Toyota’s robot revolution

The journey to better mobility for all

You may be surprised to hear that, for Toyota, robots play a far more significant role than merely manufacturing. From providing valuable care for the elderly and disabled, to revolutionising the way we engage with our vehicles, robots and artificial intelligence offer us all sorts of exciting possibilities for future mobility.

In a bid to improve quality and reduce costs, we started developing industrial robots for use in our manufacturing plants in the 1970s. Fast forward 30 years and our Partner Robot programme was then formed with the guiding philosophy of our founders at its heart: “to enrich society through manufacturing.” Research began to develop robots that had the ability to use tools, assist those with limited mobility and provide medical and nursing support. These were to be robots that lived in complete harmony with society.

Partner Robots come to life

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The first fruits of this labour appeared in 2005, when the first of these advanced machines arrived on the scene: Humanoid, i-foot and – two years later – Robina.

With the ability to move and coordinate its whole body, Humanoid could walk, use tools and famously play the trumpet (thanks to fully functioning fingers and lips) and, latterly, the violin. The shell-like cabin of i-foot offered free and easy mobility – that was fun to ride in – for the elderly. While in 2007, Robina could think for herself, carry objects and even hold a conversation. It’s even hoped that one day in the future she could become a ‘partner’ to our doctors and nurses.

Since 2011, new members of our Partner Robot family have been introduced to help in nursing and healthcare, domestic duties and short-distance personal transport.

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The Walk Assist Robot was designed to help those impaired by leg paralysis to walk, use stairs and sit down and rise from a chair.

The Care Assist Robot reduced the physical burden on the caregiver by helping them to lift patients from their beds and also enabled patients to move with ease between rooms in the home.

The compact Human Support Robot was designed to coexist with families in the home to improve their quality of life. Its articulated arm and telescopic body allowed it to pick up objects and fetch items around the house and even act as a Skype-like monitor.

Heart and soul in robotics

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In 2013, the Toyota Heart Project was announced under the theme “Inspiring the heart, inspiring you”. The aim of the new communication project was to conduct research into artificial research that inspired and built rapport with people, engaged in emotional communication – including expressions, gestures and memories – and displayed feelings, fondness and trust.

As part of the project, later that year we revealed voice recognition technology and natural language processing for Kirobo, a robot astronaut that was part of the Kibo Robot Project, a joint research project between four companies.

Robot Kirobo spent 18 months on the International Space Station where it made history by becoming the first robot to speak in space: “On 21 August 2013, a robot took one small step towards a brighter future for all”, it said, later successfully completing the world’s first space-based conversation with JAXA astronaut Koichi Wakata.

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At the 2015 Tokyo Motor Show, we took the concept of Kirobo one step further – and smaller – with Kirobo Mini. Sitting 100mm tall, the warm-hearted little ‘communication partner’ was created to accompany owners in their daily lives, offer companionship and interact in a meaningful way.

When an owner begins to speak, the little companion turns his head towards them and engages in casual conversation, naturally moving its head and hands as it does so. Understanding what’s being said, as well as interpreting facial expressions, Kirobo Mini can respond to emotions and even remember its user’s likes, dislikes and past events. The lucky owners can take their new friend home in 2017, from selected Japanese dealerships.

New perspectives on the world

As part of our belief that the freedom of movement should be enjoyed by everyone, in 2016 we introduced a wearable device for the blind and visually impaired called Project Blaid that helps users experience more of the world that simply cannot be provided by canes, dogs and GPS devices.

The horseshoe-shaped device, fitted with onboard cameras, sits around a user’s shoulders and detects objects such as signage, escalators, stairs and shop front logos around them. Voice recognition, buttons, speakers and vibration are utilised to interact with the user, while Bluetooth® technology allows the pairing of a smartphone for additional functionality. Even at the start of its journey, the Project Blaid concept offers an exciting glimpse at a future for the blind and visually impaired.

An artificial intelligence future

2015 will be remembered as a land-mark moment in accelerating our artificial intelligence and robotics know-how. We announced the formation of Toyota Research Institute Inc. (TRI), a new company with headquarters located near Stanford University and with a second facility near Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), each housing an artificial research centre inside the university.

Following an investment of $1 billion to begin studies – in addition to an earlier $50 million investment to establish the two centres – TRI’s primary mission is to use artificial intelligence and big data to accelerate research and development to help resolve challenges in the future as well as contribute to a sustainable future where everyone can experience safer, freer and unconstrained life.

Tasked with three initial goals: decrease the likelihood of cars being involved in accidents; increase accessibility to mobility, regardless of ability; aid indoor mobility, particularly for the elderly – we believe the knowledge TRI can garner from artificial intelligence has the potential to significantly change technology in the future and, as a result, fulfill our dream where society means mobility for all.

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