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Hitachi

Hitachi Research Institute

Executive Column

Commentary by our General Manager, Keiichi Shimada

Executive Column #2: Digital and Noise

 Living creatures are said to be constantly fluctuating. Constantly fluctuating, living creatures seem not to be very good at continuing to repeat given movements accurately. In fact, I am not very good at working by repeating the same things. While I was listening and looking convinced recalling that I had been very bad at Chinese character dictation, it turned out that it was not due to personal traits such as a fickle personality, or lack of perseverance and determination, rather, fluctuation is embedded in the system of living creatures’ bodies.

 For example, robots are capable of continuously engaging in simple work such as tightening screws with uniform quality. On the other hand, humans cannot apply the same degree of force even when tightening screws of the same shape at the same point and in the same work place. In humans, muscles function based on command signals from the brain to move the body, but a neuron, which is a neural circuit of the brain, responds to sensory information strongly in some cases and weakly in others, while individual muscle fibers, which carry out movements, differ in their tensile strength to a command signal from the brain. In other words, there is uncertainty referred to as fluctuation between input and output for both the brain and muscles.
 Fluctuation relates to various movements of living creatures. Their genes contain information on bodily movements, which is switched on against a change in the external environment. Metabolic reactions start from such information contained in the gene, including nutrient absorption from meals, body-building, and energy production within the body for bodily movements. However, genes are not always expressed against the external environment and differ on an individual level, with some cells switched on while others are not, showing fluctuations here as well. In other words, there are fluctuations in the work of living creatures from a nano level such as genes to the millimeter or meter level for bodily movements.

 To put it differently, such fluctuations of living creatures are the “noise” output against input. However, when a system is constructed by such cells and living creatures, it is said to show stabilizing movements as a whole rather than amplifying “noise.” It is a mystery. We can say that agriculture, medical care, etc. have been establishing themselves through repeated challenges with respect to such fluctuations, noise and mysteries of living creatures. In recent years, there has been significant progress with respect to such challenges due to the evolution of bio-technology, namely the discovery of an effective enzyme for editing genes, as well as of digital technology, such as the improved precision of sensors and AI/big data analysis. With the combination of bio and digital technologies, there are said to be heightened expectations for the development of materials with new functions and manufacturing with low environmental burdens. For example, dreams are expanding considerably such as using industrial approaches to control agricultural production, or mass-producing useful precious materials existing in nature, as well as using the law of metabolic reaction in living creatures to transform production systems in need of high temperature/high pressure to an energy-saving process.

 However, in a sense, noise is an enemy to the digital world. In the world of information communication and electronic engineering, how to eliminate noise and take out necessary signals to communicate with each other must have been important. How could such digital world be combined with biotechnology? It seems contradictory and strange that the digital world, which has been eliminating noise, will express the noise of living creatures. At the same time, if “gathering brings stability,” it could be the case that unlike simple random noise, there is a law for the fluctuations of living creatures, and if so, there may be something that can be done through digitalization. In short, my thinking is fluctuating. There seems to be a vast space between the digital world and biotechnology; however, that is the exact reason why it can be said that there lie abundant possibilities as a field for future innovations.

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