September 24, 2017      

Jim Adler, managing director of Toyota AI Ventures, will be among the speakers at RoboBusiness 2017 this week in Santa Clara, Calif. The Toyota robotics executive will be on the panel discussing “What We as Investors Look for in Robotics” on Wednesday, Sept. 27, at 3:00 p.m.

Adler started his career as a rocket engineer at Lockheed Martin and has worked on data security at several startups. He is a vice president at Toyota Research Institute (TRI), which is investing $1 billion in research and development of artificial intelligence, service robotics, and self-driving cars.

In addition, Adler is on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee.

“I’m happy to be in the middle of all this activity,” Adler recently told Robotics Business Review. “I’ve blogged about the connection between autonomous mobility and robotics, driven by AI, big data, and the cloud converging in these applications.”

Business Takeaways:

  • The latest Toyota robotics and AI investments are part of a company strategy to build safe, reliable self-driving cars, as well as robots to aid aging populations.
  • Converging and maturing technologies and international competition are driving factors behind the recent creation of startup funds.
  • The first recipients of Toyota AI Ventures funding are tackling specific challenges and know their markets.

Investing in innovation

In addition to the technology advances, global competitiveness has prompted a lot of interest in building the robotics ecosystem. Why are major multinationals like Toyota, SoftBank, and Baidu, not to mention Google parent Alphabet, setting up big robotics funds right now?

Jim Adler, managing director of Toyota AI Ventures

Jim Adler, managing director of Toyota AI Ventures

“There are tremendous innovations at universities and corporate R&D, like TRI, as well as at startups,” he said. “Startups are laboratories in the marketplace. They can innovate in ways that large companies like Toyota may not see.”

“We want to see how to help them, validate their products for market, and connect them to this amazing worldwide network of partners,” said Adler.

Toyota may be a huge enterprise, but its history was a good match for Adler’s own trajectory.

“I have a history of entrepreneurship in my career, and there’s a significant culture of entrepreneurship at Toyota,” he explained. “It pivoted from industrial looms to automobiles in the 1930s, and that spirit persists to this day.”

Fast but safe acceleration on self-driving cars

While some companies, such as Tesla, Uber, and Alphabet’s Waymo, are working on fully autonomous vehicles that they predict will be commonplace on roads soon, Toyota has taken a different approach.

“We believe that autonomy will be an increasingly important part of the automotive landscape, but drivers are likely to be a significant part for decades,” Adler said. “We think the transition will be gradual, but it will happen.”

“From Toyota’s perspective, as described by [TRI CEO] Gil Pratt, reliability and safety are first, then products will come to market,” he added. “Let experimentation reign. Let big corporations and small startups innovate, and we’ll see how fast we can responsibly move.”

Toyota robotics a natural extension

Like Honda and others, Toyota is looking at supporting AI and robotics alongside self-driving cars.

“From a robotics perspective, a car is a large robot with wheels,” Adler explained. “A human could become part of that system with driver assist, and over time, we might not need drivers at all, as [TRI Chief Technology Officer] James Kuffner has said.”

Toyota AI Ventures has $100 million to help bring a variety of technologies to market, and it has already invested in selected startups.

Intuition Robotics ‘voracious’ innovation

Israel-based Intuition Robotics is one of the first recipients of Toyota robotics funding. In July, it raised $14 million in a Series A round for its ElliQ AI-powered device for elder care.

Intuition Robotics' ElliQ service robot

Intuition Robotics’ ElliQ social robot

“TRI was conceived to reach out to aging populations, which is an acute problem in Japan and a growing problem in the U.S. and Europe,” Adler said. “We need to provide the ability for older adults to ‘age in place.’ How do we do that and provide a fulfilling experience for them?”

“There are mobility, manipulation, environmental, and social pieces,” he said. “What intrigued us is the cognitive piece. People are deceptively hard to understand — we do it with each other almost subconsciously. Putting that into technology is hard.”

“The sooner we engage that problem head-on, the sooner we’ll make progress,” Adler asserted. “We love Intuition’s team and its entrepreneurial instincts. We looked at the ‘thin edge of the wedge’ problem. If we can understand older adults, then we could help other populations.”

“Intuition got out of the building, talked to the market, and was willing to iterate voraciously,” he recalled. “What really resonated between Toyota and Intuition Robotics was the level of humility with which they approached the problem.”

“We don’t think we have all the answers,” Adler said. “[Intuition Robotics CEO] Dor Schuler and his team approach the problem the same way.”

“Unlike other robotics startups, they’re not just looking for nails to hit with hammers; they’re looking for what tech is appropriate to the right task,” he said. “I’m an electrical engineer — you have to want to apply a technique or technical approach to solving a problem.”

“The best innovators look to the market and then their toolbox,” Adler said. “You don’t have to reinvent everything. In the autonomous world, everyone’s trying to invent the whole stack — sensors, perception, navigation, etc. — this leads to overconfidence.”

More About Robotics, AI, and Autonomous Vehicle Investments:

Toyota robotics support spreading

Toyota has also supported SLAMcore and Nauto. Palo Alto, Calif.-based Nauto raised $159 million this past summer for its work on a set of AI-powered sensors and smart cloud network to monitor drivers and road conditions. Nauto’s technology would also collect data from inside and outside vehicles for further insights.

U.K.-based SLAMcore is developing algorithms to help drones, self-driving cars, robots, and augmented reality and virtual reality systems build maps and track their positions.

“We’re intrigued with SLAMcore’s approach to power consumption,” Adler said. “It’s an often-overlooked issue that limits the amount of useful work that a robot or vehicle could do. It also affects the ability to power, process video and high-value sensor inputs.”

Why are Toyota robotics investments so selective?

“It’s not a foot race,” replied Adler. “It’s better for us to take time and be thoughtful. Venture is a fast-past industry, working with startups, but frenzy leads to recklessness.”

“Toyota AI Ventures was funded initially at $100 million. As the market opportunity develops, we don’t know how it will play out,” he said. “It’s big enough to do significant things, but if it was much bigger, it would be tough to ramp up the team and put that money to work responsibly.”

“As the market evolves, we’ll continue to revisit the size of the fund and focus areas,” Adler said. “We’re learning to attack and defend at the same time — making the safest, most reliable cars and aligning with startups attacking the marketplace as it changes.”

Learn more about the criteria behind Toyota robotics and AI investments, as well as those of other venture capital firms, at RoboBusiness 2017 this week.