To all of you receiving your degrees today, congratulations. On behalf of the University of Tokyo, I would also like to express my heartfelt gratitude and congratulations to your families and to everyone else who has encouraged and supported you thus far.
You will now begin engaging with society and the world in various ways and doing many things. In doing so, you need to be aware of the state of the world around you. What methods can we use to measure—or, to use another word, to sense—the condition of the world in which we live?
In technical fields, the word “sensing” refers to methods of obtaining information about objects by detecting physical quantities such as sound, light, temperature, and pressure. That sensing is done using sensors.
One method is remote sensing, such as using satellites to measure the Earth from space. Recently, over a thousand new satellites have been launched each year, and some eight thousand are orbiting the Earth at this moment. As a result, we can now sense the current condition of any region on Earth in detail from space.
I am sure that many of you have been deeply affected by the shocking satellite images in the news, showing broken tanks, injured people, and destroyed buildings. Even such distressing images can play a crucial role in our understanding of the reality on the ground.
The technology for sensing the Earth from satellites evolved through cooperation among many countries aiming for global peace. The International Geophysical Year, which lasted from July 1, 1957, to December 31, 1958, was an international research project involving 64 countries, including Japan, the United States, and the former Soviet Union. It yielded many achievements, including the successful launch of satellites, the discovery of the Van Allen radiation belts around our planet, and an international system of cooperation that led to the freezing of territorial claims in Antarctica.
Several contributions to that project came from Japan. In 1957, for example, the first Japanese Antarctic Research Expedition established Showa Station, which by now has been conducting Antarctic observations for over 65 years. In 1958, Professor Hideo Itokawa of the Institute of Industrial Science at the University of Tokyo played a central role in launching Japan’s first full-scale geophysical observation rocket, which conducted measurements of wind and temperature in the Earth’s upper atmosphere. The achievements of that international research project contributed significantly to the restoration of trust in Japan from the international community in the aftermath of World War II.
Research on Earth sensing has been continued by multiple departments at the University of Tokyo, resulting in significant achievements. For instance, in the 1980s, the Institute of Industrial Science installed an antenna to receive data from NOAA, the American weather satellites, and developed new methods for processing that data. That data is utilized in many fields, including weather analysis, natural disaster monitoring, vegetation surveys, and assessments of agricultural development.
We have also made progress in underwater sensing. A privately funded research program at the Institute of Industrial Science called Globe Engineering, established in 1991, led studies on observing the Earth both from the air and under the sea using remote sensing and underwater robots. I personally conducted research on underwater robots for that program from 1993 to 1995. More recently, members of the Institute of Industrial Science played a crucial role in Team KUROSHIO, which represented Japan in an international competition on seabed exploration technology in 2019. Out of 32 teams from around the world, the Japanese team won second place.
Although the ocean covers 70 percent of the Earth’s surface, only about 20 percent of the seafloor has been mapped. Until a few years ago, only about 5 percent had been surveyed. In contrast, measurements of the entire surface of the Moon have already been completed. Currently, an international project aims to map 100 percent of the ocean floor by the year 2030.
But society’s attitudes toward scientific and technological advancements, including remote sensing, have not always been filled with positivity and light. A song that aptly expresses doubts about progress in science and technology is “I.G.Y.” by Donald Fagen, one of my favorite artists. Released in 1982, the song gets the “I.G.Y.” in its title from the initials of the International Geophysical Year, which I mentioned earlier. The song sarcastically depicts a seemingly convenient future society where science and technology have advanced significantly. In that world, people can travel by train from New York to Paris in 90 minutes via an undersea tunnel, journey easily into space, control the weather, and let machines make important decisions for them. The lyrics include the line “What a beautiful world this will be.”
Why do those words seem ironic? Well, contrary to the ideals of the International Geophysical Year, which aimed for the peaceful use of science and technology and the establishment of an international cooperative framework, science and technology ended up also being used for confrontation and competition during the Cold War. As a result, environmental problems and many social issues, including inequality among people and countries, were left behind. This led to a disconnect between science and technology on the one hand and real-world challenges on the other, thus intensifying people’s distrust and anxiety.
In response, people have begun to recognize in new ways the importance of sensing, with regard not only to the physical world but also to the daily lives and experiences of the people living in it.
One method of “sensing” society involves social research, for which researchers, rather than observing from a distance, immerse themselves in society, grounded and engaged, asking questions and investigating. This could be called sensing through language. In social research, questionnaires are prepared with questions aimed to elicit the desired information, and those questions are posed to people in order to investigate the true state of society.
One example in Japan of such a large-scale survey is the national census, which is conducted every five years and includes all of you, of course. The University of Tokyo was involved in the birth of that census. It was Koji Sugi, known as the father of modern Japanese statistics, who first proposed conducting a survey of the total population, and that survey eventually led to today’s national census. Sugi became a professor at Shogunate's Kaiseijo a predecessor of the University of Tokyo, in 1864, and later took a post in the Grand Council of State equivalent to today’s Director-General of the Statistics Bureau in the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. Believing that a nationwide census first needed to be preceded by more local surveys, Sugi conducted Japan’s first count of an entire population in Yamanashi Prefecture in 1879. Based on that experience, he continued to advocate for the necessity of a national census and finally succeeded in enacting a law to implement one. The first national census was supposed to be conducted in 1905, but it was postponed due to the Russo-Japanese War and was not carried out until 1920.
A population census is the foundation of the administration of any modern state. Because understanding society quantitatively was considered to be essential for Japan to become a first-class nation, the government put great efforts into it. However, many people misunderstood its purpose and thought it would be a survey for raising taxes. The understanding and cooperation of the people were indispensable to conduct such a large survey all at once, and that first census in 1920 is said to have been a national event on a scale that is unimaginable today.
From the 19th and into the 20th century, many other countries put efforts into comprehensive censuses. But such large-scale “sensing” could only incorporate a limited number of items, so it was far from sufficient. Beginning around the mid-20th century, public opinion surveys and market research based on sampling began to be developed and became widely used. Sampling also involves collecting information from people by asking questions and is a form of social research. Examples include newspaper and television stations forecasting election results by surveying people’s voting behavior during elections, and public institutions conducting opinion polls to learn people’s opinions about major events.
Researchers in various faculties and research centers at the University of Tokyo have also conducted such social surveys. In the early 1930s, agricultural economists and sociologists led investigations of villages struggling under the rural recession, and during the post-war reconstruction economists conducted surveys of shanty dwellers and factory workers. Today, researchers continue to conduct social surveys from diverse perspectives on issues that emerged after the Great East Japan Earthquake, including “hope studies,” urban planning, disaster prevention, and life under evacuation.
For this kind of “sensing” through language, that is, social surveys, it is particularly important to build a fundamental relationship of trust between the people conducting the survey and the people being surveyed. When sensing is conducted remotely, the subjects being measured are not aware of it; although the results may seem objective, the data are one-sided. In contrast, language-based surveys fundamentally take the form of a dialogue. It is important to remember that if there is no relationship of trust, the people being surveyed may refuse to answer or even sometimes deliberately give false answers, in what would be a legitimate exercise of their rights. In other words, thinking that we can learn the truth easily simply by conducting a survey is an oversimplification.
So why is it important to conduct research based on dialogue? It is because listening to the voices of various people and empathizing with their experiences is a crucial element supporting the foundation of democracy. It might be more efficient to use automatic sensors and networked information and communication technologies to determine people’s superficial behaviors broadly and shallowly. But people have many thoughts and narratives not picked up by such measurements. We must always remember the danger of forming our own interpretations without learning about what other people think and experience.
In 2020, exactly 100 years after Japan’s first national census, a pandemic occurred unexpectedly due to a new coronavirus, and, also unexpectedly, we began to live much of our lives in cyberspace, including online classes, remote work, telemedicine, and online shopping. Face-to-face surveys became extremely difficult, and opportunities for dialogue decreased. It is possible, of course, to determine people’s movements and the operation status of factories from GPS data, as well as to sense quickly and accurately the current situation of many different socio-economic activities from the traces left in cyberspace. Some people even believe that we can learn about society more effectively and accurately by using artificial intelligence to analyze data from the Internet and exchanges on social media. However, we must not forget that—precisely because new digital methods need to be developed now for social surveys—we also should think deeply about the potential and limitations of each type of sensing.
At the beginning of my talk, I mentioned the importance of knowing the state of the world around us. We need to learn the social situation quickly now because socio-economic activities have become transnational, and global issues like environmental problems, which cannot be solved by individual countries alone, are becoming more serious. In this regard, the immediacy and convenience of sensing offer new possibilities.
Especially for climate change issues, data on measurements and social activity is now being shared cooperatively among scientists around the world through organizations such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and that data is forming the basis for discussions of measures to overcome the challenges facing our planet. In dealing with COVID-19, determining the concentration of people and the distribution of goods using satellite images and mobile communication data have also provided new perspectives on shared problems.
In times like this, in order to use new data and sensing methods better and in more desirable ways, we need flexible ways of thinking that are not bound by conventional frameworks. We also need to become more sensitive.
Today, as you prepare to leave the University of Tokyo, I would like to ask you to raise your sensitivity in three ways.
First, polish your imagination and cultivate an eye for choosing the appropriate technology. Devise methods that fit the challenges you face, and strive to obtain a wide range of information. For example, when trying to understand the economic disparities in our world, if you look at satellite images taken of the Earth at night you can clearly see the difference between the brightly lit areas that are active even at night and the completely dark areas with no lights. In order to tackle issues in specific regions, you also need to acquire facts through surveys that determine the actual living standards and culture there. Since all sensing methods have strengths and weaknesses, your skill at choosing the best methods of measurement and analysis will be essential for collecting appropriate information and deepening your knowledge. Be sure to polish those skills while keeping your focus on the reality of social problems.
Second, always listen to the voices of the people behind the data. The data you have now may reflect only a small part of the true reality of society. You might need to go to the actual location and experience it directly. When you do so, maintain your empathy for people’s pain and suffering that have been unsurveyed or untold. Cherish your inner “sensors” that enable you to empathize with, for example, people suffering near the destroyed cityscapes that you might see on television.
Finally, maintain your ability to look ahead to the future without being overwhelmed by huge masses of data obtained through sensing. For this, it is essential to develop unique judgment, tenacious thinking, and a rich imagination. No matter how much information has been collected through sensing, it reflects only the situation up until now. Each of you has the responsibility to imagine what should be done with our Earth and our society in the years ahead. When you do so, apply what you have learned at the University of Tokyo. With the strength to remember your ideals and the kindness to empathize with the feelings of others, I hope that you will become creative global citizens who will work together to build a better society.
No matter how difficult the world situation may seem, do not lose hope for the future. Continue learning, and never give up. If everyone around the world can acquire the sensitivity I mentioned earlier, we can overcome the sarcasm in Donald Fagen’s song and sing it sincerely:
What a beautiful world this will be
What a glorious time to be free
I hope the day will come when each of you can sing those words from your heart in your own voice. I have great expectations for everything that you will accomplish.
Congratulations once again on your graduation.
Lyrics quoted from “I.G.Y.” by Donald Fagen.
The University of Tokyo
March 23, 2023