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Fanuc picks Nvidia over Japan chipmakers as partner on AI robots

Fanuc wants to put thinking caps on factory robots using Nvidia's chips.

TOKYO -- Nvidia, the world's largest provider of graphics chips for the gaming industry, announced a technology partnership Wednesday with Fanuc in the field of smart factory robots.

The Japanese maker of factory automation equipment will use the U.S. company's chips as the artificial intelligence engine for its industrial robots, creating 'thinking robots' that learn skills on their own.

Speaking in Tokyo, Nvidia founder and CEO Jen-Hsun Huang noted that as the epicenter of the robot revolution, it is only fitting that Japan is the stage for the fusion of AI with manufacturing.

But the partnership is also a stark reminder that even in the field of industrial machinery, an area where Japan excels, the 'brains' of the machines are the domain of U.S. companies.

Huang said that Nvidia and Fanuc share a common vision of the factory of the future staffed by robots using AI to learn tasks. These robots will be able to rewrite their own software and communicate with fellow robots in an autonomous fashion to boost productivity dramatically.

Fanuc just recently launched an initiative with more than 200 machinery makers, IT companies and other enterprises from in and outside Japan to develop next-generation factory systems melding AI with "internet of things" technology. Nvidia is the latest to join this initiative. What Fanuc is working to develop will take the world by storm, Huang said.

Although Nvidia has long been a leading maker of GPU chips for the rapid processing of huge volumes of image data for games and other computer graphics applications, its recent fame stems from its microprocessors for self-driving cars.

The company offers what are considered the best chips to serve as AI engines in self-driving cars. With a who's who of old and new automakers, such as Toyota Motor, BMW and Tesla Motors, utilizing the chips, Nvidia is rapidly becoming a leader in the field. Leveraging that strength, the U.S. chipmaker has begun advancing into a variety of other sectors.

Given Japan's strength in industrial machinery, one might expect Japanese chipmakers to be more involved. But whereas dominant U.S. chipmakers like Intel and Qualcomm have focused their resources on specific sectors such as PCs, servers and smartphones, Japanese chipmakers have engaged in an overly broad range of fields. Their high cost structure, stemming partly from scattered product lines, is a drag that has exposed them to repeated setbacks.

The semiconductor industry is a winner-take-all world. With Japanese chipmakers unable to put up a good fight in the areas of self-driving cars and robots, it seems that U.S. companies will be left to set the global standards.

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