Toyota to invest $1 billion in AI research

Toyota will join the artificial intelligence race, forming a new company called Toyota Research Institute.

Eugene Hoshiko/AP
Toyota Motor Corp.'s Executive Technical Advisor Gill Pratt delivers a speech during a press conference on artificial intelligence in Tokyo, Friday, Nov. 6, 2015. Toyota is investing $1 billion in a research company it's setting up in Silicon Valley to develop artificial intelligence and robotics, underlining the Japanese automaker's determination to lead in futuristic autonomous cars and apply the technology to other areas of daily life.

The latest firm to go high-tech in Silicon Valley? Toyota.

The Japanese automaker announced Friday plans to spend $1 billion over the next five years to fund an R&D effort focused on artificial intelligence and robotics. A new compound built for the Toyota Research Institute (TRI) will be one of the largest research laboratories in Silicon Valley, reports The New York Times.

“This is the first small step that allows us to go beyond automobiles and make use of the Toyota group’s potential by utilizing artificial intelligence,” Toyota President Akio Toyoda told Market Watch.

Until the compound is complete, the company will work out of laboratories near Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Operations won't begin until January 2016, but the company has been in the works since TRI CEO Dr. Gill Pratt joined Toyota last year as Toyota's Executive Technical Advisor.

"Our initial goals are to: 1) improve safety by continuously decreasing the likelihood that a car will be involved in an accident; 2) make driving accessible to everyone, regardless of ability; and 3) apply Toyota technology used for outdoor mobility to indoor environments, particularly for the support of seniors. We also plan to apply our work more broadly, for example to improve production efficiency and accelerate scientific discovery in materials," said Dr. Pratt in a press release.

But Pratt doesn't expect the work to be easy. “What we will do is engage in a whole variety of high-risk, high-reward projects and assume that only a small subset will be successful,” he told The Wall Street Journal.

The move may be a sign of a "changing of the guard" in Silicon Valley. Internet companies now fund a large majority of corporate research done in the area, typically focused on producing a product or service. However, Toyota's facility will bridge the gap between traditional industrial laboratories focused on basic science and modern product-oriented labs.

Toyota also isn't the first international corporation to make use of engineering talent in the region. Companies such as General Electric, Samsung, and Chinese search engine Baidu, as well as other major automakers have established research outposts in the area.

"As technology continues to progress, so does our ability to improve products. At Toyota, we do not pursue innovation simply because we can; we pursue it because we should. It is our responsibility to make life better for our customers, and society as a whole," says Mr. Toyoda.

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