TRON Project Leader's Opinion

Ken Sakamura

Interfaculty Initiative in Information Studies, The University of Tokyo

Over about the last year, ubiquitous computing, whether because there was also effort on our part, has come to be watched with very keen interest.

By the way, non-contact IC cards and RFID tags that are technology along the same lines, for technologies that has been comparatively known from about 10 years ago, have remained obscure. The reason they have suddenly come to be watched with keen interest is that while the technological advancements of the cards and the tags themselves pass from sight, there have been great changes in the environment in that concrete applications have come into view, network infrastructure has been consolidated, and peripheral technology, such as ultra small reader/writer technology, has advanced. Furthermore, it is probably also because their merits have become clear in everyone's eyes due to the fact that we presented them as a total system inside a framework called ubiquitous computing, and not individual components.

However, the more things have changed thus, as is always the case, people trying to introduce American things into Japan without modification have also commenced their activities. When a new technological movement comes into view, they do not try to contribute to the advancement of technology on their own, rather they stubbornly try to establish without modification something made overseas that passes itself off as a "global standard." This is the classic pattern of the usual Japanese "global standard."

What I would like you to focus your attention on here is that we are not in fact advocating techno-nationalism of the sort that says, "inside Japan everything with domestically produced technology." If new technology appears, it is necessary to first think carefully with your own head. If the result of that is that something American is clearly superior, then it is all right to introduce it. Because people are abandoning what they think about that themselves and doing things like slandering people trying to solve problems independently in Japan and attempting to introduce something forcibly up to creating obstacles, then one feels incongruity.

Certainly, with the PC and the Internet, it was possible to introduce U.S. technology into Japan almost as is. However, cell-phone Internet connection technology succeeded exactly because Japan's original i-mode, not the European and American WAP standard, was selected, and today Japan has become the country in which the world's most advanced business model using cell-phones improves through friendly rivalry. In contrast to the PC and the Internet being technologies in virtual space, cell-phone technology is technology stuck in everyday living that is close to things, and because the computing resources are also limited, the fine attention of the "Japan that makes things" demonstrates its superiority. Furthermore, as interest has been drawn to electronic money and electronic ticketing, I would like you to recall that there was a boom in which we competed to introduce European and American technology. In this field, it became clear that the conformity with Japanese business practices of the technology introduced from Europe and America was not good, and because it was separated from the needs, the boom contracted. Moreover, among the electronic money and electronic ticketing technology that survives at present, there are a lot of things that were independently developed on the basis of Japanese market demands. To the extent that they are stuck in living, needs in regard to technology vary according to country, and thus in order to solve problems, steady technological development is a necessary thing.

When we try to consider this with RFIDs, in the U.S., the things for which RFID tags are drawing attention are concentrated in supply chain management (SCM), and this is something about which I wonder if the the purpose doesn't slightly differ with Japan. Recognition on this has been deepening recently in Japan also, but, in the case of the U.S., because there is a lot of "shrinkage" in which shipped goods end up getting lost by the time they are put on sale, attention is being drawn to the introduction of RFIDs as a countermeasure to this. The causes of shrinkage are internal crimes, dishonesty of the customer, and shoplifting. According to the 2002 National Retail Security Survey in which the University of Florida conducted an investigation, it is estimated that there are damages of as much as $3.1 billion, which is equivalent to 1.7 percent of the total sales of goods in the U.S. Shrinkage also varies depending on the goods being handled; they say there is a range from 2.24 percent for jewelry to 0.74 percent for consumer electronics. In official reports, it is on this order, but one also hears stories unofficially that depending on the merchandise there are damages 10 percent or greater, and in severe cases it is 20 to 30 percent. For this type of purpose, there must be always-on surveillance of goods without the medium of people, because the workers cannot be trusted. For that reason, it probably cannot be realized without using multiple always-on read capable high output readers that can reach a long distance of close to 10 meters.

However, there is originally not much shrinkage in Japan. At present, the most important things are guaranteeing safety and peace of mind; tracing from the production of things up through sales, consumption, and disposal. Realizing a resource and energy saving type of society will probably make possible continuous (sustainable) growth. It does not seem like deploying high output reader/writers at the place of arrival for the purpose of carrying out always-on surveillance will be very good for one's health. Rather, uses that improve the safety of foodstuffs and medical supplies will probably be first. If the purpose is different, then things like the frequency used and the output also become different. For example, in actual places of crucial medical treatment, the judgment has been made that the UHF band cannot be used because of its bad influence on medical equipment.

In regard to BSE also, the U.S. has determined that BSE testing of beef cattle is sufficient on the order of 0.1 percent (20,000 to 40,000 head of cattle among 35 million head of cattle). On the other hand, Japan is carrying out 100 percent testing of all cattle, even if it costs more. There is a dispute as to whether there is any scientific meaning in testing every head of cattle, but it is probably for sure that this reflects the differences in the natures of the citizens of these nations. Conversely, I would like the finely detailed technology born in a country of this type to be useful in the U.S. also.

Whether a true "global standard," one that the people of the world will use, will come into existence after starting from a point where there is absolutely nothing, from demand, and then carrying out technical development will influence where Japan will stand hereafter. Bringing something over from the U.S. without any consideration when you decide to try something new is, to the contrary, a discourtesy, both to the U.S. and to the world. People who don't take on a challenge while possessing the ability to meet it will not be respected by the U.S. no matter how influential they are. For example, in the U.S., various venture firms are carrying out development aimed at a five cent unit price for RFID tags, but if the country comes together on this and develops manufacturing technology and supplies large amounts of cheaper tags than this with the same specification and then engages in actions of the type that snatch away markets, it will be a repeat of the trade friction of the past. Although some people who make money by assigning RFID codes and so on might be delighted by this, we probably also would not be respected.

I have said this repeatedly lately, but I regret that in Japan at present there is no ability of the type to demonstrate a high-level of negotiating power on the international political stage and display a sense of being. Japan can only contribute in the area of science and technology, and, moreover, it is also a chosen country in that it is capable of that. If I say it is simply a personal desire and leave it at that, that's the end of the matter, but I want Japan to become a country that contributes to the world in the area of science and technology and becomes respected. That is the very reason of the T-Engine Forum and the Ubiquitous ID Center, and I intend to continue with those efforts in the future, also.

The above opinion piece by TRON Project Leader Ken Sakamura appeared on page 1 of Vol. 86 of TRONWARE. It was translated and loaded onto this page with the permission of Personal Media Corporation.

Copyright © 2004 Personal Media Corporation

Copyright © 2004 Sakamura Laboratory, University Museum, University of Tokyo