Toyota plans $1B R&D push on A.I. and robotics in U.S.

Toyota plans a major push into artificial intelligence and robotics technology research and will invest US$1 billion over the next five years to establish a Silicon Valley research and development center to pursue those goals.
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The Toyota Research Institute will be led by Gill Pratt, who recently joined Toyota from DARPA where he ran the Robotics Challenge, an event that promoted work on robots that can work with humans.

“The goal of the Toyota Research Institute is to bridge the gap between fundamental research and product development, particularly of life saving and life improving technologies,” said Pratt at a Tokyo news conference on Thursday.

It will be established in January and be based close to Stanford University and have a second campus near MIT near Boston. Over the next few years, it will grow to around 200 scientists and engineers.

Initial research at the center will focus on the way people and machines can work together, particularly in the area of mobility, he said.

When it opens, it will have three goals in the areas of safety, accessibility and robotics.

In safety, the goal will be to make driving safer and prevent car accidents, no matter what the driver does. In the area of accessibility, it will seek to help everyone benefit from the mobility of cars, regardless of demographics or physical condition. And in robotics, it will work on technology that can improve the quality of life of all people, in particular seniors.

It will work alongside two research centers Toyota is establishing with Stanford University and MIT. The car maker is investing an additional $50 million in those under an agreement announced in September.

The goals are lofty but they aren’t new areas of research for the company. Like many large Japanese companies, Toyota engages in fundamental research into technology that may not become products for years.

The work is low profile, but occasionally it makes headlines. In 2009 for example, Toyota showed off a brain-machine interface system that allowed a person in a motorized wheelchair to control it with just their minds.

Toyota already faces competition in some of these research areas from the likes of Google, which has been working on autonomous car technology for several years and already has prototype cars driving on public streets near its Silicon Valley headquarters.

But in Tokyo on Friday, Pratt said he wasn’t worried about the head start that Google has.

“It is possible at the beginning of a car race that you may not be in the best position,” he said. “It may be that other drivers are saying a whole lot about what there position is and everyone may expect that a particular car will win. But if the race is very long, who knows who will win?”

“The problem of adding safety and accessibility to cars is extremely difficult and the truth is, we are only at the beginning of this race,” he said.”