AI News, Gill Pratt Discusses Toyota’s AI Plans and the Future of Robots and Cars

Gill Pratt Discusses Toyota’s AI Plans and the Future of Robots and Cars

Pratt explained that a US $50 million RD collaboration with MIT and Stanford is just the beginning of a large and ambitious programwhose goal is developing intelligent vehicles that can make roads safer and robot helpers that can improve people’s lives at home.

In terms of the cars, there’s a fundamental difference between the Toyota approach and what some of the other companies are pursuing: we think that the feeling of amplified mobility that a car can give you—when you drive you feel that a car is an extension of yourself—that’s something we want to preserve and enhance even more.

Compared to what companies like Google, Apple, Uber, Tesla, and others are investing in autonomous vehicle technology, or what DARPA put into its autonomous vehicle and robotics challenges, or even what some robotics and AI startups have raised, $50 million is a modest sum.

While it’s true that Japanese firms, including Toyota, are careful and try to reach internal consensus about the right thing to do, my experience, even just recently as I interacted with many people here, is once they make the decision to do it, they go whole hog.

We hope to talk about that in the future, but we’re beginning this first move by funding longer term RD at the schools, because of the desire for that to feed the pipeline of people and ideas that are good for the field.

Consider that a car outdoors is really doing very much the same job as a robot indoors: it’s trying to move both people and things from place to place and to support and improve the human condition as a part of doing so.

Cloud robotics and deep learning, which you recently mentioned in an article about the future of robots, are certainly important advances, but what about innovations in robotic hardware—soft materials and new kinds of actuators, for example.

Here’s the really neat thing: I don’t know of a company on Earth that’s been better at manufacturing hardware than Toyota, and so I think it’s the perfect firm to try to achieve that goal of both raising the capability and lowering the cost.

If you know how that car works or any of the cars that use the drive system that came from it, there are actually two motor generators on the inside of the drive system, and it basically uses an electronic version of a transmission, so there aren’t any gearshifts within it.

For a company to say, “let’s go with the high complexity way of doing these things, because after very careful analysis we decided that that’s actually the one with the greatest promise,” ended up being the right thing to do, and of course, it captured most of the market with that system.

I think that it’s important for any field that, if you’re working on a particular thing for a while and you become mostly successful, you need to realize that maybe it’s time to stop doing that so much and to move on to something else where there’s a whole lot more things to be solved and good to be done.

I think that in the autonomous driving or intelligent car field, the idea of trying to follow a map and register the road with respect to the map, that’s the easy part.

But a car that is never responsible for a crash, regardless of the skill of the driver, will allow older people to be able to drive, and help prevent the one and a half million deaths that occur as a result of cars every single year around the world.

What I do know is that I’m going to try as hard as I can, and this first phase of the announcements, showing that we’re going to start by investing in basic RD, I think that’s a crucial thing to do, because they are the feeders of the pipeline of the talent and the ideas that we need most.

So we’re nowhere close to actually doing that, and we need to focus on the hard cases—the near misses, the bad weather, the fog, the rain, the snow, the dirty windshields, all of these things.

It’s all going to be extremely difficult, and so one of the wonderful basic research areas that MIT is going to work on is going to be how they do that kind of testing: they’ll use computational methods to take the physical tests that we do and to boost them to be representative of much more equivalent testing.

That said, the elder care needs in Japan are going to become much more severe than in the U.S. The number of people over age 65 in the U.S. will go from 15 percent to about 20 percent in 15 years, which is amazingly bad, but in Japan, it’s going to go from 25 percent right now to nearly 40 percent, an extraordinarily high number, and because the immigration in Japan is so low, they have a real crisis on their hands.

So the question is, if you had the choice of whether to age in place, at your own home, with a machine to help you do things—say, change your diapersor get you from the bed to the shower—or to move to a nursing home and have a series of strangers do these things to you, which do you prefer?

The favorite one I had—I think I may have said this before—was called Gigantor, and it was a dubbed version of a cartoon imported from Japan in the 1960s in the U.S. It was a Japanese robotnamed Tetsujin 28, and there was a little boy who got to tell it what to do, and the robot always came and saved the day.

[Laughs.] Now, the robots that I think are going to do the best, other than cars—because the cars of the future, and I think Rod Brooks made this point, are essentially going to become elder care robots that move us around out of doors—I’m looking forward to the machine that helps clean up the house, that puts away the groceries, that can remember where all our things are, and that basically does all of these things that are a kind of pain to do when you’re young and really hard to do when you’re old.

And then, in particular, when you get so old that it’s very difficult to get out of bed, I’d love to see a machine that helps me to do that, and actually helps me to walk, helps me to run, helps me to travel around, so I can still enjoy the freedom of mobility as if I were young.

It’s an amazing thing when a little child—and my wife and I have raised four of them—first learns to walk, and you see that smile on their faces that says “oh, I can get from here to there myself and I don’t need to wait for mom or dad to pick me up.” That’s a very different view of the word “autonomy” than we in the robotics field usually use.

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