Toyota launches new AI lab in US, calls autonomous cars 'robots on wheels'

The biggest car company on earth has created a research center devoted to studying artificial intelligence. Here's what you need to know.

toyota ai
Toyota announces partnership with MIT and Stanford University for AI
Image: Beck Diefenbach

This January, inside a temporary lab near MIT, and another at Stanford, a team of researchers is assembled to help Toyota develop artificial intelligence. The creation of the Toyota Research Institute, announced in November 2015, is a 5-year, $1 billion investment devoted to AI--focusing on the development of autonomous car technology and personal-assistant robots.

SEE: Photos: A list of the world's self-driving cars racing toward 2020

Gill Pratt, director of the Toyota Research Institute, is based at the Cambridge location--a larger-scale, permanent facility is currently under construction. Pratt, a roboticist by training, previously worked as a program manager for DARPA.

Toyota has "aspirations to be a leader in the field," said Pratt. To that end, they've assembled a team of about two dozen members--while most have experience in computer science and artificial intelligence, others have backgrounds in robotics, cars, or design.

TechRepublic spoke to Pratt about Toyota's plans for the new bi-coastal research lab.

Why MIT?

Since Toyota wants to be a leader in AI, they "wanted to be where the action is," said Pratt. Although the company is based in Japan, it is a global brand, and most of its cars are sold in the US. By putting roots down near MIT, Toyota positioned itself at the center of innovation. "It is, without a doubt, a hotbed of where the kind of work on artificial intelligence, particularly applied to transportation is going on," said Pratt.

Why robots?

Toyota is not the first car company to invest in robots. Many, like Honda, have factory robots. But they are one of the first to invest heavily in home-assistant robots. It's because they're looking to predict what customers will want over the long-term. "What are the needs that human beings are going to have in the next few years?" asked Pratt. Since Toyota is a Japanese company, and demographics are quickly moving to a large percentage of the population being elderly, creating assistant robots will help the elderly "live a dignified life," said Pratt. "We want to focus on mobility for both people and for goods, indoors as well as outdoors."

SEE: "First family robot," Alpha 2, does yoga, tutoring, and more, but concerns remain

Why now? What's led us to this peak in interest in self-driving cars?

Several factors have come together to make the current environment ripe for developing self-driving cars. According to Pratt, "technology has opened the door to what's possible." Here are five innovations that have contributed:

  1. Mobile phones: The explosive growth of mobile technology, the low-powered computer processors, the computer vision chips and the cameras, and all the things in the phones have become "incredibly inexpensive and ubiquitous."
  2. Wireless internet: The rise of 4G networks and WiFi have made it easier than ever to connect.
  3. Computer centers in cars: Most new cars right today have a back-up cameras, front and back sensors, and other tech that helps drivers detect objects in the environment. Not only do most cars have these, but the cameras themselves have become better as well.
  4. Maps: If you're talking about either the navigation system you have in your car, said Pratt, or Google maps in your phone, maps have become really good.
  5. Deep learning: Computers now have "perception at levels of competence close to what a human being can do," said Pratt. "The car can look out on the world and tell the difference between a bicycle and a person that's walking, and a tree and a parking meter--all of these things, and can classify them either almost as well as we can, or in some cases, even a little bit better."

Toyota is most concerned about keeping safety as a top priority. Pratt believes that this is the greatest challenge in developing the technology. "We need to be making things work at the level of reliability that is required for our cars to travel safely," said Pratt. He thinks that Toyota and other car manufacturers may have a leg up in this department, over tech companies like Apple and Google. They're used to designing very strictly for safety.

Although Toyota plans to release their own semi-autonomous car by 2020, considering the challenges to ensuring safety, a fully-autonomous vehicle, Pratt believes, is "actually still years off"--unlike Elon Musk, he doesn't see it happening by 2020.

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. Robots are the future. Whether it's in self-driving car technology or robots, Toyota wants to be ahead of the curve.
  2. Redefining their mission. Before they made cars, Toyota made looms for cloths. Now, they're investing in software towards developing AI, making that as much of a priority as hardware once was. Pratt calls cars "robots on wheels."
  3. Safety remains a challenge. Toyota is still working on making cars safer, whether it's in handing off control from car to driver or ensuring that the technology is as close to error-free as possible.

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