Gill Pratt: Visionary Technologist

The head of the Toyota Research Institute is all about automotion

“We’re trying to make robots and human beings work together.” Says Gill Pratt – boss of the Toyota Research Institute.

This is, presumably, an easier thing to say than to actually do.

But Gill Pratt is not a guy looking for a ride down easy street. In fact, he is a man with his nose pressed hard up against the glass of the near future.

A little over a year ago, Toyota plucked him from the murky world of the US Military to head up Toyota’s new mega budget, far sighted, R&D facility – where Artificial Intelligence (AI) robotics and the human brain are being honed and synced.

The mission is to revolutionise the very way we move.

It’s natural progression for a company that has been one of the real innovators of automotive technology.

So, who is Gill Pratt? It’s no great surprise that his academic achievements read like a university prospectus, but to cut to the chase he holds a doctorate in electrical engineering and computer science from, where else, The Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Which is always handy if you want to get into Wired Magazine or work in Silicon Valley.

After graduating he stuck around at MIT and became Associate Professor at their Leg Lab, where they study – yes – legs. They literally focus exclusively on human and animal locomotion and try to replicate it in robots. 
He also helped set up and became a Prof at the innovative Franklin W Olin college of creative engineering before becoming a Government Man in 2005 when he joined the American agency DARPA to head up the development of cutting edge robotics for the military.

Dr. Pratt’s field of expertise is clearly robotics and intelligent systems, but as his opening quote says, he is particularly fired up about where the human mind and the machine meet. He wants to apply the principles of human neuroscience to artificial systems like robots and AIs. 
But Gill Pratt is much more than just a theorising academic or a government sponsored builder of Robocops. He understands, and is comfortable in, the commercial world, having set up three successful start-ups between 1983 and 2005 he is perfectly at home in a huge commercial enterprise funded by the world’s biggest car manufacturer.

The TRI has its headquarters in Palo Alto, Silicon Valley. The facility has been tasked with four initial goals. First and foremost, on the minds and white boards of the Institute’s over achievers, is safety. It may sound a little dull, but they’re not talking about better crumple zones or softer airbags. These guys aim high and won’t stop until they’ve achieved their goal of developing a car that won’t crash, regardless of – or despite – the state, skill level or involvement of the Homo Sapiens at the helm.

Second on the to do list in cleverville is to increase access to vehicles for people who are at present excluded from driving them, such as those with special needs, disabilities or age related issues.

Next, Toyota intend to take all this learning, as well as their already unarguable skill and to apply it to moving people around in indoor environments.

The mind boggles at this truly moveable feast.

Finally, and most loftily, the fourth remit of Dr. Pratt and his team at TRI is one that edges away from the purely commercial enterprise and moves into the space of Social Enterprise.  The claim is that they want to push back the boundaries of machine learning and material sciences for the good of us all. Yes, that’s right, not just Toyota drivers but us all – maybe even cyclists – but not the ones who go out in groups of fifty on a Sunday morning dressed up like the Olympic squad.
And if all this sounds like they are just blowing smoke back up your Ford Blue Motion exhaust pipe then consider the fact that the multiple ground breaking tech patents on the Mirai – as featured in this edition – hydrogen car are all open source, there for anyone to use.

As Pratt himself points out with his typical futurist optimism, the vast amount of information a vehicle gathers on its travels – about itself, its driver and about the environment it moves through can and should be ‘used for tremendous social good’.

It’s a refreshing utopian vision of the future to put against the much noisier dystopian man vs machine tropes we are more accustomed to hearing.

Less ‘Blade Runner’, more ‘Nice Little Runner’.

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  • David Rowinski

    It was back in the 60s when I was in high school that I then thought that the best fuel in an internal combustion engine was Hydrogen. I am glad to see that this concept is finally – although slowly – coming around.