Message for students 2019: Shinji Ito
April 1, 2019
Aiming for top of the world while continuing research at university
Data Science Research Laboratories
Since entering NEC in 2015, Shinji Ito has carried out research in the field of machine learning and mathematical optimization. He has had several research papers accepted at top international conferences such as ICML and NIPS. In April 2018, Ito began pursuing a doctoral degree to further deepen his own research, and is achieving balance between company research and university research.
Entered NEC with aim to conduct technological research that is useful to society
I am currently researching decision-making assistance algorithms in uncertain environments. In academic terms, this area is related to mathematical optimization. The major theme is the application of optimization methods even in environments where it is not known how various factors change in correlation to certain actions. For example, I have recently been working on an investment optimization problem known as portfolio optimization. Investment is an uncertain area in which the results are truly unknown. I am dealing with the development of algorithms for optimizing profits through investment, even in this type of environment.
The reason I joined NEC is because I thought I would like to contribute in a place where the technology is actually useful to society. I was doing applied mathematics at university, but even though it is called "applied," I had the impression that my research was still very far removed from a situation where it would have a direct impact on society. I assumed that I had a choice to continue on with my doctoral studies, but I placed a greater value on the practical applications for society, so I chose the path toward becoming a company researcher.
When I started searching for a place of employment, I saw that NEC had a strong presence in the areas of artificial intelligence and machine learning. In addition, the company was constantly publishing research papers at top-level international conferences, journals, and other venues, which gave me the impression that they embrace the challenge of doing innovative things in the academic world, while also producing results. At my interview, I had the opportunity to speak with researchers and employees who have a passion for developing practical applications, and I came to understand that NEC is engaged in a wide range of businesses and is developing actual solutions that are helpful to society. I found it very appealing. That is how I decided to come to NEC.
Pursuing doctoral studies to learn the basics required for practical applications
However, after entering the company and starting research, I came to appreciate the importance of the academic side of things. This is because I felt I had an insufficient understanding of many fundamental and theoretical aspects. To expand my capabilities in these areas, I enrolled in a doctoral program at university in April 2018, and am now conducting research at university while working at the company. Of course, it is extremely challenging to pursue both lines of research at the same time, but the difficulty is outweighed by the great motivation and stimulation that I get. Also, I find it very interesting to interact with various types of people from communities that I am not accustomed to, which is the kind of thought I had, too, when entering the company. Each person has his or her own awareness of issues and research priorities, which stimulates me to work harder.
In particular, there are big differences in the approaches between company research and university research. In company research, there is a greater emphasis on the perspective of how it can benefit society or how it can be linked to business. In university research, it is not necessarily important to help society immediately, and there is a greater emphasis on figuring out long unresolved problems or unknown principles and phenomena.
It is not a question of which of these two value perspectives is better, as both approaches are important. Ultimately, even if you look at new research papers in the area of applied research, they all originate from theory. I think the pursuit of theoretical cutting-edge research is still important, even from the perspective of practical application. Now, I am engaged in research that places stress on both theory and practical application.
Possibilities for active research that transcends company boundaries
In my view, a good point for NEC is that there is an environment that provides solid support for researchers to do what they want. In the team that I belong to, there are many people who are actively engaged in external and collaborative research. Soon after entering NEC, I got an appointment with the National Institute of Informatics (NII), and began collaborative research with them. At the time, I was worried about my own research capabilities, which prompted me to seek the advice of my senior colleagues at NII on how to proceed with research and how to write research papers. Today I still maintain the relationships that I established then. In 2018, as a result of our efforts, we had research papers accepted by NIPS, ICML, and AISTATS, which are considered the top international conferences in the field of machine learning.
This type of collaborative research is allowed, or even recommended, as long as you provide a thorough explanation to your superiors. I believe that it is a great blessing to work in such a research environment as is not confined to the boundaries of the company.
I am afraid that basically the external announcement of research papers itself may pose many disadvantages to the company. I have heard that some companies apply restrictions to external announcements, due to the risk of leaking technological information that is the focus of attention and investment, and the risk of having prominent researchers head-hunted from the company. However, NEC does not have such restrictions, and I believe the company has a long-standing approach for placing importance on raising the international presence of individual researchers and helping them establish their careers.
In this environment, I look forward to welcoming new members who can do research, and who have a passion for developing practical applications while engaging in friendly competition.