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The World of Natureinterface -- Kiyoshi Itao


The World of Nature Interface

Prof. Kiyoshi Itao (The University of Tokyo: General editor of Nature Interface)

In regarding the universe and the earth as organisms, the human being is no longer in perpetual conflict to nature, but considers the "natural system" one of many important components of nature. In this sense, we should say the time has come when the "artificial system" is regarded as an opposing sphere of the "natural system".

The influence of "artifacts", or artificial objects, is becoming stronger. And now, the human being is being required to incorporate artifacts into the ecosystem, and to buffer the conflict between the natural system and artificial system, so that these two systems can coexist harmoniously.

Artificiality and Life

The human being has made a radical leap in technology based on the European rationalism concept, which places the human being and the rest of nature in independent spheres. Machines have been designed to replace or expand human functions. Thus, technology has focused exclusively on the "human interface" of machines, which has been acquired by making the most of computer technology and atomic technology (Fig. 1).

The human being acquired the atomic bomb, changed forests into deserts by slash-and-burn farming, wasted forest resources, destroyed the ozone layer by chlorofluorocarbon, and generated carbon dioxide in large quantities by burning fossil fuels. Artifacts came to have a strong influence on the ecosystem, and began to threaten lives (Fig. 2).

Countless and various artifacts have been created by humans using their human wisdom. It varies from buildings of gigantic proportions such as space stations, marine cities and bank buildings to biotechnology. Furthermore, many invisible causes of pollution, such as chlorofluocarbon, carbon dioxide, sulfurous acid gas, noise, noxious smells, and organic mercury, among others, have been generated since the Industrial Revolution, and are considered to be the prime cause of environmental destruction. Humanity and all organisms, including the earth, started to show the signs of environmental destruction, and humanity became aware of the importance of environmental conservation.

In regarding the universe and the earth as organisms, humanity is no longer in perpetual conflict to nature, but considers the "natural system" one of many important components of nature. In this sense, we might say that the time has come when the "artificial system" can be regarded as an opposing sphere of the "natural system." "Nature interface" is the term coined for the concept that specifies relations among the universe, the earth, organisms, human beings, and artifacts, with a special focus on the human being.

Relations among Nature, Human Beings, and Artifacts

Artifacts have been produced explosively in the second half of the 20th century, and have become the third pole following the poles of humans and nature. Fig. 3 shows the relationships and interactions among nature, human beings, and artifacts, expressed as interfaces. If we focus on the artifact side, we can say that artifacts exist surrounded by humans and nature.

Before the 20th century, the influence of artifacts on the other two poles was weak, because artifacts existed in a relatively small sphere, and had little influence on human beings and on nature. In the 20th century, however, artifacts came to have a strong influence on the other two spheres, and interfaces became important (Fig. 3). That is, the man-machine interface of artifacts, the Nature Interface of nature, and the human interface of human beings have become important research objectives.

We call this research field "Human and artificial environmental studies." Now is the time to advance the science and technology of these three interfaces, using information communication technologies. The natural system and artificial system need to coexist in harmony. To achieve this, the paradigm shift from the conventional human interface technology, which is beneficial only for humans, to the technology for environmental conservation, i.e., the Nature Interface technology, is strongly recommended.

Aiming at the Harmony Based on Sensor Information Communication

Fig. 4 shows an ideal system where natural (i.e. real world) information is obtained by sensors, extensive high-speed transmission is carried out by optical fibers, the information is stored in huge memory systems such as molecular memory, and the action of artifacts is controlled by the natural reaction, if needed. If this system is realized, artifacts can be incorporated into nature. Moreover, the universe, the earth, organisms, human beings, and artifacts would constitute a harmonious ecosystem.

In such a system, micro-machines would play an important role. Self-moving micro-machines which detect temperature, humidity, smells, ions, and concentration gradients of carbon dioxide, micro-devices which memorize extensive information, and countless micro-machine groups which perform cooperative operation with the feedback control system would perhaps play an active part in such an ecosystem. Although the present technology level is too primitive to realize such ideas, I want to discuss how to achieve them.

We human beings depend a great deal on modern technology, and the influence of artifacts is spreading. Given such a situation, we should aim at incorporating artifacts into the ecosystem, and transforming the relationship between artifacts and nature from a conflicting one into a harmonious one. Natural science and technology should be mobilized fully for this aim.

A micro-machine, athough artificial, would have characteristics similar to those of an organism. It would serve as an indispensable player in, and help to collectively build a flexible system, i.e., a system friendly to "nature."

The present telecommunication network system is human-centered, as shown in Fig. 5. The natural system is completely separated from the artificial system. Only a small portion of the huge natural (real world) information is incorporated into this system because of poor sensing technology.

In contrast, what I have advocated is a new telecommunications system called a "sensor communication system," which would make it possible to gather a huge amount of information from nature, including both animals and plants, as well as information from artifacts (Fig. 6). It would be an information communication system with a thick information input pipe, realized with various sensor groups. It would also be the system that monitors the state of nature and artifacts concisely and widely. Such technologies would become the foundation for progress in science, when science evolves from domain-separated science to top-down science.

Wearable Computers Contributing Towards Nature Interface

Mountains and the countryside were once the habitat of crows, but they now live in urban cities, such as Tokyo, where they have become a public nuisance. The major reason for the increasing number of crows in urban areas is the increasing amount of garbage generated by humans. The major reason for the increasing number of crows in urban areas is the increasing amount of garbage generated by humans, which is a ready food source for crows, and which has attracted them to cities. The ecological devastation of the countryside is another possible reason crows have migrated to cities. The presence and prevalance of crows in our cities may be a warning that our lifestyle harms the environment.

I think the time has come to take this warning seriously, and to take positive measures. The first thing we must do is to understand the phenomenon occuring in nature, using information technology. If in the near future Internet technology and micro-machine technology are merged, it will be possible to build an information distribution system using very small sensors. Our environmental information research group at the University of Tokyo started research on the behavior of urban crows by equipping them with small wearable PHS devices for location tracking, in cooperation with the wild animal research group of the Department of Agriculture of the University of Tokyo.

The volume and mass of information communication devices should ideally be minimized to 0 m3 or to 0 g. The micro system technology toward this ultimate target is being developed from various fields of study, and the efforts continue proceeding. While computer development continues following the traditional path of human-operated machines, at the same time we are facing the development of a so-called "pervasive computer" world, where computers run without human operators. Furthermore, the Internet has evolved to version 6 (IP. Ver. 6), and the time when all the devices on earth could be connected to a network and identified uniquely has arrived. Moreover, the device for short-distance radio communications has been miniaturized to one chip. The technology that develops the interfaces among nature, human beings, and artifacts is achieved with the following two currents: the information micro system technology constituted by the technology of miniaturization, and pervasive computers. "Nature Interfacer" is a term used for micro sensing devices deployed in the environment, or worn by people, that detect physical information, process the data by watch-size computers, and transmit the information by wireless technology. Nature interfacers have become possible by fusion of micro machine technology, micro sensor technology, wearable computer technology, radio technology, and the Internet technology of recent years. Wild animals, human beings, and mobile artifacts may be equipped with nature interfacers, that constantly monitor and evaluate the inputted sensor information, process the monitoring information to recognize the state of the objects, and perform control or diagnosis by wireless technology. Such nature interfacers may be developed in the near future.

The forms of computer terminals are classified as shown in Table 7. Basically, humans operate conventional computers by giving instructions as digital inputs through keyboards. Computer downsizing has been accompanied by rapid advances in LSI technology and micro-machine technology, as well as revolutionary advances in the personalization and mobility of information. And, finally, the technology has evolved to allow wearable computers. Furthermore, computer automation has developed based on the following technologies: detection of analog information in the placed environment, transformation of the information into digital quantity, further recognition of this information based on knowledge (the database), and transmission of the result to a computer which may be connected via the communication circuit.

Towards Communication with Nature

With the technology explained above, we should develop a terminal suitable for sensor communication. It should be equipped not only by humans but also by animals, or artifacts, and should serve as a key device in detecting nature information, including health monitoring information, the position of an animal or degradation of artifacts, environmental information, etc. This is the micro information terminal that I have proposed as the "Nature Interfacer" (Fig. 8). In an attempt to obtain environmental information with Nature Interfacers, we organized the "Nature Interface Laboratory" (NIL) at the University of Tokyo. Many natural scientists, medical doctors, educators, and engineering scientists have joined this organization.

The nature interfacer is a device that captures various kinds of information using micro sensors, processes data recognition by watch-size computers, and transmits the information by wireless. The key technology here is the software to automatically decide whether to stay active to sense and transmit the information, or to become dormant to save energy, as well as the relevant hardware (mechatronics) technologies. Wristwatch technology is at the very forefront of such mechatronics. We may apply the technology to environmental conservation by detection of environmental information by simultaneous measurements of the location of animals and the detection of chemical substances in their surrounding environments. It may also be applied to the prevention of large-scale environmental accidents, by detecting the state of degradation in the relevant artifacts, such as gears or a rotation axis. The smaller these nature interfacers become, the more their application range would extend, for examplefrom an airplane all the way down to a small bird (Fig. 9). If an information terminal can be developed which automatically and simultaneously records 4-dimensional environmental information, (3-dimensional positional information and chronological information), along with various kinds of chemical particle information, and temperature and humidity information, and then integrates them, such computers should be able to protect and enhance our lives continuously yet invisibly. The computer communication society will advance continuously due to the development of related technologies. Those technologies, however, should not be made into a tool only for people's pleasure and convenience. Instead, we should apply such advanced technologies to our environment, and should take urgent measures to prevent environmental destruction in the 21st century. By fusion of the Internet and cellular phone technology, the world of the Nature Interfacer will be realized in the near future. Fig. 10 shows a conceptual figure.

According to the final report of the U.S. President's " Information Technology for the Twenty-First Century: A Bold Investment in America's Future" (President's Information Technology Advisory Committee: PITAC conclusion), which came out in February, 1999, in the second phase of the Internet, billions or trillions of devices would be connected to each other, and a computer would communicate with the "real world" using sensors, radio modems, GPS position information terminals, etc. These devices would be further reduced to the size of a single chip, and would be embedded into things that are used in our everyday life, and yet the users would not be aware of their existence. My proposal, first stated in 1991, for realizing the concept of the Nature Interfacer, has at last started gaining notice in the U.S. Moreover, the U.S. appropriated 226.8 billion dollars for research and development for "Information Technology for the Twenty-First Century," in the fiscal year beginning in October 2000, which is a 36% increase from the monies alotted in the previous year.

In Japan as well, the Nature Interfacer has proved an important research-and-development project that should be tackled by the nation in the "information communication research-and-development master plan," on which the Telecommunications Technology Council reported to the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications in March, 2000. It is being proposed by the government that the capital amount of 10 billion yen should be invested over ten years, and the government should pay 7 billion yen. Financial support for the Nature Interfacer research, which is presently small, has started to increase under the super Internet project from the fiscal year 2000.

I will introduce you to the technologies to achieve the Nature Interfacer in more detail in subsequent issues.

Fig. Caption

Fig. 1

自然系 Natural System

人工物系 Artificial System

宇宙 Space

地球 The Earth

生物 Organisms

人間 The human being

ビット技術 Computer technology

アトム技術 Atomic technology

(脳科学) Cerebral science

通信(インターネット) Communication (The Internet)

コンピュータ Computers

(機械)マイクロシステム (Machines) Micro system

(エネルギー) Energy

(マテリアル化学) Materials chemistry

(バイオ) Biotechnology

ネイチャーインタフェイス Nature interface

ヒューマンインタフェイス Human interface

Fig. 2 The expanding artifacts

When people lived harmoniously with nature

When people started environmental destruction


The earth


The human being


Fig. 3 The relation between nature, the human being, and artifacts

人工物 Artifacts

自然 Nature

人間 The human being

Nature Interface

Human interface

Man-machine interface

Fig. 4 Feedback of nature information

情報探知 Information detection

情報伝達 Information transmission

情報蓄積 Information accumulation

情報検索 Information retrieval

情報活用 Utilization of information

Fig. 5 Present status of network systems

Nature information

Network communication system

Artifacts information

Fig. 6 The environmental information network system realized by sensor-based communication

Nature information

Network communication system

Artifacts information

Table 7 From conventional mobile communication to future sensor-based communication

モバイル通信 Mobile communication

センサ通信 Sensor-based communication

端末形態 Terminal form

操作 Operation

入力信号 Input signal

対象(インタフェイス技術) Object (interface)

操作手順 Operation means

CPUの役割 The role of CPU

ネットワーク接続 Connection to networks


携帯型 Portable

装着型 Wearable

埋め込み型 Implanted

人間が介在 Human intervention is needed

人間が介在せず(自動) Automatic

ディジタル主体 Digital

アナログ主体 Analog

人間(ヒューマンインタフェイス) Human (Human interface)

人間、動物、自然、人工物 (ネーチャーインタフェイス) The human being, Animals, Nature, Artifacts (Nature Interface)

キーボード主体 Mainly by keyboards

センサ主体 Mainly by sensors

信号処理、出力 Signal processing and output

AD変換、認識処理後ディジタル信号送信 A/D and transfer digital signal after recognition

無線 Wireless

無線または有線 Wireless or wire connection

携帯電話、PHS、ページャ、PDA、ノートPC Cell phones, PDA, beepers, notebook-size personal computer

Pervasive, Ubiquitous

Fig. 8 Composition of the Nature Interfacer

(1) The human being

(2) Animals

(3) Nature

(4) Artifacts

Position information

Physiological information

Chemical substances






A/O data processing (computers)

Algorithm for behavior recognition


Wireless transmitter

Micro energy

Design for minimum energy dissipation


Fig. 9 Application of the Nature Interfacer

Wild animals



Wristwatch-sized computer

To networks

Information (of position, physiology, chemical substances, etc.)

Micro generator

Wireless transmitter

Fig. 10 Nature Interfacer: network communication system between the human being, artifacts and nature

Natural environment

Environmental monitoring

Animal behavior monitoring

Living environment

Pollution monitoring

Amenity monitoring

Human environment

Health care

Body information monitoring

Disaster prevention environment

Flood alarming system

Dam/bridge monitoring

Agricultural environment

Crops status monitoring

Glass house control

Transportation environment


Automatic safety system

Production environment

Production control

Energy control

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