Advanced Institutes of Convergence Technology (AICT) is a technological convergence complex in Suwon's Gwanggyo Techno Valley. This state-of-the-art institute cultivates competitive human resources in support of the development of high-tech industries. AICT is looking at core strategies for applying diverse and specialized technologies in order to become a major research hub for the fast changing world.
The following is an excerpt of an interview with Choi Yang-hee, Ph.d, the President of AICT Seoul National University.
Q: Tell us something about AICT and your role here
A: I took over as President of the AICT last year and have thrown myself into this interesting challenge of creating a new institution that is dedicated to the intersection of previously separate disciplines. My own background is in an internet engineering, which gives me a good sense of how to connect diverse elements and also how to apply IT to facilitate exchanges. Other fields I am learning about on the ground right now.
The institutes were launched in 2008, but the initial work involved construction, infrastructure and systems for administration and research. We have now had one full year since we started running our program at full speed and we are making great progress. Of course a big part of the challenge is defining our future role as an institute dedicated to convergence itself. New technologies are emerging so quickly that keeping up with their potential applications is a critical challenge. We have faculty from departments at Seoul National University's main campus who work as affiliated researchers and also a core of full-time faculty here at the institutes in Suwon. There are also visiting faculty for short periods of time and of course numerous experts from industry and other research institutes who join us for seminars. We expect the total number of full-time faculty in Suwon to reach thirty or forty in the next two years. Perhaps fifty percent will be international. Among that group are experts in cross-over fields like IT and music, but also those engaged in basic research in the core fields of nanotechnology, biotechnology and IT.
We have six research institutes: the Institute of Nano Convergence Technology, the Institute of Bio Convergence Technology, the Institute of IT Convergence Technology, the Institute for Green Smart Systems, the Transdisciplinary Studies Institute and the Institute of Technologies for Living Together. They form a carefully thought out cluster where you can meet up with researchers from any of the disciplines easily.
All of the institutes are constantly launching new pilot programs for research. We are not merely responding to market demands, we are anticipating future needs of humanity in general, and Korea in specific. For example our Institute of Technologies for Living Together has identified the aging society in developed nations as a major challenge over the next thirty years. We are looking at strategies for applying diverse technologies to address the needs of the elderly and also helping the handicapped. The Transdisciplinary Studies Institute puts a premium on link ups with the humanities and social sciences, addressing fundamental hierarchy of ontology and epistemology as part of our work on concrete projects.
The faculty and students on campus are encouraged to work together as a think tank of sorts identifying new fields for future work and through their dialog and through the seminars held. That constant trial and error debate on the application of technologies is not a secondary part of our work, it drives AICT. The campus consists of seven buildings that make up our campus. Each building houses a separate institution, but the members of each institution are constantly drawn together by events and projects. Equally important is our work with industry. There are thirty-plus companies that have a presence in our complex and they form a critical part of the ecosystem. Finally, the graduate students in the M.A. and Ph.D. programs also play an important role in the discussion about technology that takes place here.
Q: AICT is a world-class organization. Why did you choose to locate in Suwon, Gyeonggi-do Province
A: Our location in Suwon is a major advantage. Suwon is an extremely livable city of trees with its own history and traditions. We are not far from Suwon Castle, with its ancient stone walls, but we are also near some of the best infrastructure. For example, the National Nano-Fab Center is just a short walk and features some of the best tools for advanced nanofabrication you can find anywhere. The Center is open to our researchers, and other corporate residents to use for their experiment and the fabrication of prototypes. We also have facilities for sequencing and other critical processes that make us an excellent place for biotechnology work. That convergence of proximity is what makes us globally competitive.
Many of the visitors to AICT from abroad are most impressed by our relationship with the local government. The Gyeonggi-do Province is a strong supporter for our efforts. Not only does Gyeonggi-do Province cover our basic infrastructure expenses, we have teamed up with the Province in our international initiatives as well. Gyeonggi-do Province has set up the Center for Industry and Academic Cooperation to serve as a matchmaker and facilitator for win-win relations with large, medium and small enterprises and venture companies. In addition, the Center provides education programs for AICT's long-term objective of educating and cultivating researchers in cutting-edge technology. Those programs extend beyond our researchers to encompass the entire community of ventures in the region.
That long-term commitment by Gyeonggi-do sets us apart and makes us quite agile. We support from the province for assistance to our researchers, and the SMEs and other businesses in the community for patent filings, for legal and administrative processes and help attracting capital. Our community can innovate because every step of the process is so well supported.
Our laboratories not only design new systems, they are part of a larger system of innovation we are actively expanding and reinventing. The entire AICT campus is meant as an ideal ecosystem to encourage collaboration and new directions. We want to create a space in our café and our fitness center, in the various combinations of desks for researchers from different fields and similar rooms where synergy is created. We include our professors, students, practitioners, venture capitalists and those from other institutions and the private sector. There is infinite possibility here.
We have had some major successes so far. For example, we established a research project and business program in biotechnology that brought together our professors and several companies. This project, known as the "Genome System Project" was selected by the Korean government as a "Global Frontier Project" with full funding for nine years and has attracted international attention. That sort of long-term commitment allows us to pursue promising opportunities aggressively.
The primary investigator for that project is Professor Kim Seong-hun of Seoul National University. Professor Kim was frustrated by the incredible amount of time that the development of new medicines can take, ten years or more. He also felt that the costs, as much as one billion USD, were a result of inefficient use of resources. Professor Kim imagined that the convergence of technologies could significantly reduce this lag time, such as the application of new IT systems to the process of analyzing genetic data. He worked with his team to address cultural and systemic issues in the research approach itself, treating the whole process in a holistic way. Dr. Kim's experiment suggests how creative applications of IT can considerably simplify the process of drug development. He made very convincing proposals to us for his approach and we have given him the full support he deserves. His work has global significance.
Currently, we have twenty major projects in the pipeline. The overriding concern for us is identifying ideas and approaches that can revolutionize the process of research. Those ideas are as important as the technology itself. We want to see how new technologies can actually impact the process of research itself. Of course professors naturally want to be independent in their work. But we have perfected a system to encourage them to come together, to help each other to tease out new approaches and insights. We have organized "brain-storming meetings:" very concentrated seminars in which smaller groups of experts, five to ten professor, or other experts, gather together for a guided discussion. We have perhaps eighty of these sorts of meetings in the course of a year. They are not peripheral, but rather at the very core of our project. We want to combine focus with flexibility. That is the key.
The brain storming sessions are the first step in the exploration of new directions and opportunities at AICT. Once clear themes and approaches are identified in those brain storming sessions, we put together a symposium to which we invite outside experts. Those experts may be from industry or other research institutes, or they may be from Japan or the United States. Those experts engage in a focused discussion with our own teams, including experts from different disciplines at AICT who are brought in depending on the subject of discussion. We wish to get a serious discussion started that combines both the concrete details of what it would take to be successful in a particular project and the long term value of the effort. We cover the technical and concrete needs of industry and other stakeholders. We combine that symposium with a dinner and networking event that allows us to build close relations between the participants that can serve as the basis for future work. We also want to create the appropriate image of AICT as a hub and get that out to the world as a whole so that others know when and how to approach us.
Once we have set the parameters for a new field of inquiry or development, we are ready to start a pilot project. That pilot project starts with a simple 1-3 page proposal describing the overall goal and the small-scale project to test feasibility. That pilot project will normally run for three to nine months and involve just a small, intimate, group of researchers. We have about fifteen pilot projects running right now at AICT that are funded in-house and explore new avenues of inquiry that otherwise would be difficult to pursue. There is a constant stream of proposals under review that suggest the broader outlines of our future work.
The pilot project ends in a more substantial final report and presentation in which the long-term potential of the project is considered. If we find there are significant opportunities, we can pull together a larger team including outside experts to launch a full-scale research projects. Those larger projects will define the future evolution of AICT and are critical to our future growth.
Q: What is your vision for the future of AICT
A: Now that we have a robust program up and running and we have built a substantial network for collaboration in Korea, we would like to expand our international collaboration. We originally assembled a team that travelled around the world to observe what is being done right in terms of innovation. We spent a good amount of time visiting MIT's Media Lab, University of Tokyo's Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology (RCAST) and other successful programs. We learned a lot from those models and we have come up with our own innovations. Now we want to seriously engage with other global institutions.
The province of Gyeonggi-do is also a major player in internationalization and will be very much involved in our efforts. The our objective is to quickly and effectively commercialize new IT, biotechnology and nanotechnology technologies while taking the time to think deeply about social and environmental issues that impact the applications. We are bringing in experts from a variety of fields to enrich our work. In the Institute of Transdisciplinary Studies we are rethinking the world of music, movies, games and social networks with the input of experts in all those fields to see what applications may be out there for the technologies we have. That sort of a holistic approach to technology will be increasing important in the years to come, I believe.
Within the next few years our full-time faculty will reach thirty and I expect that half of that faculty will be international. By that time the number of graduate students will also be around 150. We are on track for rapid growth.