CES 2016: Toyota announces all-star leadership for $1B Research Institute

What happens when you give the most accomplished robotics, machine learning, and artificial intelligence researchers a boatload of money and a mandate to create? Toyota is about to find out.

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The Toyota Research Institute (TRI) just announced its technology leadership team at CES. And holy cow, talk about an All-Star lineup.

In November Toyota announced an initial five-year, $1 billion investment in TRI, which will be a research and development enterprise designed to bridge the gap between fundamental research in robotics and artificial intelligence and product development.

In other words, the mandate is to develop all the cool AI stuff happening in labs and DARPA-backed research projects and bring it to market. Comparisons have been drawn to famous industrial laboratories like Bell Labs and PARC, which are jointly responsible for an impressive chunk of silicon-age advances.

Some of TRI's specific mandates are to enhance the safety of automobiles, with the ultimate goal of creating a car that is incapable of causing a crash; to increase access to cars to those who otherwise cannot drive, including the handicapped and the elderly; to help translate outdoor mobility technology into products for indoor mobility; and to accelerate scientific discovery by applying techniques from artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Leading TRI is Gill Pratt, formerly head of the DARPA Robotics Challenge, a contest pitting humanoid robots against a Fukushima disaster-inspired obstacle course.

"Our leadership team brings decades of experience in pushing the boundaries of human knowledge in computer science and robotics, but we are only getting started," Pratt told a CES audience at the announcement yesterday. "Simply put, we believe we can significantly improve the quality of life for all people, regardless of age, with mobility products in all aspects of life."

The initial technical team includes:

  • Eric Krotkov, Former DARPA Program Manager - Chief Operating Officer
  • Larry Jackel, Former Bell Labs Department Head and DARPA Program Manager - Machine Learning
  • James Kuffner, CMU Professor and former head of Google Robotics - Cloud Computing
  • John Leonard, Samuel C. Collins Professor of Mechanical and Ocean Engineering, MIT - Autonomous Driving
  • Hiroshi Okajima, Project General Manager, R&D Management Division, Toyota Motor Corporation - Executive Liaison Officer
  • Brian Storey, Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Olin College of Engineering - Accelerating Scientific Discovery
  • Russ Tedrake, Associate Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, MIT - Simulation and Control

A couple names stand out. James Kuffner's research concerns path planning for obstacle avoidance, balance control, self-collision detection, and integrated sensor feedback systems. Those are obviously sweet spots if you're developing an autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicle, but much of Kuffner's work has dealt with humanoids.

It's an example of the rapid convergence of previously disparate corners of robotics research. It's also an example of how important TRI will be to the so-called robot revolution. It's a safe bet that path planning and collision avoidance advances made for vehicles will also be adapted to manufacturing processes, advanced humanoids, and companion robots.

Erik Krotkov has sent rovers to Antarctica to look for meteorites and does research on, among other things, perception and augmented reality to make operating remote robotic devices easier.

Pratt's team comprises hardcore roboticists and machine learning researchers, many of whom have been toiling away for years in academia. It's thrilling to imagine what they'll come up with backed by corporate money and a mandate to create.

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