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Social Innovation

Dr. AI’s prescription for happiness and productivity

As we head into a new decade, Hitachi Fellow Dr Kazuo Yano gives us the lowdown on how AI will continue to transform society and help us lead happier lives

“I firmly believe that this planet can be made happier scientifically by data”. As statements go, it’s bold with a capital B but the man who made it has every justification for his faith."

For Dr. Kazuo Yano, the quest for happiness is a serious business. A deeply personal, serious business. A cursory glance at his wrist reveals it’s never far from his mind – the Hitachi Fellow has tracked his own personal happiness with a wristband sensor since early 2006.

This is no frivolous pursuit – it’s a lifetime’s work. Joining Hitachi 35 years ago, Dr.Yano has spent the last two decades exploring the possibilities of AI and its potential to make the world a happier place. He set out his vision at the recent Hitachi Social Innovation Forum in Milan where he outlined Hitachi’s “human-centric approach”.

Addressing the 400-strong gathered crowd, he said: “Everyone has the privilege and the responsibility to explore the possibilities of AI and to learn from the results. But the biggest obstacle is always the human who wants to stay in their comfort zone – so we need to understand humans better to move forward.”

In order to do this, Hitachi has collaborated with hundreds of companies to quantify people’s happiness and is currently working on an app that asks you each morning “What can you do to make others happy?” Having monitored his own happiness for the past thirteen years, Dr. Yano has come to the conclusion that “the essence of happiness is making other people happy.”

The Tokyo-based scientist expanded on this theme: “Raw data is just a breadcrumb but if you combine it and look at the patterns, it starts to have a much higher impact – we collected more than a million days of data from a wide variety of organisations to quantify the happiness of people. This information starts to form a picture of people’s motivations and happiness which is incredibly valuable and you can start to see the positive difference within just three weeks. The data reveals quite consistently that happiness allows you to focus on what you do whereas unhappiness has the opposite effect; careful analysis of this data also shows that this happiness goes beyond the individual – happy people make the people who interact with them happy too.”

This is borne out by recent Hitachi tests – in one case, the results revealed that a happy workforce could deliver a sales uplift of 27%. It’s something Dr.Yano explores in his 2014 book “The Invisible Hand of Data: Hidden Laws of Happiness, Business, and Economy Revealed by Wearable Sensors”. In it he tells the story of the positive impact at a call centre where employees’ break time was arranged so that people of the same generation have their breaks together. The book also details his own experience wearing the wristband sensor and illustrates how we can successfully extract patterns of movements of the body, which are highly correlated with the happiness of the people. This effectively means you can measure happiness in real time. Dr.Yano likes to talk about the HERO definition of happiness (hope, efficiency, resilience and optimism) and believes AI can enhance all these areas.

Of course, happiness in itself is a peerless aspiration but if we can achieve it and, as a result, deliver positive business outcomes then that really is a reason to smile. In pure business terms, the AI Effect continues to transform efficiency and performance – in Milan Dr. Yano described AI as “an extension of the scientific capability of humans – originally, we had a pen and paper, then a calculator, then a supercomputer, now we have AI”.

He believes that technology can help us become a “Super Smart Society” but he is also clear that AI can only deliver if you set out with a clear purpose and objective. When you do that, the results can be game-changing – for example, he quoted the example of the warehouse now optimising its stock levels four times more accurately thanks to AI.

In a demonstration at the Milan event, Dr. Yano underlined the fact that we need to experiment to learn – he showed a mini robot learning to swing from a high gymnastic bar; initially the robot swung randomly, with more practice it was quickly swinging like a human and within minutes it was swinging better than a human. One of Dr.Yano’s favourite expressions is “leap learning” where we not only learn from past experiences but also use that knowledge to explore unknown situations; he believes too often we neglect the second part. A recent practical example would be October’s Typhoon Hagibis – the nature of the damage in this case was very different from previous typhoons so we need to take this newly-acquired knowledge and apply it next time we face a natural disaster of this type.

The possibilities are endless – so, for example, Hitachi recently trialled the world’s first experiment to test for cancer using urine samples which could improve the speed and ease of cancer screening significantly; a partnership with a US hospital is using AI to monitor food waste which is helping to improve meal preparation and relieve the burden on nurses to check leftovers; and a pioneering project with Japanese schools is tackling bullying by providing daily reports of suspected cases to teachers so they can address the issue before it gets out of hand.

It’s clearly a fascinating time to be alive. In Milan Dr.Yano quoted Charles Darwin – not his famous theory of evolution but a softer Darwin who explained that the origin of “sympathy” (or what we would now call empathy) is rooted in our instinct to come to the aid of others in distress; Darwin defined the highest moral achievement as concern for the welfare of all living beings. So, as we approach a new decade, in some ways we’re going to places we’ve never been before but in other ways we’re right back to where it all started. The difference is that in the early years of the 21st Century we have the technology to help us try and make sense of the world around us. It’s going to be fascinating to see where it takes us next. And let’s hope the story ends with a happy ever after.