MY TAKE: ‘IOWN’ makes the business case for fostering diversity, respecting individual privacy

By Byron V. Acohido

To tap the full potential of massively interconnected, fully interoperable digital systems we must solve privacy and cybersecurity, to be sure.

Preserving privacy for a greater good

But there’s yet another towering technology mountain to climb: we must also overcome the limitations of Moore’s Law.

After 30 years, we’ve reached the end of Moore’s Law, which states that the number of transistors on a silicon-based semiconductor chip doubles approximately every 18 months. In short, the mighty integrated circuit is maxed out.

Last spring, I attended NTT Research’s Upgrade 2023 conference in San Francisco and heard presentations by scientists and innovators working on what’s coming next.

I learned how a who’s who list of big tech companies, academic institutions and government agencies are hustling to, in essence, revive Moore’s Law and this time around direct it at optical technology.

I had a wide-ranging conversation with NTT Research President & CEO Kazu Gomi about an ambitious initiative called Innovative Optical and Wireless Network (IOWN) that aims to develop next-generation networks and computations. IOWN is all about supporting increased bandwidth, capacity and energy efficiency.

What really struck me was that IOWN also seeks to foster an “affluent and diverse” global society. For a full drill down on our discussion, please watch the accompanying videocast. Here are my takeaways.

What’s next: Internet of Everything

The world of the near future holds the promise of climate-restoring cities, autonomous transportation systems, incredible breakthroughs in healthcare and many more amazing services that could greatly benefit everyone on the planet.

However, the laws of physics dictate that silicon semiconductor chips simply won’t be able to support the massive data ingestion – and the colossal data crunching – that the Internet of Everything demands.

Fortunately, optical circuits are well suited to the task at hand. The Internet of Everything requires distributing billions more data capture sensors far and wide to form sprawling, interoperable digital shrouds overlapping one another. Each sensor in each shroud must be uniquely smart and use next to zero energy.

Working in concert, these sensor shrouds will very precisely and very securely move vast amounts of useful data very quickly to and from —  in traffic grids, utilities, communication systems, buildings and our homes.

“Optical technology can enable us to control energy consumption so we can support increasing capacity and increasing bandwidth,” Gomi summarizes.

At NTT Research in Sunnyvale, Calif., scientists are working on basic research to develop optical technology that can overcome current challenges. Their work focuses on creating smaller laser oscillators, which produce the light necessary for optical circuits. Smaller oscillators create shorter pulses that can increase bandwidth exponentially.

The business case for optical

One of the key benefits of optical circuits, Gomi emphasized, is their lower energy consumption compared to traditional circuits. This is particularly important for AI engines, which currently require large GPU clusters that use integrated circuit chips and consume vast amounts of energy.

Optical circuits have the potential to replace these GPUs, offering faster computation and drastically reduced energy consumption, he says.

Energy-efficient AI technology would make it possible to move computation to sensors at the network edge where intelligent analytics can be done in much quicker response times, consuming much less energy.

Related: Using ‘Big Data’ to improve health and well-being

NTT executives and scientists speak often about how advanced optical technology can benefit society as a whole. It’s notable that the IOWN

mission statement actually calls for fostering a rich global society, one that’s tolerant of diversity and respectful of individual privacy.

I asked Gomi about the business case for this. He argues that if drastic changes are not made to shift to optical technology, carbon footprint issues will become a significant concern. By embracing optical technology, industries can grow, and society can benefit from the development of smarter infrastructure.

Deploying AI ethically

Gomi also acknowledged the need to strike a balance between humans and AI and to consider the ethics of AI. The conversation around AI’s potential impact on society, culture, and economics is just beginning, he says, but it’s essential to ensure that AI is implemented responsibly to avoid unintended consequences.

“AI right now can be undisciplined and has the potential to behave badly,” Gomi told me. “Bad behavior is something that must be corrected and we need to do something to discipline AI, as needed, when needed.”

You just don’t hear that kind of perspective very much from Amazon, Microsoft or Google, and certainly not from Facebook or Twitter.

In preparing to attend Upgrade 2023, I ran across a transcript of a lecture introducing IOWN delivered in 2019 by Jun Sawada, former CEO of NTT, the parent company of NTT Research.

Sawada begins by pointing out Japan’s history as a supplier of silver pearls, sapphires and cinnabar. He draws a comparison between Europe and Japan during the Industrial Revolution (1750-1850) noting the opposing perspectives of centralization vs. decentralization.


He suggests that Japan’s Edo city, with its population of one million, represented a recycling-oriented eco-metropolis, while European cities focused on centralization and energy-driven growth. Moving on to an assessment of modern society, Sawada posits that the divisions between nations we see today results from conflicts between socialism and capitalism.

Today, he observes, the flood of information, coupled with AI-driven filtering, has led to divisiveness based on biased preferences. He advocates reconciling the economic expansion of modern European societies with Edo’s recycling mindset — and developing a global society that recognizes diverse values.

Sawada’s larger point is that IOWN holds the potential to reset our communication systems with the intention of driving towards a much greater global good. IOWN quietly continues to gain traction. How far can it take us?

I’ll keep watch and keep reporting.


Pulitzer Prize-winning business journalist Byron V. Acohido is dedicated to fostering public awareness about how to make the Internet as private and secure as it ought to be.

(LW provides consulting services to the vendors we cover.)

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