Interview with Ken Kutaragi -- "I want to draw a picture on a stark white campus"

Interview with Ken Kutaragi

Apr 9, 2001

Ken Kutaragi
Interview with Sony Computer Entertainment Inc. President Ken Kutaragi

Father of the video game consoles: PlayStation and PlayStation2. Graduated University of Electro-Communications, Department of Information and Communication Engineering and joined Sony Corp in 1975. Engaged himself in the development of liquid crystal TVs and electronic steel cameras at a business development department. In late 1980's, after working at Sony's Information Processing Laboratories, Kutaragi embarked on a joint project with Nintendo for developing game consoles, but only to see it fall flat in 1991. In December 1993, he launched Sony Computer Entertainment Inc. (SCE) and became the general manager.  After witnessing sales of PlayStation in December 1994 and PlayStation2 in March 2000, Kutaragi assumed the post of SCE President. Widely known for his outspoken and brash character. On one hand he scares engineers in the game consoles field, but on the other hand he gains much trust from his subordinates. Born in 1950. Apart from his post as SCE President, he is also a board member of Sony Corp.

What the engineers lack is purity

--A year has passed since the release of PlayStation2. Is everything under full sail?

Kutaragi:Partly yes, and partly no. However, I think one needs to have a broader view when looking at PlayStation2. Keeping track of the moves of the console itself is not an issue anymore, because the box itself has no significant meaning. There is network in the first place and the box hangs onto the network. I intend to change this equation.

--I assume you are referring to "CELL," the new microprocessor chip that you will be jointly developing together with U.S. IBM Corp and Toshiba. Won't the chip be embedded into the next generation game console?

Kutaragi:Whether CELL would be built in to the game console or not is not an essential matter. Should the era of packaging continue, I guess PlayStation3 and PlayStation4 would be worth a topic to discuss, but what I would like to stress is that the concept of packaging, or box, would disappear in the broadband era. Same thing can be said of the concept of servers and clients. A band of CELL would assume the role of the existing computer system and would establish a living organism like the real cell. World's broadband will consist of an aggregation of CELL. One CELL has a capacity to have 1TFLOPS performance and an aggregation of 1,000 CELLs would have 1P (Pets) FLOPS. The capacity of 1P is an equivalent to the information processing ability of one human being. Thus creation of another world is possible if we were able to collect CELLs that equal to the capacity of 5 billion people.

-- I heard that you took the leading role in introducing the idea to develop CELL

Kutaragi:Yes, I had been imaging it in my mind from years before. It was also my idea to dub it "CELL." Although at initial stages, I had been calling it "Saibo (meaning cell in Japanese)," I christened it with an English name "CELL" in spring 2000, when I confided my thoughts to IBM Corp. I ponder that the development of CELL will bring renovation - the first in 50 years of computer history. Nothing has changed ever since ENIAC appeared until now -- where we have Itanium. To date, network-linked computers have existed as stand-alone islands. That was not much of a problem because operating systems were unevenly distributed to each island and were interchanging data among themselves.

--So you are saying that exchanging data among stand-alone computers is not enough?

Kutaragi: What would happen if things would become even more broadband and there would be no ceilings to set limitations for the bandwidth of broadband? To be sure, there are restrictions under our current wires, but shifting to fiber optics would dramatically boost the speed of communication. We are now witnessing further development of an optical switch that has a capacity to input/output data under the form of a light signal. People would start to review the current computer architecture once such networking environment of optical communication is completed. I am not denying the high processing capability of computers that establish our current networks. Microprocessors of personal computers have reached the operating frequency of 1GHz and high-powered microprocessors are embedded onto PlayStation2. Why then can't such highly capable computers interact with each other once they are connected to the Internet? The reason is neither attributed to fiber optics nor to the "Last One Mile" task of connecting high-speed lines to households. The fact that servers and personal computers have the same LSI is the greatest bottleneck that is hobbling the realization of interaction among computers. Merely connecting one personal computer to another directly by fiber optics is easy. However, if we were to connect one personal computer to ten, what would happen to the server that positions in the center of the networking? In a case where the server is also required to function as a switchboard, we must lay out legions of clusters even when we have a centralized networking topology. Furthermore, the server would collapse should we try to shape it in the form of a complete network. The idea is the same as in the case of a server break down of the e-mail service at NTT DoCoMo. Not every single person will be able to enjoy bandwidth even if fiber optics were to spread over to all households around the world.

Topology to change

--Will CELL be a resolution to solving the bottleneck you mentioned?

Kutaragi: Exactly. CELL will transform the fundamentals of the network topology. The old mechanism functioned by reading memory data into resistors and rewriting the arithmetic into memories. In short, it was just a repetition of loading and storing. Because each cash memory differs in time of access and capacity, it worked out in such hierarchical structure as primary cache, second cache, etc. On the other hand, CELL might completely transform the concept of cache as it would drastically accelerate the speed of networking. What comes into reality is that each of the astronomical number of computers around the globe could unite to form a CELL and operate by one operating system. Each CELL would be the broadband network itself. Just to give you a picture, it is like 1,000 units of computers at one company functioning as one server. In such a networking world, one would only see the overall strength of power decline when one computer drops out and vice versa. It sounds like a human society.

I want to create a Mecca for researchers

-- And you are jointly going to embark on the development of CELL with two other companies by setting a research and development site in Austin, Texas, U.S.

Kutaragi:I intend to amass world's best think tanks to participate in the development of CELL in a bid to totally change the conventional computers down from the ground. By all means, researchers from SCE, IBM and Toshiba will be our core developers, but they will not be the only ones to participate. IBM is prominently taking the lead in semiconductor technology. They have established a technology that looks ahead say, a decade - as represented by the 0.1-micron SOI-based process, CU interconnect, and low-k. All they need to think about now is how to manufacture them. We will devote ourselves in research for a year from now. Not so many genuine computer architects exist in the world. The academic researchers in the real sense are scattered all over universities. But being at universities will not enable them to change the world. To this end, I want to invite those researchers to Austin - a Mecca, and I intend to create that. Currently we have over ten researchers at the developing facility in Austin. One of the researchers of IBM said, "This is the first and the last chance endowed in my life," the last time I visited Austin. He was aspiring for the ideal future of microprocessors. He might be able to change the world. All engineers would without doubt be excited to hear such comment coming from another researcher. It is not a matter of money.

Technology is at the heart of everything

-- Don't you think that we in general are getting short of such engineers with a pure heart?

Kutaragi: Surely the number of such engineers is on the decrease. I am clearly aware of such circumstances. I am concerned about the engineers being brand name-oriented. I say to myself, can't they be more pure? They are the creators, creating something is what matters and technology lies at the backbone. My belief is that technology is at the core of everything.For instance, when conducting questionnaires to science and technological students to find out what companies they want to work for, Sony wins the top place. Why would they want to work for Sony? At my time, Sony and Matsushita Electric Industrial were unpopular and the company the students most wanted to work for was NTT. But nowadays, we sometimes see Japan Air Lines rank to the top. I say to myself why Japan Air Lines? If the students were researching on aeromechanics and desired to make airplanes, wouldn't Lockheed Martin Corp. likely to be their most preferred destination? By reviewing the results of the ranking survey, the students just seem to be participating in a popular vote or even what's-cool vote. Pursuing after brands is surely not the right thing those students should be looking for.

--Is the number of engineers with pure heart declining at Sony?

Kutaragi:Overwhelmingly yes. That is one of our concerns these days. There still does underlie the question of whether Sony is purely an enterprise of technology even now. It is my idea that we should highly evaluate the technology itself. Of course Sony is in a better position on the whole and I am proud of Sony myself. When speaking of students, whether science-related or not, I ask them why they want to work for Sony, what their identities are. Given these questions, they all say something alike. Maybe saying something alike is easier than having identity of your own.

That is the negligence of the engineers

--You are not saying that the technology has lost its charm

Kutaragi: Not in the least. Technology is at the height of interest at the moment. There is no other ideal era than now to be given birth and experience such exciting things. If you were able to choose the moment to be born, obviously you would say "now." It has been only a few years since semiconductors and microprocessors made appearance. Same thing can be said of computer science. In addition, you have the general idea of what the core technologies of semiconductors will be like ten years from now. Development of optical technologies is under way in the field of communication. For those people who can always find something of interest, there is no other amusing moment than now. Furthermore, now at present is the most important period of time in drawing blueprint for the future. Thus it is so much rewarding for engineers, because the future depends on them. Once they make mistakes, the future will be in a mess. For instance, establishing a website without giving thoughts to anything will cause problems of copyrights. Computer virus spreads in a flash. Ebola and HIV viruses are passed on through human beings, but computer virus just spreads by its own. Nothing in the world in our history has moved so speedy as the spread of computer viruses.

--What are your views on the world's confusion to the appearance of such services as Napster?

Kutaragi:It was an innovative event that a Peer-to-Peer software has debuted in the network. But the network became the current tropology when TCP/IP appeared. Going back to the time five years ago, it could have been easy to predict the form of P-to-P. When looking back, it seems that even I could have worked out the model of P-to-P out if I had given a serious thought to the matter during the New Year holidays. It was the negligence of the Japanese networking engineers that they did not come up with the idea. There are too many watchers who criticize other people's technologies and there are too little who really are giving everything a good thought. Those mere criticizers claim they are engineers, but alas, they are salaried workers. They think they understand their stints by reading NIKKEI ELECTRONICS, for instance. It is nothing if the magazine knows more than the field in which you specify. Don't you think?

Japanese engineers without "individuality"

--How do the Japanese engineers reflect in your eyes when compared to those of the world?

Kutaragi: Japanese engineers have not yet established individuality within them. The phenomenon seems to be unique to the Japanese engineers only and not to those around the world. I had talks with researchers and management executives around the globe to discuss topics related to PS2 and CELL, and what I found out was that there really are amazing people in the world - although there is only a handful, or 1ppm of such great people. It is extremely stimulating to speak to them and makes me want to build the world by forging a team with them. But the very moment I look back to the Japanese engineers, I feel something is different. I suppose on hearing one engineer say that he/she is willing to work for a well-known company, people in Europe, the U.S -- or wherever around the world, would say, "What is the matter with you?"

--I think there are two types of engineers: One type is to explore the unknown premises and the other is to solve the mysteries of an already known fact.

Kutaragi:I think there are designer type and artist type to engineers. Artist-type engineers can draw a picture on a white campus. In some cases, the artist-type might not be understood by anybody for decades because they are in pursuit of truth. On the other hand, designer-type must be understood by everybody. They must understand the era in which they live in and manufacture things that meet the needs of the times. They ponder what is the best way to use the products comfortably. For me, much of my enjoyment goes to drawing pictures on a stark white campus. However, working out ways to manufacture is fun in terms of competition.

--If you were to be reborn, what would you want to do?

Kutaragi: If I were to be reborn now, I think I would go for bioelectronics. We have a general idea as to how the semiconductor technologies would be in ten years ahead from now. The future of semiconductor technologies is predictable, although it might require a painstaking effort in materializing the idea industrially. On the other hand, human bodies and living organism are the unexplored frontier. Currently, investigation on protein is being unveiled at a ferocious pace. There are even computers that analyze the protein data. Researches on consciousness of human beings are in the middle of progress. There are many things that are unknown to us. That's what makes things amusing.

(Interviewed by Editor-in-Chief, Naoki Asami)