SoftBank Corp. (TOKYO: 9434)’s division in charge of R&D for advanced technologies—including 5G, 6G, and autonomous driving—marked a new beginning as the SoftBank Research Institute of Advanced Technology on April 1, 2022. To learn more about the background behind its establishment, role, and vision for the future, SoftBank News editors spoke to Ryuji Wakikawa, Head of the Institute, an organization that reports directly to the CEO.
Vice President, Head of Research Institute of Advanced Technology
Breaking away from in-house research
What types of research is the Institute working on?
Our research covers three phases—the fundamental, application and collaboration phases. Based on our fundamental research—which includes future communications technologies such as 5G, 6G and HAPS—we conduct applied research where we can leverage the basic technologies used in networks, engineering, digital art, and other fields. For example, “Self-position Estimation,” a technology to estimate one's location, is mainly thought of as a technology for autonomous driving, but it can also be applied to measuring one's position in the metaverse. A single technology like this can have boundless possibilities for utilization. We plan to continue joint research on such technologies in cooperation with Japan’s public sector and universities, and collaborate on practical applications, from the fundamental research phase to the application phase.
What do you emphasize when conducting research during the fundamental, application, and collaboration phases?
We place emphasis on speed to get to the practical implementation phase. Our business areas of telecommunications infrastructure and software technology have now become indispensable to social systems. Technology and society are evolving at a tremendous pace, and if we spend five or ten years on research and development, by the time the technology is ready, society's needs will have greatly changed.
If the size of the organization is increased or the scope of activities is expanded too greatly, decision-making will naturally take longer. To prioritize speed, we must break away from the “self-sufficient” approach of conducting research entirely in-house as we’ve done in the past. We believe that openly collaborating with national institutions and universities and utilizing their foresight will lead to shorter research phases and results that fit the needs of society and the era.
So collaborative research is the key to speeding up the process. What are the main types of institutions you collaborate with?
We’re mainly working with universities, national research institutions and companies in the private sector. While universities are highly specialized academically, they do not operate actual telecommunication networks like we do, so they may not have a grasp of what problems exist in the real word. This is where SoftBank brings in real-life challenges for them to solve. The more difficult the problem, the longer it takes to research it, so depending on the phase of the research, we prefer to collaborate through a partnership arrangement such as joint research projects or joint ventures.
Investing in the future with R&D
What drove SoftBank Corp. to establish the Research Institute of Advanced Technology?
R&D is an investment in the future and a compass for where SoftBank is headed. It’s no exaggeration to say that R&D is one indicator that investors use to value a company. With our “Beyond Carrier” strategy, we at SoftBank are working to develop and promote a social platform that transcends the boundaries of the telecommunications business. I believe that the Research Institute of Advanced Technology, as an independent organization, will play an important role in enabling SoftBank’s "Beyond Carrier" strategy by conducting a wide range of R&D activities.
What are some of the pivotal roles played by the Research Institute of Advanced Technology?
One of our missions is not only to conduct research and development for our business, but also to present our research and promote our initiatives in advanced technologies. Many may not perceive us as an R&D company, but SoftBank, which has a history of pioneering new fields such as ADSL, optical, and mobile communications one after another, has long conducted R&D as part of its business.
With a keen eye on future businesses, we’d like to pro-actively communicate the advanced nature of our R&D and efforts in areas beyond telecommunications, and promote SoftBank’s R&D, which is not yet widely known by the public.
Conducting research to implement new technologies into society
How would you like to contribute to society through your Institute’s research?
Among developed countries, Japan is a country where new technologies are not easily implemented into society. For example, Japan is the only developed country that does not yet have ride-sharing services. We’d like to change the situation where excellent technology exists, but the hurdles to social implementation are high. SoftBank has had a major social impact in Japan by pioneering new areas in the past, such as broadband and mobile communication businesses, and being the first to offer the iPhone. As a research institute of SoftBank, we aim to contribute to society through the social implementation of new technologies.
Obviously, our goal is not just to discover and develop new technologies. It’s important to engage in R&D with the intention of eventually implementing technologies into society. The scope of the Institute's activities will be quite broad, including the creation of business models and plans to contribute to SoftBank’s business. I would like to create a structure that will enable us to provide customers with our superior technologies by collaborating from an early research stage with other SoftBank departments, including the Technology Unit, which is responsible for system operation, implementation, and commercialization, and our sales divisions that understand the needs of our customers and society.
If the Institute is involved in everything from research to business planning, you need people with a wide range of skills, don’t you?
Nowadays, there are plenty of talented people with programming abilities and other technical development skills. That’s why it’s more important than ever to be able to pose problems with an eye to the future from the very beginning. It’s also critical to understand the essence of an issue. If the initial premise is incorrect, no matter how much activity is done based on such a premise, good results cannot be produced.
If the purpose is to "solve social issues" rather than to "invest in a specific technological area," we’ll be able to work on developing the most optimal technology required to solve such issues. The quality of activities will change simply by changing the way we perceive them. I want to nurture people who are able to think of ways of how their research activities can improve certain parts of society and what kind of results will be required from their activities.
Are there any upcoming technologies that you are particularly keen on?
Obviously, 5G-related services are important, but what I’m focusing on for the future is quantum computing. I believe that quantum computers (QPUs) are the next big thing after application-specific CPUs and GPUs, and supercomputers. I’m very excited about this kind of technology, which is likely to bring about a paradigm shift. If a technology with an extraordinary level of processing power can be successfully put to practical use, problems that were previously unsolvable may be solved from a completely different angle. I often contemplate how SoftBank can contribute to this effort.
The Research Institute of Advanced Technology also hopes to contribute to SoftBank’s "Beyond Carrier" growth strategy, which aims to maximize corporate value through business development that transcends the boundaries of telecommunications carriers. In the past, most research and development was based on "invention," which started with a desire to know; but today, it’s more about "innovation.” Innovation happens by combining technologies that already exist. In addition to long-term fundamental research in the telecommunications field, I’d like to work on research that can generate other forms of value.
To learn more, visit the Research Institute of Advanced Technology website, which includes information on joint research initiatives in industry, government, and academia, past activities, and researcher profiles.
(Posted on August 12, 2022, Original article posted on July 22, 2022)
by SoftBank News Editors