Open Innovation Platform

Ryuichi Sakamoto and Joichi Ito A dialogue on artificial intelligence and humanity

Musician Ryuichi Sakamoto and Joichi Ito, the co-founder of Digital Garage, Inc. and Director of the MIT Media Lab, are old friends who have stayed in touch since the early 1990s. At present, both have based their activities in cities on the US East Coast, Sakamoto in New York and Ito in Boston. Although their fields of expertise (music and the Internet, respectively) differ, the two have always pursued leading-edge technology. They recently sat down to discuss artificial intelligence and the future of humankind.

(日本語版はこちら Japanese version is here


Joichi Ito (hereinafter referred to as “Ito”) : Artificial intelligence is going to have a big impact on our society. In response, we at the MIT Media Lab have embarked on research concerning artificial intelligence and related ethical issues.


Ryuichi Sakamoto

Ryuichi Sakamoto (hereinafter referred to as “Sakamoto”) : Personally, I’m interested in the question of how artificial intelligence will judge our awareness of “beauty”,  or what the ancient Greeks called the “True, Good, and Beautiful.” I want to learn whether or not artificial intelligence can really perceive beauty. In short, the question is whether artificial intelligence can see the beauty in a piece of music that human listeners also find “beautiful”. I guess this question goes back to that of the nature of “perception” for human beings.

Ito: I think we have to start by considering just what “human beings” are to begin with. In the United States, some people were treated as “slaves” in the past, although they were human beings. Once technological advances make it possible for computers to support the workings of the brain, there may arise discussion about whether the people using them people are human beings. If it becomes possible to connect the brains of two persons through a computer and integrate their thoughts, could the result properly be termed human thought? Companies, too, have been given the status of persons under the law,  in order endow them with the same rights as human beings. In other words, the boundary between human beings and machines is going to become increasingly blurred. As a result, ethical ideas of what entities ought to be endowed with what rights are heading for rapid change. People have empathy toward robots, you know. They don’t like to see robots kicked, manhandled, or otherwise abused. With the advances in artificial intelligence, there may come a time when we will have to consider giving certain types of robots the rights of humans.

Sakamoto: Various types of work that has been done by people as laborers are being automated and taken over by robots. This trend is not liable to stop. 


Joichi Ito

Ito: In a phase preceding the development of such superior artificial intelligence, there could arise, if only for a short period, a situation in which people will be used like slaves by computers. This is because a human brain may be cheaper to use than a computer. The human brain consumes about 20 watts of energy. In contrast, the energy consumed by “Watson”, the artificial intelligence system designed by IBM, reportedly amounts to about 50 megawatts. While it may take a substantial amount of energy to nurture growth of the human body, people have a lower running cost when doing calculations. Considering the factor of economic merit, this suggests an increase in occasions on which people will take action in accordance with the instructions of a computer. Take the case of image recognition, for example. Even today, it is not unusual for people to undertake the recognition of images that could not be processed by the computer. Uber, the car dispatch service, is another example. Depending on how you look at it, the driver is driving while following the instructions of a computer.

Sakamoto: So, people are getting jobs from computers.

Ito: At MIT Media Lab, we are looking into collaboration between robots and human beings. We have a team of two people play a game, without letting either one knows whether his or her partner is a human being or a robot. We found that the combination of human being and robot better enabled collaboration than that of two human beings. In some cases, a human pair did the worse than a robot pair. This suggests that artificial intelligence should be viewed not as something that will replace human beings, but as something to augment human capabilities. I believe that viewing human beings and artificial intelligence as separate and exclusive isn’t appropriate for probing the coming age.

Sakamoto: How will human styles of work change with the spread of artificial intelligence? The conventional view is that many people are going to lose their jobs. I wonder artificial intelligence would create more job opportunities for humans.

Ito: The issue is easier to understand if we go back to ancient Greece again for an example. Slavery was an institution in Athens. Because slaves did the labor, “work” meant philosophy, education, art, and participation in society, at least as far as wealthy citizens were concerned. In essence, philosophers, scholars, artists, and educators, whose doings cannot be converted into economic terms in today’s society, were extremely important in Athens. If we replace slaves with robots, I think we can imagine the coming society. Since the Industrial Revolution, emphasis has been placed on “making things,” and the maturity of a society has been defined by the level of its manufacturing. But “making culture” was presumably always the proper role of the human brain. With the spread of artificial intelligence, we will probably see a return to this orientation.

Sakamoto: The implication is that, unless they use their talents for cultural creation and enhancement more, people will end up not having anything to do. I feel basically positive about the use of artificial intelligence and would not mind if artificial intelligence systems composed music. I would praise the music they make if it was interesting. But I also think that the important thing would be the nature of the process and program applied in composing this music. It would be simple, for example, to input all of Mozart’s compositions into an artificial intelligence system and have it compose pieces that bear are semblance to Mozart’s music, wouldn’t it? But that  wouldn’t be interesting, right?. At the very least, an algorithm would have to be made to produce the essence of the beauty of his music. Whether or not that makes any sense is another question, of course. Artificial intelligence excels at coming up with ideas that would never occur to people and making calculations that would be impossible for a single person to make. I’m eager to see what will be emerge from these capabilities. If the music produced by artificial intelligence is interesting or “beautiful” to our ears, then I think that would be a benefit.

Ito: Some experts believe that, if technology keeps advancing at this rate, we will reach the point of singularity, meaning that computers will be able to simulate and understand everything in the universe. I think this is an overly simplistic view on the complexity of the world and the power of computers. I feel that entrepreneurs and engineers who have focused on tackling the complexities of the world with computers and not those who have been immersed in more spiritual pursuits tend to have this view. When people end up putting complete faith in the latest science, there is a higher risk of science leading society in the wrong direction, as occurred during the eugenics movement, when we believed that we understood evolution and genetics and that sterilizing and killing people we felt were inferior was good for society. Whether it is artificial intelligence or biotechnology, I worry that people who believe they have a perfect understanding of the technology may  come to wield power and authority in society. Although science is intrinsically something that must be loved and respected with a spirit of intellectual humility, some people are losing this humility.

Sakamoto: I think this is where Japanese-style culture or sensibility can play an important part. The Japanese Archipelago lies off one end of the Eurasian continent, surrounded by sea, which is why people and cultures have poured into Japan from every direction, north, south, east, and west. As I see it, Japan has an extremely rich diversity accumulated over a long time – thousands, tens of thousands of years. These circumstances fostered the development of a distinctive history and culture. Because I am a musician, I’d like to use music as an example here. The origins of Noh and other traditional Japanese performing arts lie in “tianyue” (literally meaning “field music”), a type of Chinese folk music. transmitted into Japan, this mixed with Buddhist influences and assumed more sophisticated forms that eventually became very unique. Throughout its history, Japan has repeatedly taken things imported from other countries and molded them into interesting cultural elements. Shinto is also particular to Japan, but is rooted in animism, which is a universal sensibility. Animism per se also took root in Europe, for example, but now has virtually vanished there. But in Japan, it remained strongly rooted and, mixed with Buddhism, formed the foundation of Shinto. I suspect this is why Japanese tend to excel in the know-how or sense and sensibility to live at harmony with nature as opposed to in confrontation with it.

Ito: Look at the Ise Shrine, which has continued to be rebuilt every 20 years for more than a millennium, and you can see that Japan is imbued with a culture that views things in terms of cycles. In contrast, many facets of American culture are grounded in the idea that people cannot be happy unless the economy continues to grow forever. That kind of thinking can end up causing the collapse of all sorts of social systems, by destroying the environment and widening the gap between the haves and have-nots.

Sakamoto: If people continue to seek growth at the current pace, there is bound to be a recoil, because unlimited growth is an impossibility. This could very well have results with a destructive effect on the natural environment. I consequently believe there must be a dramatic change in the economic setup, in order to put the brakes on this dogged pursuit of growth above all else.

Ito: A while ago, I had the opportunity to speak with a group of Japanese junior high school students. I prompted the discussion by saying, “Let’s talk about climate change and the environment.” In reply, one of them asked, “Do you mean the environment including people or the environment not necessarily including people? Because humans aren’t really good for the environment, right?” Then another one said, “Don’t you think it would be better to discuss that after we do more thinking about the meaning of our lives to begin with?” Had I started a conversation with adults the same way, they would immediately start talking about “carbon emission levels” and the like with know-it-all looks. But junior high school students are questioning “whether human beings are needed in nature in the first place”. This struck me as a very hopeful sign for cultural creation from now on.

Sakamoto: I would like to nurture this kind of outlook among young people so they don’t lose it as they grow up.

(Compiled by Rocky Eda)


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