Sony’s magic lab ? a place where geniuses and super-talents pop up


This is a title of a book that was recently published. (in Japanese)

The book was written by “Mario Tokoro and Nobuko Yuri”, and on the Obi (a belt like sheet of paper over the cover of the book) it reads: “A secret of the ‘wonder lab’- The Sony Computer Science Laboratories Ltd. – home to Hiroaki Kitano, Kenichiro Mogi, Hideki Takayasu, and Jyunichi Rekimoto ”, “Haven’t you heard those names somewhere before?”

“Hiroaki Kitano is….. one of the inventors of pet dog AIBO…..founder and top scientist of the new field of “system biology” …. Kenichiro Mogi is known for analysis of the function of brains such as “Qualia”, “Aha experience”…..original point of view and keen observations, fluffy hair, calm baby-face…….idol of media, books, TVs, games…..Hideki Takayasu is…..a best-seller author by his book “Fractal”…. started “Econophysics”, a field that is currently spreading throughout the world.  Junichi Rekimoto ……has developed a series of technologies that smoothly connect real world and the virtual world .. … these four were co-workers at one laboratory…. (Chapter one,  p.11)

This book is describing the 20 years of “Sony Computer Science Lab. (SONY CSL)”
since its foundation.  It is also a story about Mario Tokoro who devoted himself to the opening of the lab that produced number of geniuses and great talents.  Dr. Tokoro is by himself a “great talent, out of box type” but he is also a wonderful manager and a very attractive person.  His “out of box (henjin)” character was clear even from his childhood that his friends used to call him “Tokoro-henjin-Mariops”  (Chapter one, p.78)

SONY CSL – a laboratory that produced so many “henjins” who helped starting of a number of epoch making new fields, presenting new concepts to the world-, is but a small institute with only a little over than 30 members including administrative staff. And those 5 described above are not the only unique people that this lab produced.  There are many others.

I have had the privilege of working with Drs. Tokoro and Kitano in many ways for these several years (Ref.1, 2, 3)

Although the topics we talk about are quite serious, I always enjoy talking with them.  This book tells us that there are so many young people with great possibilities (including Tokoro and Kitano), the importance of setting up a “place” to nurture their talents, that in such place one can find the essence in things, create true values, and feel the excitement and challenges that are accompanied with discoveries.  The stories in the book are wonderful – it is truly an attractive book.  Partly this is due to the deep philosophy Dr. Tokoro and the extraordinary quality of his management skills.  Also Yuri, the co-author, contributes by her splendid talent on story telling and writing.

The content of the book is as follows:
1. It all began with a draft written in one day.
2. Working at the cutting edge of computer science
3. What is the essence of research management?
4. Escape from computer science
5. Broader, deeper
6. What the SONY CSL means to me
7. The future of science and SONY CSL

Chapter 2: “Tokoro says; ‘There are only two things that I do.  One is to decide the direction this lab must go.  Another is to manage human resources; hire those who fit in, help those who graduate, and ask anyone who seems to be a mismatch to leave.’” (p.62)

Chapter 3: “Most important is to open a new field of science, make a new culture.  If we succeed in this, it would not just skyrocket the brand value of Sony but will be without doubt an immeasurable contribution to humanity.” (p.75)

“The management that Mario Tokoro put into practice was clearly out of the “Japanese Standard”…..often we heard people saying “it’s insane”…..but “that insanity started to shine as they went on for years.  Oh, it was such a unique lab that they made.  Was it only possible because it was a private enterprise?  No, a private company will not have a way for such thing.  Well done!”

“Tokoro is known for being flexible and straight….  Even the editor in charge said, as Tokoro recalls, ‘Dr. Tokoro throws only straight balls’”

In Chapters 4-6 interesting episodes are introduced about how Tokoro met researchers such as Kitano, their backgrounds, and thoughts.  Tokoro sees their essence.  I recommend this book as reference to young researchers, or even non-researchers, for some lessons on life.

Kitano says “Synergy between fields that appear at first to be so irrelevant will not enhance unless we understand the fundamental idea that lies within each field.  However, that broadness is the only way to access to a new area or deep understanding of nature.”….”With the progress of computer technology, we are now able to handle sophisticated systems that involve many elements.  This opened the door to a new framework of science by breaking the walls between fields of information science, bio, sociology, economy, and so on and connecting them by new perspectives or methods.”  These words of Kitano become very convincing as we read through the works of seven (footnote 1) scientists that are introduced later.

Footnote 1; Junichi RekimotoLuc SteelsHideki TakayasuKenichiro MogiKazuhiro SakuradaFranc NielsenFrancois Pachet .

Two women helping them as staffs comment in the book: “I go to the presentations of researchers… and their way of thinking or ideas astonishes me quite frequently.”  “I am stimulated…… by the small words that the researchers utter in every day life”, “The researchers are all gentle and kind….of course there are many aspects in them that do not fit in to the standard value of company or ordinary life, but for matters outside research, they are basically nice people.” (p.226-227)

It seems that Dr. Tokoro’s philosophy is about finding unbelievably out of box “henjins” that have high potentials and creating a “place” to enable them grow freely. Maybe it has to do with his experience of being at several western laboratories working together with first class researchers.  Because of this experience SONY CSL is able to say that “…fresh PhDs…young inexperienced researchers are treated as colleagues, fairly, openly, and also with strictness….this atmosphere…. is a manifestation of very pure spirits that has nothing to do with disguise or connivance……” “….even in the presence of the most distinguished professors, no matter what they may say, SONY CSL researchers will not flinch” (p.216-217)

In Chapter 7, Dr. Tokoro proposed an “open system science”  as one possibility in facing future challenges and has published a book by this title  early this year in celebration of the 20th anniversary.

Anyway, I recommend this book strongly to anyone who is interested in research or anything fun, and to students in universities or graduate schools.

And as I repeatedly point out in this site also (please ‘Search’ by keywords such as ‘out of box (henjin)’, ‘nails that stick out’ or ‘common sense’),  it is these “out of box (henjin)”, “nails that stick out” “non-common sense” that go beyond the frontier, create new values, and change the world.  My conviction is even stronger after reading the stories of many scientists introduced in this book.