Japanese startup Couger Inc. is covering IoT, Blockchain, AI, and Robotics. From automobiles to drones, electrical devices and robots — now, Couger’s next generation automation technology is realizing “The Connectome World” where every information and device are autonomous and interactive.
The next future of blockchain has begun with “Smartphone repairs”.
On September 27, 2017, KDDI has announced that it will conduct the first test runs of the smart contract using “Enterprise Ethereum”(Ethereum Enterprise Alliance). When bringing a mobile phone to the store for repairs, the system will automatically determine the repair price and the model change price and verifies the most suitable contract among different companies. It is the first step to apply “smart contract” to the real world, which is a mechanism that automatically enforces contracts that were previously exchanged by blockchain technology in a manner that is difficult to tamper with.
Actually, this next generation “AI × IoT × Blockchain” base test runs are not conducted only by KDDI. Along with “KDDI Corporation” and “KDDI Research, Inc.”, “Couger Inc.” was also listed as publisher of the press release. It is a rare startup based in Shibuya that handles blockchain, artificial intelligence (AI), IoT as well as robotics across the board with only 10 people.
“This release is also a message that we do not think we can compete with the world in the new area of blockchain with KDDI alone”, said Yasunori Motani who is working at the KDDI consumer business planning council and KDDI Research and is the leader of the company’s project related to “AI × IoT × Blockchain”. “The current blockchain has been closed to solve problems at industrial sectors such as banks and logistics, but we believe that the essence of this technology is a base on which different industries can cooperate with each other. By preparing test sites across industries, with KDDI as a partner, the startup will grow and knowledge will start to accumulate in the environment — that is the kind of interaction we have to create.”
Why did KDDI chose to partner with a small company like Couger to create a next generation business basis using the new technology of blockchain? “Giants in Silicon Valley like Google or Amazon are entering into real and local spaces and their actions have started to directly influence our daily lives. In order to create a service that can seriously compete with these companies, we thought that we have to make the best team in Japan”, says Motani who heard about Couger for the first time back in spring 2016, when he was looking for people with knowledge on AI and experience with large scale system development to conduct KDDI’s big project.
“I asked everyone I know to find a genius, and the one I met was Mr. Ishii from Couger.”
When you open Couger’s website you will see a woman wearing a VR headgear. And if you scroll explanations such as;
IoT= “Five senses” to grasp the current situation in real-time.
Blockchain=Reliable infrastructure of information which plays as human’s “nerves and blood vessel”.
AI= “Brain” which analyzes and understands the massive information, then makes a decision.
Robotics= “Body” which will execute behavior decided by AI.
will be displayed. It is a metaphor where you can clearly see that Couger defines autonomy = automation as “to work like a human”.
IoT, Blockchain, AI, and Robotics. All four of these technologies have become buzzwords that show up every day in the news of tech-oriented newspages but they cannot simply be implemented into society says 43 year old Atsushi Ishii, co-founder and CEO of Couger, “The more IoT and AI are used and data increases, the problems of whether that data is true or not and how to secure its credibility arise. The technology to take care of these problems is the Blockchain and it can also be used to record the AI’s growth or the usage history of devices.”
Ishii designed a gateway (a network that allows communication between data of different protocols) for the next generation automation technology that connects IoT, Blockchain, AI, and Robotics with each other. Imagining countless devices that work together autonomously like the neural circuits of the brain, Ishii calls this gateway “Connectome”.
“Simply put, all the spaces will become smart spaces and I think it will turn into a state as if JARVIS from Iron Man was there,” Ishii imagines the installed future of the Connectome in the offices on the 3rd and 4th floor of a building facing the Meiji street, right in the middle of Shibuya station and Harajuku station.
“For example, it will be possible that if there are people who always buy 5 bottles of milk, the refrigerator will sense its contents and if there are less than 5 bottles, it will automatically order more. In that case it chooses the most reliable company based on previous transactions. It will also find the one that fits your budget if it is pre-set. The payment will be handled automatically via cryptocurrency and the package will arrive 10–30 minutes later by drone. It is similar to Amazon Dash that can order and deliver just without pushing the button.”
In other words, this is the ultimate world in which the “autonomous connection between supply and demand” will be carried out across industries and companies. Let’s say in the near future a time has come in which barely anyone will still own a car. Instead there will be countless autonomous cars in the city that anyone can use at any time (Futurist Don Tapscott calls this “SUber”). In that case, if you order through your smartphone to take you from point A to B within 30 minutes, it will choose, under these conditions, the most appropriate, cheapest and reliable car, and it will come up in front of you — or maybe come flying in front of you.
When Atsushi Ishii was 5, he could not draw the fitting part for the robot’s heart, no matter how much he tried.
“I drew the arms, legs and the head. As I wanted to draw the chest part, my hands stopped. I thought that if there’s nothing that starts working first, neither hands nor legs should be working. No matter how much I tried, I could not image that ‘something that starts working first’ ”. Ishii, born in 1974 in Kagawa prefecture, looks back on his early childhood when he has been absorbed by robots from as far back as he can remember. “Since I couldn’t understand the theory of a power system. I drew only robots with a hole in their chest”.
Since his family kept on moving until the first years of elementary school because of his father’s work as an architect, he couldn’t come to like school.
Rather than studying at the forced pace of his school, he preferred self-studying on the subject that he was interested in (At the age of 15 he came across programming and just by reading a computer magazine he made a game to let his friends play). It was a lot more fun to immerse in a fantasy in his head (all the books he used for his book reports read were made up stories).
As a student he majored in mechanical engineering at the Takamatsu National College of Technology (Present: National Institute of Technology, Kagawa Collage). When he was 20, he was in charge of the design of a car engine in the laboratory and he finally got to solve the problem that he was stuck at since he was 5 years old — burn gasoline and transform this energy into the robot’s electric power.
After graduating from college, he worked as an engineer for a trading company that handled the design and optimization of control systems for power plants and for IBM Japan. In 2000, the 26 year old Ishii joined Lycos Japan. That was when he met Hikaru Takahashi who would later co-found Couger. At Lycos Japan he was involved in the development of large scale search engines. When Lycos Japan was acquired by Rakuten, he joined the search technology development for the search engine “Infoseek” led by Rakuten as well as for Rakuten’s own search engine. After that he joined Saver, a company focusing on mobile video technology, together with Takahashi and lead their technology development. At Saver, those two also built an overseas department from scratch (Ishii was intensively studying English when he was employed by the trading company as a fresh graduate and “had a lot of free time because people did not give me work”).
In 2006, after Saver was sold, Ishii was torn by the choice to go to Elon Musk’s space venture company SpaceX or to develop Google’s alternative next-generation search engine at “a certain Japanese major company”. At that time Ishii was worshipping Musk because of his vision of sending people to Mars. He used to send “fan letters” by using SpaceX’s website’s contact form. “After a bit of interaction we suddenly became friends and they also became interested in my career. ‘So, are you going to join us?’ one of the core members invited me.”
However, Ishii invited Takahashi to concentrate his hopes on possibilities in Japan. “In Japan there is probably no one besides us who has experienced developing several large scale search engines. Developing a different search engine from Google’s together with Takahashi, who is the best engineer I know — that was the invitation that I accepted and started Couger because a corporation was necessary.” Ishii remembers those times while laughing. “But on the day I founded the company, I was contacted by the client and was told that the project was cancelled. I gave up on joining SpaceX and made a company, but on the first day the plan flew away.”
And so it happened that Ishii and Takahashi started a company with no vision or business plan at all.
In the interview with Ishii, he talked about a lot of different topics — reaching from human history to the latest cancer treatment, Pixar’s organization theory, from sci-fi movies like “Her” or “Blade Runner 2049” to the Japanese manga series “JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure”. His interests lie in the human body, ideas and organizations where he questions, “Why has the present taken the form that it has? How is it going to become in the future?”. He decisively says, “In order to know that we look at it result based from the technological side”.
While Ishii is sociable and an idea-rich leader character, Couger’s CTO Takahashi is a tight lipped, composed worker type of person. When answering questions he talks slowly at his own pace with a minimum amount of words. Even though they are completely different characters, 17 years ago when they worked together for the first time, Ishii decided that, “If I make a company in the future, I am definitely going to make it together with Takahashi”.
As a reason Ishii says that Takahashi is always essential. “The source code he writes is surprisingly short and has a functional beauty to it. When discussing he is exceptionally objective and he will definitely not say anything without a reason. I didn’t tell Takahashi back then, but I was planning to invite him when I start a business since the time at Lycos.”
Having started the company without any plan, those two started to get big projects little by little by using their experience on large scale system development. Designing a next generation system for Sony Computer Entertainment who put the PlayStation Network at the disposal for hundreds of millions of users, development of the video application for iPhone at a Silicon Valley startup called Living Image, planning and development of dango Inc’s RPG top seller game “Magimon” in Japan that was later introduced to South Korea and the U.S., Square Enix’s online game as well as KDDI’s back-end system. For all of these, Ishii drafted the architecture and Takahashi took care of the developing.
Couger’s turning point project started with Ishii’s wild request. First Ishii draws the big picture and Takahashi confirms the realistic technical requirements in detail — that way, even if it seems wild, the hurdle can be set on a just barely feasible line. Missing knowledge is studied by the whole, small group of elite members and they will pioneer in new areas with light footwork. The amount of areas the team handles is growing and presently they have gathered, among others, experts in the fields of blockchain, large scale systems, machine learning, game AI as well as 3D modeling and simulation engineering.
Borrowing Takahashi’s words when “Ishii came up with a crazy idea after a long time”, was around the end of 2014. Distancing themselves from dango’s game development that they have been focusing on for years, Ishii thought about what Couger should do next.
“My problem is that because of the incredibly big ideas I have, I don’t have an interest in reaching smaller goals around me”, says Ishii. Mars migration plan, a lunar rover that can recover from any position, a VR system making teleportation experience a possibility…any idea he was thinking of was not realistic (at least at that time).
At that time he remembered the AI “JARVIS” that Tony Stark created in the movie “Iron Man”.
“After all, everyday sceneries are all videos” says Ishii. “In other words, if we want to make something like JARVIS, it will be necessary that the machine understands the continuity of every scene. It was originally at Saver and Living Image where I was handling video streaming and generation, so I intuitively thought that from now on it would be necessary to understand the content of videos.”
Continuing the research, Ishii learned that the deep learning technology will be necessary to make a system that can understand the content of videos. At that time, neither Ishii nor Couger’s members had any knowledge on AIs. Ishii purchased a large amount of books on mathematics and handed them to the engineers. He asked an associate professor at the University of Electro-Communications to let his employees unofficially participate in the lectures. He says he contacted Japanese AI researchers one after another and ended up meeting over 20 people in total.
“When we did the explanation deep learning, that was 4 months ago right? You made that from then?”
Hironobu Fujiyoshi and Takayoshi Yamashita, leaders of the research group “Machine Perception and Robotics” (MPRG) at Chubu University were amazed by Couger’s video recognition system demo. This was in October 2015, after Ishii had visited Chubu University in June of the same year together with Couger’s members.
The video used as a sample is about Super Mario appearing in a Mercedes-Benz commercial. The system they made can mostly recognize correctly what is being shown among things like “game” “landscape” “human”(Super Mario) and “animal” (Goomba).
“That came out pretty well — was our first impression” says Fujiyoshi in retrospect. After having been a visiting researcher at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, he has been studying computer vision at Chubu University. “They didn’t just make a well performing video recognition system, but also remembered to build a proper interface. This is a point that we researchers tend to neglect, but on top of having used the deep learning technology, they also already imagined in which services you can deploy it and made a demo. I feel like Mr. Ishii has more qualities than just engineering.”
After that Couger started a joint development of AI and Robotics technology together with Fujiyoshi and Yamashita. Until now, Couger’s technology has been used by a world top class team from the Amazon Robotics Challenge which Chubu University was part of, as well as cloud robotics developed at the NEDO project and the AI learning simulator “Street” provided to Honda and others.
What kind of company does Couger look like to the two who have seen so many companies from an academic point of view already. “They have the ability to judge new technologies” says Yamashita. “They understand blockchain and also specialize in each technology such as clouds, servers, AI and robotics”, continues Fujiyoshi. “There aren’t a lot of companies that can do all of these things. If they can further extend their strengths, I expect them to give birth to a unique service.”
In December 2016, Takahashi thought “here we go again”. Ishii came up with another wild idea.
“We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters”. The words were from Peter Thiel’s book “Zero to One”. Even if technology progresses this way, all people do in their daily lives is to share photos and hit “like” — “I woke up” says Ishii after reading Thiel’s suggestion.
“I remembered that I used to be the type to think about the big picture as well. Even though I thought about joining SpaceX back then, I noticed that I’ve spent years here talking only about what is right in front of me such as “what app or game should I make?”.
Ishii made a PDF with the title “Couger_Vision” right away and showed it to Takahashi. Conduct “Development and providing of next generation mobility (codename: Blade)” in 2027 was written there. Blade (having its name from “Blade Runner” obviously) is something that combines an autonomous car and autonomous drone and lets people ride it.
He also wrote down 6 “Essential technology elements for the next generation mobility” in that PDF.
1. Self-driving, Autonomous flying by an AI
2. Learning Simulator to conduct AI training
3. AR/VR dashboard for the users (passengers)
4. Big data processing that analyzes and communicates the driving and flying conditions
5. Blockchain technology to give reliability to external communication and the AI’s growth history
6. Fog Computing by a “Cloud Fog Device” that enables high speed processing and data sharing simultaneously
“If vehicles become autonomous” says Ishii, “it should be necessary to have a gateway to control it. What came out of it was the ‘Connectome’ concept.”
This time engineers have started to learn about blockchain, just like when the whole team studied AIs when they were making the video recognition system. At the same time, since May 2017, Ishii started the blockchain community “Blockchain EXE” to collaborate with private companies, individuals and universities. There are monthly meetups with different subjects and it has become one of the largest blockchain communities in Japan, that connects entrepreneurs, engineers and researchers.
“Since we started the company it’s always been like that. We’ve had twists and turns for years. Whenever Ishii comes up with another big idea, he asks us to look into something new with that”. When I asked Takahashi what he thought when he heard about the Connectome idea, he complained somewhat happily, “But repeating what I know I can do is not fun, right? Having to do something new all the time… I will call it fun.”
Ishii imagines a future in which autonomous drones and self-driving vehicles, smart homes and any IoT devices are seamlessly connected and get their instructions through smartphones or voice. This way they will provide the most appropriate means to fulfill requests like “I want to buy” or “I want to move”.
Amazon might currently be the closest to realizing autonomous cooperation. The company has made the AI “Alexa” for smart speakers, acquired Whole Foods Market and is working on delivery by drones. So it’s not hard to imagine them making a platform that enables purchase and delivery through AI, IoT, and Robotics.
However that results in a monopoly by Amazon. In a book “The World in 2022 drawn by Amazon (Japanese: Amazon ga egaku 2022 nen no sekai)”, Michiaki Tanaka, a professor of Rikkyo University’s Graduate School of Business Administration, compares the economic zone created by Amazon to a “stronghold”. “Once you step into Amazon’s stronghold” he writes, “even consumers, businesses and competitors get enclosed and all economic activities take place within Amazon’s stronghold. Or, put more correctly, there is a possibility that they are forced to do it.”
Ishii says that the Connectome idea that Couger is drawing, will be a countermeasure against Amazon’s monopoly. This is because it will be possible to decentralize Amazon’s structure itself by linking all the services from third parties by using Couger’s gateway.
Just like “Singularity Net” — led by Ben Goertzel who is a global authority among AI researchers, also known as the developer the Android “Sophia” — wants to make an AI development platform that anyone can use and thus create an alternative to the monopoly on AI development that Google and Facebook have, Connectome will provide an opportunity for the development of “AI × IoT × Blockchain”.
Ishii has been to a lot of conferences overseas on AI and blockchain. Seeing the situation in the world, he thinks that “AI × IoT × Blockchain” keep fusing together and that there will be a big opportunity for Japanese companies, as services that use blockchain start interacting with the real world in the coming era. That’s because in the hardware quality development, Japan is still on the top level in the world.
“Since the blockchain technology will enter the real world soon, there will be less done by software alone”, says Ishii. “At that time, the high quality of the Japanese manufacturing industry will have potential. Since Couger is also based in Tokyo, being able to easily cooperate with Japanese hardware companies should become a weapon.”
KDDI’s Motani describes the blockchain industry’s current situation as a “bubble”. “Right now everyone is paying attention to blockchain technology and is investing money into it. The situation starts moving dynamically. So it will be possible to create an environment in which we can reevaluate current technologies in this new context. By incorporating AI and IoT in the context of blockchain, it is possible to draw a lot of attention and appeal to the world. I think that is a very good chance for Japanese companies.”
Further, Motani, who made the blockchain community “Blockchain EXE” together with Ishii, says that he expects things from Ishii as an individual. “Blockchain is a difficult-to-explain technology in the first place. Also, because you use an alliance as a base for implementing, it becomes important to think about how we can convince our partners and how we can create a community to develop the technology together. I think that Mr. Ishii, who is good at conveying visions, is a perfect match for the current era.”
Couger’s engineers write the code towards realizing Connectome in an office where SNES Mini and Nintendo Switch consoles are standing around along with gaming magazines such as “Famitsu” and Manga (“Come have fun at our office!” is said a lot as an invitation, but in Couger’s case you would actually play games).
The big ideas that Ishii thinks of in this small office don’t have the creation of next generation mobility as a final goal. “When thinking on a global scale, there are still a lot of problems that need to be solved”, says Ishii. “For that, we first want to progress automation and leave all the work that is needed to keep the society going to machines. Then, I think, humanity should focus on the problem that really need to get solved”.
Furthermore, he regards automation technology as giving freedom and opportunities to everyone. It is possible that, on top of information and tools, transportation costs will go down by progressing the linkage of all autonomous systems that include mobility. When I asked him what the planned world with automation looks like, he left quite an impression as he said, “I want to get rid of unfairness”.
“Thanks to the progress in medical technology, illnesses that used to mean death can now be treated and thanks to the progress in communication technology, we can work while raising our children. We are here because such technological developments accumulated. In other words, the more freedom people get through technology, the greater the opportunity becomes for everyone regardless of which country they are born in or how wealthy their family is. And so all the people can turn to the essential”, says Ishii. “From now on, humanity will be able to focus on the essential problems — food shortage, climate change, cancer treatments and going to Mars.”