In 1997, Hiroaki Kitano, a research scientist at Sony, helped organize the first Robocup, a robot soccer tournament that attracted teams of robotics and artificial intelligence researchers to compete in the picturesque city of Nagoya, Japan.
At the start of the first day, two teams of robots took to the pitch. As the machines twitched and surveyed their surroundings, a reporter asked Kitano when the match would begin. I told him it started five minutes ago! he says with a laugh.
Such was the state of AI and robotics at the time. It took a machine minutes to interpret its situation and work out what to do next. But much has changed, with AI increasingly helping machines, from self-driving cars to surveillance cameras, perceive and behave in clever ways.
Kitano now leads a new effort at Sony, announced in November, to infuse cutting-edge AI across the company. The Japanese giant believes AI will create smarter cameras, more cunning video game characters, and even the first helpful kitchen robots. Kitano says Sony believes AI is making such rapid progress that the company needed to make the technology central to its strategy.
We have decent AI researchers and engineers at Sony, and have a good sense of what's going on, says Kitano, who was attending the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence conference in New York this week. We decided now is a moment that we should really push.
Sonys move stands out among big companies efforts to embrace AI. It lags behind Silicon Valley giants in researching and harnessing AI. It also has different aims: Sony is more focused on content creation and entertainment than the likes of Google, Facebook, or Apple. The Japanese giant is now looking to match Americas AI titans by betting heavily on a powerful but still relatively experimental approach to AI known as reinforcement learning. Google parent Alphabet and Amazon have made notable investments in this technology, too.
Alphabets DeepMind famously used reinforcement learning to create a program capable of beating one of the worlds best Go players in 2016. Inspired by animal behavior, it involves an algorithm refining its behavior in response to positive or negative feedback.
We consider reinforcement learning is equally or possibly even more important, than the technologies that have driven most progress in AI to date, Kitano says. It's going to be the key.
Besides research demos, reinforcement learning is being tested in areas ranging from finance to logistics. It is also emerging as a powerful way for robots to learn to deal with the real world, and for training software agents to behave intelligently in simulated environments. So it may have huge potential to generate compelling video game characters and scenarios.
Reinforcement learning has been part of AI for decades, but its promise has become apparent thanks to powerful neural network algorithms, roughly modelled on the way learning happens in the brain; far more powerful computers, and large amounts of training data. Even so, it is experimental and notoriously difficult to get right. Research has shown, for example, how reinforcement learning algorithms can sometimes fixate on a reward that results in repetitive and useless behavior.
Sony will focus its AI on three domains, Kitano says: gaming, sensors, and, more curiously, culinary arts. These areas reflect the companys current business focus, and an aspirational direction for the future.
Sony is well known for making the PlayStation and games, but it also gets a large share of its revenue from digital sensors and imaging technology. It isnt hard to see how AI could improve these areas, by making games more compelling or lively or helping cameras perceive the world more intelligently.