Toyota is giving robot helpers more brains, but they’ll still suck for a while

Toyota is giving robot helpers more brains, but they’ll still suck for a while

A new Japanese research effort aims to use cutting-edge AI algorithms to deliver robots capable of assisting the elderly and people with disabilities.

What’s new: Toyota is teaming up with Preferred Networks, a Japanese AI company, to sprinkle a little intelligence over the assistive robots it’s currently working on. The two companies said in an announcement this week that the collaboration would “aim to develop service robots that cater to market needs at the earliest opportunity.”

Deep thoughts: Preferred Networks, founded in 2014, specializes in deep learning, the technology behind today’s big AI boom. The company’s algorithms are already employed in healthcare imaging, industrial automation, and autonomous driving. The new research project is a sensible move, then—demand for assistive robots could be huge in Japan and elsewhere in coming years.

Messy stuff: Simply incorporating deep learning into robots won’t be enough to make them truly smart. Researchers are making progress on robotic learning, but it remains incredibly challenging for a robot to operate reliably in messy, unstructured, real-world situations. Simply finding a cup and bringing it to your bedside, for example, may require a huge amount of adaptation and improvisation.

Thinking big: Toyota has made a big bet on AI in recent years, through the Toyota Research Institute and Toyota AI Ventures. The company’s main goals are improving autonomous driving and creating new kinds of robots. Progress in both areas might be gradual, but the payoffs could be huge.