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Toyota starts serious work on artificial intelligence

Sets up billion-dollar research institute

Toyota Research Institute

If you’re an '80s kid, chances are you remember KITT, or the Knight Industries Two Thousand. This was the smart-aleck black Pontiac Tans Am that was the star of the TV series Knight Rider. One of KITT’s most famous features was that it had a mind of its own, could talk back to its driver, and drive itself--all in the name of safety for its occupants and for those on the road.

While all this is a product of Hollywood’s vivid imagination, the auto industry is beginning to make a lot of these fantasies a reality. Self-driving cars, networked mobility, and now artificial intelligence (AI) are on the verge of production. They may not be rolled out just yet, but more than a few automakers believe they will be part of our motoring future.

One of these players is Toyota. In fact, the Japanese carmaker is so confident about AI that it has even set up a company to continuously conduct research-and-development work in this field. Known as Toyota Research Institute, the firm aims to "bridge the gap between fundamental research and product development." It will essentially help resolve society’s future challenges via the use of big data and AI.

Headed by Toyota’s executive technical advisor, Dr. Gil Pratt, the new company will operate out of two locations: one in Silicon Valley, close to Stanford University in Palo Alto, California; and another facility near the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. To show its confidence in the new company and the field itself, Toyota has even bankrolled a massive $1 billion fund over the next five years for staffing and R&D activities.

So, what has all this talk of AI got to do with our motoring lives? Dr. Pratt actually sums it up in three points: (1) Improve road safety by decreasing the occurrence of accidents; (2) Make driving accessible to everyone, even if they are differently abled; and (3) Utilize technology for outdoor mobility in indoor applications. In short, they are looking at a future where people and cars coexist in a safe, stress-free environment where there are no accidents or mishaps. Moreover, they aim to make driving as enjoyable to everyone as possible. After all, a stress-free drive is a pleasant one.

Of course, all this sounds like a pipe dream at the moment. But so did KITT three decades ago. And while we still don’t have a car that we can have a conversation with, the mere thought that we can soon switch to autopilot without fear of crashing seems exciting. Who knows? Artificial intelligence might soon make responsible driving on our chaotic streets a reality.


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