Women of vision

Building Robots that Think

    In the latest installment of "Women of Vision," our series putting a spotlight on women in Japan who are influencing society, we go to the front lines of artificial intelligence, a technology that is becoming more prevalent. There we meet Noriko Arai, who is developing the technology in order to create a better future.

    Arai is leading more than 100 researchers in a project to create next-generation artificial intelligence. "We want to develop artificial intelligence programs that are unlike any other in the world," she explains.

    Arai is trying to enhance the power in a computer so it can pass the entrance exam for Japan's most competitive university. The system needs multiple AI programs just to read the questions.

    Robotic brains can absorb a huge amount of data. But they have trouble correctly understanding questions and recognizing figures and illustrations, which are skills that come naturally to humans.

    Arai is trying to solve these problems. "I felt a strong desire to be the first one to find out the details of what AI can or cannot do," she says. "I don't want to have this technology affecting or changing my life when I don't even know what AI is or what it's capable of."

    Arai has faced her own challenges along the way. In school, she was not good with numbers, and she never liked math. But while majoring in law at university, she discovered the logic of math equations and was won over. She went to the US to continue her studies and then decided to become a mathematician.

    Eventually, she got married and had a child. As a full-time mom, she was determined to keep working. "Mothers have things they want to pursue in life, not only as a mother, and they can do them," she says. "I also wanted to live my life how I wanted, and felt a strong desire to become a mathematician."

    Since she started her career, she's struggled to balance life at work and home. She decided she would have to find her own path in such a male-dominated field. "I realized there was a broader picture in the field," she says. "I found my place between math and information technology."

    She forged ahead, and her research won recognition. She developed a content management system, which is now the most-used system in Japanese schools.

    Arai feels that her varied academic background and experience raising a child both contribute to the AI project. Her colleagues agree. One male researcher says "it's difficult to solve problems only through the lens of the robotics community. Arai always gives us new viewpoints."

    Arai and the other developers of digital brains are discovering the limits of AI. Systems have difficulty handling ethics and language questions that require common sense or real-life experience. Arai says this also highlights strengths that only humans possess. "There's a difference in what AI and humans are good at," she explains. "I think students should spend more time in school to create new things, to find solutions, and discover things that are irregular."

    She predicts that in the next decade or two, AI will eliminate the need for 50% of all white-collar jobs. She hopes that through her project, people can prepare for a future influenced by AI, and take advantage of the uniquely human trait of curiosity.