We opened our doors at NTT Research in Palo Alto in July. At a grand opening ceremony on July 8 hosted by NTT Inc. CEO and President Jun Sawada, we briefed media, heard keynotes from NTT Research scientists, showcased our projects and enjoyed a performance by the renowned violinist Ryu Goto. Now, after a few months of operations, it is my pleasure to extend our welcome and explain more about why we are here and what we hope to accomplish.
As one of the world’s largest telecommunication companies, NTT already devotes considerable efforts to research and development (R&D). To be specific, NTT R&D has more than 6,000 researchers and an annual budget of $3.6 billion. What, then, is the point of setting up a research center in Silicon Valley?
The answer is both simple and inspiring. As NTT CEO Sawada said in July: “Our goal is to strengthen the fundamental research needed for global innovation and next-generation technologies.” Put in other terms – or in the two words of a slogan that also captures our mission – we aim to “Upgrade Reality.”
To explain what that means, let me offer two historical examples. The fastest travel between Tokyo and San Francisco once took a month or more on an ocean-going sailing vessel. Steam power changed that, but the breakthroughs in heavier-than-air flight by the Wright brothers in 1903 truly transformed the reality of travel. Then in the 1990s, the internet did the same thing to communications, limited at the time to the constraints of telephony.
Drawing upon the strength and heritage of applied research and innovation from NTT, as well as our anticipated collaboration with top research institutions in Silicon Valley and around the world, our work here involves basic research in three primary areas. In our PHI Laboratories, we are focusing on physics and information science; in our CIS Laboratories, on cryptography and information security; and in our Medical and Health Informatics Laboratories, on areas such as the application of artificial intelligence (AI) on biological data.
The prevailing realities in today’s information science involve conventional physics and the constraints of elements such as silicon. But astonishing possibilities beckon, especially in quantum computing. Relying on quantum physics, these new machines should be able to solve, in a matter of seconds or minutes, very complex optimization problems that would take countless years even on today’s best super computers.
In current cryptographic science, the prevailing paradigm is to use algorithms to encrypt everything. But this is analogous to getting a key that gives you access to an entire house, or all of the rooms in a hotel. Why not develop a new model with more flexibility, which gives you access to only what you need, without compromising the security of an entire database?
Finally, today’s medical research faces numerous constraints. First, every human – and patient – is unique, but science requires replicable tests. Second, laws and protocols properly limit the testing of human subjects. What if it were possible to create, however, a very precise copy of one part of your body, such as your heart, which would enable researchers to then make accurate predictions and test medications? This vision of digital twinning is one of the ways that medicine can be fundamentally “upgraded.” None of these hoped-for breakthroughs will occur overnight. Basic research is a long-term and unpredictable proposition. But we expect to advance, in some cases in measurable terms, such as through co-authored papers and filed patents. Other progress will be less tangible, but no less meaningful. That includes the excitement inside our organization, with institutional partners and the interested public at large in the tremendous adventure we have before us.