because your research or interests are in an area that is not currently the center of attention. NTT offers a wide range of opportunities for researchers to pursue their aspirations with a lofty ideal.
Most important of all is to discover new value. Many researches do not come up to creating new value and just aim to stretch current technologies further. Some have already reached their limits, and others have reached conclusions. These technologies are no longer dominated by differences in technology, but by factors such as whether they possess tremendous computing resources or whether they have accumulated data that surpasses all others. In a world ruled by numbers, that is to say in the “logic of numbers” in which technology is controlled by a system with a large amount of data and resources, finding new value can be difficult. It is not the “logic of numbers” but the “logic of value” that will become increasingly more important. We will explore what value there is in the world, and we will sort out what issues there are, what we should research, and what we should make in order to realize that value. I believe that new technological innovation is in store for us through these value investigation. I understand that the road we walk is a steep one, but it is a rewarding path forward for researchers. It is my intention to align our R&D with this direction. Until now, research has been focused on discovering and explaining principles in various disciplines. However, the current trend in society has turned towards technology confined by overly prescriptive concepts. It is important to focus on finding what new value is and what principles this is based on. NTT places great importance on such research. I believe that each and every researcher should hone their skills and sensibilities, confront difficult issues, and constantly create new value in order to realize a better society.
You will find your will to change the world with your own sensibility. What kind of society do you think of when you hear the word “a better society”? Most people would say improvements to the status quo, which is to say a mere extension of what we have now. If you are satisfied with the way things are now, you would not want to change this and you could not force changes either. It is important to be able to grasp the will of society to “change itself” and to “make changes”. For example, when disaster strikes, awareness grows of changes, as people want to recover from this. As a company based in Japan that finds the will for societal change, NTT intends to propose social changes based on our sensibilities and show our presence to the world. Building on our sensibilities, I am confident that we will be able to incorporate even better idea from overseas and achieve good results. Last year, we opened three new overseas laboratories. Laboratories’ management is in the Japanese style. That is to say, the concept of these laboratories is to bring researchers from around the world under the Japanese way of management. Researchers in three new overseas laboratories have already achieved solid results, such as the most difficult research papers and presentations at international conferences. I am proud of Japanese way based on the fact that we have produced results with the cooperative management style of collaborating with other parties instead of acquiring them. I am convinced that Japan is still an influential actor in the world. This does not mean we will be occlusive, ignoring Japan to seek human resources in the rest of the world. I think that Japanese universities and research institutes have found a better style of approaching the world than they do now. From Japan as a leading actor in the world, we will continue to enrich society and bring happiness to humankind through research and development that can contribute to the global society.
The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has spread around the world in a very short period of time since December 2019, with many infected or even dead. This has transformed the lives of people around the world, and the global economy. This situation could not be foreseen, and we have not been able to give the best answers regarding on measures to treat, prevent, or stop the spread of the disease. While the main academic field in this matter is medicine, ICT is more involved than ever before in people’s lifestyles and working styles, as well as many different industries. In the midst of this pandemic, telecommuting and teleconferences have significantly increased traffic on communication networks. We expect that these communication traffic will increase even further in the future. As the world changes, R&D of ICT is expected to be more adapted to diverse social needs. In response to such changes, the researchers of NTT must be aware of the fact that we contribute concretely to society with a sense of resolution and responsibility to conduct research that is the basis for technical innovation in our own fields of research. NTT laboratories will contribute to providing the best value to humankind in our ever changing world.