Message from the Dean-old
An Invitation to the Graduate School of Informatics
Dean, Graduate School of Informatics
It is said that computers began to find a place in ordinary people's lives around the time that the IBM PC was launched in 1981. For the majority of today's students, computers have always been a familiar presence in many aspects of daily life. These students have grown up in an era in which computers are indispensable in transport, finance, and so many other fundamental areas of our social infrastructure. As demonstrated by the once thriving domestic supercomputer industry, Japan has made significant contributions to rapid advances in hardware technology. However, in fields such as systems software and standard application software, development has proved to be more difficult. Windows 95, dubbed the biggest hit product of the 20th century, is a case in point. Similarly, the dramatic rise of the Internet since the late 1990s can hardly be attributed to Japanese technology; other countries have been the sources of new Internet business models such as Google and Facebook. At the same time, intelligent appliances, automobiles, robots, game consoles and other highly distinctive products that incorporate ICT continue to support Japan's economic ascendancy, even as developing countries threaten to challenge our country's pre-eminence in these areas.
The students of today are members of a generation that has grown up in an environment where computers and computer networking are deeply laced into the social infrastructure. For this generation, the "Net" probably is just subconsciously "there", like electricity reticulation and water supply, which are only really appreciated when they cease to function. However, considering that even the mobile phone did not exist when their parents' generation was growing up, we should recognize that ICT is not a mature infrastructure but rather an emerging technology whose enormous impact on the coming age is hard to envision.
In this article, I attempt to address all those young people with an interest in computers and their potential. I explain the aims behind the foundation of the Graduate School of Informatics and, from a personal perspective, consider where our graduate school stands today and where it may be headed in the future.
Birth of the Graduate School of Informatics
In April 1998, information-related research fields that had previously been spread across five different faculties within Kyoto University (Engineering, Science, Agriculture, Letters and Integrated Human Studies) were reorganized and integrated to form the Graduate School of Informatics. This new school was designed to incorporate research on the processes of information synthesis, transmission, conversion, reception and storage, and the areas of computer hardware, software and communications technology which facilitate such processes, as well as mathematical, systems scientific, simulation-based and social research on information-related issues which encompass the abovementioned themes. The disciplinary breadth and variety of the new school necessitated adoption of the term "informatics" — the study of information — instead of applying one of the terms already used within Japanese universities, such as information engineering or information science. The school's enrollment capacity — initially 165 (now 189) in the Master's program and 74 (now 60) in the Doctoral program — is several times larger than was the case when students were being enrolled in the Department of Information Engineering in the Graduate School of Engineering. The important point is that the founders of our school sought to go beyond simply conglomerating a substantial number of research fields on information-related issues and to pursue "advancement of pioneering and creative interdisciplinary research, and construction of the field of informatics in order to cultivate highly skilled individuals with broad intellectual horizons." Guided by this aim, since its establishment the school has operated cooperative laboratories in collaboration with research institutes within Kyoto University, and developed partnerships with a number of corporate research institutes, thereby extending the scope of educational activity within the school.
Study at the Graduate School of Informatics
The Graduate School of Informatics enters its 15th year of operation in April 2012. How much progress has been made toward realization of the school's founding aim of constructing the discipline of informatics? There is a vigorous program of research covering the areas of information synthesis, transmission, conversion, reception and storage. We have graduated from the stage at which new concepts emerge in quick succession and are now in a position to explore research topics in greater depth. Research on computer hardware and software, the fundamental area of study and development in information engineering, is being carried forward by our school in cooperation with the Academic Center for Computing and Media Studies. Research projects concerning communications technology, applied mathematics and physics, systems science and simulation are largely carried out on an independent basis; however, as a result of shifting the focus of our academic staff recruitment policies away from the traditional fields and more toward informatics, a loosely-formed strategic research vector is beginning to take shape. The quality of research output in the above areas has increased steadily and many of our projects could be considered truly pioneering and unique.
In contrast, we still have a long way to go in our task of establishing new interdisciplinary fields in the domain of informatics. We await the emergence of a new set of core scientific principles. One candidate for the kind of concepts we are currently pursuing is "design." While mathematics concentrates purely on the logical aspects of the human brain, and engineering is aimed at controlling the physical world, informatics deals with both "cyber" and "real" worlds. This nature may explain why the process of designing an ICT device affords much greater freedom than that for designing an automobile. In order to resolve some of the complex issues faced by contemporary society, such as global warming, disaster prevention, food safety, and an aging society, we need to start by seriously thinking about what is involved in designing something. This may show us how to handle a flood of information and how to make positive use of it for the benefit of our society.
Ten years is too short a time for the reorganization and integration that took place when our school was founded to have evolved into regular interaction and amalgamation; we may have to wait a little longer for the emergence of individuals whose abilities were cultivated at our school and who are capable of leading this process. We invite young, talented people to join us, bringing with them minds that are open and not likely to be bound by the school's current framework.
Education at the Graduate School of Informatics
The curriculum of the Graduate School of Informatics is designed to both enhance students' expertise and broaden their horizons. Offered across the six Departments of Intelligence Science and Technology, Social Informatics, Applied Analysis and Complex Dynamical Systems, Applied Mathematics and Physics, Systems Science, and Communications and Computer Engineering, the curriculum uses the broad themes expressed by those departmental names to connect a diverse collection of research areas. The prime focus of our efforts is "on-the-research" supervision subjects in which Master's and Doctoral students prepare their dissertations. Students pursue "independent and interactive learning" with the aim of becoming fully fledged researchers and highly skilled technical professionals. Most students will have already made conference presentations or had papers published in domestic and international journals by the time they submit their dissertations; a number of them will also have received "best paper" prizes and incentive awards.
Selection of the school as a beneficiary under national government schemes such as Initiatives for Attractive Education in Graduate Schools and the Global Centers of Excellence (GCOE) Program occasioned the introduction of practice-based subjects aimed at cultivation of communication and simulation skills, complementing the regular research supervision offered at departmental and laboratory levels. Under the Leading Information Technology Professionals Fostering Program, which was formulated jointly with several partnering universities, we now also offer subjects in the areas of software development and information security. Since the 2006 academic year, we have worked with the Academic Center for Computing and Media Studies and other organizations on the "ICT Innovation" initiative. Information and communications technology developed at our school is freely disclosed to people in the corporate sector and local government organizations with the aim of furthering industry-government-academia collaboration. In the 2009 academic year, with support from the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Special Funds for Education and Research (Educational Reform), we began working on cross-departmental subjects in areas including computational science, information management, information analysis, and information and intellectual property. In addition, in the 2010 academic year, we became involved in Kyoto University's Global 30 (G30) Program KU Profile and launched three International Courses with six program-specific non-Japanese faculty members, 24 Master's students and six Doctoral students. It is possible to complete this course in an English-language only medium, and we welcome students from around the world.
The founding aim of the Graduate School of Informatics is to cultivate highly skilled individuals with broad intellectual horizons. We seek particularly to foster the development of young persons who can apply fundamental principles to the conception of new research approaches for the next-generation field of informatics, advocate those approaches, and use their own initiative to break new ground. We are still only midway along the road toward establishing informatics as a new interdisciplinary field of academic endeavor; however, given the steady advances being made in the area of human resource development, the way ahead is finally becoming clear.
On March 11, 2011, the Great East Japan Earthquake, the largest recorded event of its type, struck Japan. It was a natural catastrophe that, in conjunction with the associated tsunami waves, devastated a very large area of eastern Japan. The nuclear power plant accident triggered by the earthquake was one more blow to society's generally unquestioning reliance on science and technology. Given the circumstances, it was noteworthy that the most common response of people sheltering in the refuge facilities when asked what they needed was "information." This not only demonstrates the clear importance of quick recovery of information networks but also hints at how information, or informatics, should contribute to our future society. While the damage caused by the earthquake across many aspects of our lives could lead to long-term economic decline, we should take this event as a rare opportunity to create a new vision for Japan and to embark on a new direction for social contribution by science and technology. In the short term, ICT such as sensor networks and cloud computing may play important roles in resolving urgent issues, such as creating a society that is robust in the face of natural hazards, conversion of society and industry into more efficient users of energy and resources, further reduction of environmental burdens, and social security in an aging society. As a long-term vision, informatics should contribute to the design of communication systems and, ultimately, a society that enables people to live happier, more comfortable and more rewarding lives.
The Kyoto University Graduate School of Informatics was founded not as a response to the short-term cycle of contemporary social needs but rather as a force to help propel Japan once more to the forefront as a nation founded on scientific and technological prowess. Lying beyond this goal are the challenges of sustainable human development and coexistence. Energy and environmental issues, medical care and cultural matters also await further development of informatics. No matter how favorable the conditions or how lofty the ideals, it is not possible to create a global-standard hub of academic activity overnight. A new generation of individuals to carry our mission forward can only be cultivated if we persevere in our dual tasks of offering education attuned to individual student development and engaging in research that gives concrete form to novel ideas. This is precisely why the aim of the Graduate School of Informatics is to cultivate highly skilled individuals with broad intellectual horizons.
As I stated at the outset, half-baked modifications and improvements are of little use in the field of information and communications technology. A single, intrinsically superior format supported by a novel concept can survive and become the global standard in its field. In this respect, the domain of information and communications technology is vastly different from areas in which Japan's traditional strengths lie, such as intelligent appliances and automobiles. The power to think from basic principles can only grow out of education that fosters an appreciation of fundamentals. I have high hopes for the young talent that will join us here at the Graduate School of Informatics.