September 28, 2017

Autumn 2017 Graduation Ceremony Address by the President 【September 28, 2017】

 PhD: what does it mean to you?

Today is a very important day for you as well as for us. After all these years of hard work, finally you have finished writing up your dissertation, passed the final examination, and now have been conferred a Doctor’s degree. Congratulations! I, as the president of SOKENDAI, and also as a person who enjoyed the same experience some decades ago, would like to celebrate this occasion together with you.

Several years ago, you entered SOKENDAI with the hope of pursuing a particular research goal, to solve interesting questions in your field of research, and to make some discovery. Now you have got that result, I hope you are somewhat satisfied with it. I said “somewhat”, because research is fundamentally an endless pursuit, and you will never be completely satisfied whatever you do. You solved a question you originally had in mind, which is good and you feel happy. But you may think you can improve the result by adding this or that, and then other questions arise which you had not imagined before. When you solve those questions, more questions will arise again and again. It is an endless process.

This is the nature of academic research. But as an academic, you should not be discouraged. You have to have the power and energy to continue this endless quest, and above all, you should enjoy this eternal puzzle-solving. Of course, you deserve to feel satisfied when you finish one task, but the quest for nature is endless. When you look back, there is a sea of “already knowns”, but when you look forward, there is also a vast sea of “still unknowns”.

I urge you to seriously consider the value of your PhD degree. With the PhD degree, from now on, officially you will be regarded as an academic expert in your field. This is a kind of certificate for a higher academic career. But what does it mean personally to you yourself? What kind of ability do you think you acquired during the process of doing the course? After all these years, in what way do you think you have become stronger or more competitive or wiser, compared to yourself several years ago when you started the course? By considering these aspects, you will reassess your abilities and your future career from a different perspective.

You may think that an academic career in your original field of choice is your only option, or you wish to choose. You may feel there are still many more things to clarify in detail. That is fine for now. But in the near future, sooner or later, you will need to have a broader picture.

In the near future, you may want to change your field of research either because you feel you have become stuck in your original direction of research, or because some neighboring field looks more interesting and promising. Or, you may be thrown into a situation which forces you to change the course of your life. I have to warn you that life in academia is not easy, and speaking of jobs these days, job prospects are not steady and predictable amid this rapidly-changing chaotic age.

And when the time comes to consider what you are going to do next, a broader picture is indispensable. With your experience of getting a PhD, I think you have cultivated the potential to draw that kind of broader picture. You are now equipped with a certain knowledge and ability to deal with whatever questions and difficulties you face in your field. I hope that you expand this to one dimension higher, and become able to imagine how to utilize these special abilities in areas other than your original specific academic field.

Some of you may end up finding a job outside academia. Going into another career should not be regarded as a failure. I am sure that the various abilities you have acquired in the course of getting your PhD will be valuable not only in the context of your original research area but also in much broader activities including those outside research, and you should be aware of that. Wherever you go, whatever problems you face, I hope you can find better ways as a person with a PhD.

In order to draw a broader picture, I think that the most important thing is imagination: imagination that enables you to fly over your point of existence, and look at the sea of “already knowns” and the sea of “still unknowns” at the same time, and again look at yourself objectively.

When I submitted my Master’s thesis in 1977, it was hand-written. When I was writing my PhD thesis in 1985, it was not hand-written and I used a personal computer. I still remember the day I was writing paragraph after paragraph of the fifth chapter of my thesis in my laboratory room at night, and suddenly there was a power-cut in the whole building. It was midnight and surely there had been advance notice that the power would be cut at midnight, but I completely forgot about it.

The computer I was using at that time did not have an auto-save function, and I had not saved anything for more than 2 hours, so all of my hours of effort vanished in a second. I could do nothing but laugh at myself in the total darkness. When the lights came back on two hours later, I resumed my work and retyped the paragraphs from memory. I recovered the whole thing by 4 o’clock in the morning. I was young.

Technology has advanced since then. Today, society is rapidly changing. With new technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, the Internet of Things, big data processing, Social Networking Systems, and virtual reality, I have no idea what the next Society 5.0 or fourth industrial revolution or whatever you call it, will look like. Not just me, but nobody knows, except those who are simplistically optimistic.

I think that these new types of information technology will change the essence of human nature. Certainly, any technology can change our life, but this time, I think the influence will be huge. The reason is that these information technologies will change how we perceive the world, how we build up relationships with each other, and how we make decisions of what to do to the world surrounding us. We do all these things through information processing and the technologies are changing the way in which we get information and the way in which we process it. It has been said that the singularity, the stage at which the information-processing ability of machines exceeds that of humans, is near. But I think that it is not just a matter of information-processing speed or the size of memory storage from which information is extracted.

These technologies will change the way we imagine the outside world, and the way we interact with the real world, including the physical, biological and social worlds. Imagine how a baby who is born in this environment will grow into an adult. What kind of adult will they be? I think that human nature in the new age will not be the same as human nature of yesterday. Humans in Society 5.0 may be Humans 5.0, a different version of humans from us.

I am not saying that it is good or bad, for that depends on your world view. However, all of us have to think hard about what kind of society we really want for our future, as we can not go back to the world of yesterday. You have accumulated more knowledge in your area than any layperson, and you have learned how to tackle problems. It should not be limited to a particular area of research. I hope that, based on this experience, you will have the wisdom to create a better future.

Congratulations again, and I wish you good luck!

September 28, 2017

Mariko Hasegawa, Ph.D., President