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Here’s why Toyota is spending $1 billion on AI in Silicon Valley

November 6, 2015, 2:38 PM UTC

Toyota Motor Co (TM) is getting serious with its work on autonomous cars and robotics.

The world’s largest automaker said Friday it will invest $1 billion over the next five years in a new research center for Artificial Intelligence to be based in Silicon Valley, led by the man who was until recently designing prototype Terminators for the Defense Department (well, sort of).

The ‘Toyota Research Institute’, as it will be known, will have “an initial focus on artificial intelligence and robotics,” according to the company’s statement. It will be located near to the Palo Alto campus of Stanford University, with which the Japanese company already partners in researching AI.

Heading the institute will be Dr. Gill Pratt, a prominent AI expert who had previously worked at the U.S. Defense Advance Research Projects Agency. Tech blogs have speculated that Pratt was likely to end up at one of the established Silicon Valley giants now researching driverless vehicle technology, such as Google Inc. (GOOG) and, reportedly, Apple Inc. (AAPL).

Pratt joined Toyota earlier this year. He said Friday that Toyota has three goals:

  1. improve safety by continuously decreasing the likelihood that a car will be involved in an accident;
  2. make driving accessible to everyone, regardless of ability;
  3. apply Toyota technology used for outdoor mobility to indoor environments, particularly for the support of seniors.


The third of those priorities sheds an important light on Toyota’s priorities. The company has identified ‘support robots’ for domestic situations as an especially pressing priority, given Japan’s rapidly ageing population. In a recent interview with IEEE Spectrum, Pratt observed that while the share of over-65s in the population is already 25% in Japan, and will rise to 40% by 2030. In the U.S., for comparison, that share is expected to rise from 15% to 20% in the same timeframe.

Pratt said Friday that one of the personal experiences that had spurred him to take the Toyota position was having to take away his father’s car keys when Pratt Sr. reached 83 – “a terribly disappointing day for him and for us.”