Fanuc Invests in Startup as Robot Intelligence Race Heats Up

Fanuc Corp. announced a 900 million yen ($7.3 million) investment in artificial intelligence startup Preferred Networks Inc. as the race to endow industrial robots with learning capabilities heats up.

The world’s largest maker of automation equipment will use Preferred Networks’ machine learning techniques to create robots that can independently detect and correct production flaws, the companies said in a statement on Friday. They will also develop robots that cooperate with each other and share acquired knowledge with other machines via the cloud.

So-called deep learning algorithms, inspired by the way living things process information, are allowing Inc., Facebook Inc. and Google Inc. to analyze customer data by minimizing human involvement. Now hardware companies from Fanuc’s rival ABB Ltd. to Toyota Motor Corp. and Samsung Electronics Co. are partnering with or investing in AI companies to add problem-solving capabilities to their products.

“The way learning has been done until now meant that every little bit of knowledge was tremendously difficult to extract,” Fanuc President Yoshiharu Inaba said at a briefing at the company’s headquarters in the foothills of Mt. Fuji. “With this technology, not only learning can take place automatically, it can also be shared in seconds between thousands of machines.”

Fanuc expects to complete the investment by the end of September when it will hold 6 percent of Preferred Networks, the companies said. The two companies announced a research alliance in June.

The Tokyo-based AI company has also partnered with Toyota on self-driving cars and teamed with Panasonic Corp. for research into automotive and audio visual products.

ABB’s Move

ABB made a strategic investment of several million dollars into artificial intelligence startup Vicarious in November. That collaboration has already led to the two companies developing a robot together to test advanced AI movement and sensing technology, Vicarious co-founder Scott Phoenix said in an interview with Bloomberg earlier this month.

Vicarious has raised more than $70 million since starting in 2010 from investors including Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and actor Ashton Kutcher. The company also counts Samsung and Wipro Ltd. among its investors.

“Industrial and manufacturing applications can become one of our core businesses,” Preferred Networks Chief Executive Officer Toru Nishikawa said at the briefing. “This will lead to robots that are more efficient and productive. And eventually bring automation to areas where it previously wasn’t feasible.”