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The Rise of Robot Intelligence

Mujin, Inc., a venture firm originating at Tokyo University, has devised technology that makes industrial robots capable of autonomous and intelligent action. Why did this company—staffed primarily by foreigners—choose to develop its business in the Japanese market?

Aventure firm out of Tokyo University called Mujin, Inc. has invented groundbreaking technology that gives industrial robots that were previously just manufacturing machines only capable of repeating preprogrammed functions the power to reason about their surrounding environment. With its core technologies based on a robot-control system called OpenRAVE developed by its American chief technology officer and cofounder Dr. Rosen Diankov, the company is focused on developing and selling high-added-value products such as the Mujin Controller, its intelligent robot controller. Using this technology, robots will be able to automatically determine optimal operations with only a small amount of input data.

The company, which Diankov cofounded with CEO Issei Takino, is located near Tokyo University in Bunkyo Ward’s Hongo district. Eleven of its fifteen staff members are non-Japanese, and combined they represent seven different nationalities—American, Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian and Portuguese. Their collective goal is to achieve innovation within an internationally rich and diverse environment.

Mujin’s Pick Worker bin-picking system—which handles operations that involve going through a bin of multiple objects, picking them up one-by-one, and transferring them to a separate location—is being delivered to major automotive and distribution companies. Its success has pumped up the Mujin brand’s industry profile.

Diankov spoke about his company with quiet confidence. “Leading robot makers and other manufacturing companies in Japan are starting to use our technologies with very keen interest,” he says. “There are no major competitors yet in regard to our technology, and I don’t believe we will have any serious competition in the near future, either, with regard to our style of business.”

After earning his doctorate at Carnegie Mellon University in the U.S., Diankov set his sights on Japan, and taught himself Japanese. “While I was definitely influenced by my professor at Carnegie Mellon, Takeo Kanade, an authority in robotics,” he explains, “I was also deeply impressed by the crazy-high level of Japanese technology.”
In contrast to the strong resistance in the U.S. to industrial robots, where the presence of an abundant migrant workforce leads many to believe that robots will take jobs away from humans, Japanese corporations are progressive in incorporating robots at the front lines of manufacturing.

Seeing the marvelous productivity gains robots provide, Diankov is certain that, with the declining birthrate and aging population reducing Japan’s working population, there is an environment of acceptance toward robot technology here. “The rapid progress Japanese auto manufacturers made compared to the rest of the world is a good indication of that,” he says. “When you talk about the robotics field, it has to be Japan.

“As we develop the branding of our technology with an eye toward global development, if we possess an advantage it is our track record for incorporation in Japan,” he continues. “The reason is that the Japanese manufacturing industry, the automotive sector in particular, is trusted worldwide and has branding power.”

At this company staffed mainly by foreigners—who all possess world-class abilities—the decision-making process is fast. In commercializing his business, Diankov has received venture capital funding from Tokyo University Edge Capital and JAFCO, and is targeting an IPO in as little as three to five years. His roadmap for success involves expanding the scale of his business and advancing into Asia and eventually Europe and North America.

“Technology will make society a better place,” Diankov declares. “With the power of software, we can make industrial robots around the world easier and more convenient to operate. Better products can therefore be provided more inexpensively, and that will improve people’s lives and productivity across the globe.”

While he has experienced the difficulties of Japan’s corporate society, Diankov mentions that the Japanese manufacturing industry’s passion for improving their technologies impresses him. “So within that, one of my roles is to maintain an open international culture,” he notes. “Our activities are helping to increase awareness of the importance of robotic intelligence and pushing the industry to the next generation of technology.” His avowed goal is to have all factories incorporate Mujin Controllers within the next two decades.