Late last year, we spoke with Kazuhiro Oiwa, one of the keynote speakers at BICT 2015, 9th EAI International Conference on Bio-Inspired Information and Communications Technologies in New York. He is currently a distinguished researcher and fellow of the National Institute of Information and Communication Technology in Kobe, Japan, and is an expert on protein motors and the development of nanometer-scale devices. In this interview, Kazuhiro touched upon what ICT can learn from molecular communication in living organisms, and how state-of-the-art research is tackling these issues.
Could you summarize the scope of your current work that you have come to share with everyone at this event?
My institute is the National Institute of Information and Communication Technology. Our branch carries out interdisciplinary research on biotechnology, biology, nanotechnology, and informatics. Organisms live in a noisy environment – they detect information and stimuli with many types of their sensory system, but the devices they use are very poor and fragile. Thus, they work under very low signal-noise ratio. However, organisms can detect a signal from the environment and properly respond to it. So our research target is to reveal the mechanism of information processing found in cells, complexes, and networks of neurons. Recently, we have succeeded in developing a chemical cell sample on the basis of the E. coli cell chemotaxis. These cells can detect various chemicals and distinguish them.
What do you see as the biggest challenge that bio-inspired ICT is currently facing?
We live in a chemical environment. The chemical substances are the carriers of information. For example, we keep homeostasis by means of balancing chemical substances. Insects and many small organisms use pheromones to communicate with each other. So when you drink alcoholic beverages, you may become happier, or sometimes sad – they change your mood. So, we are in a chemical environment, we use molecular communication. It factors into our perception – four hundred thousand signals can be detected and distinguished by just four hundred receptors. So combination of the response by receptors makes perception possible. Thus, without combinational exploration, we cannot process information. And there needs to be a mechanism for that. I think that is a big challenge for bio-inspired communication technology.
What would you say are the main trends in biological systems that are showing promise?
The research field of chemical sensing and cellular processing, and the usage of biological material – proteins, cells, and protein complexes – have an advantage over silicon-based technology. The development of chemical sensors, such as odor sensor or taste sensor, is still a frontier in silicon-based engineering. So, usage of biological material – proteins, cells – is paving the way for the development of these sensors. In addition, there is a huge chance to use them in the medical field and healthcare applications.
To conclude, have you had an experience at this event that you found compelling or that inspired you for future work?
Ten years ago, I was invited to the NSF workshop on molecular communications, among others. I think that those were the beginnings, but at that time, I did not imagine that the conference would expand so much. The activities and new friends made at this conference are beyond my imagination. Over the course of those ten years we made changes in research empowerment, and the advancement of nanotechnology, biochemistry, and molecular biology enables us to perform cutting edge research on bio-inspired technology. I think that this field is quite promising.