On behalf of the faculty and staff of the University of Tokyo, I would like to give my warmest congratulations to all of you receiving degrees and graduating today. I would also like to extend my deep appreciation to your families, who have supported you for so long.
Now that you have your diplomas in hand, I am sure that you must be recalling many things, including the research challenges you faced and the conversations you had with friends. Over the past two years in particular, you had to go about your university life and studies while struggling to deal with the COVID pandemic. I commend each of you for your efforts in overcoming severe hardships.
Because of the pandemic, not everyone has been able to gather here at Yasuda Auditorium. But all of you watching this ceremony online are with us in spirit, and I congratulate you all as well.
Now, I imagine that some of us here have sometimes looked at our smartphones while walking.
When people look at their phones while walking, why do they often nearly bump into others? You might think that is because those so-called smartphone zombies do not look where they are going. But if we look at this issue from a slightly different angle, we find that the very act of smartphone-walking affects not only the person doing it but also other people walking nearby.
Professor Katsuhiro Nishinari and Project Associate Professor Claudio Feliciani of UTokyo’s Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology have studied why pedestrians sometimes collide with other pedestrians. Their research won the 2021 Ig Nobel Prize and generated a lot of media attention. In their research, Professor Nishinari and his team had the first three people in a group of pedestrians do arithmetic problems on their smartphones while they walked. It turned out that not just those three people but the entire group slowed down their pace, disrupting the movement of the entire group. The very act of smartphone-walking was found to influence not just the people doing it but also other people walking nearby.
As you know, the Ig Nobel Prizes are a parody of the Nobel Prizes. They honor achievements that make people both laugh and think. I, for one, believe that the research question and findings of Professor Nishinari’s team offer a universally valuable insight to pedestrians worldwide, who often look at their smartphones while rushing along city streets.
Let’s think for a moment about when this smartphone-walking behavior began. It is a by-product of the new culture created by that innovative device, the smartphone. If we consider that device to have emerged with the iPhone, which was first released in January 2007, then it is clear that this new technology spread around the globe in just a few years. It has brought great convenience as well as problems, including collisions, falls, and traffic accidents, caused by people glued to their tiny screens as they check their email and social network accounts.
Whether we like it or not, technological advances change our daily lives, beginning in our immediate surroundings. Such changes may not necessarily happen in the way we expected. Take messenger RNA vaccines, for example. The COVID pandemic has put a spotlight on this type of vaccine. Sometimes in life, one thing can thus lead, by chance, to another, which in turn shines a light on a certain technology at an unexpected time. As a result, the technology has a profound effect on society.
Technology can also cause unintended consequences. In recent years, internet addiction, which has been described by some experts as a modern-day illness, has become a new type of social problem caused by our failure to keep pace with the rapid development and spread of new technologies. Thus a technology-driven future can be either positive or negative.
Among the most important technologies entering our lives today are robots, which are increasingly used not only for industrial but also household purposes, and artificial intelligence (AI). The word robot originated in the 1920 science-fiction play R.U.R., or Rossum’s Universal Robots, by the Czech writer Karel Čapek. I remember going to see that play many years ago at the Haiyuza Theater in Roppongi, where the University’s Institute of Industrial Science, to which I then belonged, was located.
Over the past century, the imaginary world that Čapek depicted in his science fiction is now gradually becoming a reality. In the early part of the play, there are scenes where a robot punches on a typewriter and converses with humans. Today, machine-assisted voice typing and chat have become a reality thanks to advanced voice recognition systems. As you know, deep neural networks and advances in their applications are accelerating the pace of the third wave of artificial intelligence.
Needless to say, technological advances stem from the human desire to make life better. In Čapek’s play, Harry Domin, the general manager of Rossum’s Universal Robots, says that he wants to liberate humans from toil and labor. If we think more deeply about that desire, we eventually see what can be characterized as the human race’s curiosity about the future.
Takashi Tachibana, the well-known journalist who passed away last year, covered many fields during his career. In 1996, he taught a course on our University’s Komaba Campus in which he called for the need to “look at human beings through the stages of evolution” (The Future of Homo Sapiens, Kodansha Gendai Shinsho, 2021). He stressed the importance of thinking about everything over a very long time span.
Our stream of curiosity about the future is itself advanced by the collaborative relations among researchers. Those relations are formed not only between researchers from different fields working together at the same time. Our streams of curiosity are also passed down from generation to generation over a long span of time.
Another important point is that the adoption and spread of new technology not only are affected by the power of technology itself but are also greatly dependent on the state of the society that embraces it. During the COVID pandemic, we have all become familiar with video conferencing systems. Such systems had been technologically possible since the 1990s, but they were not adopted widely. Since 2020, however, the pandemic has shed a new light on those systems worldwide, and you yourselves all experienced taking classes remotely using them. These new remote environments have been welcomed by physically-challenged people with mobility issues, and some people have begun questioning why video conferencing systems had not been adopted earlier. The delay was not caused by the technology itself; rather, it was due to issues with the society and people who use the technology.
Today, the use of AI-enabled devices, such as robot vacuum cleaners and smart speakers, has become a part of our everyday life. And yet there are often concerns over the future of such technology. We hear people worry that their jobs may be replaced by AI or their entire daily lives put under surveillance, or even that humans may be made redundant. However, we should not forget that it is we who will determine whether the future of humankind is positive or negative.
There is a meaningful anecdote from ancient Greek mythology. The god Prometheus stole fire from heaven and gave it to humans, who were suffering in the cold. For this, Zeus had Prometheus chained to a mountain in the Caucasus and sent an eagle to pick out his liver every day. Fire has thus been regarded as a symbol of technology, something that not only brings happiness to humans but also creates conflict and disaster. Prometheus’ tragedy can be interpreted as punishment for failing to anticipate the negative consequences of one’s own actions. It also serves as a warning that our actions, well-intentioned as they may be, can cause eternal suffering if we don’t consider their impacts on the future.
Of course, scientists today have not ignored the warnings associated with all these new technologies.
At the Asilomar Conference held in the United States in 1975, scientists discussed the social impacts of recombinant DNA. That technology was just then emerging, and the conference set guidelines for its use. One of the conference organizers was the American biochemist Paul Berg, a leading researcher then on genetic modification. The scientists at the conference explored the future ramifications of their research while it was still ongoing. That was a prime example of precautionary principles, by which scientists themselves consider the potential dangers of the grave and irreversible effects of their research.
Today, there is much talk of responsible research and innovation, especially in Europe. Researchers are increasingly required to respond responsibly to questions from all directions. Such inquiries must not be limited to the community of scientists. The problems are deeply connected to all of our daily lives.
Let’s think about the familiar issue of assisted reproduction technology (ART). It has been 44 years now since the world’s first test-tube baby was born in 1978. In Japan now, one out of about every 15 babies is born through ART.
As its name suggests, ART is literally a technology to artificially assist reproduction. It enables fertilization to happen externally—a process which previously took place only in a woman’s body—so that the other processes leading up to a child’s birth can succeed. Since this technology became possible, scientists have made a number of improvements. Later it became known that many women born this way gave birth normally to children of their own. Robert G. Edwards, the British physiologist who pioneered the world’s first birth through in vitro fertilization, won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2010 for his accomplishment.
In the late 2000s, I myself did research on developing a device for growing fertilized eggs in a favorable environment. With application to human beings in mind, I conducted basic research using mice. I also experimented on fertilized bovine eggs in a joint research project with the National Livestock Breeding Center. As shown by these examples, assisted reproductive technology has progressed in a wide range of research fields, from medicine and the life sciences to engineering and livestock science. ART is now used to assist the reproduction of not only humans but also cows and pigs.
But once we gained the ability to intervene in various ways in the reproductive process, the effects extended beyond fertility treatments alone. Advanced technology for third-party reproduction, such as through egg and sperm donation or surrogacy, helps us overcome many causes of infertility. This in turn enables such treatment to reach a broader range of people. In fact, some countries now allow same-sex couples or single women to have children with the help of ART. ART has created options for starting a family that were unthinkable before.
Those advances in reproductive technology have also raised ethical issues, including the right of children born through ART to know about their biological parents, the physical burden of the egg donation procedure, and the pros and cons of surrogacy. Even though discussions about how to tackle such issues have only just begun, it is becoming technologically possible to check the genetic makeup of fertilized eggs and choose which one to transplant into the womb, or to create intentionally gene-modified fertilized eggs for so-called designer babies. Experts also point out the issue of “ethics dumping,” in which advanced experimental ART is performed in countries with weak ethical safeguards.
When we look at these issues in a broader social context, we see that using and enjoying the benefits of technology comes with a cost. Acquiring digital devices or using ART costs money, and whether or not one can afford those costs leads to a structural gap between those who can benefit from cutting-edge technologies and those who can’t. Another example is regional disparities in COVID vaccination rates. We need to think about how to include people who hope to reap the benefits of new technologies but are excluded from accessing them due to their economic circumstances.
The technological innovations I’ve mentioned have, at the core, been driven by the human desires to avoid excessive work and to have children. Propelled by our desires, we humans have consumed resources and created new things to satisfy those desires. Recently scholars have proposed a new geological era, called the Anthropocene, based on the magnitude of environmental impacts from human activities, including global warming, growing volumes of non-biodegradable manmade materials such as plastics, and the loss of biodiversity.
Behind the advances in premodern and modern times is humanism, that is, a human-centric view of the world that uses human interests as its fundamental yardstick. Humanism has defined the various ways in which knowledge has been formed. One of its important accomplishments is the idea of human rights, which criticizes unreasonable discrimination and oppression. The sudden, unjustifiable military invasion that occurred in late February is causing destruction and tragedy that no one ever wished for, and it is forcibly shattering people’s ordinary lives on a large scale. Our world order has been proven to be fragile. That fierce confrontation leads us to rethink the roles that dialogue and exchange can play. Universities are now called on to find ways, through our academic and scholarly work, to help rid the world of the suffering brought about by this crisis. The University of Tokyo has launched a special program to host scholars, students, their families, and others affected by the difficult circumstances. These urgent issues have all come into sharper focus.
If we take a long-term view, what is important for us now is to extend the universal values of human rights that have been established in modern society into the age of post-humanism. We need to adopt a stance that includes living things other than humans, that is, to relativize the position of homo sapiens. Such thinking will tie in with animal studies, including multifaceted consideration of animal rights, and with an earth-focused perspective on climate change. That will also lead us to consider the importance of the natural environment that is destroyed by war and the value of life in all its many forms.
Let me reiterate: these discussions should not be limited to closed communities of researchers in those specific fields. The science and technology that we are creating will affect how we live in many ways. That is why we all should reach beyond the boundaries of our small communities, whether in academia, government, or civil society, to bring together diverse knowledge, humbly listen to different voices, and continue to engage in dialogue with people of diverse backgrounds.
Today’s commencement ceremony marks a milestone in the lives of all of you. But graduating from this University does not mark the end of your learning. There are still many unresolved issues, and you will encounter many more unanswered questions in the years ahead. Whether you start your career working in the real world or you continue on to graduate school, I hope that each of you, and all of us, will continue to think about these open questions together.
Congratulations once again on your graduation!
The University of Tokyo
March 25, 2022