At SoftBank Corp. (TOKYO: 9434), ongoing technology research is key to advancing new business areas related to AI, robotics, as well as the core telecommunications business. To learn more about this and SoftBank’s vision for future technologies, SoftBank News editors spoke with Hideyuki Tsukuda, Executive Vice President & CTO since April 2021.
Aiming to be a world technology leader by building on a strong telecommunications foundation
How is technology positioned in SoftBank’s business?
SoftBank’s origins go back to publishing and distribution. Many people in Japan associate SoftBank with mobile phones, but we don't make mobile phones – we’ve been building communication networks and developing technologies so mobile devices operate at top-class levels. Technology is the cornerstone of SoftBank, and we must continue to develop our communication infrastructure for the 5G and 6G eras. But we won’t stop there. As a company that leads in technology and promotes the digital transformation (DX) of Japan’s industries, we’ll continue to communicate the importance of our technology-related initiatives.
As SoftBank’s CTO, what’s most important when it comes to technological innovation?
I've been a so-called “digital geek” since the days of my youth, first working as a hardware and software engineer. Even now, I always try to look for deep insights with a curious and inquisitive mind. No matter the area, technological or non-technological, if I can develop a perspective on how to solve things theoretically, my belief is that I can help customers in some way. I think it’s important for SoftBank employees to also adopt this mindset.
There are some aspects of new technologies that can't be understood until they’re tried out. In that sense, I think SoftBank’s "let's try everything" culture makes it easier for engineers to take on new challenges. They can try things without fear of failure, and even if the project doesn’t work out, they’re told not to fail the next time around. That kind of mindset is deeply rooted in the company, and people who take on new things get a lot of support. That doesn’t mean it’s easy (laughs). When you don't know whether you'll see any results, it can be incredibly frustrating, and it's hard to keep on searching. But seeing a dim light at the end of a tunnel, or getting out of the tunnel, makes it worth it. The goal itself is what makes a new challenge fun.
“Real feedback” as the next stage of DX
As a company that promotes the DX of Japanese industry, what areas are you focusing on?
5G, which we launched in 2020, is characterized by high capacity, low latency, massive device connectivity and other features. But the most important thing about this 5G era is that it makes it possible to do things remotely.
People can have meetings anywhere using Zoom and other tools without having to go to the office. In the future, we’ll see an evolution from meetings to virtual environments where various types of things can be operated remotely.
For example, using haptics technologies, when holding someone's hand, you’ll be able to feel their grip as if you were really with them. The key to this evolution will be the introduction of these technologies into all kinds of robots and industries. This will connect people with real feedback.
What do you mean by “real feedback”?
I once had a chance to talk with a doctor about remote-controlled surgical robots. He told me, "It would be great if the sensations of a hard object or the tip of a scalpel could be transmitted to our fingertips more realistically.” That's exactly what I'm talking about. When you try to do something remotely, if you can get feedback at high speeds, the value of the data increases significantly.
Also, we can gather data and simulate how traffic will be affected when we do construction work in virtual spaces, instead of having to try it out on-site.
As low-latency 5G is deployed, the world will become more and more location-independent, and the way we work, and the breadth of communication, will change.
Will this change make SoftBank a DX leader in Japan?
Yes. We would like to collaborate with various industries and suppliers in this kind of digitalization.
While continuing to provide telecommunication infrastructure, SoftBank will create platforms to collect data and mine it. It’s only when data is merged with other types of data that unexpected value emerges, making it meaningful. For us to become a company that can provide this great added value to our customers, we’re working across departments to develop foundational technologies.
How will you provide added value when different industries use different technologies?
We still have a long way to go in developing technologies for non-telecommunication areas, but we are proceeding with this. However, there are companies and organizations that are experts in technological evolution for different areas. We’ll apply the essence of the data we’ve collected through joint research with partners, such as the AI research we’re conducting with The University of Tokyo, and propose our learnings to various industries. In other words, we don’t make hardware; we provide software engineering to collect data and utilize AI and other technologies in order to optimize this data. SoftBank will evolve into a digital platformer that excels in areas such as these.
When we provide services to various industry sectors in the future, we’d like to be known as a company that can utilize AI for simulations, detection, and to propose ways to avoid unexpected movements.
We want to be a company that can offer new areas of value that are truly useful, not just provide labor cost savings. I’d like to give back to our customers in this way.
Aiming to be a corporate group that creates the future
What do you think SoftBank will look like in 10 years from now?
While I believe that telecommunications will continue to be key, I’d like SoftBank itself to be a corporate group that plays a greater role in creating the future. I’d like SoftBank to be a company that can bring awareness to issues that various industries and companies are facing, even issues that may not be considered problems currently.
To give an example, three years ago I led our division for mobile network technologies, and at that time, I transferred half of the base station engineering team to a project for digitally transforming the architecture process and base station engineering process. The idea was to create our own software and build a system that would make our work easier and promote it with half the staff.
Currently, we’re utilizing our experience in streamlining processes through automation, including RPA, in our own organization to make proposals to customers together with our Enterprise Business Unit as a new business initiative.
No matter the theme, what we do is the same; the only difference was whether it was a construction process for wireless base stations or issues faced by customers. As long one thinks logically with the idea of making things easier, it’s possible to make the shift into different areas. I think Softbank will need to be more flexible in this way.
How are you cultivating and training engineers?
I want to strengthen our team, who need to imagine things and be a consulting team. This helps them anticipate what issues will arise in the future and coordinate solutions.
By “consulting,” I don’t mean simply proposing solutions based on a single technology. Consulting includes the idea of understanding the limitations of a certain technology and combining different technologies to solve the problem holistically. Consulting can only be done by people who have a deep understanding of technology. I would like our young engineers to improve by exercising their imaginations in this way from an early stage.
Working deeply in one area is important, but studying different areas also gives engineers a chance to think about how they can apply their current skills. Doing the same thing for a long time may make a person knowledgeable in a particular area, but it’s also easy to lose perspective and exposure to other ideas. That's why we have a lot of people working at SoftBank’s Technology Unit, and that’s we are constantly exchanging personnel with our Enterprise Business Unit. By changing the environment in this way, we want to bring the skills of our engineers up to the next level.
The Executive Briefing Center that opened in 2021 is a great showcase for our technologies. Additionally, I’d like to create forums and hold events where we can regularly disseminate information about our technological achievements and capabilities.
(Posted on February 22, 2022, Original article posted on December 14, 2021)
by SoftBank News Editors