Ph.D Program in Empowerment Informatics

Empowerment InformaticsGiving power to the people: An elite student group is being given the opportunity to reshape our interactions with technology through a prestigious University of Tsukuba program

In a world where surgeons rely on high-tech robots to help guide their scalpels and wholesalers use intelligent software agents to negotiate contracts, multidisciplinary skills are essential. And that’s just what students are being equipped with through the University of Tsukuba’s PhD Program in Empowerment Informatics, which combines cutting-edge research in arts, business and medical science into a new field aimed at overcoming human constraints through more seamless connections with technology.

The University of Tsukuba is a world leader in applying information technology and robotics to support patient rehabilitation, assist people with disabilities and promote automotive safety. The PhD Program in Empowerment Informatics combines this expertise with skills and education from the university’s arts and business faculties to ensure that engineers advance their expressive as well as technical sides.

“Interdisciplinary collaboration is the most important aspect of this program,” explains Mai Otsuki, an assistant professor at the university who specializes in augmented and virtual reality research. “Students can choose labs in psychology, art or medical science in addition to those in engineering or information technology.”

This collaborative approach was a huge drawcard for first-year student Tadayuki Tone, an engineer who previously completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Tsukuba. “I came to the Empowerment Informatics program because this is a special opportunity to get multidisciplinary knowledge,” he says. “My goal is to develop a soft robotic device that has a high affinity with humans. To do this, I need to know how to deal with issues from many perspectives, so this program is critical to my future growth.”

Gaining entry into the program is tough, with only twelve students admitted each year. But it can provide huge career opportunities, including prospects with leading companies such as the electronics giant Panasonic and leading car manufacturer Nissan Motor Company. The program provides financial support for all students, including full board in an ‘Empowerment Dormitory’ that provides residential facilities, venues for dynamic collaboration, state-of-the-art prototyping equipment and unique classes designed to nurture future global leaders.

The course curriculum begins with a student-designed research plan in one of three core areas: supplementing physical and sensory functions of the elderly or disabled; harmonizing engineered devices more favorably into daily routines; or extending people’s latent creative talents through new technology. Students rotate through numerous labs while designing their proposals and then put their ideas into practice during internships at companies based in Japan or overseas.

“Spending time talking with researchers from different backgrounds has helped broaden my field of view,” says third-year student Ryo Wako, who already holds a master’s degree in Comprehensive Human Sciences in Psychology from the University of Tsukuba. “I think it’s the most important skill I’ve learned.”

International students are increasingly taking notice of this extraordinary program and five English-speaking students were admitted in 2015. “Our students really benefit from the smaller class sizes,” notes Otsuki. “Lectures are more interactive and manageable while the exchanges between different cultures and research domains seem to occur naturally.”

Also planned for 2015 is the opening of the ‘Empowerment Studio’ — the largest virtual reality space in the world. This facility lets young researchers experiment with special techniques such as high-speed motion capture and gymnasium-sized, interactive screens, as well as for exhibiting the latest prototypes of devices such as driving simulators and robotic walkers. “In a sense, empowerment is how a society tries to exert its latent abilities,” says Otsuki. “Our program aims to do this and give better quality of life through improved human-computer interactions.”

For more information, go to the program website.