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Toyota to pour $1bn into robotics research in US

AI researcher Gill Pratt, left, will head Toyota's new research venture.

TOKYO -- Toyota Motor will invest $1 billion over five years in a new U.S. subsidiary for artificial intelligence research, joining Google and other technology giants seeking to tap this promising, versatile field.

     "Artificial intelligence and big data will become core technologies that have the potential to greatly alter our lives and society," President Akio Toyoda told a press conference Friday, explaining the plan. "In addition to automobiles, they will come to support various industries."

     The Toyota Research Institute will be established in January in Palo Alto, California, near Stanford University, a top AI research institution. Facilities will be set up in Boston and Tokyo as well. The automaker aims to employ 200 researchers.

     Gill Pratt, a leading light in AI research and organizer of the robotics challenge held by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, has been tapped as CEO. Toyota hopes to use Pratt's connections and name recognition to attract talent.

     The institute will research safety and robotics as well as accessibility for populations such as the elderly and disabled, Pratt said Friday.

     Toyota views AI as "crucial to its own survival," in the words of the president.

     AI that can complement or replace human responses is key to self-driving cars and other safety technologies that automakers are racing to bring to market. If Toyota lags on research, it could cede the initiative. Other promising applications include nursing robots and big data analysis to improve production efficiency.

     Competition for talent is heating up as major companies worldwide pour billions of dollars a year into the field. Google hired AI researchers from the University of Toronto, including professor Geoffrey Hinton, to improve services such as image searching and voice recognition. It also is working to use the technology in its self-driving cars, creating competition across industry lines.

     Facebook set up an AI laboratory in 2013 that employs about 50 people in areas including image and voice analysis. Outside Silicon Valley, IBM and Chinese search giant Baidu are hiring talent in the field and partnering with start-ups. Toyota will offer employees benefits on par with rival companies, Pratt said.

(Nikkei)

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