Nippon Telegraph and Telephone was founded as a government-owned monopoly in 1952 to provide stable telecommunications services to all of Japan and conduct adjacent research. It was a time of change as Japan moved from light to heavy industries post-WW2. In the 1980s, NTT was reorganized as a hybrid public-and-private venture—traded on the stock exchange but governed by a law mandating that more than one-third of the corporation is owned by the Japanese government.
Today, NTT is a conglomerate employing more than 300,000 people across subsidiaries that include mobile network operations (NTT Docomo), energy, finance, advanced technology and IT infrastructure and integration services. Its footprint is also global, spanning Japan and the Asia-Pacific region, the Middle East and Africa, the United States and the European Union.
I was recently invited to Tokyo to learn more about the company through its annual NTT R&D Forum. This year, NTT conducted over 100 demos in areas including manufacturing automation, remote construction operations, carbon emission reduction, natural disaster monitoring and mitigation, healthcare and more. The event’s centered on “IOWN”—innovative optical and wireless networks—and I left with a greater appreciation for the company and its depth and breadth. I want to share my insights on what I found most significant at the event. It’s also important to note that NTT is not currently a client of my firm.
Standout Technical Demonstrations
In the span of a week, I spent time at three different NTT facilities in Tokyo. The first visit occurred at a research and development center, complete with a 7-11 convenience store. (An interesting side note: one can find 7-11 locations on seemingly every street corner in Tokyo to serve the city’s 14 million inhabitants—but, to my disappointment, without Slurpee machines!) At the facility, I found three technical demonstrations to be standouts: Project Humanity, NTT Tsuzumi and an NTT Research project that employs a human digital twin in treating cardiovascular disease.
NTT’s Project Humanity is a noble inclusion endeavor to help people with severe disabilities. Launched this past summer, the initiative is a partnership of NTT, WITH ALS and Dentsu Lab Tokyo to help those afflicted with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (a.k.a. Lou Gehrig’s disease) regain physical mobility and verbal communication. In the past, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge went far to promote awareness and fundraising for research, but I found what NTT is doing truly compelling. Forward-looking investigations include the ability to actuate mobility assistance equipment and digital avatars that result in a person’s intended motions. The demonstrations I witnessed at the event with a guided wheelchair and a famous Japanese DJ are very promising and could lead to significant breakthroughs for people with disabilities. 5G connectivity can also be vital in future use cases, given its massive support for connected devices and its ability to support the ultra-low latency required for tactile control.
Not to be confused with a natural disaster, NTT Tsuzumi (a Japanese drum) aims to launch a lightweight Japanese and English language-processing large language model in the spring of 2024. LLMs support cutting-edge generative AI services, but there are warranted concerns about the power consumption and costs tied to the implementation and continuous tuning of the models. Tsuzumi aims to address this with a focus on balancing sustainability, performance and operational and capital cost. NTT is one of the first companies to focus efforts along these lines, and if it succeeds, the results could be game-changing. We are still in the very early days of generative AI, and more work needs to be done, but I applaud NTT for its groundbreaking efforts. The demonstrations I witnessed could factor into improving telecommunications services and beyond through AI—and do so sustainably. Future mobile networks could potentially become autonomous, providing exceptional levels of self-healing and security for operational resiliency.
Finally, NTT Research, based in Silicon Valley, is embarking on a mission of advancing healthcare through a medical and health informatics lab. Increasingly, sophisticated digital twins are being used in manufacturing, training and the design of large telecommunications networks where highly accurate simulations deliver value by speeding deployment and improving business outcomes. NTT has developed a cardiovascular bio-digital twin tailored individually at the molecular level to virtually predict and diagnose illness and disease before administering care. Eventually, with smart sensors and next-generation 5G and 6G connectivity, NTT hopes to enable the closed-loop autonomous treatment of cardiovascular issues—spanning patient health history, ongoing monitoring and treatment. More still needs to be researched to make it a reality, but the demonstration was impactful given how it highlighted the profound opportunity to deliver improved patient outcomes and proactively mitigate and eliminate life-threatening illness.
Futuristic Use Cases For 6G And Smart Cities
My second visit in Tokyo was to NTT’s mobile network operations division, Docomo. Docomo is an abbreviation for the company’s mantra of “Doing communications over the mobile network.” It’s a clever anagram, but what I found more creative was the MNO’s focus on innovative use cases that promise to get the most out of current 5G and next-generation 6G communications.
At its beautiful headquarters that tower above the Tokyo skyline, Docomo team members demonstrated several use cases to our small eclectic group, which included a technology analyst (me), a cheeky British freelance journalist (my friend Adrian Bridgwater) and an AI healthcare entrepreneur (Siraj Raval). The demonstrations included Docomo’s vision for 6G and human augmentation, mixed reality and metaverse applications and tactile fine-motor-skill transfer technology. The latter is especially mind-blowing. Using connected biometric sensors that are not skin-penetrating, Raval was able to trigger physical movement, raising and lowering one of the Docomo employee’s arms and hands in a blinded demonstration. The applications could be limitless, especially in augmenting humans and machines in industrial and healthcare settings.
My third and final visit was to NTT’s e-City Labo. The smart city lab has three stated objectives: facilitate sustainable industrial development and regional economic growth, create regional vitality and collaboration opportunities, and deliver promising safety and security services. Three use cases stood out for me: (1) creating a drone platform that’s purpose-built for agricultural surveying and pesticide application; (2) high-tech automated agricultural cultivation and biogas production; and (3) non-invasive glucose and biorhythm monitoring and adjustment. These use cases automate tasks and harness cellular technology, thus lowering the technical bar required to deploy and manage them. Our tour guide stressed that many of Japan’s younger generation are uninterested in farming and ranching. Thus, combining cellular connectivity, IoT sensors and high-resolution smart cameras equipped with computer vision seems like an important direction for the future of Japanese agricultural sustainability.
The NTT R&D Forum opened my eyes to the many things that the company is doing beyond telecommunications and IT infrastructure. Through its research efforts, the company is poised to facilitate the disruption of many industries. NTT may be one of the best-kept secrets in tech today, but I suspect that if it is successful in its many endeavors, that will decidedly change.