Robotics Experts Discuss Whirlwind Pace of Tech's Progress

Robotics industry leaders like Uber and Argo AI participated in panel discussions ranging from startups to the future of tech in Pittsburgh.

by Daniel Moore, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette / March 28, 2017
Founded by former Google and Uber leaders, Argo AI is bringing together some of the most experienced roboticists and engineers working in autonomy from inside and outside of Ford. media.ford.com/content

(TNS) -- In a crowded ballroom in the Pittsburgh Athletic Association, veterans of the robotics industry got a moment on Thursday evening to collectively catch their breath and reflect on how the whirlwind pace had changed the Steel City.

One point of agreement that united Pittsburgh-based operations of Uber, Argo AI and Iam Robotics: The lightning-fast progress in secretive research and development has outpaced the traditional industry forces of workforce development and public relations.

Notably, the jockeying for a small pool of engineers has been and will be a major hurdle.

“CMU cannot possibly do enough right now,” said Pete Rander, co-founder and chief operating officer of Argo AI, referring to the school’s world-renowned computer science and robotics programs.

Argo, an artificial intelligence firm founded late last year by engineers formerly of Uber, Google and Carnegie Mellon, is helping Ford Motor Co. develop a virtual driver system for a self-driving vehicle the automaker hopes to launch in 2021.

Since Ford announced a commitment of $1 billion in funding to Argo AI in February, Argo has started hiring. It hopes to hire 200 people by the end of this year.

While Mr. Rander said he wanted to hire only local Pittsburghers, he and chief executive Bryan Salesky agreed that was “a little unrealistic.” In addition to its Pittsburgh headquarters in the Strip District, Argo’s employees will be spread among hubs in Detroit and San Francisco.

That said, Mr. Rander and others said as Pittsburgh’s has elevated its profile on robotics, more people have been willing to relocate.

“There’s is a lot of competition for talent ... but as we’re getting known, we’re really growing the pot, too,” said Carl Wellington, a senior engineer at Uber Advanced Technologies Center. Since launching in 2015, Uber’s driverless vehicle operation in the Strip District has grown to employ more than 500 people, he said.

“If you’re coming into a city that, you know, isn’t Silicon Valley — if there’s just one company, that feels like a risky thing,” Mr. Wellington said. “But if there’s all these different companies, you’ll think, wow, there’s a lot going on. … There’s becoming this critical mass.”

The panel discussion, called “Pittsburgh Presents Robotics,” was organized by Downtown-based law firm Cohen & Grigsby.

Pittsburgh’s robotics industry — whose development of an autonomous car dates back three decades — has seen an explosion in growth.

By one count, Pittsburgh has a growing group of nearly three dozen robotics companies, said Jackie Erickson, a public relations professional who created the Pittsburgh Robotics Network last fall and took part in the discussion.

The organization is a fledgling attempt at a trade group, Ms. Erickson explained, to promote the city’s robotics ventures and encourage them to peel back at least some layers of secrecy to bring the public up to speed on their advances. That exposure will attract more investment, she said.

Mr. Wellington said that since Uber first rolled out its fleet of autonomous vehicles on Pittsburgh streets last year, the company has tried to communicate more with the public.

“That’s something we want to do more of, letting people be in the car and feel what it’s like,” he said, noting the value of immediate feedback from riders. “Going forward, we want to talk much more about how this technology is moving and what it means for cities, and what it means working with regulators.”

While billions of investment dollars are fueling the race for the autonomous car, some engineers find a smaller niche to make a bigger mark. That was true for Tom Galluzzo, founder and chief executive officer of Iam Robotics, which he spun out of CMU in 2013.

Last year, Mr. Galluzzo unveiled its flagship product, Swift, a fully autonomous “mobile picking robot” that can find items in a warehouse and pick them off the shelves.

Large and small companies alike could find a boost in Carnegie Mellon University’s Advanced Robotics Manufacturing Institute, an initiative that won more than $250 million — $80 million in start-up money from the Department of Defense and $173 million in commitments from partners including the Richard King Mellon Foundation — to launch in January.

The collaboration involves trying to get 123 companies, 40 academic institutions and 64 government and nonprofit agencies in 31 states to work together to advance American manufacturing.

©2017 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.