Message for students 2018: Takayuki Arakawa
May 30, 2018
Principal Researcher, Biometrics Research Laboratories
Continuing to research audio signal processing using machine learning since joining the company. Arakawa is a researcher who continues to create new forms of value for society by combining the potential of sound and human beings through voice recognition and ear-acoustic authentication.
Authentication technology which is highly compatible with privacy and real world solutions
I am currently engaged in researching a technology called "ear-acoustic authentication." While NEC has many world-class biometric authentication technologies, ear-acoustic authentication is drawing attention as an authentication technology which is unique to NEC. This technology began when Shohei Yano at the National Institute of Technology, Nagaoka College noticed that the shape of the ear hole (ear canal) is different for each person and suggested that we conduct collaborative research. The technology for analyzing the shape of an individual's ear hole by fitting an earphone-shaped device with a microphone in the ear and reflecting a signal to achieve high accuracy authentication is now complete.
While you might wonder, "Why use the ear?", but there are various advantages to using the ear for authentication. For example, the shape of the ear hole is not visible from the outside. Therefore, there are no worries about theft or impersonation. Its strong point is an extremely high level of privacy. You can also perform authentication at a location such as a hospital where you need to wear a mask or gloves. In addition, while this is a prospect for the future, wearing a device in your ear will enable various types of audio sensing such as detecting the sounds of your heart and breathing. I continue to research this technology and believe that it has great potential not only for authentication but also as a tool to further enrich the lives of people and society.
When its use as a wearable device is considered, the fact that it does not block the field of view and is highly compatible with the real world are also advantages. While there are examples such as "texting while walking" where the cyber world encroaches upon the real world and causes problems, there is no such concern with ear-acoustic authentication. In addition to being able to perform natural authentication without performing any special operations during the typical lifestyle, you can also look directly at someone's eyes when talking with them.
Hearable devices that enhance human potential
We are considering various prospects for the usage scenarios. One scenario is usage in highly confidential communication. For example, if a handheld transceiver used between security guards was stolen by someone, important confidential information such as who is guarding what location would be intercepted. However, with an earphone-shaped device using ear-acoustic authentication, even if the handheld transceiver was stolen and placed in the ear by someone with malicious intent, the thief would not be authenticated as the original owner and would be unable to hear the radio communications. Features for protecting communication privacy look promising. In addition, the ID cards used at companies can also be replaced by earphone-shaped devices. Employees would be able to walk right through a gate without having to touch a security panel.
In 2017, we actually created a prototype earphone device. This device incorporates a microphone and speaker for authentication as well as geomagnetic and motion sensors. The use of geomagnetism makes it possible to measure the person's current location even inside buildings where GPS positioning may be difficult. In addition, the motion sensor can also read the person's posture. We created a device which can determine "who" is located "where" and in "what state" through authentication, positioning, and posture.
If this information is applied to business, it would make it possible to request a rapid response from the best person nearby in the event of an emergency problem in a factory, for example. It might also contribute to preventing hazards, streamlining tasks, and reforming working methods.
This technology is also compatible with hearing aids. I am researching ways to apply this technology to systems that help reduce stress in hearing impaired individuals as well as to provide voice navigation to the visually impaired.
Hearable devices are devices that can easily blend in with real life. I continue to conduct research with the goal of applying this as a technology for enhancing everyone's potential.
Challenging new fields creates new forms of value
I originally majored in condensed matter physics. At that time, I was doing more academic research, using super computers to simulate the structure of matter, but artificial intelligence and machine learning were also just starting to become popular. So I thought that I might like to do something more socially useful and joined NEC. As a matter of fact, there are many people at NEC with a background in physics who have achieved significant results in machine learning and artificial intelligence research. The knowledge and mathematical sense cultivated through physics are an excellent fit with this field. I sincerely hope that anyone with a background in physics will take an interest in NEC and dare to challenge this field.
NEC will absolutely back up young researchers if they have the desire. As a matter of fact, I researched human and computer communication interfaces at Carnegie Mellon University at the company's expense for one year in 2012. Every year, several people from the laboratories are invariably sent to study overseas. NEC is a company that proactively supports the expansion of the scope of research.
I think that "expanding the scope of research" is in fact extremely important. I myself took on the challenge of expanding my research from condensed matter physics to new research areas such as speech recognition and noise reduction. I believe that conducting research across different areas made it possible to complete this new core technology of ear-acoustic authentication. Having the courage and audacity to apply your knowledge and strengths to a different field will definitely lead to success.
It goes without saying that studying a new field is so exciting (laughs). I think that this excitement is what makes researchers want to actually bring this sense of surprise and fun to the world, and it is the reason why they continue to conduct research. For this very reason, while it is also important to continue to master a specialty, I think that the excitement of changing direction and starting something new is an interesting path for researchers. I hope to continue to pursue new forms of potential in combining sound and people while taking on various challenges.