Sights on AI: Erica Kato Marcus Underscores the Value of Sony AI’s Research, Team and Connection to Sony Group

Life at Sony AI

September 4, 2023

The Sony AI team is a diverse group of individuals working to accomplish one common goal: accelerate the fundamental research and development of AI and enhance human imagination and creativity, particularly in the realm of entertainment. Each individual brings different experiences, along with a unique view of the technology, to this work. This insightful Q&A series, Sights on AI, highlights the career journeys of Sony AI’s leaders and offers their perspectives on a number of AI topics.

Erica Kato Marcus is the Head of Partnerships and Communications at Sony Research, and a career-long team member at Sony Group Corporation. She started her career in Corporate Communications as a speechwriter to the then CEO at Sony’s global headquarters in Tokyo. Erica then moved on to managing a global team of product managers to develop apps and services while at Sony Mobile in Sweden for Xperia smartphones and at Sony Interactive Entertainment for PlayStation Network in the United States. Upon moving back to Tokyo, Erica was instrumental in the formation of Sony AI in 2020. She has continued to play a major role at Sony AI and, now, Sony Research, particularly in helping to define and communicate its strategic direction and develop partnerships that enable the organization to realize its mission.

Having worked in different areas of the businesses and countries at Sony, Erica offers a distinct global perspective on AI and research, the importance of Sony AI’s mission to empower creators and creativity, and the organization’s strategic position within Sony Group.

Why is it important for Sony AI to lead the charge in AI research around creativity and entertainment?

As stated in its Purpose, “fill the world with emotion through the power of creativity and technology,” and since its early days, Sony has worked with creators from a wide range of industries to help them realize their vision through the power of technology. This long history of innovation in support of creativity has directly influenced us to define our mission at Sony AI and to position ourselves uniquely at the intersection of AI and creativity or entertainment. There are a number of corporate AI research organizations, and we wanted to make sure we had our own unique identity that was very much tied to Sony’s own identity.

We believe technology – and in our case, AI – should be developed to empower artists, makers and creators to unleash their imagination and creativity. It should also help them explore their craft in new ways so they can bring new, emotional experiences to their fans and users around the world. With our mission, we wanted to reflect this in all of our projects at Sony AI.

How is Sony AI leveraging Sony’s vast expertise to advance its mission?

Sony AI is uniquely positioned to partner with Sony’s wide portfolio of businesses, from music, pictures, and gaming to electronics and semiconductors. There are few other corporate research organizations that have such exciting partners to work with, all within the same corporate umbrella.

Our CEO Hiroaki Kitano, who also serves as Sony Group Corporation’s CTO, spoke about this recently at the Sony Group R&D Strategy Briefing. He emphasized that we have the ability to combine Sony’s deep expertise in imaging and sensing and digital virtual worlds with the power of AI to enable artists and creators to develop new experiences and share this with fans across the globe.

A great example of this was our first AI breakthrough, Gran Turismo Sophy™ (“GT Sophy”). This accomplishment was the result of a unique partnership between Sony AI, as an AI research organization, Polyphony Digital, Inc. (PDI) – who provided us with the Gran Turismo game, which became the training ground for the AI agent – and Sony Interactive Entertainment (SIE) – who provided the cloud gaming infrastructure to enable the training of the AI agent at scale.

After months of intense collaboration, this effort resulted in the successful development and release of GT Sophy, which was featured on the cover of Nature. Later, we released GT Sophy as a time-limited in-game event within Gran Turismo™ 7 (GT7).

Thanks to the success of our partnership with PDI and SIE, we now have an excellent relationship with other PlayStation Studios as well as other Sony entities in music, movies, animation, and semiconductors.

Having accrued extensive experience with Sony over the course of your career, are there any shared values that have been adopted by Sony AI?

Sony’s global footprint and globally recognized brand were a few of the aspects that initially drew me to the company when I joined in 1998. Since then, I’ve had the privilege and honor to work across multiple divisions, industries and countries to bring some of Sony’s latest innovations to people worldwide in the form of new products and services, under the Sony brand. So, one thing that I always keep in mind is whether we are on brand with our research activities, which might not be a common thing to do for a research organization. This is also why I mentioned the importance of aligning the mission of our organization with Sony’s Purpose.

Another aspect that is common to Sony’s products and services is to think about the end-user experience and/or impact first. At Sony AI, we take this to heart. We start with the question: how are we enabling or empowering creators and users with this new technology?

Again, GT Sophy is a great example of this. The goal was not only to have an AI breakthrough in the realm of Reinforcement Learning (RL) but also how we could push the boundaries of RL to deliver a new gaming experience to the users that didn’t exist yet.

Gran Turismo 7: © 2023 Sony Interactive Entertainment Inc. Developed by Polyphony Digital Inc.

How does Sony AI work on research and development projects?

We fundamentally believe that partnership is a key tenet of our research projects. Transforming research into impact requires collaboration and knowledge across disciplines, including academics, research, engineering, and business. We like to position ourselves where research has real-world impact and that means bringing together researchers with product teams and creators early in the process.

For this reason, we ensure that the flagship projects we pursue have a very clear goal they are trying to achieve. By goal, we don’t mean some small target but a grand technical challenge in AI. This grand challenge should have a two-pronged impact: it should be a major breakthrough in AI from an academic and scientific standpoint, but also one that has the transformative power to impact businesses within and/or outside of Sony.

Secondly, because we are already thinking about the business and user impact from the onset, strategy and partnerships are critical components we consider. We engage with partners who are committed and eager to work with us to develop new transformative technology. We engage with them from the very beginning, from project definition through research and development, all the way to commercialization. Through all of these phases, we keep a direct channel of communication open to ensure we are always strategically aligned.

This methodology is exactly how we approached the GT Sophy project. From the very beginning, we engaged deeply with Kazunori Yamauchi, President of PDI, and the PDI team to define the ultimate challenge of developing a superhuman racing agent that could not only race well but bring a fun and realistic racing experience to the world’s top drivers. In collaboration with PDI, we ensured that this breakthrough technology was not only a research project, but would then be released as an actual feature of the game to bring fun and exciting experiences for all players.

Where do you see the future of AI research heading?

I think there is so much more to explore, and it’s quite exciting to think about the possibilities of AI and its role in our lives.

As I’m not a researcher or engineer myself, one aspect of the research that interests me is the shrinking gap between fundamental research and product development and deployment. In the past, R&D tended to be delegated to a special team that was quite far away, both literally and figuratively, from product teams. Now, as we have been doing at Sony AI, we are directly engaging with people who are making the product, services and/or content and we are designing the new technology together with the end use case in mind. This trend may not be AI-specific, and I think this direction of R&D getting closer to the business is here to stay.

And, speaking of closing distances, this means that the impact of research reaches all the way to the consumers of this technology much quicker as well.

And, speaking of closing distances and bringing people together, I’m very excited that we organized Sony’s first technology conference for the creative community called Sony Creator Conference, which took place August 8-9, 2023 at the Los Angeles Convention Center. This year, we partnered with SIGGRAPH to host this conference as part of their 50th-anniversary event.

If you missed this year's Creators Conference, you can still watch the sessions here. And we look forward to growing the community of people bringing new experiences to users around the world through the power of technology.

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