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August 14, 2006

Coping with Information Explosion: Need to Build a New Social Infrastructure

Osamu SUDOH (Professor, University of Tokyo)

The Internet is now commonplace, and introduction of new media tools such as blogs has caused the volume of information created by man and machines to increase at an exponential rate exceeding the ability of individuals to manage. Such "information explosion" is causing new problems in various respects, and it is critical to cope with this issue.

Heavy burden for information systems

With the advent of the network society, the flow of information has increased to exceed levels people can manage. The enormous volume of information is reaching a stage where it could have adverse effects on the judgment of people and society. Studies show that this trend has accelerated tremendously since the year 2000, indicating that the information explosion is here and real.

Information explosion, as the term is used here, refers not only to existing information systems. It also focuses on the possibilities of problems that could occur over judgments and behaviors of people in an increasingly vulnerable society established upon traditional information systems.

The Internet has become commonplace and a new medium for anyone to transmit information worldwide, from which new tools such as blogs and social networking services have evolved. But the ability of an individual to process information cannot grow in line with the increase of the number of people transmitting information. People must devote more time to locate the information they need, and the skills to extract necessary information from the vast space of information is gaining importance.

Negative effects of e-mail, as it has become so popular, are drawing attention. E-mail is a very efficient communication tool if the number of mail stays within a certain limit. But when it reaches the volume where several hours a day is necessary to manage it, it hampers people's intellectual productive activities. There has never been a time in history when people had to struggle with so many messages of no high priority. Some communication tool to manage present e-mail demands is necessary.

Information explosion also has a large effect on existing information technology. Sheer increase of information flow would be a burden that could lead to instability of the system.

The cost of information storage decreases significantly while the volume of information the system must manage increases dramatically. It would not be easy to cultivate capable personnel to control the huge volume of information, and system administration could be jeopardized.

Furthermore, the information explosion could exacerbate the issue of the digital divide. Those less proficient with IT, such as the elderly, could be denied access to better social services, leading them to be isolated from society. Something new that could facilitate dialogue between man and system, a new dialogue engine, needs to be developed.

Social systems also face problems

Progression of an aging society requires a social infrastructure where elderly and handicapped individuals can function in a manner similar to healthy people, thus creating houses and towns fully utilizing nursing-care robots. Development of ubiquitous networks would also become an important agenda item. For that to be realized, robot technology - especially in the sensor technology field - needs be put to practical use, which requires a social system prepared to process huge volumes of information properly. But there are a number of issues that need to be settled beforehand, such as product liability, risk management, and protection and utilization of personal information.

To tackle various issues emerging from information explosion, a new project named " Studies on Cyber Infrastructure for the Information-explosion Era " was launched earlier this year, lead by Professor Masaru Kitsuregawa of the University of Tokyo. The project intends to tackle the phenomenon from various aspects, and consists of four organized research groups.

The first group is lead by Professor Kitsuregawa, which aims to create a next generation search engine by incorporating natural language understanding, machine learning, graph analysis, etc. The object is to present to the inquirer not only a list of related websites, but to group the information so that it shows dynamically the relevances and differences among the information.

The second group, lead by Professor Satoshi Matsuoka of Tokyo Institute of Technology, would attempt to use a very large number of computers on an unprecedented scale for information administration. A radically new architecture adopted would use half of the total processing power for the core services, while the other half is used to constantly monitor whether the whole system is operating smoothly.

The third group focuses on developing a new dialogue engine, lead by Professor Takashi Matsuyama of Kyoto University. It aims to capture the feelings and sentiments of users, and the essence of dialogue to be performed relative to changes in the information space and the preferences of users. By employing various sensors, the study would search for effective means of nonlinguistic communication through analysis of biological information, complexion, and gestures.

Carrying out community-based demonstration experiments

The fourth group, which the author organizes, attempts to pursue a social system design incorporating the results of the studies of other groups into demonstration experiments.

How should a database necessary for forming a social infrastructure utilizing nursing-care robots and network of sensors be managed? How can both protection and productive utilization of a huge private information database be properly managed? How can the system be built strong enough to withstand the risks of accidents, fires, and fraud? How can new business schemes and governance systems be designed and established? These are some of the issues to be tackled.

One of the characteristics of this project is the existence of a highly computing support team headed by Professor Jun Adachi of the National Institute of Informatics, to coordinate the activities of the four groups. By the collaboration between leading edge informatics and social sciences supported by a highly computing support team, the project intends to seek a new form of governance for a new society (social governance in the era of transformation) that can withstand the impact of information explosion.

An experiment is being planned in the City of Fukuoka. In conjunction with the establishment of a grid computing environment that consolidates a large number of computers to increase total processing power, a healthcare experiment infrastructure would be installed where sensor-measurements of individuals' body temperature, pulse, acceleration, etc. can be monitored constantly on the network. Demonstration experiments are planned to provide regional healthcare and security services.

This Fukuoka experiment will be infused with the results of our studies, and the plan is to expand this research base to make it possible to establish - perhaps through the use of sensor network and the ASP (Application Service Providing) - a large scale practical business-academia collaboration experimental model.

As has been discussed in the Council for Science and Technology Policy, a group formed by statute to advise the government, development of a sensor-network is one of the most important leading-edge subjects in the information-communication science and technology field. In addition, to promote creation of an electronic-municipality conducted by national and local governments, outsourcing of data-centers and the ASP are being encouraged. In this environment, by coordinating grid computing and sensor network, it should be possible to build a new social framework based on existing municipalities.

Many Japanese companies until now had to limit their scope of business to individual products and services. But now they are expected to lead the path in bundling the IT technology they have developed to establish a new social infrastructure. Recent developments in areas such as health-medical care, environmental science, and biotechnology - often referred to collectively as e-science (a large-scale science subject to collaborative research using internet technology) - are believed to be effective in coping with various problems arising from information explosion. A new science derived from the interactions between social sciences and leading-edge informatics should be a key in coping with information explosion.

(The original Japanese article appeared in the July 27, 2006 issue of Nihon Keizai Shimbun.)

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