AI Rising: Boston Tech Dives Into Robot Cars With New Toyota Lab

By now, almost everyone has heard about self-driving cars. When a New Yorker cartoon uses the technology as a premise, you know it has gone mainstream—at least in concept.

The reality is that a huge amount of work lies ahead before robot cars will be accepted by society. Now it looks like the Boston area is getting seriously involved in that effort. In November, Toyota announced it is investing $1 billion over the next five years to establish new research and development facilities based near MIT and Stanford University. It’s all part of a new company, called Toyota Research Institute, that will focus on artificial intelligence and robotics. (Toyota is also investing $50 million to set up joint centers for basic research in AI at MIT and Stanford.)

The company’s facilities—one near Kendall Square in Cambridge, MA, and one in Palo Alto, CA—are opening this month. The initial plan is to staff them with about 200 people total. At the CES expo in Las Vegas last week, Toyota Research Institute’s CEO, Gill Pratt (pictured), announced the first group of hires. In the Boston area, they include John Leonard, an MIT professor who will work on autonomous driving; Brian Storey, an Olin College professor who’s in charge of accelerating scientific discovery; and Russ Tedrake, an MIT professor who’ll tackle robot simulation and control. Those three have part-time positions; see more details from IEEE Spectrum.

Pratt, a longtime Bostonian, is a pretty interesting choice to spearhead the effort. He’s a former MIT and Olin professor and was a program manager at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—he led the $100 million DARPA Robotics Challenge that concluded last year. (Disclosure: I was a postdoc in his MIT lab group 15 years ago—a story for another time.)

Pratt said in his remarks at CES that “Toyota’s goal is to move people across the room, across town, and across the country.” That speaks to the fact that the new company isn’t just about robot cars—it’s also about developing home robots and smart software, crunching big data, and ultimately trying to help Toyota innovate across the board.

Toyota Research Institute’s advisors include Rodney Brooks of iRobot, Rethink Robotics, and MIT fame; Daniela Rus, the current director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab; CEO Marc Benioff; and Geodesic Capital partner John Roos (formerly CEO of Wilson Sonsini and U.S. ambassador to Japan).

That’s certainly a lot of technical and business firepower. Whether it amounts to much will be seen over the next few years, as big tech companies from Google and Facebook to Amazon and Uber try to win the future of AI from their various positions. Meanwhile, other big automakers, from Audi to General Motors to Tesla, are all racing to develop self-driving cars and features.

On the local front, it’s surprising that it has taken five years since Google’s first robot-car announcement for a major commercial effort to take root in Boston. You can trace the underlying research back to DARPA’s driverless-car “grand challenges” of 2004 and 2005: no Boston-area teams figured prominently in those competitions, but a team from MIT did place in the 2007 “urban challenge.” Toyota clearly sees value in New England’s talent pool and expertise in robotics and AI, and it’s the first to put serious money where its mouth is.

In CEO Pratt, Toyota also seems to have found a good match. At last fall’s press conference, Pratt said the goal of Toyota Research Institute is “to bridge the gap between fundamental research and product development of life-saving and life-improving technologies.” That means making cars safer by developing automated technologies that help prevent accidents. It also means making cars more accessible for the elderly or those with physical challenges. It’s hard to discern yet the company’s specific plans for home robots, elder care, and other areas it says it will tackle.

Pratt relayed three life experiences that help motivate his work at Toyota. When he was in grade school, he came upon a fatal accident involving a boy on a bicycle who’d been struck by a car; hence the safety mission in his new role. When his dad turned 83, Pratt and his sister had to take his car keys away; hence accessibility. And a year later, his father had to be moved to a nursing home—where robots may start to play a role in the future (especially in Japan, where they are more widely celebrated).

So, will Toyota—and perhaps other big companies—successfully reinvent themselves through AI and robotics research?

That’s not too far-fetched, says one local startup leader. “GE is becoming a software company—it’s a fundamental shift,” says Jana Eggers, the CEO of Nara Logics, an artificial-intelligence and recommendations firm in Cambridge. “Mainstay companies are ready to take those steps forward. They see the next big opportunity.” She adds that artificial intelligence “is a new light. It’s a new place to look, and it’s showing results. That’s why people are excited.”

Nara Logics co-founder and CTO Nathan Wilson, who was previously a research scientist at MIT, says he has seen another big shift—one involving his peers in neuroscience and AI that is particularly relevant to Toyota.

“People who were studying consciousness now want to work on driverless cars,” Wilson says.

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