Uber has been on everyone’s lips lately. She has as many opponents as fans, and this confrontation is sometimes very, very dramatic. But the most interesting thing remains behind the scenes – the company’s ambitious plans to take over the field of robotics, for example. Popular Science figured out why Uber should not be allowed into science and what this is fraught with for the development of technology.
Last spring, two engineers created an amazing robot: the 200-pound Chimpanzee. Now this wonder device will take part in the DARPA Robotics Challenge, one of the most famous Pentagon-funded robot competition. The goal of the competition is to create a robotic disaster relief agent. The Chimpanzee Giant Robot is a Carnegie Mellon University project and is one of the top contenders for the $ 2 million grand prize.
But if you do not know what machines are being designed at Carnegie Mellon University, then the rapid scientific activity of the robotics department may not be noticed. The laboratory is empty in the middle of the working day. Surprisingly, it is this faculty that also takes part in one of the largest programs in the United States for the development of robotics. And now the offices look like the premises of a museum, closed for reconstruction. To all questions about what happened to one of the most promising departments of the university, the answer is one – Uber.
The San Francisco-based company is an excellent example of what success means here. Uber recently received another $ 2,8 billion investment. The firm’s focus is now on building a self-driving car. Uber no longer wants to rely on taxis. Moreover, the use of robots promises to be more economical, which means it will create tough competition in the market.
In February, Uber announced a partnership with Carnegie Mellon University to build an artificial intelligence car. What the company did not announce is that it has also begun the process of poaching employees of the educational institution. In recent years alone, 50 of the 150 university workers have joined Uber. Carnegie Mellon has long been a leader in the study of robotics. It was here that those who created the first cars with artificial intelligence worked. But Uber isn’t the only one to covet this tidbit. In 2007, university employees were poached by Google.
However, mega-corporations like Amazon and Apple have their own market capture strategies. They invest huge amounts of money in laboratories and small teams, and then conduct their research under the heading “top secret”. Those who signed up for such cooperation will henceforth be prohibited from discussing and publishing their robotics projects separately. Google also went not far – in 2013, the company hired 8 ambitious companies at once, and representatives of these startups abruptly stopped any communication with the press. One of them was the Japanese project SCHAFT – the humanoid robot S-One. He even participated in the DAPRA Robotics Challenge. But as soon as Google got to the company, both the robot and the startup disappeared from the front pages of newspapers.
Rich Mahoney, director of robotics at SRI International and president of the Silicon Valley Robotics Industry, says that this way all innovation automatically goes into the hands of private companies. “There are hundreds, literally hundreds of engineers in Silicon Valley who are incredibly talented, and they don’t even get access to what’s going on in the robotics industry.”
The volume of investments in such startups and the general bloated market are reminiscent of the situation with Microsoft – remember how the company absorbed small firms one after another? What has changed is the strategy to capture and expand the market. If earlier the question was purely about the company’s position in the market, today all attention is focused primarily on the development team. Therefore, corporations such as Google and Uber first lure dozens of employees and only then take over startups. Meanwhile, the whole world is waiting for the appearance of Steve Jobs or Bill Gates from the world of robotics. But looking at how huge companies deal with unfinished talent, one cannot help but wonder: should we expect this genius at all?
There is another point of view on this issue. Many robot developers say they are very happy with the market situation. Among them is Vijay Kumar, a robotics engineer at the University of Pennsylvania. He does not deny the outflow of personnel from educational institutions, but believes that this is a natural phenomenon and the vector is chosen correctly. Looking at the volume and amount of investments, Kumar can only rejoice. Indeed, in general, the field of robotics and science is now receiving maximum attention and funds.