Delivery drones flying in the sky, self-driving cars on the move, and AI-controlled service robots helping people out. The society of the future that was a pipe dream just a few decades ago will soon be within reach. While technologies related to automatic control systems are advancing, one issue that has emerged is how to construct a System of Systems (SoS) that integrates multiple systems into a single space and that can be operated in a way that is socially acceptable.
To address this issue, a simulated society demonstration project has commenced at Ritsumeikan University's Osaka Ibaraki Campus. This massive project is being overseen by Professor Akio Tokuda, Ritsumeikan University’s Vice President of Research, in the hopes of achieving a “full-fledged integration of the arts and sciences.” We asked him to share his thoughts on this project, which aims to help Ritsumeikan meet its goal of becoming a next-generation research university.
A bold project that aims to break through innovation stagnation
As part of the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization’s (NEDO) Digital Infrastructure Development Project for the Digital Transformation of Industries (Research and Development of Mechanisms to Ensure Safety and Reliability in Complex Systems), Ritsumeikan University has launched a project entitled “Research and Development of Digital Infrastructure and Governance Methods for Balancing the Safety, Reliability, and Innovation of Systems in the SoS Era” in cooperation with several private companies. This ambitious project is the first such NEDO-sponsored demonstration project to target social systems for research and development. Underpinning this bold project to turn the entire campus into a testing ground for the “living lab” concept is the critical situation surrounding innovation in Japan. Professor Tokuda explains.
“The Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics held the year before last were expected to be a showcase for a range of Japanese technology, including self-driving cars. Unfortunately, an accident occurred in which a self-driving bus hit a Paralympian in the Olympic Village. Although it was later determined that the cause of the accident was human error, the loss of confidence in AI-equipped self-driving cars was inevitable. Since then, the practical application of innovations in public spaces remains under scrutiny.
Japan has a social climate that places more emphasis on reliability and security—that is, never causing an accident—than on the potential benefits of innovation. Therefore, once an accident occurs, the thirst for innovation rapidly dries up. In order to change this kind of culture, it is important to refine systems to the point that they do not cause accidents. At the same time, it is also important to create a governance structure that allows for improvements and rapid recovery in the event of an accident and to remove the various factors that may serve as disincentives for innovators.”
In the age of SoS, where all systems are connected, the uncertain behavior of open systems can lead to unforeseeable accidents. In such situations, there is a limit to the conventional top-down, hard law approach of dealing with problems. This is because the SoS approach makes it difficult to identify the cause of a problem, and those involved who may have been the cause of the problem are not willing to disclose information for fear of being penalized. For this reason, the cause of a problem cannot be determined. Even if the cause is finally determined, prompt compensation to the victims will not be adequate. In contrast, in the EU, for example, if an accident occurs when you are in compliance with soft law, such as international standards, public compensation is available, and there is a system whereby cooperation with an investigation can exempt you from claims for damages. According to Professor Tokuda, the aim of this demonstration project is to ensure a balance between innovation and safety and reliability, while making effective use of soft law—a must in the age of SoS. He explains further.
“Three years ago, we introduced cleaning robots to our campus and became the first university in Japan to establish robot guidelines. Robots made by several manufacturers now operate on both BKC and OIC, and we are already coexisting with them. In our research, we are exploring the kind of society that can make this transition to ‘coexistence’ a sustainable one. We are thinking about the ideal levels of social acceptance and technological infrastructure required to achieve this. That being said, the current guidelines do not ensure total preparedness. Even if unforeseen circumstances arise, we would like to revise our guidelines so ensure that subsequent improvement can be made. Ultimately, we want to propose a governance structure where data collected from robots and facilities is linked to automate the investigation of causes of accidents and simulation technologies are used to ensure robust risk management. This would enable on-the-spot problem-solving for minor incidents.”
According to Professor Tokuda, this project will develop the fundamental digital infrastructure for use at OIC. In other words, the project aims to develop and test platforms for agile governance and simulation, which will comprehensively link the data collected by campus facilities with the data collected by multiple robots and elevators, all while taking into account campus users’ value assessments of innovation and their risk preferences.
Because a university is a microcosm of society, complete with the separation of powers, it is possible to use actual data from various systems to test cross-sectional data operations.
“A university is the perfect place to conduct this kind of demonstration because it functions as a quasi-society. A campus is a moderately controlled space where students, faculty, staff, and local residents all come and go. In addition, it is also home to a diverse group of researchers who can consider and address various issues such as network security and privacy. Furthermore, the environment is conducive to the development of ethical and legal mechanisms to keep pace with technological advances and levels of social acceptance. We believe that we can contribute to society because we are Ritsumeikan, a private school, and not a business enterprise or a municipality. Ritsumeikan, with its separation of powers, will listen to the voices of multiple stakeholders, create prototypes of social systems in collaboration with various organizations within the university, and verify their effectiveness before putting them out into the real world,” says Professor Tokuda.
Realizing technology and social acceptance through the “full-fledged integration of the arts and sciences”
As the Vice President in charge of promoting research for Ritsumeikan University, Professor Tokuda says this project has a special place in his heart.
“The R2030 Vision declares that Ritsumeikan will maximize its campuses as places for open innovation. With regard to OIC in particular, the Vision proposes the concept of a Socially Connected Campus (SCC) that will ‘develop venues for implementing cutting-edge demonstration projects that create new value through social collaboration.‘ This project aligns perfectly with both our Vision and this concept.
‘Full-fledged integration of the arts and sciences’ is the motto of our research policy, which I took over from my predecessor, Professor Yoko Matsubara (now, the Vice President of Academic Affairs), three years ago. Since then I have been thinking constantly about how we can deploy this integration of the arts and sciences in a more dynamic way. Amid all this, we issued an appeal to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and the Digital Agency to support this project, and they agreed to do so. Although it is not well known to other universities and outsiders, Ritsumeikan already has an interdisciplinary research network that integrates the arts and sciences, including R-GIRO, and this stretches across our campuses in every direction. We also have an extensive track record in pursuing open innovation as part of industry-university-government-citizen partnerships. What’s more, our performance in the area of faculty-staff cooperation is unrivaled by any other university. In order to further develop these strengths, we decided to devise a project that would allow us to multiply these strengths.”
What does it mean to pursue a ”full-fledged integration of the arts and sciences?” Agile governance, which lies at the heart of this project, is a mechanism for making improvements as needed while a system is actually in operation.
“At the end of the day, the beneficiaries of innovation are individuals. Therefore, in order to promote the practical implementation of innovation, the key is not only the technologies involved but also how to get people to accept those technologies, or in short, how to cultivate social acceptance. For example, if the practical implementation of a system is promoted at the municipal level, there are limited opportunities for citizens to express their opinions about its good and bad aspects and make requests for improvements. Instead, if a mechanism can be established in which opinions can be casually fed back using Line or other tools, and this feedback can be immediately used to improve the system, this will further enhance social acceptance.
In this project as well, in parallel with the use of robots, we will use Line and other tools to collect feedback from everyone and create a platform for improving the system. The development and implementation of this kind of system requires collaboration not only with experts in the natural sciences, but also with experts in the humanities and social sciences, including sociology, psychology, and law. A system that mutually improves both technology and social acceptance cannot be achieved without a full-fledged integration of the arts and sciences as well as a dialogue with a diverse array of stakeholders.
Innovation bears fruit when both technology and social acceptance are aligned,” explains Professor Tokuda. How can Japan, with its superior technological capabilities, keep up with the United State, China, and Europe in the robotics industry?
“One problem is that Japanese manufacturers have failed to recognize the importance of social acceptance. Looking at the strategies of Western companies, it is commonplace to see practical implementation undertaken as a set of technology, rules for operating that technology, and legal compliance. For example, service robots are in operation at Haneda Airport, but most of them are manufactured overseas. Why is this? This is because the salespeople who work for Japanese manufacturers talk about robot performance, delivery dates, and prices, while their counterparts at Western manufacturers focus on the legal consequences and compensation mechanisms in the event of accidents or problems. You can't win if you attempt practical implementation from an engineer's perspective. I would like to explore methods for practical implementation that align with both the social context in which robots are used and the user's perspective."
The university as a “living lab:” A project born from the lunch issue
It is no easy task to create a complex system from scratch. This is why Professor Tokuda’s team has started by developing scenarios to resolve actual issues that are occurring on campus.
“One of our project members, Professor Izumi Otani of the College of Social Sciences, is a wheelchair user. The cafeterias and cafés on campus become extremely crowded at lunchtime, so she has given up on trying to use them because she is in a wheelchair. So, the first thing our team did was devise a use case in which a delivery robot delivers lunch to her laboratory by linking data with nearby shops and the Co-Op, or in other words, provide D&I-conscious food services. The next step is to address the problem of crowding at lunchtime, so we are considering the possibility of creating a mechanism to stagger usage times and equalize supply and demand by obtaining data from users who agree to work with us to eliminate crowding. Ultimately, the project will link up supply and demand data from both on-campus facilities and nearby shops, thereby reducing unsold goods in the surrounding community. We hope that our efforts will help Japan clear its name as the world's largest food-loss country. In this way, we would like to steadily pursue practical applications as we build consensus with everyone, all while upholding the university’s cause to ‘create value for coexistence with society’ through a range of efforts including making accommodations for D&I, equalizing supply and demand, and reducing food loss.”
This project involves a complex interplay of various elements, including the coupled operation of robots via data linkage, the fostering of social acceptance, and the updating of guidelines, but how is it being implemented? Professor Tokuda explains.
“The project is divided into four thematic areas, each led by an expert professor in cooperation with partner institutions both inside and outside the university. In the first thematic area, we are conducting research into the creation of a data linkage platform to ensure the safe and effective operation of service robots. I have asked Professor Hiroshi Yamamoto, who specializes in information networks, to lead this team. The second thematic area focuses on research into establishing guidelines for the operation of robots. This team is led by Professor Mitsuyuki Inaba, who specializes in AI and cognitive science, and includes Professor Nozomi Yamada, a risk management expert, and Dr. Kotaro Oba of AIST, who developed the safety requirements for personal care robots (ISO 13482) and who was cross-appointed as a professor at Ritsumeikan University in April. In the third thematic area, we are conducting research to create mechanisms to cultivate social acceptance. This team is led by Associate Professor Satoru Goto, who specializes in design management, and includes Professor Izumi Otani, Associate Professor Miki Kawabata, and others.
In the fourth thematic area, we are researching and developing a platform that will allow us to simulate all of these elements in an integrated manner. We cannot afford to have any accidents on campus. Therefore, in addition to verifying the possibility of such contingencies in the simulation, we also envision expanding the system to include not only robots but also self-driving vehicles and drones. Professor Hiroyuki Tomiyama, an expert in embedded systems, and Assistant Professor Xiangbo Kong, a drone specialist, are in charge of the project. I have also asked Professor Tetsutaro Uehara of the College of Information Science and Technology to oversee the entire system from the overarching perspectives of safety, security, and privacy.”
A kick-off symposium was held on February 10, so this project has only just gotten underway. For the time being, the goal is to have a delivery system ready for practical application by this face, so the project is moving at a seriously fast pace. Professor Tokuda hopes that innovators from both inside and outside the university will come to view OIC as the place to go to test their ideas and Ritsumeikan as the place to go to run practical demonstrations before putting their products and services out into the world.
Aiming for 2030: Becoming a university where collective knowledge can be applied
Finally, we asked Professor Tokuda to discuss his vision of a “next-generation research university.”
“I believe that a next-generation research university is one that can practically apply collective knowledge toward the realization of the value of coexistence with society.
Collective knowledge refers to the combination of the ability to identify social issues that need to be solved and the wisdom to actually solve them. Achieving this will require a further pursuit of interdisciplinary research in the arts and sciences and open innovation. In my interpretation the R2030 Vision is a statement of our determination to finally seriously tackle the integration of the arts and sciences. Fortunately, Ritsumeikan has a legacy of accumulating collective knowledge based on the research activities of its more than 50 distinctive research institutes and centers. I believe that the eight years leading up to 2030 will be the time for us to expand upon these strengths and see them bear fruit.
Also, we should not forget that Ritsumeikan has staff members whose experience rivals that of our faculty members and who are willing to do whatever they can to support our research and education. In this project as well we have numerous talented individuals, including a staff member with the title of Robot Manager, who are providing us with support both front and backstage. This project is the first step toward the full-fledged integration of the arts and sciences as well as a test of how we can develop collective knowledge by way of faculty-staff co-creation. I kindly ask for everyone’s continued encouragement.”