Future Tech

An AI star seeks to bring self-driving cars to Japan by 2030

Tan KW
Publish date: Mon, 22 Apr 2024, 03:03 PM
Tan KW
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Future Tech

Issei Yamamoto became one of Japan’s best-known developers of artificial intelligence when his algorithm defeated the top-ranked player of Japanese chess. Now, he’s pursuing an even more challenging task of human emulation: achieving a fully self-driving automotive system.

The 38-year-old is returning to the public eye with the backing of some of Japan’s biggest businesses, including a unit of Mizuho Financial Group Inc and NTT Docomo Ventures Inc, which have invested in his startup, Turing Inc. The firm raised 3bil yen in a seed round valuing it at US$100mil , according to people familiar with the matter.

Turing stands out in a country that appears to have fallen behind in the race to produce next-generation electric and autonomous cars. Japan is home to some of the world’s largest automakers including Toyota Motor Corp and Honda Motor Co, which for years favoured the internal combustion engines used in conventional gasoline cars and hydrogen-powered ones. They’re now fighting to demonstrate leading-edge AI expertise in self-driving development, which is a high priority for outfits like Tesla Inc and Mobileye Global Inc.

"There’s no reason we can’t do it,” Yamamoto, chief executive officer of Turing, said in an interview in Tokyo. "I keep telling people, ‘We can do it too’.”

Yamamoto sees opportunity in Japan’s shortage of key autonomous driving technologies and co-founded Turing in 2021 with chief technology officer Shunsuke Aoki to fill that gap. Their team developed Heron, a machine learning AI model with as many as 70 billion parameters.

Turing plans to unveil a self-driving car with at least 30 minutes’ driving range next year and develop a fully autonomous car by 2030.

Under consideration are plans to roll out as many as 10,000 vehicles by 2030. The company is also pursuing the possibility of licensing its model to automakers interested in adopting Heron. It’s developing chips that will help cars run AI, for possible mass production in 2028.

To achieve full automation, Turing’s engineers are adopting the more ambitious approach of training their AI to learn everything by itself, shying away from rule-based algorithms, according to Yamamoto. While rule-based systems are simpler to develop, they have limited capability when handling complex tasks and uncommon scenarios. Heron’s machine learning program will pursue sophistication close to human intelligence, Yamamoto said.

He rose to national fame in 2017 after a publicly-aired shogi match where his AI algorithm Ponanza won against then-Meijin Amahiko Sato. Sato told reporters at the time that Ponanza’s moves were "eccentric” and went "beyond his intuition”. Yamamoto said AI will only become stronger over time across industries.

"Big shot US companies, they all started from zero. Elon Musk too,” Yamamoto said. "Japan needs a startup like us.”

But the country’s auto behemoths are no longer sitting idle. Toyota has partnered with Chinese firms to launch robotaxis while Honda plans to start a driverless taxi service in Tokyo in early 2026 with General Motors Co. Nissan Motor Co. is also piloting driverless taxi services in a city near Shanghai with local companies.

"We’ll either go big or perish,” CTO Aoki told YouTube channel Pivot. "It’ll be one or the other.”

 - Bloomberg

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