Dominique Chen, a researcher at Waseda University in Tokyo, asks his pickling bacteria how they are every day — and then waits for an answer. Chen’s not imagining things. His bacteria will answer through NukaBot, an IoT robot he invented to help people who make fermented Japanese pickles.

NukaBot is a robotic container for nukadoko, a rice bran paste used for pickling. Sensors inside the paste measure parameters such as pH and the release of different types of gases, which allows the robot to give status updates on behalf of the microorganisms breaking down the mix. An integrated speaker responds to questions like “How are you fermenting today?” or “What do you need?”, and gives Chen advice on pickling stages or when the microorganisms need more contact with air.

Carrots pickled in a fermented rice bran paste,
known as nukadoko, with the help of bacteria.  
Credit:Dominique Chen

“The goal is to establish a model for human-microbe interaction that fosters affection for these invisible living beings,” explains Chen, who has been fermenting pickles for more than a decade. While it’s possible to automate this pickling process, Chen says that the point is to forge an emotional connection between humans and microbes, so that tasks like mixing nukadoko become more fulfilling.

His passion for technology and communication stems from Chen’s international upbringing, which brought a fascination with cultural phenomena and personal experiences of living with mild disfluency. “Both of these led me to believe, as [science-fiction] author Ken Liu once wrote, that every act of communication is a miracle of translation in some way,” he says.

Before becoming an academic, Chen spearheaded an open copyright system known as the Creative Commons in Japan. After launching, running, and eventually selling a communication technology startup and working extensively on digital communication as art, Chen turned his interest toward research. Chen says he chose Waseda because its culture and multidisciplinary philosophy allowed him to join the humanities faculty, despite an information technology Ph.D.

Dominique Chen (pictured) and his
students study how technology can
aid connection. Credit: Takashi Mochizuki

“Engineers should be working with liberal-arts researchers more often to design better technologies,” explains Chen. “I’ve become good friends with a psychology professor at Waseda. Now we regularly have lunch together and exchange research ideas. I really enjoy the diversity and open-mindedness of the other staff.”

Waseda also has the largest international student cohort in Japan, and it offers the greatest number of courses and degree programs taught in English. As a result, its students are already experts in highly complex communication, notes Chen. Drawn from more than 110 countries and regions, they communicate as a diverse group within a foreign culture, as well as maintain connections at home, he points out. Currently, Chen and his students are pursuing many projects linked to digital well-being, and better ways to communicate through technology — be it with fellow classmates or with microbes.