Sony Computer Science Laboratories: First Symposium in the United States
September 22, 2014
Museum of Modern Art, New York
Sony Computer Science Laboratories (Sony CSL) held its first-ever symposium in the United States in September, 2014. Select researchers addressed three key themes: Global Agenda, Human Augmentation and Exploring Creativity.
Held in Theater 2 of the Museum of Modern Art in New York on 22 September 2014, the symposium ran from 3 pm to 6:30 pm and was attended by more than 150 people, including scientists, educators, students, journalists and Sony employees. It was followed by a reception in the Ronald S. and Jo Carole Lauder Lobby. The symposium program, facilitated by Yoko Honjo and Adam Fulford, was as follows:
Opening the symposium, Sony CSL CEO Hiroaki Kitano reviewed the proven value of a standard scientific approach when analyzing reproducible events in closed systems, but drew attention to the limited capability of conventional science to advance knowledge about the non-reproducible and unexpected events that we actually encounter in everyday life. He then presented Open Systems Science, a methodology guiding research at CSL, as a way to come to terms with the complexity and unpredictability of the real world, in which no system is actually closed and every system (big or small) influences and is influenced by countless others. He pointed out the challenges of an approach to learning where the researcher is working within the system that is being studied, and he underlined the essential need for all research to make a significant, positive and practical contribution to the ultimate goal of human and planetary sustainability. He said the key requirements for the researcher are to act beyond boundaries (that is, not to be confined to a specific scientific domain but rather to be eager to transcend artificial academic divisions) and to "think extreme." He listed the major themes to be covered in the symposium -- global agenda, human augmentation and exploring creativity -- and noted that even with only 30 researchers, CSL is exploring a very broad range of valuable knowledge in these contexts.
Following a short video about Sony CSL's contribution to off-grid energy solutions in African countries and Bangladesh, Annette Werth spoke about her vision of a peer-to-peer electricity grid by means of which energy can be flexibly shared as required. She drew attention to the vulnerability of a conventional centralized AC grid, where energy flows one way from a power plant to individual households, and where a breakdown at any stage can lead to a significant power outage. She then outlined the potential advantages of Open Energy Systems (OES), a vision of microgrids generating, storing and bidirectionally sharing DC energy. As a practical example she described a pilot project in Okinawa, where faculty housing at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST) is showcasing the feasibility of an OES approach, and she concluded by underlining the great basic-lifestyle benefits of an affordable, bottom-up, distributed electricity grid, especially for those who live in parts of the world where most people have little or no access to electricity.
Masatoshi Funabashi began by asking which form of agriculture produces more food globally, smallholdings or large-scale monoculture. The answer, at 70%, was smallholdings, which account for 80% of the world's arable land and where one-third of the world's population works. But he went on to point out that both types of farming are resulting in severely degraded soil in a world where we continue to destroy elements of our environment in spite of a growing threat of ecological collapse. He presented Synecoculture, "synthesis of anthropogenic edible ecosystem," as a way to augment both agricultural output and ecological health. To this end, Funabashi cultivates extremely diverse crops, even in very small spaces, and systematically gathers data about them. While several hundred thousand plant species are recorded and 7,000 are known to be edible, 75% of our food comes from only 12 plants (and five animal species). Synecoculture generates a huge amount of potentially valuable data that can be used by the community to "curate" previously overlooked food resources and boost ecological robustness.
Starting with the description of a mini "Central Park" -- complete with real vegetation -- that he had printed out in Tokyo, Yuichiro Takeuchi explained how to print and automatically seed a hydroponic garden with "soil" made from felt, and argued that this would be an efficient and effective way to green city rooftops. Takeuchi's interest in "bottom-up, computational urbanism" was also illustrated by two other technologies. The first, inspired by a city-bending scene in the movie Inception, was "Inception" glass: a means to customize the urban environment's appearance on a handheld (and in the future, a wearable) device. He showed how his software could be used to change the perceived height of a building on a computer display, for example to reflect the reputation of a restaurant inside the building, and how the software might be adapted to "see" around a corner in a busy city. His third topic, expressive cities, was illustrated by MIMMI, an installation that used social media activity to gauge and express the mood of Minneapolis in light, mist and sound. Takeuchi concluded with a vision of the city of the future as an environment of "habitable bits," in which urban environments can be edited as simply as a Facebook profile.
The second half of the symposium began with a conversation between the Sony CSL founder Mario Tokoro and Adam Fulford, who helped to write a booklet titled The Point of Knowing (available for download here). Published to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Sony CSL in 2013, the booklet's title was also used for the symposium in New York, and it was indeed a desire for knowledge with a compelling purpose -- to shape a better world -- that drove Tokoro to formulate a scientific approach that would overcome such common shortcomings as a narrow research specialization without reference either to other domains of knowledge or to real-world relevance. Open Systems Science, as Tokoro calls his original methodology, starts from a recognition that every system -- from the cell, to the human body, to the global ecosystem -- is open and interacting with other systems. For Tokoro it is essential to acknowledge that everything we think of as true will one day be proved false, and the success of his methodology hinges on a scientist's readiness to adjust or abandon any aspect of study if it fails to conform to in natura reality. The need for the methodology that Tokoro developed was made clear as he recalled Sony CSL's history, which started with an exploration of computer potential before moving on, in the second decade, to human-centric computer application. In the third decade, with CSL researchers now exploring the complex inter-relationships of highly diverse systems, Open Systems Science represents an optimal framework for coming to grips with such challenges.
The researchers who have been with Sony CSL since its early years include CSL Deputy Director Jun Rekimoto, who spoke on the theme of A New You. He began with a review of human-tool interaction, drawing attention to two ideas in particular: the interface, thanks to which a human can come to grips (often literally) with a tool, and augmentation, which denotes the greater efficiency and effectiveness that the tool itself offers. He made the point that humans augmented by computers can achieve better results than either humans alone or computers alone, and went on to give examples of augmentation technologies that can make us happier, more active and more excited. These included a drone that moves in sync with its human operator. Rekimoto pointed out that technology of this kind could be used to deliver an objective, real-time view of running and batting form (or, in the case of AquaCAVE, swimming form), thus offering the viewer an opportunity to adjust form and improve. LiveSphere, a head-mounted device, could offer "the rest of us" a realistic sense of the world as seen by a top gymnast, while the HoverBall would bring the appeal of the Harry Potter sport quidditch to real life for people of all ages and abilities.
Joining the symposium remotely from Tokyo, where his wife was expecting to give birth at any moment, Ken Endo spoke about "hacking the body" to augment physical capability. Taking as his starting point the idea that a person with restricted mobility is disabled mainly in the sense that preconceptions and technology impose limitations on what is actually possible, Endo spoke about his endeavors to offer everyone the "delight of locomotion" through the development of three types of prosthesis: robotic, affordable and athletic. Driven by his desire to help a friend whose left leg was amputated below the knee, Endo has been devising and improving robotic prostheses that realistically approximate the functionality of a joint such as the ankle. Endo's battery-powered robotic ankle is now almost as small as the human ankle that it is designed to replace. Endo is also working on new affordable limbs for the Jaipurfoot initiative in India, which has already delivered 23,000 prostheses at no charge, and prostheses for Paralympic athletes, whose augmented capabilities may be expected to enable them to threaten Olympic records in years to come.
Alexis André, whose artwork appears in the booklet The Point of Knowing and continues to differentiate and unify the image of Sony CSL, spoke about his main area of study: the pursuit of entertainment through personalized experiences in which the creative process is centrally important. André said that what he wishes to engender in a person at play is not pleasure, a form of instant gratification, but enjoyment, which engages the mind more deeply and more rewardingly over a longer period of time. By posing an unconventional question such as "Can you touch sound?", he came up with the unconventional response of "sound bugs" (otomushi), a playable, mashable and, indeed, tangible form of recorded sound. Reflecting on the definition of "drawing," meanwhile, led André to the idea that not just output but process has value. There is little to enjoy about an activity in which progress from start to finish is predictable, but if the process is unpredictable, then on any journey the path becomes at least as enjoyable as the destination. Following various demonstrations that addressed the question "Can you draw with sound?", he concluded with the point that by focusing attention on the process behind how things work, "the way of play" can help to engender creative responses even to major intellectual challenges.
Bringing the symposium to a close, François Pachet, Director of Sony CSL Paris, spoke on the theme of Style Cryogenics, with a special focus on music. After mentioning his solid street credentials for addressing this subject (as a licensed Paris Metro busker), he moved on to an interview that he had conducted with Ennio Morricone, the legendary Italian composer of soundtracks for movies. Morricone, whose work has a very distinct identity, said that he uses musical intervals to express meaning, with a sixth, for example, conveying a sense of vastness. Pachet then introduced the Continuator, a technology that permits real-time interaction with style. A jazz pianist might play a short improvisation, for example, and the Continuator would produce a musical response in the same style. Pachet described how he had used his research findings in this area to create styles that could be applied to any piece of music. One illustration of this was an application of the complex harmonic style of Take 6, the celebrated jazz vocal group, to The Island by the renowned Brazilian songwriter Ivan Lins. The startled and ecstatic reaction of Lins, captured on video, drew attention not only to the value that he himself perceived in this adaptation of his work, but also to the asset value of style itself. Pachet concluded by introducing Radio FM2, a public musical-style mash-up service coming soon to a device near you, courtesy of Sony CSL Paris.
Program Chair: Jun Rekimoto, Deputy Director, Sony CSL
Organization Chair: Yoko Honjo, General Manager, Sony CSL
Organized by: Sony Computer Science Laboratories, Inc. (Sony CSL)
Supported by: Sony Corporation of America (SCA)