From Okinawa to the World – Two Researchers go for a moonshot at OIST: Hiroki Takahashi x Katsuhiko Miyazaki

The Moonshot Research and Development Program is a large-scale national research program that aims to create disruptive innovation by promoting challenging research and development based on bold ideas that go beyond the prospects of conventional technologies. The Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST) has two research projects that have been adopted under this system. For this article, we sat down with Hiroki Takahashi, the project manager (PM) of one of the university’s projects, and Katsuhiko Miyazaki, the PM of the other.

Even though they both belong to the same university, the two specialists, one in physics and the other in neuroscience/biology, had never met before. They discussed the realization of the future and human well-being and delved into the current state of the Moonshot R&D Program.

Hiroki Takahashi: Associate Professor of Experimental Quantum Information Physics (EQuIP) unit at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST). He joined OIST after working at the University of Sussex, the University of Tokyo, and Osaka University. He is the Project Manager of the Fault-tolerant Quantum Computing with Photonically Interconnected Ion Traps, a project supporting the Moonshot Goal #6.
Katsuhiko Miyazaki: Group Leader of the Neural Computation Unit at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST). Project Manager working on explaining the serotonin mechanism centered around pessimism and optimism, a project supporting the Moonshot Goal #9.

"This is something that has to be done"
- Why participate in the Moonshot Research and Development Program.

Takahashi: Nice to meet you.

Miyazaki: Nice to meet you too. This is our first time meeting, isn't it? Professor Takahashi, how long have you been at OIST?

Takahashi: Since 2020. I am currently researching in Lab 4.

Miyazaki: My research lab is in Lab 1, so we don't have many opportunities to meet. But I had heard (before I was accepted into the Moonshot program) from OIST news that there was someone participating in the Moonshot program and I thought, “oh, wow.”

Takahashi: My participation in the Moonshot R&D Program is for Goal #6, which aims to achieve a “realization of a fault-tolerant universal quantum computer that will revolutionize economy, industry, and security by 2050”. Our research uses hardware called an ion trap, and I think that all researchers in Japan using ion traps, not just me, were excited to participate in this project, and thought, “this is something that has to be done,” when we heard that a large-scale fault-tolerant quantum computer project was starting in Japan.

Miyazaki: My participation is for Goal #9, which aims to achieve a “realization of a mentally healthy and dynamic society by increasing peace of mind and vitality by 2050”. I applied to this project thinking that I could contribute through the serotonin research I have been conducting at OIST.

Takahashi checking the laser injected into the ion trap.
Miyazaki checking data for serotonin research.

— I think these are very difficult and high set goals, for each of your fields. What is your motivation behind the research?

Miyazaki: Serotonin is one of the neuromodulators that helps regulate our state of mind and is also related to mental illness. For example, SSRIs (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors) are sometimes used to treat depression, and these drugs increase serotonin levels in the brain. However, the mechanism by which depression improves is not understood that well. Our minds are certainly complex and they’re not visible, but on the other hand, measurable neural activity can reveal things to us. I would like to uncover the source of mental strength and the power to live life by understanding the mechanism of the brain that makes a variety of decisions to maintain its survival while adapting to the environment. All this from the perspective of neuroscience.

Takahashi: The goal of realizing a fault-tolerant universal quantum computer is a big one, but more fundamentally, it is about how far humans can control quantum materials and objects. That’s why we are constantly improving the technology to control them as accurately and precisely as possible. That’s basically my motivation.

Miyazaki: In my research, people have revealed serotonin to be linked to the act of persistently waiting for action to happen. The function of serotonin was originally believed to "inhibit” action, and there have been several popular theories that supported that. So, this research hasn’t fit well with the conventional hypothesis and has been rejected by editors of academic journals. It was really challenging in the first few years.

Takahashi: In my case, when I come across a problem, I basically have to break it down and clear up one part at a time. If I keep clearing up all the parts, I know for sure I’ll be able to move forward, little by little. If I do it slowly but surely, I'll be able to make progress. There are a lot of things that don't go as planned, so I keep this in mind from the very beginning, and research with a mentality to just persevere.

— What do you think about the necessity of innovative initiatives like the Moonshot R&D Program in Japan?

Takahashi: In our field, in recent years, large-scale projects have been launched in the US and Europe with government-led funding. Before the start of the Moonshot R&D Program, there were projects in Japan, but they were small-scale. In terms of quantum computers, I think that a large-scale effort like this project was necessary. In traditional physics research such as semiconductors and elementary particles, the object being researched is predetermined, but with quantum computers, it’s not. That's why it's important to gather researchers from different fields around one inclusive goal without a determined object. In that sense, I think this project is very relevant.

Miyazaki: There is also the advantage of being able to focus on one theme by researching individually, but it is difficult to see how to develop it and what other researchers are doing. In the Moonshot R&D Program, we first set a grand theme, one where you think, "Really? Can that be done?" and then we explore specific directions through discussion, by many researchers. I think this kind of challenging approach has great value for the development of Japan's science and technology in the future.

From Okinawa to the world: The appeal of OIST.

Takahashi: What changes have you seen in the last 20 years of conducting research at OIST, Dr. Miyazaki?

Miyazaki: I have been participating in OIST since October 2004, as part of its predecessor organization (OIST-IRP: Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology - Promotion Corporation). At that time, I couldn't quite see how OIST would grow, and their goal of "becoming a world-class research institution" didn't really resonate with me. We were starting off in tiny prefabricated facilities. We were first located in the industrial park of Gushikawa City (now Uruma City) on the east coast of Okinawa Island, and initially there were only four research units. We all had lunch in the only lounge in the building, and on Fridays we brought drinks and snacks to have while introducing our research and chatting in a very homey atmosphere. From there, the research units gradually increased, and especially since moving to Onna Village, the rapid growth has been amazing. Magnificent research buildings went up one after another, and now it is a large research organization with almost 100 research units (Approx. 90 units as of January 2023), and I feel both amazement and a deep sense of intrigue.

At Research facility 1 in Onna Village. The OIST Neural Computation Unit Miyazaki PM belongs to (May, 2010, photo courtesy of Miyazaki PM)

Takahashi: OIST is totally different from the typical Japanese university. One aspect is the international nature. Compared to other Japanese universities, the infrastructure and culture are designed to accept people from all over the world from the very beginning. Another aspect is the support for starting research, which is vastly different from other universities. We were able to start our own laboratory thanks to OIST. It's a very blessed environment.

Miyazaki: Professor Takahashi, what was the reason you came to OIST? Did you attend conferences here or something?

Takahashi: No, I hadn't. I came for an interview and it was my first time here, so I was surprised (laughs). But I wanted to come to such an amazing place from the get-go. It left a great impression on me.

OIST main campus overlooking the beautiful ocean of Onna village.

Miyazaki: I was terrible at communicating with foreigners in English, but in this environment, I had to do it whether I liked it or not. The seminars were also all in English. Thanks to this environment, even though I think my English is poor, I have been able to speak without hesitation when participating in foreign academic conferences. I’m no longer bashful about it.

Takahashi: When foreigners come to Japanese universities, they don’t always integrate that well. Since everything happens in Japanese, It’s hard for foreigners to really fit in. OIST is all in English, so foreigners can do research in a comfortable atmosphere. It’s got a similar feel to foreign universities.

The global team including researchers from overseas. Experimental Quantum Information Physics unit led by Takahashi PM (photo courtesy of Takahashi PM)

Miyazaki: Although it is the southernmost prefecture in Japan, it also has an international airport, so it’s just a plane ride to many places, especially to other Asian areas. You can go to Taipei in about an hour, and there are many flights to Beijing and other Southeast Asian cities. In terms of moving out into the world, the location is very good.

Takahashi: I think OIST has a mission to contribute to Okinawa, and they are making a lot of efforts. To be honest, I haven't reached that point yet myself. Right now, my plate is full with my own work. But I do think OIST's presence is growing bigger in Okinawa year by year.

Miyazaki: I agree. There were times when we couldn't do much interaction due to the coronavirus, but before that, we had a general open house every year, and many people visited us.

Takahashi: In the long run, I hope that OIST graduates can contribute to the local community and that we can contribute to the education in this region.

The OIST campus surrounded in lushes green.

To the young researchers out there; “It’s over once you stop having fun”

— When you were a postdoc or just starting your research career, what were the goals you had set for yourself?

Takahashi: Our research is not really about finding the truth of the universe. The principles of quantum computers are already established, and the ultimate application is also known. But the path connecting the principles and the application still isn’t. So we are constantly experimenting and searching to find the most efficient and accurate path. That is the basic way of thinking that drives our research and it has not changed.

Miyazaki: Professor Takahashi, have you been researching the development of quantum computers for a long time?

Takahashi: Don’t take this the wrong way, but there weren't many people seriously working on the development of quantum computers before. The goal was too far off. People only considered it “probable.” Originally, I was working on quantum optics, which is the physics of light. Light is a medium that is relatively easy to see the quantum properties of, so it was one of the first areas to develop. It gradually became more applied and the next goal became quantum computers.

A miniature optical-resonator integrated linear ion trap that Professor Takahashi is developing.

Miyazaki: I have always been interested in biology and had this vague idea of wanting to become a researcher when I was a kid. But I wasn't sure what kind of research I wanted to do. Even after I went to college and graduate school and became a postdoc, I was still trying to figure it out. I came across the research of professor Kenji Dōya, who approaches the mechanisms of the brain from both theoretical and experimental perspectives, and learned that we still don't know much about how neuromodulators like serotonin and dopamine work. I wanted to use my expertise in animal behavior experiments to try to solve this mystery. Professor Dōya said this to the lab members when he started the neural computation unit; "Let's do original research that can only be done in Okinawa." It has been my goal ever since.

Takahashi: I am not good at biology at all (laughs). What we deal with is very simple, just single atoms. And we struggle with just one atom, I can’t imagine trying to understand the brain and its enormous amount of neurons.

Miyazaki: I'm the opposite, I'm not good at small details (laughs). I'm more interested in understanding how the whole system works. I'm curious about the ion trap you're researching, professor Takahashi. Is there a set amount of ions you can arrange at most?

Takahashi: Yes, there is a roughly determined number that can be arranged and controlled.

Miyazaki: If you connect them in a network, I imagine it’s similar to 1+1 not equaling 2, but 3 or 4…?

Takahashi: No, in fact, it's worse when connected. The problem is connectivity. For example, when there are 10 ions and 10 ions, the question is which one is connected to which. When there's only one link, the connectivity between ions is worse than when all 20 are gathered in one place. On the other hand, when all the ions gather in one place, it is also bad for control. So there is no choice yet but to split them up into a certain amount of small groups. In the future it will be important to find out how many links we can establish in the future. I’m personally doing research on this linkage part. What kind of work do you do every day, Dr. Miyazaki?

Miyazaki: I conduct experiments that observe and manipulate the neural activity of mice during certain behaviors using various techniques. In observations, I use genetically modified mice that express a calcium sensor only in serotonin neurons and observe specific brain regions with special cameras. When manipulating, I use genetically modified mice that make a light-receptive protein called channelrhodopsin in serotonin neurons, and directly shine specific lights on the brain to control neural activity. I found it interesting that when I activate serotonin neurons externally while a mouse is waiting for food, the mouse becomes a little more patient. Without activating serotonin neurons, the mouse usually gives up in about 12 seconds, but when activating, it waits for about 17 seconds.

Data capturing the moment when serotonin activity levels in genetically modified mice increase.

Takahashi: If we apply that to humans, would that mean we can make a “happy” society in 2050?

Miyazaki: If we could achieve a happy society, that would be the best, but by gradually understanding the neural mechanisms of the brain that adapt flexibly to the environment through neuroscience, I think it would be good if we could quantify the state of a healthy mind or even its deviations to some extent. For example, it may be possible to maintain a healthy mind by oneself, just like working out at the gym. It would make me very pleased if our research could contribute to creating such a future.

Takahashi: First, it's about understanding, right? In the current stage of our research, we're still creating the hardware. To put it simply, it's basically like debugging. We check what went wrong and keep improving it in a loop. After continuous preparation, then physics comes in at the end. About 90% of our research is preparation.

— The Moonshot R&D Program aims for "human wellbeing," but in what ways do you see the happiness of people and approach it in your research?

Takahashi: Essentially, I think that without scientific progress, it's unlikely that we will be able to solve many of the problems faced by humans. On the other hand, if science does progress, it will be possible to solve the issues we currently face. If science hadn't progressed at all since the 19th century, we would be living in a very different society with a different idea of what happiness is.

Miyazaki: Compared to the 19th century, we are certainly materially richer now. Medicine has advanced and life expectancy has increased. But have our mental states also become enriched? For example, the outbreak of COVID-19 has highlighted societal problems caused by mental factors such as suicide and depression. Have we been so focused on material richness that we have ignored mental richness? The Moonshot Goal #9 sees human well-being as “increasing peace of mind and vitality.” I strongly agree with this theme and want to study it from the perspective of mental richness being happiness.

Takahashi: I think that setting a distant goal like 2050 is one of the strengths of the Moonshot R&D Program as it allows for long-term efforts. In reality, human resource development is also important. When we were students, our instructors were involved in a national project and that brought everyone together, creating a network, which the next generation inherited. So we need to be aware of that and do the same.

— Many researchers are paying attention to your research. Especially many young researchers who are looking toward the future, like yourselves, and conducting research with a vision in mind. Do you have any message of encouragement for them?

Miyazaki: Sometimes it can be difficult to achieve results quickly, which is what is often expected of you. But I believe that choosing a topic that excites you, even if it's not currently popular or easy to get funding for, will make your research journey more fulfilling in the long run. However, it also takes courage to pursue something that may not be mainstream, so having a research environment where it's okay to fail, with your head held high, is important.

Takahashi: And most importantly, enjoy it. If you're not enjoying the research, then it's probably time to stop. So, if anyone is interested in joining us for research, please don't hesitate to reach out.

Interview & text: Koshiro Nakohji
Photos: Hiroshi Nakamura