Toyota Invests $1b in Artificial Intelligence

Toyota, the Japanese auto giant, announced a five-year, $1 billion research and development effort in Artificial Intelligence and establishing a Silicon Valley research and development center to pursue those goals. Conceived as a research facility bridging basic science and commercial engineering, it will be organized as a new company named Toyota Research Institute. Toyota will initially have a laboratory adjacent to Stanford University and another near M.I.T. in Cambridge, Mass. 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. The new effort by Toyota is also the latest indication of a changing of the guard in Silicon Valley’s basic technology research. Last year, for example, Microsoft closed a satellite laboratory of its Microsoft Research division in Silicon Valley and laid off about 75 researchers.

Artificial intelligence technologies were disappointing for decades, but they have finally begun paying off, leading to systems such as Siri, the personal assistant from Apple, and rapid improvements in self-driving vehicle technology. And in recent years, there has been a rush to recruit talented researchers in so-called machine learning, many of them produced by Stanford and the nearby University of California, Berkeley. Toyota plans to hire 200 scientists for its artificial intelligence research center.

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. The company has already shown an R2-D2-like robot that scoots around and picks up things for people, designed to help the elderly, the sick and people in wheelchairs. It has also shown human-shaped entertainment robots that can carry on conversations and play musical instruments.

As the world’s top auto manufacturer, Toyota already uses sophisticated robotic arms and computers in auto production, including doing paint jobs and screwing in parts. The next challenge will be to optimize that technology using AI solutions to make the driving experience smarter and safer. Toyota says that its goal is to form a bridge between the research that is happening in the labs of top universities and actual product development.

"As technology continues to progress, so does our ability to improve products,"
said Toyota president Akio Toyoda.

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