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Ken Takeuchi

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Why an IT researcher does not let children use IT

Ken Takeuchi
Professor, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: ICT Design

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There must be many families whose children received presents over the Christmas and New Year’s holiday season. Computers, tablets and smartphones are now much cheaper than they used to be. Considering price alone, such electronic devices have become readily affordable as gifts for children.

IT, a necessity for modern-day people

Nowadays, IT is a requirement in all kinds of work. Because it is such an important means or tool, many people want children to be familiar with and master IT devices from as early an age as possible. More and more people are promoting the distribution of tablets to children in elementary schools, and some people even claim that children now do not need to know what they can search on the Internet.

I myself am conducting research in IT and electronics. When I used to work for a private company, I was involved in the launch of the world’s first flash memory. The flash memory and SSD whose development I was engaged in are used in many electronic devices from computers and servers to digital cameras, iPods, iPads and iPhones. Moreover, data can be saved in greater and greater quantities as the storage capacity of flash memory gets larger and larger. As a result, it has become easier to search online for information that we could not have known previously.

Steve Jobs, a low-tech parent

The fact is, however, that I tightly restrict my children’s use of the very IT devices that I developed. I do not let them carry mobile phones around normally, and the models I do let them carry around when necessary have no extra functions other than to make or receive calls. As a work tool, English has become important as well as IT, and I tell children to study English hard. So how are IT and English different? IT is a useful tool, but it can have many harmful effects if a child does not develop the capacity to understand information first.

A popular article that appeared in The New York Times recently titled “Steve Jobs Was a Low-Tech Parent” described how the founder of Apple Inc. and the creator of IT devices such as the iPhone and iPad did not let his children use the smartphones, tablets or computers that he had developed himself.

IT devices needed in developing countries

Educating children by giving them tablets is probably very effective where children cannot be provided with their own individual books, as in developing countries. This is because giving each child a tablet can be much cheaper than handing out a huge number of books. In some poorer developing countries, the lack of social infrastructure makes it difficult to install wired communication networks. There are even cases of establishing low-cost wireless communications from the beginning rather than installing a wired infrastructure followed by a wireless infrastructure as in developed countries. An example of this is the OLPC (One Laptop per Child) project to educate children in developing countries by providing them with cheap computers.

I am all for using IT devices to bring cheap, high-level education to financially challenged children living with poor infrastructure. On the other hand, I do not see the need to expose children in developed countries such as Japan to IT from an early age. And, to be frank, I do not understand how simply having access to vast amounts of information due to advances in IT makes people cleverer. It is hard for me to think this way, because it negates aspects of the work I have done in the past.

People make different judgments even when given the same information

Even when people have the same information, some may judge something to be black while others may decide it is white. And making the wrong decision in spite of having the same information gets them nowhere. For instance, we often hear the expression “exploitative workplace” in reference to job selection. Government officials in Kasumigaseki work so hard they have little time for sleep, so in terms of business hours, they are certainly exploited. And the income of university professors remains the same even if they are given extra research projects or face more administrative tasks from added research. Because they work every waking hour, nearly 365 days a year, we can say they are exploited.

However, there are two sides to every story. For example, although career bureaucrats are exploited in terms of working hours during their years of service, they are able to extend their network among people who would be impossible to meet in the private sector, which can prove very useful to them after they retire. In other words, they are exploited during their years of service but, as long as they just think of it as an investment for the future, they also feel they are getting some benefit from the perspective of their whole lives. In last month’s parliamentary election, quite a few former career bureaucrats were elected.

Management consultants and investment bankers are also highly paid but work in an extremely demanding environment. Many of them probably try to gain just a few years’ experience as an investment for their future. University professors, on the other hand, do not feel the same stress as being in a company however long their working hours because, above all, they are given a golden opportunity to study a subject they enjoy, which is something money cannot buy.

How people feel depends, of course, on their personal values. Even with the same experience, people’s opinions can go one way or the other so we cannot impose our ideas on others. If one person thinks something is black and tries to enforce that opinion on someone else who sees it as white, it could lead to an exploitative workplace.

Do children with their immature judgment really need IT devices?

Returning to the subject of children, the wealth of information available means they really need the ability to sort out information and to distinguish between different information. This can only be done by humans and not by the artificial intelligence that has developed so much in recent years. That is because there can be more than one solution. It is precisely that kind of judgment that is the remaining key role of people in this era where advances in IT and artificial intelligence mean that machines are taking over more and more of the work of human beings.

Of course my intention is not to deny the need for information acquisition itself, because having a lot of information is vital for making decisions. However, it is important to (1) acquire the ability to assess information and (2) get large amounts of information, in that order. Children’s judgment is immature, and being able to obtain information too easily on their IT devices could possibly have a negative impact on cultivating their capacity for judgment.

Everyone, not only children, wants an easier life. But if we obtain answers too easily, we probably stop thinking about the reasons behind those answers. Also, many people have experienced large leaks of photos and data by young children, including not only their own personal information but that of others too, as a result of being allowed to have a smartphone. And in some cases, their parents do not even see anything wrong with that, even when warned of the risks.

How should human beings engage with IT?

I intend to let my children live in the analog world until they are old enough to fully understand that information can be not only useful but also extremely dangerous. But this idea may be a bit too conservative. Instead, perhaps current IT technology is too immature and researchers and engineers like me need to create IT devices that can develop children’s intellect. In any case, I feel that we humans are not keeping up with the rapid advances in IT. We need to think much more about how all human beings, not only children, should engage with IT.

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Ken Takeuchi
Professor, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: ICT Design
Professor Takeuchi was born in Tokyo in 1967.
He graduated from the Department of Applied Physics, Faculty of Engineering, The University of Tokyo in 1991 and completed the Master’s Course in Applied Physics, Faculty of Engineering, The University of Tokyo in 1993. In 2003, he completed the Master of Business Administration (MBA) program at Stanford University. In 2006, he acquired a PhD in Electronic Engineering at the Graduate School of Engineering, The University of Tokyo.
He worked at Toshiba and served as Associate Professor at the Department of Electrical Engineering and Information Systems, Graduate School of Engineering, The University of Tokyo before assuming his current position in 2012. His current research is in extremely low-power, high-capacity memory and computer systems. He provides education in Management of Technology (MOT) with the aim of developing T-shaped people whose broad perspective and deep specialized knowledge are like the horizontal and vertical limbs of the letter T. At Toshiba, he succeeded in the practical realization of flash memory and developed products with the world’s largest memory capacity a total of six times. He holds 210 patents worldwide.