Hiroshi Esaki, Ph.D.
Hiroshi Esaki, Ph.D. Director

By connecting all computers via digital technology, the internet has succeeded in forming a global, border-spanning platform for the transparent transmission, exchange, analysis, and processing of digital information. This is not merely a digital space. Instead, this cyberspace is made up of a diverse range of individual digital spaces that were not previously interconnected but that are now combined in an autonomously distributed fashion. In particular, a key requirement put forth for these interconnections is that they should be made transparent and not subject to arbitrary restrictions (censorship or blocking). The internet initially started out as a large network of computers (that would be considered antique by today’s standards) shared by multiple researchers, but as semiconductor technology advanced and evolved, a wider range of digital devices also came online, including mobile devices (handhelds, laptops, palmtops) as well as tiny computing devices that can even be embedded into other devices. People call this the Internet of Things (IoT).

This IoT world paradigm is exactly what WIDE Project envisioned with respect to research & development on and the popularization of IPv6, the next-generation internet protocol that it has been focusing its efforts on since the late 1990s. Since IPv4 does not have enough identifiers (i.e., IP addresses) to facilitate the transparent interconnection of all digital devices, we are in need of a sufficiently large identifier space. The vision for this next-generation internet protocol is that by transparently interconnecting all people, all industries, and all digital devices on Earth, it will spark the creation and realization of innovative, never-before-seen services. This vision looks not only to the perhaps ideological desire to protect the confidentiality of communications but also to the purely technological rationalization known as scalability. Why do we seek to build transparent infrastructure? The reason has to do with technical considerations. Because the number of connected digital devices continues to increase and the physical space they inhabit is expanding, we need a simple procedure for transferring digital information. Otherwise, we will come up against technological limitations on IP packet transfer capacity. In short, we felt that the transparency built into the internet’s genetic code would be a key requirement for achieving the internet’s sustained development as part of the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals). And even today, I think transparency can be regarded as an extremely important requirement from a technical standpoint when it comes to the sustained development of the internet.

As a result of discussions at the WIDE Board’s summer camp in 2010, at WIDE Project we began “hand making” some of the equipment that makes up the WIDE Internet. Around this time, virtual machine (VM) technology came into the spotlight and research & development in this area began attracting attention. Although the actual research topics have changed, these research & development efforts have been sustained and passed on over time, most recently branching into research & development on white box devices. With handmade devices, we select the appropriate hardware ourselves (and in some cases make it ourselves), and we also create our own software for using that hardware. Operating systems are at the heart of research & development activities and topics at WIDE Project, and accordingly, when it comes to research & development on handmade devices, I think we always approach discussion and design activities from the perspective of facilitating abstraction and versatility. As a result, in both the area of IoT and the area of high-performance routers, switches, and NFV, our research & development efforts essentially share a common technological outlook even though the technological constraints under which the search for solutions takes place differ. To be specific, essentially the same thing is happening in IoT and cloud systems. Our efforts are directed at providing platforms that absorb (i.e., abstract) the differences in hardware, making it possible to run the same software on different hardware. This means that any functionality you want to provide via a combination of hardware and software can be made available on arbitrary hardware, and further, that functionality can be made available in an environment that can move freely about the internet. Originally, the “things” referred to in Internet of Things meant embedded devices that were not high-performance or large IT equipment like computers. But if we interpret “things” to mean all physical devices, including traditional computers, I think we can say that the IoT is on the way to evolving into the Internet of Functions (IoF). Ignoring technical requirements such as processing power, hardware abstraction means that software (functions) can be made independent of hardware (things). So, I think we can say that the IoT is evolving into an internet of software (functions), or in other words, the IoF (Internet of Functions). In this light, the migration of server systems into the cloud, the shift toward NFV (network function virtualization) in mobile systems (particularly 5G systems), and the transition from traditional cellphones to smartphones all appear to be part of this process of evolution from IoT to IoF.

The internet’s genetic imperative is to use common technology to transparently interconnect exclusivity silos—closed ecosystems built on proprietary technology—to form a single unified system. Up until this point, systems were designed to allow physical computers (IT devices) to move physically around the globe and connect freely to the internet. But with the limitations of physical IT devices now removed, we are moving toward a world in which functions (i.e., functions defined by software) are free to move around a globe-spanning server space and able to communicate transparently with all software modules in that server space. Internet systems so far have given rise to a One for All, All for One-style social ecosystem within which flows a positive spiral whereby investments made autonomously by individuals and organizations contribute to the internet’s growth, and the internet’s growth in turn drives the enhancement of services provided to those individuals and organizations. And with the removal of physical limitations, this social ecosystem is now taking shape at an even lower cost and evolving into an environment replete with development potential.

Driven by this genetic trait of interoperability, the genetic survival machine’s target continues to expand, from a network interconnecting computers to a network that interconnects and integrates all societal and industrial systems, as in the Society 5.0 concept. The biggest opposing genes for the internet’s genes are those that promote the creation of silos and blocs, and since these cause friction with state protectionist policies in more than a few cases, it is important to engage in dialogue to ensure they can coexist. Further, the free exchange of information and software modules between all organizations (multi-stakeholders), countries included, and the cybersecurity necessary for autonomous systems to survive the various incidents that arise are important and necessary conditions for enabling the internet’s genes to survive. This constitutes the next stage of Society 5.0, and I think this is the direction in which Japan must demonstrate international leadership and provide contributions. This direction leads toward the realization of connected organizations—a concept currently taking hold in the corporate sector—across organizational boundaries, not just at corporate entities but at all types of organizations. The aim is for all actors that make up this cyberspace to engage in two-way interaction with external individuals and organizations, facilitating the swift and accurate planning, production, and delivery of products and services. In the corporate space, the emergence of connected organizations is causing traditional push supply chains driven by vendors to evolve into a pull demand chains driven by users. Information on potential users’ demands is collected, shared, and analyzed in real time, and an optimal volume of services with appropriate functionality is delivered to users, giving rise to a value-creation chain that produces the appropriate volume of high-value-added offerings. Realizing this sort of value-creation chain can also help to address global environmental problems as it effectively reduces the amount of physical resources and energy required. In fact, this is a transformation of systems that will contribute to the achievement of the SDGs, and constitutes an example of sharing economies that facilitate the multiple payoffs that the internet’s genetic code enables. By unbundling platforms from the physical media on which they can be used and, further, unbundling applications from the platform they use such that they are not locked on to any platform (which we can call "un-wire-ing"), we can make it possible for a single platform to hold various different applications, which enables platform sharing and shared investment in platforms (multiple payoffs) and, moreover, facilitates the free movement of functionality throughout cyberspace. In other words, platform application transparency, neutrality, and mobility make it possible to form efficient sharing-economy systems that are versatile and sustainable. One way to look at this un-wire-ing is to imagine platforms as ships leaving their home port—platforms that were previously anchored and thus unable to move about physically are now able to haul anchor and set sail freely.

In this way, the un-wire-ing functions newly absorbed into the internet’s genetic code will engender more efficient (an in some sense, disruptive) multiple payoff platforms. It is, in other words, a new awakening for multiple-payoff environments that offers all internet users the opportunity to freely provide new services. Un-wire-ing has, for instance, given rise to research & development on white box IT devices by hyperscale companies like Google and Facebook. This has properties in common with humanity’s first digital inventions: language, writing, and money. We are now coming to realize the digital properties of money in full, as exemplified by virtual currencies, and this realization, I would argue, is a revolution of a type similar to the digital revolution seen in content industries such as publishing and music recording. Although the advent of white box devices and the digitalization of money appear at first glance to be completely different revolutionary phenomena, I think they can both be interpreted as expressions (awakenings) of the un-wire-ing gene. That is, the invention of programming (code) has freed functions and services from (made them independent of) the hardware. As a result, functions and services can be updated or changed rapidly, and dedicated hardware is fast becoming unnecessary. It is becoming possible to quickly and easily create (and later terminate) physical outlets for services at low cost wherever they are needed. This is known as software-defined infrastructure. And what we need at this stage is rapid system design and decision-making within cyberspace in a way that respects the internet’s genetic code, along with the formation of strategic and appropriate rules.

Japan’s 5th Science and Technology Basic Plan put forward the Society 5.0 concept, and in 2019, discussion aimed at shaping the 6th Science and Technology Basic Plan’s vision to follow on from this began. As this new Science and Technology Basic Plan is being formulated, WIDE Project must lay out a vision and specific measures designed to drive progress toward more sophisticated and smarter social infrastructure, premised on the availability and ongoing evolution of the internet. Given the internet’s broad reach throughout society and the availability of commercial internet services, the task of enhancing the quality of trust offered by the internet is regarded as a priority among the global internet community. Because the internet is now so widespread and acts as a basis for industrial and social activity, governments seek to tighten their control over the internet for national security considerations and reasons. This trend appears to be gaining momentum not only in the likes of China and Russia but across the entire world. From this perspective also, it would seem crucial that we remain acutely aware of the importance of maintaining and developing environments apt to creating and forming the knowledge and experience to independently design, implement, build, and operate global research & development networks, and that we reaffirm the responsibilities that WIDE Project shares with all of its member organizations.

WIDE Project is operated as a consortium of academic and industrial partners. By offering an environment geared toward practical and applied research—which differs from the objective-based research common to business organizations and fundamental research found in academic circles, where creativity and originality are sought—WIDE Project has been able to achieve results that go beyond those of conventional research institutions. Moreover, WIDE Project always looks at entire systems as well as individual systems from a global perspective. This is a research model unique to WIDE as a defining element, and part of its genetic code, and it is essential that we further develop and maintain this approach to our research.

In closing, I would like to express my sincerest gratitude to all those individuals and organizations that have supported the activities of WIDE Project and to ask for your continued participation, cooperation, guidance and encouragement. With your help and cooperation, I am excited at the prospect of having this opportunity to work together with you all to explore new fields and strive towards the realization of safer, more secure global social infrastructure.

Hiroshi Esaki
March 2020