In 1989, MITI decided to found a research institute to consolidate and propagate research in fuzzy logic. This institute, called LIFE (Laboratory for International Fuzzy Engineering), began operations in early 1990 under the leadership of Professor Toshiro Terano of Hosei University. It had three main foci to its program: decision support, which included work in both human-mediated and fully automatic control systems; intelligent robotics, which included work in speech and image understanding as well as robot planning; and fuzzy computing, which aimed to produce the computing hardware and software necessary to fully implement fuzzy systems. The institute was designed to be fully international in character, with long-term visitors from many countries and a relatively small permanent research staff. As a means of ensuring rapid technology transfer to Japanese industry (a hallmark of MITI institutes) LIFE's board of directors is made up of the presidents of most major Japanese computing companies.
A watershed in the history of LIFE occurred in November 1991, with the hosting of the International Fuzzy Engineering Symposium. The Proceedings of this meeting encompass over 1,100 pages of refereed papers that span the range of worldwide research in all areas of the field. The meeting also led to a serious reassessment of the role of LIFE. Simply put, Professor Terano and his senior staff decided that the development of fuzzy control systems had become a separate, self-sustaining field with its own professional society and meetings. Moreover, fuzzy control didn't have much to do with the original "Holy Grail" of providing help for developing truly human-friendly computer systems. Therefore, further work at LIFE was not to include the engineering of fuzzy control systems. This development has an interesting parallel in the expert systems community in the United States. To a large degree, expert systems work has become a field in itself, quite apart from the artificial intelligence research community. There are attempts (like the sponsorship of the Innovative Applications of AI conferences by the American Association of Artificial Intelligence) to prevent such a split, but the overall trend seems to be toward separate meetings and societies.
Fuzzy logic, invented by Professor Lotfi Zadeh of UC-Berkeley in the mid-1960s, provides a representation scheme and a calculus for dealing with vague or uncertain concepts. It provides for the facile manipulation of such terms as "large," "warm," and "fast," which can simultaneously be seen to belong partially to two or more different, contradictory sets of values. Zadeh originally devised the technique as a means for solving problems in the soft sciences, particularly those that involved interactions between humans, and/or between humans and machines. Within the United States, with some exceptions, the technique has remained mainly of basic research interest.
The situation in Japan is quite different. Professor Terano, inspired by Zadeh's work, introduced the idea to the Japanese research community in about 1972. Perhaps because of a Japanese cultural view of the vagueness of human nature (all concepts belonging partially to contradictory sets), there was almost immediate enthusiasm for the idea. This led to active research and a host of commercial applications, almost entirely in the area of physical systems control. The currently fielded applications range from large-scale electro-mechanical processes, like subway systems and elevators, to mass market consumer applications like camcorder focus or smooth operation of automobile cruise controls. It is interesting to note that the actual applications of fuzzy logic are far afield from Zadeh's original notion of help for the soft sciences. We estimate that there are well over 200 fuzzy control systems in fully fielded use, and there are more than 2,000 engineers in the Japanese Fuzzy Control Society.
Terano and his colleagues now view fuzzy control as but the first way station on the road to human-friendly systems. The evolution is fuzzy control, to fuzzy expert systems, to intelligent robots, to integrated AI systems. The 1992 LIFE research plan shows work in two main areas: communication and machine intelligence. Under communication, LIFE is conducting research in fuzzy computing (including natural language and linguistic modeling applications) and intelligent interfaces (to both humans and robots). Under machine intelligence, LIFE is pursuing work in fuzzy associative memory (software only), image understanding, and intelligent robots (the scope of which was left vague in our discussions). A total of about 30 full-time researchers are involved in all of these efforts.