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Toyota Putting $1 Billion into Artificial Intelligence Research

Two months after announcing a $50 million investment in artificial intelligence (AI) research, Toyota is more than doubling down on its bet. At a press conference in Toyko today, the car maker unveiled plans to spend $1 billion over the next five years to establish a new company — the Toyota Research Institute (TRI) — focused on AI and robotics.

The institute will be located in Silicon Valley, near Palo Alto’s Stanford University and will be led by Gill Pratt (pictured above, photo credit: Toyota), a former official at the U.S Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA).

Toyota said its goal in investing in the AI/robotics institute is to “accelerate R&D in a range of fields to help resolve society’s future challenges by using artificial intelligence and big data.” The institute, which will have a secondary facility near the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), builds on Toyota’s $50 million commitment in September to establish joint AI research centers at both MIT and Stanford.

‘AI Can Help Society’

Pratt joined Toyota in September to direct the research being undertaken in the joint projects with MIT and Stanford. He said his new role as head of the TRI will focus on advancements in safety, accessibility and robotics.

“The purpose of TRI is to bridge the gap between fundamental research and product development of life-saving and life-improving technologies,” Pratt said during today’s event. “TRI will focus first on collaborative autonomy and artificial intelligence — the way people and machines can work together, particularly in the area of mobility.”

Recalling personal experiences that have motivated his own work in robotics — from his childhood encounter with a young cyclist who was killed in an auto accident to watching his aging father lose his independence to his unsuccessful efforts at DARPA to use robots to try and prevent the nuclear power plant explosions at Fukushima following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami — Pratt said views the technology as a way to make cars safer, improve human mobility and allow people to live independently as they age.

“AI can also be applied more broadly to help society,” he said. “For example, AI can be used to schedule cars, manage traffic, deliver goods, schedule the operation of a factory even beyond Toyota’s famous production system, and accelerate scientific discovery in materials and environmental technology.”

‘Lots of Good Work’ But ‘Very Early Stages’

Toyota and other car companies have focused more attention on robotics and artificial intelligence in their efforts to develop autonomous vehicles that can eliminate accidents, injuries and fatalities caused by people. The increasing presence of computerized controls in vehicles has also helped to blur the lines between traditional hardware/car companies and software companies.

Another area of research for Toyota has been in so-called “partner robot” technology for assisting the elderly, a special concern in an aging society such as Japan’s.

IDC analyst David Schubmehl told us the latest robotics effort by Toyota is “an interesting announcement,” but one that has to be viewed in the context of major investments in AI and deep learning being made by tech firms such as Google.

“The billion dollars is certainly going to help Toyota accelerate its research in this area, but there are a lot of other companies… that are investing a lot of money in this area. There’s a lot of good work that’s being done, he said, noting that much of the research remains in the “very early stages.”

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