The Beautiful Minds Of The Kyoto Prize

Every November, while the year’s crop of Nobel laureates plan their trips to Stockholm, another group of highly accomplished people gathers in Kyoto, to be honored for their contributions to humanity. Their accomplishments are not (necessarily) in Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Literature, Economics, or the promotion of Peace. They are engineers, mathematicians, musicians, biologists, philosophers—people in fields that are not traditionally honored by the Nobel. Like the Nobel winners, they each receive a gold medal and a large cash prize.

The Kyoto Prize was established in 1985 by Kazuo Inamori, a successful businessman and philanthropist who was inspired by the Nobel Foundation’s goal of honoring significant contributions to humanity. In developing the prize he consulted closely with the Nobel Foundation to be sure that the Kyoto Prize would complement — and not rival or attempt to overshadow—the Nobel Prize. Thus the Kyoto Prize recognizes achievements in the general fields of Advanced Technology, Basic Sciences, and Arts and Philosophy*, and the cash prizes are somewhat smaller.

When Inamori developed his philosophy for the Kyoto Prize, he wrote that:

“Those worthy of the Kyoto Prize will be people who have… worked humbly and devotedly, sparing no effort to seek perfection in their chosen professions. They will be individuals who are sensitive to their own human fallibility and who thereby hold a deeply rooted reverence for excellence. Their achievements will have contributed substantially to the cultural, scientific, and spiritual betterment of mankind. Perhaps most importantly, they will be people who have sincerely aspired through the fruits of their labors to bring true happiness to humanity.”

The contributions that the winners of the Kyoto prize have made to our world and society are too many to go over them all, at this point. But, in order to teach you more about the Kyoto Prize and the people involved with it, I’d like to tell you the story of two men: One who created the Kyoto Prize (Kazuo Inamori) and one who won it (statistician Akaike Hirotsugu). Both of these men embodied the ethos of the Kyoto Prize and coincidentally had very interesting lives.

September 1, 1939 (Beginning of World War II)

salute

Hirotsugu:

Our story begins in 1939, with the advent of World War II. Twelve-year-old Akaike Hirotsugu, the youngest son of a silkworm farmer from Shizuoka, would soon enter the Naval Academy in Etajima, Hiroshima. His uncle was a Navy pilot.

Inamori:

Halfway across the country, in Kagoshima, seven-year-old Kazuo Inamori was in his second year of elementary school.

September 1, 1949

tokyo-bombed

Hirotsugu:

Hirotsugu just barely missed the war—it ended the year before his class would graduate. It was a shock to realize they would not follow their upperclassmen into battle and death. Instead, as the Imperial Navy was disbanded and the Academy closed, the headmaster of the Naval Academy told his former students their new job was to live and focus on rebuilding their devastated country.

While reading a mathematics book that had belonged to his late uncle, Hirotsugu decided to focus on mathematics. Under the old education system, he was forced to enroll in high school and only recently graduated. He entered the Mathematics Department of the University of Tokyo.

Inamori:

Kazuo’s home was destroyed in an air raid near the end of the war, on top of which he was soon bedridden with tuberculosis. A neighbor gave him a religious book to read, which comforted him and gave him a sense of purpose. In 1949, Kazuo was still in high school. He was actually rejected from the top school in the area, and would continue to be rejected when he applied for top universities.

September 1, 1959

silkworms

Photo by Ramnath Bhat

Hirotsugu:

At Todai, Hirotsugu disdained the heavy focus on theory and instead taught himself probability and statistics. He joined the Institute of Statistical Mathematics after graduating in 1952. His first major success called upon his roots farming silkworms to help Akinori Shimazaki find a way to continuously spin thread from multiple silkworm cocoons without leaving gaps when a cocoon ran out. His technique, called a “gap process”, helped predict when the ends of the cocoon would drop. Shimazaki was so successful in implementing this technique that he was awarded Japan’s first doctorate in sericulture (silk agriculture) engineering.

Inamori:

Kazuo graduated from the engineering department of Kagoshima University in 1955 and joined an insulator manufacturing company, but he quit last year over a disagreement with the technology director. He just started his own company, Kyoto Ceramic Ltd, at the ripe old age of 27. He would soon struggle with collective bargaining demands from his workers, and develop the company motto: 敬天愛人 (Respect the Divine and Love People).

September 1, 1969

factory

Hirotsugu:

Early in the decade, Hirotsugu and his friends started a statistics study group for fun. While obviously a barrel of laughs, it had the added benefit of giving him industrial contacts. He recently had success developing a kiln controller for manufacturing cement. The only problem was, his partners at the factory wouldn’t leave him alone! Only a statistician could reliably choose the correct statistical models for the controller.

Hirotsugu knew he needed to come up with a standard procedure for deciding on a model, which even a non-statistician could use. But if he did so, it was inevitable that the procedure would not always give the best result. As he thought about this conundrum, he recalled his recent experiences as a visiting professor at Princeton and Stanford. “People in the US,” he would later explain, “are pragmatic in the sense that if they can get a reasonable result, they think it’s okay. So… I decided if I could produce a fairly reasonable answer, then that would be sufficient.” His development of the Final Prediction Error would allow the engineers at the cement factory to adjust their models without his help.

Inamori:

Kazuo, meanwhile, was quite busy himself. As an upstart youngster from a less than prestigious school, establishing himself in Japan had been a struggle. Like Sony and Honda before him, he turned to the USA. His first overseas business trip was in 1962, and after accepting a large order of ceramic casings for computer chips from IBM, he just established a Kyocera International office in the United States.

September 1, 1979

kyocera

Photo by FaceMePLS

Hirotsugu:

At the beginning of the decade, Hirotsugu had an epiphany. On the train on his way into work, he suddenly realized that he could adapt his solution at the cement factory to pretty much all statistics everywhere**. He called this new tool An Information Criterion, or AIC, with every expectation of future generations refining the theory and developing a BIC, a DIC, and so on. Last year he created BIC (Bayesian Information Criterion) himself. This year he’s been busy studying a thermal power plant.

Inamori:

Kazuo continued to grow Kyoto Ceramics (Kyocera), which was now listed on several stock exchanges. After the Oil Crises of 1973, he convinced Panasonic (then called Matsushita Electric Industrial), Sharp Corp., and others to establish a joint venture called Japan Solar Energy Corp.

September 1, 1989

Hirotsugu:

This was the Hirotsugu’s third year as the Director General of the Institute of Statistical Mathematics. Although this kept him pretty busy, he still managed to publish an impressive amount of research.

Inamori:

Now officially called Kyocera, Kyoto Limited kept growing. Kazuo started a school for business owners called Seiwajuku in 1982, but apparently felt this was not enough. In 1984 he founded the non-profit Inamori Foundation with his own money. In consultation with the Nobel Foundation, he also established the Kyoto Prize.

In addition to all this philanthropy, Kazuo got into the cell phone business two years previous, creating a new company called DDI.

September 1, 1999

golf-tee

Hirotsugu:

Hirotsugu retired five years previous, and has since been working on his golf swing. Within two years he would publish an analysis of it.

Inamori:

DDI, now called KDDI, was a phenomenal success. As the leader of two multimillion dollar companies, Kazuo was considered one of the greatest businessmen to come out of the post-war era. Four years previous, he “retired” and entered the Buddhist priesthood. To no one’s surprise, however, he continued to be involved as “chairman emeritus”, and even met with the future president of China.

September 1, 2009

Hirotsugu:

In 2006, Hirotsugu Akaike—already declared Second Class Order of the Sacred Treasure—was presented with the Kyoto Prize in Mathematical Sciences for his work with AIC. Here is the text of his commemorative lecture. Among the honors he received throughout his lifetime were the Asahi Prize and the Purple Ribbon Medal, two of the highest honors in Japan. He died of pneumonia in August of 2009.

Inamori:

Kazuo established academies and research centers at Kagoshima, Kyushu, Kyoto, and Case Western Universities. He received honorary degrees from Kyushu and Case Western. This year he would receive the “Entrepreneur for the World” Award in Lyons, France.

2014

hirotsugu-and-inamori
Left: Hirotsugu. Right: Inamori.

If you’ve ever studied engineering, natural, or social sciences, chances are you had to take a statistics class. And if you ever took a statistics class, you are almost guaranteed to have come across AIC (now known as Akaike’s Information Criterion). Its creator overcame severe depression in the years after WWII by watching a goldfish swim freely in a pond, and realized that “respecting [his] own and others’ lives was the basis of morality”. What do you think? Did he meet Kazuo’s criteria for the prize?

As for Kazuo, he is still alive and very active. You might argue (and some have) that it was ego, and not humanitarianism, that led him to try to create a prize equal to the Nobel. I encourage you to look him up and decide for yourself. But you should also look up this year’s Kyoto Prize winners and see if they aren’t just as worthy of honor as a Nobel laureate.

Sources:

  • Akaike: Akaike, H., “A new look at the statistical model identification,” Automatic Control, IEEE Transactions on , vol.19, no.6, pp.716,723, Dec 1974 http://ieeexplore.ieee.org.proxy.libraries.smu.edu/stamp/stamp.jsp?tp=&arnumber=1100705&isnumber=24140
  • Akaike, H., “Golf Swing Motion Analysis: An Experiment on the Use of Verbal Analysis in Statistical Reasoning”, Annals of the Institute of Statistical Mathematics, vol. 53, no. 1 pp. 1-10, Mar 2001
  • Findley, David F., Emanuel Parzen, “A Conversation with Hirotsugu Akaike”, Statistical Science, vol. 10, no. 1, pp. 104—117, Feb 1995 http://projecteuclid.org.proxy.libraries.smu.edu/euclid.ss/1177010133.
  • Tong, H., “Professor Hirotsugu Akaike, 1927-2009”, Journal of the Royal Statistical Society: Series A (Statistics in Society), vol. 173 no. 2, pp. 451-454, Apr 2010
  • Inamori: Friedman, Y. “Case studies in innovation: What enables outstanding achievements?”, Journal of Commercial Biotechnology, vol. 16, no. 2, pp. 95-97, Apr 2010.
  • http://global.kyocera.com/inamori/history/index.html
  • “INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS: Eyes on Higher Things And on the Bottom Line; Not the Usual Retirement Ahead For a Master of Corporate Zen.” The New York Times, April 2, 1997 , Wednesday, Late Edition – Final

*(Within these fields, one of four categories is honored on a rotating basis: Electronics, Biotechnology, Materials Science and Engineering, and Information Science for Advanced Technology; Biological Sciences, Mathematical Sciences, Earth and Planetary Sciences, and Life Sciences for Basic Science; and Music, Arts, Theater, and Thought and Ethics for Arts and Philosophy.)

*An attempt to explain: When you measure the different factors that might help explain a particular result (for instance, calories consumed, exercise, and height might all help explain your weight), sometimes not all of the variables are important. Keeping unimportant variables in a statistical model can even make important variables seem less important than they really are. Model selection is when you analyze statistical models that use different mixes of the variables and decide which model gives the best explanation for your results. Many scientists, engineers, statisticians, and other researchers choose their model by finding the model with the lowest AIC (or its cousin, BIC).

  • Neo

    I found the article quite interesting. I really like how the story is written following and interesting path instead of in 1997 blabla and in 1998 bla and in 1999 bla bla.
    I’ve never heard about this prices before, but they seem quite interesting. I do not understand the rotatory function of the categories, I believe they should be fixed. However, this way they can take more sections… I don’t know. I suppose it is good right now.
    I am a little bit offended that Mathematics are taken into basic science. The beauty and complexity of mathematics are many levels above “basic science”. Actually, my brother who is even more extreme in his believes is trying to convince people to make mathematics an art. It does make sense, as art is the expersion of the beautifulness of abstraction in a “real” way.

  • http://fripp.bandcamp.com/ ultracrepe

    very interesting article. thank you!

  • DAVIDPD

    Thanks Laura. This was a really fun and interesting read!

  • Huimin Thesupercool Lim

    Thank you Laura, for this interesting article. Definitely helped me to know more about the values of the Kyoto Prize.

  • Sean Olejar

    What the heck this was one of the most interesting articles posted on this site in weeks, why hasn’t it gotten more attention?

  • Cory

    Very interesting article. Was shocked to find out Inamori has an honorary degree from Case Western University, I live close to there kind of.