Bulletin of Keio University Faculty of Science and Technology
  kyurizukai interview  
Dr. Junichi Ushiba Developing rehabilitation into a science, making BMI available to patients

Dr. Ushiba is devoted to research into application of Brain-Machine Interface (BMI) to rehabilitation. As an elementary school boy, he happened to find computing as a field that aroused his passion and was absorbed in it. Next, what caught his interest during junior high school days were wonders of the brain. Ever since, both fields of intellectual interest have become the interfacing guide for Dr. Ushiba’s career as a researcher and are now beginning to take a concrete shape in his research into BMI with the objective that it will be made available for many patients one day.

 

Interest in computing and interest in the brain

photoAs an up-and-coming researcher, you must be leading a busy and fulfilling life. To begin with, may I ask in what kind of family atmosphere were you brought up in?
      I grew up in a family in which my father taught French literature at a university and my mother taught French conversation and did translation. It’s a totally liberal arts-oriented family. As I saw my father spending much of his time in his study, I came to feel that being a university professor might be an enviable profession. This yearning seems to be the beginning that motivated me into life as a researcher. (laughter) Against such a family background, I had always been told, ‘You do whatever you like. But once you get started, do it to the very end with a sense of responsibility.’

What was the motive that got you interested in computers?
      When I was an elementary school fifth grader, my school offered an extracurricular computer class. Several PC units were made available to applicants who were taught programming during after-school hours. At the invitation of a friend, I attended a session. This was the very first time for me to play with a computer. In those days very few Japanese households had a computer and my home was no exception. So my school was the only place where I could play with computers.
      During summer vacation, a Keio University professor opened a computer class on the Faculty of Science and Technology campus, which I also attended. I was amazed at several graduate students each writing a computer program there, which greatly impressed and motivated me. Since that time, I have been totally fascinated by the computer world. Popular pastimes that excited elementary school kids of those days were manga and TV cartoons, but my parents didn’t allow me to watch them. Perhaps that’s why my interest was directed to computers.
      In those days, artificial intelligence (AI) was in fashion. One day, a postgraduate student visited our elementary school, bringing with him his program for an automated conversation system. It was something like a “Riddle” game. If you gave it hints one by one, the system finally responded with a correct answer. When it gave us a wrong answer, we taught it a correct answer, then it would learn and provide the correct answer from the next time. May perception at that time was that the computer could work only as instructed. This was my immovable perception of computers then. So the fact that humans can create artificial intelligence was totally new to me. I was taken aback.
      When I was a junior high school student, Dr. Katsuhiko Mikoshiba (now with RIKEN), one of our alumni, visited our school and gave a lecture about the brain – another first experience for me. He talked about brain enthusiastically and the content of this speech was also very attractive. Later on, I applied to attend a lecture featuring Dr. Gen Matsumoto (then with the Electrotechnical Laboratory), a celebrated brain scientist. Indeed, I was under the strong stimulus of these two scientists. For me, their impressions are still strong and vivid.
      At my junior high school’s annual presentation of free studies that are done during summer vacation, I unveiled a computer program I had developed on my own. I created a program simulating an urban redevelopment after the Gulf War, as a first grader; a study on morphing using an initial-stage hand scanner, as a second grader; and, as a third grader, a ray tracing program designed to estimate how a polygonal cone throws its shadow according to the position of a light source.
On Saturday every week, I visited a postgraduate at his residence to have him teach me the required algorithm. It was a private lesson. I really liked computing.

Your enthusiasm for computing sounds almost maniacal.
Aside from it, what kind of boy were you like at school and home?

      I did not stand out. I was neither good at sports nor a focus of attention among my classmates. Although I kept company with any type of my classmates, I always did things alone both a school and at home when it came to my favorite pursuits. I think I’ve done what I wanted to at an unrestricted pace. I’ve never felt a sense of alienation at all.

That is an age when various stimuli can come from various directions.
Was it possible for you to carry through your interests?

      Although I entered a high school with a reputation for computer education, I joined the brass music club where I played trumpet, and even formed a band of our own. The reason is that the computer world in those days saw the debut of Windows with a complex and hard-to-operate system, which spoiled my interest to some extent.
      Meanwhile, I continued to cherish a strong interest in the brain. Pedantically I liked visiting libraries and bookshops to hunt up difficult-looking books. I sharply reacted to terms such as “artificial intelligence” and “artificial life.” I received strong impetus when I knew that a postgraduate student at the university campus adjacent to our high school was translating a recently published book on artificial life, saying to myself “Wow, such an amazing student is so close to me!” Artificial intelligence and artificial life can create functions intrinsically peculiar to the brain or life whereas the computer can do only what it is instructed to. The fact that it can give rise to phenomena that was not designed was nothing less than a wonder. Why and how on earth is it possible? These questions intrigued me very much.
      As the university entrance exam season approached, I hesitated as to whether I should choose the medical course or science and technology course. Finally I made up my mind to choose the latter because professors specializing in biosignaling were there and I also liked computers. At that time Keio’s Faculty of Science and Technology just added a new department known as the Department of Applied Physics and Physico-Informatics, which I chose and entered. This is because the department had a close relationship with the School of Medicine and there were professors specializing in neurology and the muscular system.
      Though admitted to this department, I was weak in mathematics. In fact, my math performance as a junior high student was “C”. It was only in the junior year that I became really motivated to study hard. Instead of learning the basics merely as the basics, I came to understand that the basics are necessary because there are such-and-such fields of application, or “exits” you might say. This is how I became self-motivated for learning. I’m of a type who begins to learn the basics required only after I can identify how a particular field of study can be useful for society.
      I joined Professor Yutaka Tomita’s laboratory mainly because Professor Tomita was engaged in research into rehabilitation and maintained a good contact with the School of Medicine. Immediately after joining the laboratory, I was lucky enough to be introduced to a Medical School professor and launch a joint research project.

 

 

Interest in computing and interest in the brain
Attraction of universities allured me to teach at my alma mater
Wish to make BMI a useful tool for patients
Profile Dr. Junichi Ushiba He has been engaged in research on the motor control mechanism concerning human autokinesia and reflex. For the past several years, he focused on the development of Brain-Machine Interface (BMI) applying scientific knowledge accumulated so far. In 2003, he became a visiting researcher at the Center for Sensory-Motor Interaction of Alborg University, Denmark. In 2004, he obtained a doctorate (engineering) and became a Research Associate at Keio University. From 2007 to date, he serves as an Assistant Professor at Keio University Faculty of Science and Technology.
 
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