Utilizing "Hidden Knowledge" and Taking Advantage of IT for the Effective Application of Abundant Information in Society

Consulting Fellow, RIETI

The 21st century has seen an explosive increase in electronic information. It is said that the number of websites has grown to over 100 million. Knowledge derived from academic research has shown a similar trend. For example, only about 100 major research papers on deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) were published in 1953, when molecular biology pioneers J. Watson and F. Crick discovered the double helix structure. At present, over 100,000 papers in this area are published annually, and most are delivered electronically.

Today, humanity faces many serious problems, including the declining sustainability of the global environment, an aging society, and growing fears caused by frequent occurrences of unforeseen disasters. Meanwhile, we possess the largest-ever amount of knowledge that will help solve such problems.

Therefore, by linking the latest information to relevant problems, the frontier of knowledge is expected to be developed and ample innovation will be realized to offer solutions, thereby contributing to the construction of a more affluent, happier, and securer society. At the same time, driven by problem solutions, the growth potential of the economy will be enhanced by mobilizing a vast amount of knowledge and producing innovative products and services meeting social needs.

In reality, however, due to inefficient research and development investment, the government and companies in Japan have failed to link the knowledge gained through investment to the market. Instead, they have produced knowledge that has little connection with society and the market. Although efficiency cannot be easily measured as there are time lags between when investment is made and when it is utilized, it is certain that innovative products and services offered by Japanese companies attract less attention than before in the global markets.

In sum, a large amount of available knowledge has not been effectively linked to social problems and markets in Japan. In this paper, I would like to refer to knowledge that has been documented and usable but lying idly as "hidden knowledge." Let me discuss below how tacit knowledge can be utilized, taking the example of an aging society.

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Japan is the first country to face the problem of a super-aging society. No country or region has so far constructed a model of such society. Thus, proposals and demonstration of such models are awaited.

Meanwhile, a large amount of wisdom to deal with the aging of society has been accumulated. According to research conducted by Vitavin Ittipanuvat and Yuya Kajikawa of the University of Tokyo, with queries extracted from Global Age-friendly Cities: A Guide, published by the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 83,000 academic papers have been published on the aging of society in the world. Looking at them in chronological order, the number of published papers has dramatically increased in recent years (see graph).

Graph: Number of research papers on the aging of societyGraph: Number of research papers on the aging of society

Have these pieces of knowledge been fully utilized? At present, there are various problems associated with the aging of society, including growing concern about the sustainability of social security programs; reclusive elderly persons and their solitary deaths; the increasing number of elderly people with dementia and a shortage of guardians of adults; family members who are exhausted due to long-term care; a rise in "marginal" housing complexes, communities where maintaining community life has become difficult due to the aging of the population; and an excess of imports of advanced medical equipment. Given a lack of prospect of solving these problems, it appears that much of the available knowledge is buried and not used effectively.

Although there may be various reasons for this, let me give three factors that are attributable to the nature of knowledge in this area. First, the knowledge needed to deal with the aging of society is very interdisciplinary. It consists of diverse fields, such as medical science, engineering, sociology, law, and economics. Desk study in Japan is weak in developing and utilizing knowledge across disciplines, though efforts to improve are currently being made.

Second, it is hard to get the whole picture of the knowledge because its definition in this area has not been sufficiently established and, unlike mature fields, its structure is not clear. If you are unable to capture the whole picture, it would be difficult to find where useful knowledge is located. And third, unlike linkages between metallurgy and shipbuilding and between pharmacy and drug discovery, that between knowledge and its applications are not unilinear and are difficult to identify. It can be said that these three interrelated factors constitute the conditions for the tendency of knowledge to be buried.

In order to overcome the problem of hidden knowledge, information engineering is drawing attention as an approach utilizing the latest in information technology (IT). Information engineering enables information processing exceeding human physical limitations. It is difficult for one person to read the summaries of 83,000 papers. If a computer is used, however, a vast amount of knowledge can be collected and analyzed in a short time.

By using a computer, we will be able to obtain knowledge from databases and other computerized information sources and structure or edit such knowledge according to purposes through analysis on the basis of the terms and citation relations contained therein. This will bring about results in the form understandable to us. If such a system is constructed, effective utilization of knowledge, which tends to be buried, will be enhanced significantly.

As for gathering knowledge, if today's search technology is used, the scope of knowledge to be gathered can be set freely according to combinations of search terms and by the function of automatic recommendation of search terms (automatic indication of related terms.) With regard to the analysis and structuring of knowledge, it is now possible to make automatic categorization of gathered knowledge and create linkages between categories.

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The 83,000 academic papers mentioned above were categorized through analysis on the basis of citations. The following eight subjects emerged as important subsets of problems associated with the aging of society: physical and mental changes associated with aging; visual and hearing impairment; intellectual impairment and the problem of wandering; how nursing care should be provided and how family care for the elderly should be assisted; depression and mental health; physical exercise and prevention of falling; restoration of memory; and assistive technology used in hospitals. If knowledge can be categorized in this way, that will be helpful in understanding its meta structure, and it will become easier to search for the necessary knowledge.

With regard to linkages between knowledge of a different nature, by analyzing the degree of co-occurrence of terms using a computer and including experts' assessments, it is becoming possible to pick out candidates likely to be linked.

In order to consider the possibility of robot technology application in a super-aging society, linkages between the knowledge associated with an aging society discussed above and knowledge about robots were analyzed using a heat map, which visually indicates the strength of relations in terms of substance. As a result, various linkages were identified, including: that between implantable hearing aids and reduced depression due to recovery from the hearing loss; that between lung/prostate cancer and surgical robots; that between Parkinson's disease/arthritis/spinal injury and rehabilitation assistive robots, which help strengthen leg and foot muscles; and that between solitude/depression and humanoid robots/robotic pets.

Traditionally, in the world of innovation study, important knowledge has been considered to be hidden in tacit knowledge that has not been documented. Thus, it has been discussed how such tacit knowledge could be found and utilized early. With documented knowledge increasing at an explosive pace, however, it would be more significant to use effectively the "hidden knowledge."

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In order to use hidden knowledge efficiently, the first necessary step is to adopt information engineering approaches such as those discussed above in the process of formulating policies or management strategies. If people with expertise take full advantage of knowledge that is structured using an approach designed for the 21st century, the risk of failing to notice useful knowledge and linkages and the risk of misjudging unimportant matters as being important will lessen.

Second, it is necessary to foster people capable of taking a comprehensive look at events and those with competent knowledge structuring skills. Knowledge can be assessed and utilized in an appropriate manner only by combining an information engineering approach and the human ability to think with flexibility. To this end, it is necessary to attach importance to the training of thinking, including practice. What would be needed are educational programs that are different from those aimed at cramming and deepening knowledge in a limited area.

I hope that ground-breaking innovations driven by new approaches and competent human resources will continue to advance for a better future, taking advantage of a vast amount of knowledge.

>> Original text in Japanese

* Translated by RIETI.

May 4, 2012 Nihon Keizai Shimbun

July 19, 2012