Toyota Hires Top U.S. Military Robotics Engineer for AI Push

Toyota Motor Corp. has hired Gill Pratt, the U.S. military’s top robotics engineer, as part of a $50 million investment in artificial-intelligence research designed to reduce highway deaths and injuries.

Joint research centers will be established at Stanford University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the automaker said in a statement Friday. Pratt, who taught at MIT for several years, had been program manager for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s robotics efforts.

Automakers are studying artificial intelligence as demographic shifts such as aging, population increases and the growth of megacities pose challenges for mobility. Toyota and the teams at the two schools will focus on improving a vehicle’s ability to recognize objects, navigate different environments and interact with other cars and pedestrians.

“One million people worldwide die in car accidents every year,” Pratt said at the Toyota announcement in East Palo Alto, California, near the Stanford campus. “Our goal is to eliminate highway collisions without eliminating the fun of driving.”

Toyota also is thinking beyond cars. The Toyota City, Japan-based company wants to use artificial intelligence and robotics to help older people “age in place” rather than having to move into nursing homes or care facilities.

“People talk about autonomy as if the goal is just to create autonomy in machines,” Pratt said. “The focus of the effort today is on the autonomy of people.”

Daniela Rus, an electrical engineering and computer science professor, will lead the team at Cambridge, Massachusetts-based MIT. Fei-Fei Li, director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, will head the team at that university.