First year PhD student awarded Softbank scholarship

Hiroki Sawada, an OIST PhD student, has received a 1-million-yen scholarship for his proposed research on AI for space rovers.

OIST is pleased to announce that Hiroki Sawada, a first year PhD student, has been granted a scholarship by Softbank and the Japan Educational Exchanges and Services Association (JEES).

The scholarship program targets first year students studying for a master's degree or, in the case of OIST, a combined master's and PhD program. The scholarship aims to promote research into artificial intelligence (AI) and how it can be used to develop new technologies and solve issues that society will face over the next 30 years.

Hiroki is one of only 100 students in Japan to receive this scholarship, which provides him with 1 million yen (around $10,000) in funding for research and personal use.

“It felt great to receive this scholarship,” said Hiroki. “My background is in physics, rather than AI, so I didn’t expect to get it – it was a really amazing surprise.”

Hiroki Sawada, age 23, is a first year PhD student at OIST, who has received a Softbank scholarship.

Before starting his PhD, Hiroki studied for a bachelor’s in Applied Physics and Physico-informatics at Keio University in Tokyo, and initially came to OIST for a research internship with the Quantum Materials Science Unit.

But despite his interest in physics, Hiroki also started to become fascinated with AI. “The potential of machine learning in the future is really exciting. One of the attractive things about OIST is that in your first year, you do three rotations in different units. So it gave me the chance to experience research in both fields and decide that machine learning was the area to commit to.”

For his scholarship proposal, Hiroki mixed his childhood love of space with his newfound interest in machine learning. He hopes to develop a way for space exploration rovers, like the Mars rovers, to use machine intelligence to assess risk versus value.

Balancing risk and value is something that humans do automatically. “If you’re on the top of a two-story building, you wouldn’t normally jump off – you can calculate that it’s dangerous,” Hiroki explained. “But in certain scenarios, like if the building was on fire or if a person you cared about on the ground level was about to get hurt, you might jump down anyway. The risk hasn’t changed – but the value of jumping has.”

As humans launch more machines to investigate and explore new worlds, Hiroki believes it’s important to install this sense into the rovers. “These machines will need to be able to work out which actions are valuable enough to be worth the danger and which tasks are not,” he continued. “So for my PhD, I plan to establish how this works in humans, and then transfer this to robots.”

After finishing his PhD, Hiroki has big ambitions, with the ultimate goal to work for a national space agency, like the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) or National Aeronautics and Space Administration, U.S.A. (NASA).

“I’d like to keep doing research and expand the knowledge of humanity, whether that’s in conventional academic institutions, industry or government agencies,” he said.

Header image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS


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