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Startups

Japanese unicorn promises 'robots for everyone' in 5 years

Preferred Networks looks to challenge tech leaders like Google and Apple

A home robot with a brain made by Preferred Networks can tidy up a room all on its own, the first of its kind in the world. (Photo by Shihoko Nakaoka)

TOKYO -- Within five years, consumers will enjoy an all-purpose household robot that will help them make dinner, brings dishes to the sink and tidies up while they are out. That's the goal of Toru Nishikawa, 35-year-old founder CEO of Preferred Networks, a Tokyo-based technology startup.

"We want to bring such robots to the market within five years and see them being used. Ten years is too long to wait," he said in an interview with the Nikkei Asian Review. "There is demand. The challenge is how to make personal robots available at affordable prices."

Describing his vision of "robots for everyone," Nishikawa aims to make his four-year-old startup a global technology leader like Google or Apple by becoming the first company to supply affordable home robots to households worldwide.

That initiative will require substantial funding and going public is one option, he said. But there are other ways, such as by garnering additional investment from existing stakeholders like Toyota Motor. Preferred Networks is majority-owned by its two founders.

The most valuable startup in Japan -- worth an estimated $2 billion -- believes it is in a good position to realize its dream, thanks to its prowess in artificial intelligence. The industry's focus has shifted into making robots that are not only smarter, but also sturdy and agile.

At October's annual Japanese consumer-electronics show Ceatec, Preferred Networks unveiled what it claims as the world's first robot capable of tidying up a room filled with scattered toys, clothes, slippers and potato chips. Give the robot an order and it goes to work immediately, stopping only when everything is in the right place. Change the instruction and the robot responds accordingly. It can now recognize 300 household items -- even when they are placed upside down or crumpled up.

Such a task may seem more mundane than performing complex motions like a backflip. But it is far more relevant to everyday life, and requires additional sensory systems such as vision, hearing or gripping, company officials said.

That's where the company's AI technology comes in. A robot is taught how to pick up an object by having it observe and analyze a large number of images of the object being grabbed -- a process called machine learning. Preferred Networks provides its AI technology for Toyota Motor's autonomous driving systems as well as robots produced by Fanuc.

Preferred Networks founding CEO Toru Nishikawa unveiled his "robots for everyone" vision at the Ceatec consumer electronics show in Chiba on Oct. 16. (Photo by Mitsuru Obe) Preferred Networks founding CEO Toru Nishikawa unveiled his "robots for everyone" vision at the Ceatec consumer electronics show in Chiba on Oct. 16. (Photo by Mitsuru Obe)

Nishikawa foresees the day that personal robots, rather than chatbots like Google Home, will play a more prominent role in the household. Unlike chatbots, robots would not depend on wireless connections to operate appliances or electronic devices. The vast majority of household items will never be digitally connected.

"The evolution of robots will follow that of computers," Nishikawa said. Just as computers evolved from large mainframe devices used only in laboratories into compact machines that fit on anyone's desk, so robots will transition from cumbersome factory equipment to personal models that can assist people in their daily lives.

Demand for personal robots is potentially huge, estimated to be worth hundreds of billions of dollars, said Ryosuke Okuta, the company's chief technology officer. Such robots will be of particular help in Japan, where the number of seniors living alone, or married couples with both spouses working, are on the increase.

Personal robots can also produce immediate returns in the business field. "Tidying-up" models can be used for stocking operations in retail outlets and distribution centers, for instance.

"We are not going to be just providing AI technology," Nishikawa said. "We will provide solutions by combining AI and robotics. That's where we want to go."

To that end, Preferred Networks has the backing of nine outside investors, including Toyota and Fanuc. "They are more interested in long-term growth of the company than short-term returns," Nishikawa said.

The company is also seeking support from other partners.

"It would be ideal for us to collaborate with hardware companies or manufacturers that make this kind of robot platforms, so that we don't have to do everything by ourselves," said Jethro Tan, robot engineer. "Rather than thinking everybody is a competitor, we would rather see them collaborate with us and realize the dream."

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