Tue, Jun 21, 2016 - Page 15 News List

Toyota researcher foresees robots in mass production


The researcher hired by Toyota Motor Corp to spearhead its robotics and artificial intelligence efforts said the automaker’s production principles can be applied to build affordable helper robots for rapidly aging societies.

Robot makers are struggling with the same scale challenges that the auto industry overcame with the “miracle” that occurred when Henry Ford developed the assembly line, Toyota Research Institute chief executive officer Gill Pratt said.

Toyota’s vaunted production system later showed how to make vehicles both more cheaply and reliably, despite mistake-prone humans’ role in manufacturing, he said.

“My thought is, if the Toyota production system can be applied to cars, maybe it can also be applied to robots, because they’re quite similar,” Pratt told reporters on Friday in Tokyo.

He is particularly sanguine about the prospects for devices that would help the elderly age where they live.

“The car of the future and the robot of the future in the home are both essentially doing the same thing,” he said.

Toyota had been delving into robotic applications beyond cars before the company’s president Akio Toyoda hired Pratt last year to run a research institute that it is to fund with US$1 billion over five years. The interests are in keeping with a push by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for a “robot revolution” in Japan, with a a target to more than quadruple the nation’s robotics industry sales to ¥2.4 trillion (US$22.95 billion) by 2020.

Toyota has been working on a motorized wheelchair that scales stairs, a wearable that guides the blind, a helper device that retrieves objects for the bedridden and sneakers for patients rehabilitating the ability to walk and stay balanced.

The world’s largest automaker is forging ahead in robotics as Google, the technology giant and a challenger in the race to develop driverless cars, shows signs of pulling back. Google’s parent Alphabet Inc has put Boston Dynamics up for sale after concluding it is not likely to produce a marketable product within the next few years, it was reported in March.

Toyota Research Institute is among the potential acquirers, a person familiar with the matter said.

The Nikkei newspaper this month reported that Toyota’s institute was in final talks with Google to purchase both Boston Dynamics and SCHAFT, the robot company founded by two Tokyo University engineers.

Pratt declined to comment on whether either acquisition is in the works.

He said he knows both companies well, having joined Toyota from running the robotics challenges put on by the US military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Both competed in those challenges, with SCHAFT winning one of the trial races, he said.

Initially reluctant to embrace automated driving, Toyoda said when setting up the research institute that his views had changed.

The grandson of Toyota’s founder suggested accepting the technology could be a matter of survival, hearkening back to cars replacing horses as the preferred means of transportation and saying he wanted vehicles to remain loved by people.

“The car of the future is as much about software as it is about hardware, and as you put software and hardware together, what you get is a robot,” Pratt said.

Toyota has the means to apply the same scale it has used to make Corolla compact cars affordable in bringing down the cost of robots.

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