From the Winter Age of AI, to the Frontier and the Advocacy of Game Informatics (1) #AJ branch-off edition

Acaric Journal

“AJ branch-off edition” is a category of articles which past published in “Acaric Journal”, a career magazine for graduate students and researchers published by Acaric Co., Ltd., or fresh articles only available on the web. This time, we bring you the articles from vol.1.

 It may be hard to believe today, with the unprecedented AI boom and artificial intelligence beating humans in quiz shows and Go games, but there was a time when it was taboo to aspire to artificial intelligence research. At that time, there was a researcher who dared to combine artificial intelligence and games. What does Dr. Matsubara expect from these young researchers? We asked him about it.

Can you tell us about your first encounter with artificial intelligence and how you came to research it?

 When I was in kindergarten, I saw Astro Boy and admired Dr. Tenma. When I was in junior high school, I became obsessed with Freud and became interested in thinking about the human mind scientifically. I entered the University of Tokyo as a first-year science student and learned about Artificial Intelligence (AI) for the first time. At that time, Artificial Intelligence was not that popular in Japan, it was still in its winter period, but after reading a few books, “This might be the kind of study I want to do!”, I thought. When I looked into it, I found that it was in the field of information science, so I started studying artificial intelligence as a third-year student in the Department of Information Science in the Faculty of Science. It was a new department, so I thought I would be able to study well.

– So this was at a time when there were no graduates yet?

 That’s right. There were no teachers, no classes, no specialists in AI, and not even a word of AI. At Kyoto University, there was Dr. Makoto Nagao, who became the president of Kyoto University and also the director of the National Diet Library, and he had already started research on AI at that time. When I found out about this, I thought that my decision to enter the University of Tokyo was a mistake! I wanted to go to graduate school to study AI, but there were no AI professors in the Department of Information Science. When I looked at the graduate school guide for the School of Engineering, I found Dr. Hirokazu Inoue, a world-famous robotics researcher.

There were three research themes listed, and one of them was artificial intelligence. Since Dr.Inoue was the only one whose research theme was artificial intelligence, I took his lab as first choice. I had never taken any of his classes before, and I talked to him for the first time at the interview. Dr. Inoue had spent a year at MIT, the world’s foremost university in the field of AI, where AI research was being conducted next to robotics research. It seems that when he was writing the graduate school guide, he had a few words left over, so he wrote it with a sense of “I don’t mind doing artificial intelligence research” and at the first meeting he was told, “I can’t teach you, so study on your own.” He was a good teacher who never taught by pretending to understand. So I had an independent seminar called “AIUEO” where we read English books in a circle. That’s where I learned about AI.

– When AI was not a major subject in Japan, and there were no teachers to teach it, you pioneered and developed it.

 To put it bluntly, yes, I did. I had various teachers who told me not to learn artificial intelligence, threatened me, or admonished me… There was even a teacher who said, “You’re human garbage”. I think I would sue for harassment now (laughs). Among them, the only one who said it was okay to do it was Inoue sensei.

– Is it because there was no one else to teach?

 AI has gone through a series of booms and winters, and that time was the first winter. It was an unpredictable field of study. There was no future and no job opportunities. I think they were trying to tell me not to be out in the cold.

– So the second boom came around the time you started your research.

 The second boom came when I was a graduate student. There was a 10-year project funded by the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) to build computers, and it was the era of the 5th generation computers, and Japan was in the midst of a bubble economy, so Japanese electronics manufacturers started paying for AI, and that’s when the boom started. At first, it was a winter period, but then it became popular. The AIUEO seminar, which had only a few members, grew to about 100 members, and before I knew it, I was in the middle of the boom.

 Nowadays, research in the field of AI is flourishing, and there are companies like Google, but at that time, there were not yet many job opportunities. I didn’t have the option of getting a doctorate and going into the private sector or creating a venture company. I could either become a university teacher or do research. At that time, there were no rosy paths, but rather blue ones, and except for university positions, there were only two choices: the National Institute of Electronics and Information Technology (DENSOKEN) or NTT Laboratories.

Translated with (free version) and Acaric Journal Editorial Board


Dr. Hitoshi Matsubara

Born in 1959 in Tokyo, Japan. Dr. Matsubara received his doctorate in Information Technology from the University of Tokyo in 1986. He joined the National Institute of Electronics and Information Technology (now the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST)) in 1986, became a professor at the School of Systems and Information Science, Future University Hakodate in 2000, and has been a professor at the University of Tokyo’s Research Center for Next-Generation Intelligence since 2020. His research interests include artificial intelligence and game informatics.