世界で活躍するグローバル・リーダーを bimonthly (隔月ごと）にYGCでインタビューしていきます。全て英語でインタビューが記載されていますので、是非最後まで頑張って読んでいきましょう！
現在は、国立情報学研究所の情報社会相関研究系教授（社会共有知研究センター長)として活躍される一方、一般社団法人 教育のための科学研究所の代表理事として、「リーディングスキルテスト」を通じて日本の中高生の読解力の向上のために尽力されています。著書に、『コンピュータが仕事を奪う』（日本経済新聞出版社、2010）、『AI vs.教科書が読めない子どもたち』（東洋経済新報社 2018）、『AIに負けない子どもを育てる』（東洋経済新報社、2019）など。
- Dr. Arai, you were not interested in science and mathematics until high school. What led you to become a specialist in mathematical logic and artificial intelligence?
My favorite and strongest subject in high school was Japanese language arts. I felt hopelessly incompetent in math. For this reason, I decided to pursue a liberal arts degree in college and matriculated to Hitotsubashi University, majoring in law. However, at Hitotsubashi University, known as an institute of social sciences, math was one of the required subjects, even for its liberal arts program. I was very reluctant at first, but as I started taking classes, I began to realize that math was no longer about “solving problems,” but instead “understanding theories.” The goal was not to solve problems but rather to understand the theorem behind the solution.
At first, I did not understand how to read theories, but my professor at the time, Dr. Kazuo Matsuzaka, carefully guided me through the process. I would submit my proof of a theorem to my professor. He would say, “Good work. Please check my comments in red.” When I opened my notebook, there were red comments all over my work. I read each and every correction and comment carefully, and as I went through them, I began to better understand the concepts. Eventually, I was naturally able to solve all the problems on my own. Thanks to this organized, step-by-step process, I came to understand the “language” of math—how it is read and written—much more than I did in high school. At the end of my studies at Hitotsubashi University, I wanted to challenge myself further and decided to study abroad at the Department of Mathematics at the University of Illinois.
- How did you study English before going to the University of Illinois?
I did not go to the University of Illinois through my university’s exchange program. Instead, I took test prep classes outside the university to study for my TOEFL® and SAT® exams. I remember taking the TOEFL® test three times, but when I arrived in the U.S., I realized that the English I had studied in Japan was not practical at all. I was able to manage in one-on-one conversations, but when it came to chatting with groups in the girls’ dormitory, I had no idea what my dorm-mates were talking about. This was especially hard during my first year. The following year, my roommate shared her TV with me, and we watched music and comedy shows together. That is when I gradually began to better understand the language and was able to keep up with the group chats.
This experience made me realize that to become a genuine native speaker, it would be necessary to live in an English-speaking country. If you truly want to prepare yourself to study abroad but live in Japan and speak Japanese frequently at home, I suggest that you become truly proficient in your mother tongue before pursuing other languages.
- Having experienced studying at top schools in both Japan and the U.S., can you share with us any advantages or disadvantages you’ve experienced in both countries?
Students at U.S. universities have a high degree of mobility after they enter university, and each student is expected to be autonomous in many ways. When it comes to selecting classes for example, each student is expected to carefully think on their own to plan their course of study and assess how the course will impact their schedule and eventually their degree. At the University of Illinois, many Illinois residents enrolled in their first year, but due to the rigid grading system, if students were unable to keep up their grades and earn credits, they were forced to drop out or transfer to other universities. If the university had retained such students, the brand value of the university would decline. Despite this, I was surprised by the students’ reactions when they had to leave the university. They simply took the situation as not being a good fit for them. Each student had their own right and choice to find the best place for themselves without being influenced by others.
- On the other hand, what do you think are the good qualities of higher education in Japan?
Universities in Japan tend take good care of the students for the four years of their life at the university. I think this is well exemplified by the university I went to in Japan. In the U.S., a professor’s availability is often limited in their office hours, but in Japan, professors are at the student’s beck and call, should a student need help. But to take advantage of this, a student would need to proactively approach their professor. Perhaps this is why we see many students overlooking such an opportunity.
I was able to take advantage of the Japanese professors’ help when I returned to Japan to complete my bachelor’s studies at Hitotsubashi University after I earned my master’s degree at the University of Illinois. I was in fact, 7 months pregnant. My first semester exams coincided with my prenatal and postpartum terms which was extremely challenging, but the university was surprisingly kind and caring. They provided me with a chair that had a backrest in the lecture halls. After I gave birth, they allowed me to breastfeed everyday at the health center. Thanks to the university faculty and staff’s generosity, I was able to successfully complete my degree.
- In the TED talk you gave in 2017, you expressed a sense of crisis regarding the decline in children’s reading comprehension skills amid AI advancements. How should we educate our children going forward?
To become a baseball player like Shohei Ohtani, for example, you need to have natural talent. However, I also believe that it is possible for an ordinary child to become good enough to compete on a national high school (Koshien National Championship) level with proper guidance. The same can be said for studying. Consider the story about a mother who had four children who all successfully matriculated to the University of Tokyo (Natural Science III Course). In other words, we must use effectual teaching methods that create “ordinary” children who can pass the entrance exam for University of Tokyo. “Ordinary” here refers to the children who fall within ±1σ of a normal distribution or approximately the middle of 68% of the total population. In terms of social infrastructure, there must of course, be a support system dedicated to children in the bottom 2.5% or less than -2σ.
So, what does an “ordinary” child need to develop their abilities? I believe they must learn to be self-driven and self-determined. Self-determination refers to the ability to recognize and overcome your weakness and find the right balance between concentrating on your work and taking a break. As for parents, we can support children by providing a safe learning environment in which children can focus on their studies. Parents can also help their children by going through their child’s homework together and addressing any questions or weaknesses they may have. Not everyone should aim for the University of Tokyo, but if each student has that level of self-determination, he or she could do anything; perhaps start a new business or create the world’s most delicious ramen. The point is, anything is possible. But for children to be self-starters or self-driven, it is natural and expected that they first fall. It is better for them to experience failure and making mistakes early on, but parents these days try and take the fall for them and this is perhaps why we do not see many children who want to take risks.
- You have also been leading research and development in “Reading Skills Test.” Can you please explain what reading skills and reading comprehension entail?
We tend to think of reading comprehension as merely the ability to read Japanese (or any) language. In reality, reading comprehension applies to understanding texts in all areas of discipline and not simply the language. In an academic context, this is the ability to understand vocabulary and phrases in language acquisition and learning. The language of learning is a language used to convey a body of knowledge to first-time learners and is completely different from the language used in daily life or literature, even if they technically utilize the same language. Textbooks are written in the language of learning, so if you are not prepared to read this language you will lose motivation. To ascertain whether students understand the language of learning, I recommend reading aloud the explanatory texts of elementary-level subjects such as science and social studies. Textbooks and even children’s newspapers are acceptable. Reading aloud will reveal concepts, phrases, and kanji that you unexpectedly did not completely understand.
In recent years, active learning has taken center stage in schools, and it is not uncommon to see classes conducted using only handouts and tablets, without textbooks. However, this can limit students’ vocabulary acquisition and make them sound too conversational or immature, using phrases like “I can’t think of anything; nothing in particular” or “that’s messed up.” If educators want students to use rich vocabulary found in literatures and textbooks, students must first acquire said vocabulary. To do this, it is essential for educators to apply the traditional method of writing texts on the board and for students to write down in their notebooks and read aloud to ensure that they comprehend the content. Simply pasting printouts into notebooks is not a sufficient way to acquire reading comprehension skills.
- To survive globally, what must Japan do now?
It would be to initiate and create many startups in the range of one billion yen in sales. Traditionally, with large corporations for example, they were incapable of launching big scale businesses unless they had prospects of making 100 billion yen in sales, simply to be able to recover costs including labor expenses. And the only way to make hundreds of billions of yen is to go global or manufacture conventional goods that everyone wants such as refrigerators, microwave ovens, and cars. With the utilization of DX in businesses, however, it is now possible to start a business and make a profit with little or no back offices and in some cases, without physical offices. As a result, if sales improve by tens or even billions of yen, you can create a much more diverse range of products or services. We can now launch in markets that have never been explored in the past due to burden of costs and deliver the needs to minority groups that have been underserved in the consumer markets. There are in fact, many markets and fields that have been neglected to this day despite growing demand. Characteristically, the consumer persona for the multi-billion-yen market is quite conspicuous and to go global with it is simply a matter of whether the same demand exists abroad—it would be foolish to start a business based on the assumption that your product or service would be rendered globally from the onset. The key here is to clearly identify your consumer persona. Up until now, the majority of startups have been led by male entrepreneurs, but I believe that it is about time that women start their own businesses and come up with solutions based on their own experiences.
- There are many issues that need to be solved in this world. What do you think the younger generation should be aware of in the future to solve them? How do you think we should be educating our next generation?
We live in an age of abundance today, but the truth is, it is better for children to not have everything they want handed to them. That is not say it is better to cause them stress, but I believe desire ignites ingenuity. To share something from my personal interests, I like cooking by using ingredients efficiently without wasting them: I make kinpira gobo and nijin (chopped burdock and carrots) without burdock and carrots—why not just improvise? I also enjoy knitting and gardening and instead of using starter kits or sets, I create things with what I have on hand. I encourage the younger generation to think of ingenious solutions rather than be satisfied with what is given to them on a silver platter. Parents must model this behavior. After all, all talk and no action will get us nowhere.
- Who do you respect as a global leader?
In academia, I admire the economist, Dr. Katsuhito Iwai. Then there is Dr. Yoshitaka Yamamoto, a natural philosopher and educator, and a student activist back in the day. I would also like to mention Dr. Chizuko Ueno, whom I have yet to meet in person, but I am grateful to her for paving the way for gender equality and because of her, our generation of women are able to become researchers or professionals while still having children and families.
- Would you provide a message to young people who aspire to become future global leaders?
Success is only a result and not something to aim for from the beginning. Your middle school and high school years are the time to see what you are good at and discover what kind of a person you are through school and club activities, student council, and volunteering. There are many types of people: Those who feel rewarded when helping others; those who are strong and have an unshakeable will; and those who are good at mediating between people. What is crucial here is not to try and change your natural qualities. If a person who is good at helping others tries to exert their will and be tough, then they will fail. Similarly, if a person with a strong ego tries to mediate between others, it would not work. Some may fear that this is monotonous as individuals may not stand out, but there are plenty of professions that value that steadfastness and continuity. Success comes when you make full use of your own nature.
People tend to admire those who have charms that they do not possess, but it is also vital to make the most of what you have and know yourself as person. Why don’t you try reflecting on how your day went: what was good and bad, what you liked and disliked. Take a moment to step away from your smartphone and social networking and think only about yourself. After that, you may perhaps unearth something that you can enjoy and continue to do for a long time.