A Sleeping Giant Stirs Sony launches three AI R&D centers.

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2 min read
Robot cooking and serving food

Sony, the consumer-electronics powerhouse behind the PlayStation and other hit gadgets, is launching three research-and-design centers to focus on AI. Staffing up means competing with — and likely poaching talent from — frontrunners like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft.

What’s new: The company next month will open AI offices in Tokyo, Austin, and a European city to be named. The company says it will hire local machine learning engineers. It hasn’t said how many it will employ.

The plan: Hiroaki Kitano, president of Sony’s Computer Science Laboratories, will lead the effort. His vision encompasses three areas: Gaming, sensing and hardware, and — surprise! — gastronomy. Sony provided few details, but other news offers clues:

  • Gaming: In September, Sony filed for a patent on an AI assistant to guide gamers through tricky spots by, say, adding markers to health stations. Gaming insiders speculate that AI could produce more realistic enemies and interactions with the game world.
  • Sensors: Sony is a top maker of chips that turn light into electrons for devices like digital cameras. Sales of these CMOS sensors brought in $1.8 billion in the second quarter of 2019, 20 percent of total revenue. AI could improve the chips’ ability to sense depth.
  • Gastronomy: The company wants to analyze the sensory aspects of food to create new dishes. Food-service automation also may be in the mix: Last year, Kitano oversaw research at Carnegie Mellon University developing robots for meal prep, cooking, and delivery.

Behind the news: Sony’s Computer Science Laboratories is known for its independence, secrecy, and freedom to pursue blue-sky projects. The division’s most notable product is Aibo, the AI-powered robot dog. It also did pioneering research in augmented reality and developed video conferencing protocols.

Why it matters: Sony invested in AI in the 1990s and early 2000s, but it sat out the deep learning revolution. With AI centers in the U.S. and Europe, the Japanese company likely will focus on consumer products and experiences while competing for talent with companies that dove into deep learning head-first.

We’re thinking: Kitano has passion and clout, but he also has an awful lot on his plate. Outside of Sony, he’s the founding president of the RoboCup Federation, an international group of computer scientists aiming to win the 2050 World Cup with a team of robot soccer players. Meanwhile, he runs the nonprofit Systems Biology Institute and holds a professorship at the Okinawa Institute of Research and Technology.


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