Among the innovations displayed by technology giant NTT at its Tokyo research and development (R&D) forum in Nov. 2019 were a transparent battery that could be used in windows instead of glass, and printed paper that appears to move and could form ‘animated’ print adverts.
NTT has been developing new technology for over 100 years, but what is significant about these innovations is that they originated at the company’s R&D lab in Silicon Valley, high-tech capital of the U.S. The company has more than 5,500 people working in R&D, but until now they have all been based in Japan.
The move illustrates some key trends in innovation. First, that today’s technological problems require access to specialized talent that is found in only a few places. And, second, an increasing awareness that diversity is a key driver for innovation.
It is no surprise that NTT has been drawn to Silicon Valley, a technology hub for several decades and home to a rich talent pool from tech firms and nearby Stanford University. “Our quantum lab director was formerly at Stanford,” says Kazuhiro Gomi, CEO of NTT Research, “so we might not have been able to attract him without being here.”
Quantum computing draws on quantum physics to fundamentally change the way computers handle calculations. It should enable them to tackle problems that are not feasible in classical computing, such as modelling complex chemical reactions. NTT’s LASOLV concept computer is a quantum neural network that uses light to perform calculations. Designed for problems with many possible solutions—an area in which modern computers struggle—LASOLV can reach a conclusion roughly 50 times more quickly than a conventional computer.
As well as quantum computing, the Silicon Valley lab’s 27 researchers, including 25 with PhDs or MDs, and 11 who have taught in U.S. universities as professors or associate professors, are focused on cryptography and healthcare. The researchers’ cryptography efforts are focused on ensuring privacy and security in a world where our lives are dominated by data. In healthcare, the lab is working on ‘digital twins’—virtual replicas of individual patients that could one day be used to determine the most effective treatment for complex conditions—and even a simulated human heart, created using digital sensors.
But today’s R&D challenges aren’t just about going where the talent is. A growing body of evidence suggests that diversity is crucial to innovation. Companies with more diverse leadership teams deliver “more and better innovation,” and diverse project teams are more productive.
However, diversity is about more than race, gender, sexuality and other minorities who are often under-represented in senior roles. It also includes cultural diversity and diversity of experience. For NTT, conducting R&D outside of Japan means operating in a very different culture, with different ideas about how innovations should work.
“Innovation often comes from looking at a problem in a new way,” says Mr. Gomi. “We hope that the cross-fertilization of ideas from people who have worked and been educated in the U.S., together with our experts from Japan, will bring us new perspectives.”
The lab opened in July 2019, but is already moving to new premises so that the team can expand to 50 researchers. “The new building will house a dedicated quantum computing lab, with lasers and other specialized optical equipment,” says Mr. Gomi. The larger team will boost current research efforts, but also expand into new areas. These aren’t yet decided, but all will be central to NTT’s overall mission to promote positive change for humankind.
Staying competitive in a fast-moving technology space increasingly means being where the key developments are happening. The U.S., and Silicon Valley in particular, is still seen as the global leader in disruptive technologies, according to KPMG, while Japan is in fourth place, behind China and the U.K.
With the Silicon Valley lab up and running, NTT continues to think globally. Its next research base, focused on biosensor technology, is scheduled to open in Munich in 2020.
While NTT expects to see some results from its Silicon Valley lab in the next few years, many of its research topics may not bear fruit for a decade or more. The lab is an indication of the company’s patience and its understanding that today’s toughest problems will only be solved with the world’s best talents.
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