A Chat With Sony's Digital Dr. Dolittle

To meet the future, he's breeding pet robots

Toshitada Doi, 57, made his name at Sony Corp. as an engineer who helped develop the compact disk and Japan's first popular computer workstation, called News. In 1988, he established the Sony Computer Science Lab (CSL), a pure research institute of which he is still chairman. The institute's main mission has been to design what Doi describes as an "organic" computer system that, like the Internet, will be open and flexible. In addition, he is president of the Digital Creatures Laboratory, where he is breeding pet robots. Sony President Nobuyuki Idei gets credit for reinventing the company as a digital entertainment powerhouse. But he took lessons from Doi, who was the first to preach the gospel that Sony's future lay in the convergence of audio-visual and information technologies. Doi recently described the background and goals of these varied projects to Irene M. Kunii, BUSINESS WEEK's technology correspondent in Tokyo:

Q: What influence has the Computer Science Lab had on Sony's evolution?

A: When Mr. Idei became president, he started talking about the convergence of audio, video, and information technology. Sony Computer Science Lab is the force behind this convergence. Also, we've been working here on networks, and that has helped Sony see the way.

Q: What are you attempting to accomplish here at the CSL?

A: In 1987, when we started shipments of our small and inexpensive workstation, it immediately took the No. 1 spot in the Japanese market. But when I opened up the box, I found that almost all the technology belonged to other companies. We bought the central processing unit from Motorola, the operating system from at&t and the University of California at Berkeley, and the memory chips from Japanese vendors. There was no special technology that belonged to Sony. I realized then that it would be very difficult for us to run a good business. So that's why I immediately decided to establish a new lab. Of course, we have a point of reference--Xerox parc--and we have adopted its philosophy of trying to invent the future. We are fore casting what will happen in the 21st century and are preparing for the new age.

Q: At that time, what was your vision of the future?

A: I knew that the Internet held great power, and I thought that the world of the 21st century would be one in which billions of computers were connected. The performance of these computers would be much better than today's mainframes. These computers could be workstations, PCs, or personal digital assistants--although at that moment the term PDA had not yet appeared. I even drew a picture that showed TV sets, refrigerators, and washing machines connected to a network. I also thought that it would be very difficult to design computers and networks separately. So I asked our researchers to design one huge computer that included a world wide network and billions of computers. Looking at the Internet, which was designed during the cold war to survive a nuclear attack, I noticed that its behavior was organic in nature. A God-made creature has self-sustaining functions. If it breaks down, it can fix itself. It grows and it reproduces. That's how the Internet behaves. Even if communication lines break down, it will try to keep on functioning. This is what I mean by organic: To have the flexibility to deal with failure. So I decided that our computer should be very organic.

Q: What progress have you made toward this goal?

A: We have developed an operating system called Aperius. Its special features include the ability to be automatically updated without switching off the system. In other words, the user simply decides what applications he wants to use. The system, the server, and the client will determine the most appropriate operating system, depending on the applications. Users will be able to forget about the operating system and all the troubles of version upgrades. Another benefit is that the operating system sitting on the client machine could be minimum in size. Aperius is not quite what I envisioned, but it's three steps beyond Windows, UNIX, or Linux. One of its first applications was in Sony's new SkyPerfect satellite TV set-top box. Aperius handles music distribution, including security. Also, I'm using this operating system in my entertainment robots. (BW--May 24)

Q: What are you doing in terms of Internet-related research?

A: The CSL helped develop VRML, or virtual reality modeling language, especially the 3-D graphics functions. The final proposal was jointly made by Sony, Silicon Graphics, and Intervista Software and won against Microsoft, Apple Computer, and Sun Microsystems. 3-D graphics happens to be Sony's major strength because of our work in videogame machines. We thought it would be nice if we could provide that capability on the Internet. We've started some services using VRML, such as cyber-societies like PAW, or Personal Agent World.

Q: What do you think of the free-software movement?

A: I'm very interested in Internet culture, which is basically counterculture. Linux is one of the results, and there are many others on the Internet. There is also a famous guy named Richard Stallman, who runs the Free Software Foundation. He invented a new term, "copyleft"--the opposite of copyright. Copyleft is the right for everyone to use and modify software. This is the world of counterculture, in contrast to Microsoft, which is a copyright type of organization. There is a fight on the Internet between the copyright people and the copyleft people, or between the conventional culture and the counterculture.

Q: Where does Sony fit in?

A: If I work for Sony, then I'm a copyrightist. If I'm at the CSL, then I'm a copylefter (laughter). Sony is a copyright type of organization. We're seeing this [copylefting] happening in the music delivery business, so we have to push copyrighting.

Q: Are you pleased with the launch of your pet robot, Aibo?

A: It was the most successful [new product] announcement that Sony has ever made. On June 1, when we put the robot on sale on our Japanese Web site, the available 3,000 units went in less than 20 minutes. We prepared 40 servers but they were still overwhelmed. In the U.S., the overload was much more severe because, since the site is in English, people tried to access it from around the world.

Q: Are you planning to launch a new version anytime soon?

A: Since there were so many people who were unable to purchase their own Aibo, we've been asked to release another version. This first version was limited to 5,000 units, and we won't make anymore. Now we're planning to release another one. We're consulting the customers directly and building a new business model in the process. But I don't know how long it will take for us to begin.

Q: What else do you see in the world of artificial intelligence?

A: People from the Computer Science Laboratory are working on [creature-like] search agents for a network. All these are very biological and autonomous. In the real world, we'll find lots of autonomous robots, and in the cyberworld we'll find a lot of agents who will communicate among themselves. My message to the world is that the 21st century will be the age of digital creatures. The robots could be pets, housecleaners, an artificial wife or husband or almost anything else. The cyberworld will be filled with agents and cyberpets. There will also be the bad creatures, such as the viruses. But we can't avoid them. In the future, the network itself will be a huge digital creature. We will carefully design it so that it will help human beings, not harm them, for efficiency or entertainment. I'm very sure we're clever enough to do this.

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