Research for the Future of Humanity and Our Planet

Research for the Future of Humanity and Our Planet

Research opens up the future. And so this future first exists in the imaginations of researchers. Sony Computer Science Laboratories(Sony CSL)’ s support of researchers with extraordinary imaginations is what makes it a place that is helping to create a future beyond most of our wildest dreams. The human race has astonishing potential and vast diversity. To unlock its potential, we should fully harness human creativity, intellectual power, and physical capabilities and augment them with technology. We must be willing to transform civilization itself as we explore new realms of human possibility. People using technology to extend their abilities could be thought of as the next stage of our evolution, with the potential to make significant and rapid leaps forward.

In spite of this immense potential, humanity is confronting exceedingly difficult challenges in such contexts as poverty, aging, food, natural resources, and health/healthcare. Human civilization is also the source of huge changes in our natural environment, from irreversible climate change to losses in biodiversity. These challenges are complex, diverse and interconnected. They force us to confront an extremely harsh reality with a Planetary Agenda that reframes human civilization. Solutions will require entirely new ways of thinking that transcend borders and disciplines, the will to change civilization, and the excellence to execute this vision.

When Sony CSL was founded, we declared that our philosophy was to conduct research for the future of humanity. But the time has come to take an extra step. Our mission now is to conduct research for the future of humanity and our planet.

On the occasion of our 20th anniversary, we at Sony CSL proposed moving from an approach to science based on closed systems to an approach based on open systems. We called it Open Systems Science. Open systems are systems made up of complex, interacting elements, with boundaries that cannot be clearly defined; global society and the environment are two textbook examples. When we at Sony CSL come up with a creative idea, we are not boxed into limited knowledge networks. Moreover, a humanity that has extended its abilities with technology is itself an open system, connected to both natural and social structures.

With its focus on complexity, openness, and uniqueness, open systems research could also be described as an attempt to tackle the challenge of engineering extremely important but hitherto unreproducible phenomena. This sort of research requires a combination of empirical science, scientia, and art in its original sense of ars, skilled craftsmanship, redefined in the modern context.

In order to solve the problems that naturally arise when attempting to create such a system, we must integrate knowledge from a wide range of domains, and at the same time go beyond academic research and actually head into the field to put our ideas into practice-in some cases, we must continue our research whilst engaging ourselves in this system reform.

This line of thought led us to the Sony CSL motto: “Act beyond borders.” We feel it is our duty to solve problems, open up new possibilities, and offer something to the world by transcending borders between nations, between scientific fields, and between science and business. And crucial to this is the imagination and drive of our individual researchers. In a sense, you could say that each of our researchers is battling the very limits of his or her imagination. People have asked us if these wild ideas of ours will ever come true. Can we imagine the things that will happen, and the things that will be needing to be achieved, in as much concrete detail as we can? Do we have the ability to actually make those things happen? Our picture of the future determines the actions we take today.

Sony CSL supports the process of making these wild imaginings a reality. The research done at Sony CSL has created new scholarly fields, made major scientific contributions, and so on. In that sense, it has affected the world. But there are many things (we are working on) that will require concrete action and development within our societies if they are going to truly impact the world. Some of these will enter the world via Sony Group businesses or with companies beyond Sony Group, others will be created through cooperation between public utilities and government entities both domestic and international, others still will be spearheaded by Sony CSL researchers themselves creating new companies. Our researchers have many different methods at their disposal, and they can choose the one that best suits their desires and the nature of their project.

Sony CSL is a small organization, and we will remain a small organization. If a small organization wants to act beyond borders and change the world, it must unleash the full power of its individual members, maximize the influence it projects across the world, and make friends who share its ambitions. This, I believe, is how Sony CSL will achieve major transformations. We call this philosophy Global Influence Projection, and in order to bring it to life the Sony CSL organization will continue to evolve.

Sony CSL is a framework for the future of humanity and our planet.

Hiroaki Kitano
President & CEO, Director of Research
Sony Computer Science Laboratories, Inc.

Open System Science

Open Systems Science

In Sony CSL's early years, researchers used a conventional scientific approach to study artificial intelligence and large distributed systems, but something about this struck us as not quite right. Eventually it became clear to us that the source of the problem was what we were studying: open systems.

A conventional scientific approach is to isolate a domain of study, analyze its constituents, and work out how the various constituents fit together to make the whole. But these days it is not easy to isolate a study domain, let alone break it down into its constituent elements. The domains where knowledge now needs to advance quickly are characterized by their tendency to influence, and be influenced by, other domains. Examples include the environment, sustainability, economic phenomena, and life itself. These are "open systems." In each of these open systems, numerous factors interact in complicated ways, and subsystems with the potential to change each larger system are in constant flux.

Open systems may be manmade, such as the vast digital systems and man-machine interactions that are made possible by the internet. Huge systems of this kind have constantly shifting boundaries and service requirements. As a result, it is virtually impossible to know enough about any specific component of the system. Moreover, for such a system to be truly user friendly, a great deal needs to be known about the people who interact with it-but human beings, too, are extremely multifaceted, and their behavior is strongly influenced by the context in which they operate. In short, it is impossible to learn anything of significant value about any open system by attempting to reduce it to its constituent parts. A conventional scientific approach simply does not work.
Sony CSL therefore devised a new methodology called Open Systems Science, and we have been using this methodology since 2008. Open Systems Science retains the existing methodological tools of the scientist-analysis and synthesis-and introduces a new one: management. The methodology of Open Systems Science was subsequently made explicit as follows.

  1. Define the problem and its domain.
  2. Construct a model of the problem domain in detail based on first principles, making every effort to leave out nothing significant.
  3. Apply the model and see if it develops any inconsistency or contradicts the behavior of the system as time passes.
  4. If it does, revise the model or devise a new model. Expand, reduce, or change the problem domain if necessary.
  5. Repeat until a satisfactory result is obtained.

Conventional scientific methodology leads to an ever more detailed understanding of an ever more narrowly defined topic of study. Open Systems Science, on the other hand, offers a way to solve a problem in its real-world context, including how it influences and is influenced by different but related problems. This is precisely why we need an "Act Beyond Borders" approach. Lab studies may deepen a researcher's understanding of an isolated phenomenon, but you cannot understand that phenomenon in relation to others unless you study it in its living, changing, real-world context. In fact it is no exaggeration to say that without such a mindset, Open Systems Science would be impossible.

Mario Tokoro
Sony Computer Science Laboratories, Inc.
Spring, 2015
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