5 questions with Takao Watanabe

Takao Watanabe is Co-founder and CEO of MITSUGO, where innovation for early childhood development has been cradled. One of the products, Language Jungle, has been selected as one of the Top Ideas in Early Childhood Innovation Prize on openIDEO. He has 10+ years academic and industrial experience of research and development in human/robot interaction.

JW: Tell us about the impact that Language Jungle is seeking to have.

TW: We aim at closing the word gap in multiple linguistic areas and maximizing the potential of the children in the earliest stages of development by helping their language acquisition. Our first target audiences are families with children under the age of 3 in the US and Japan. In the US, improved vocal communication would be provided in their home environment, where the proper resources to sufficiently communicate between parents and children is lacking. In Japan, the parents who are dual-income but have less time to engage with their children would be empowered to talk to their children in an effective and sustainable way.

JW: With digital technologies targeting children, how can we improve the balance of benefit to risk — a balance which, for far too many children, is not yet in their favor?

TW: To improve the balance, we would need three elements: 1) reliable and accessible information source, 2) parents’ discipline, and 3) smart parental control as a feature of digital technologies.

When new digital technologies emerge, typically the risks are not well communicated or assessed due to a lack of evidence. Parents would benefit from accessible and reliable information sources which tell what are known positive/negative factors to date and what is still unknown in order to determine their preferred usage of digital technologies.

Parents need discipline to keep a good distance between their children and digital technologies. As some of them have addictiveness, it would be difficult for children to regulate themselves.

Some devices and apps already implement parental control. As the future environment will become more saturated by digital technologies, smart control such as automatic adjustment depending on development stage of the children and a common user interface to control multiple devices/apps at a time would be helpful for parents.

JW: Looking ahead, what signals or trends do you perceive that make you most hopeful about the future our children will inhabit?

TW: Decentralized education enabled by online study-aid apps/videos will help children learn what they are interested in at their own pace.

AI can help children learn effectively by suggesting a customized curriculum based on their learning history.

Scientific discoveries on the development of children will bring insights to maximize the potential of children.

JW: What is one book we should read, podcast we should listen to, or piece of art we should encounter to better understand childhood in the future?

TW: Thirty Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain by Dana Suskind. This book gave us a hint to the importance of language acquisition in early childhood and inspired us to come up with Language Jungle. As this book was recently translated into Japanese, awareness of the word gap issue will spread among Japanese readers.

JW: What’s a project you dream about, but haven’t started yet?

TW: Citizen science in early childhood development. One of the ways to push the limits of research in early childhood development will be gathering lifelong data from the public. An open, safe/secure, and neutral data platform could bridge citizen scientists like parents with researchers at research institutes.