Commentary

Uber Hails Geometric Intelligence, Launches AI Labs

Uber is buying Geometric Intelligence, a 15-person artificial intelligence startup based in New York, and will transport it intact to Silicon Valley, where it will become Uber AI Labs. 

The lab will be run by Geometric’s founding CEO, Gary Marcus, an author and professor of psychology and neural science at NYU, according to a short blog post by Uber chief product officer Jeff Holden announcing the acquisition. Zoubin Ghahramani, a co-founder of Geometric, will be co-director, according to several reports. Other co-founders of the lab are Kenneth Stanley, a computer science professor at the University of Central Florida, and neurolinguistics specialist Douglas Bemis, according to Bloomberg’s Eric Newcomer. AI Labs will report to Holden.

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Uber had given a heads-ups on the deal to publications including the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and MIT Technology Review.

“Every major company realizes how essential AI is to what they’re doing,” Marcus tells the NYT’s Mike Isaac in an interview. “Because of the scale of data people are operating on, even the smallest gains in efficiency can turn out enormous changes at these companies, especially in terms of profit.”

Who wouldn't be attracted to a pitch like that?

For its part, Uber hopes “Marcus’s team could harness the wealth of data it collects from the millions of daily Uber rides. The company wants to use the data to make major advances in how computers behind self-driving vehicles think and make decisions on the road,” Isaac continues.

“Driverless cars are going to be at the center of what we do,” Marcus tells the WSJ’s Greg Bensinger and Daniela Hernandez, and it intends to “start hiring ‘aggressively,’ beginning at a machine-learning get-together in Barcelona this week.

“Uber, and others, believe autonomous vehicles can eventually replace those helmed by human drivers, reducing labor expenses and making routing more efficient. Knowing a rider’s pickup location to within just a few feet can help drivers shave valuable time off a ride, facilitating more fares throughout the day,” Bensinger and Hernandez point out.

What with Amazon planning retail stores featuring “just walk out” technology that allows consumers to toss items in their bag and leave, as Marketing Daily’s Sarah Mahoney reports, one can only imagine the possibilities for enhanced productivity for consumers gaining all those seconds in our harried lives.

Eventually.

“There’s going to be a long period of time before self-driving cars can handle all of the possible scenarios in the world,” Holden tellsMIT Technology Review’s Will Knight, adding that he first heard about Marcus and Geometric Intelligence at the review’s EmTech Digital event in San Francisco last May. 

Marcus, “who has sometimes stirred controversy by criticizing the field’s focus on data-heavy approaches that rely on neural networks or deep learning,” gave the magazine “exclusive access” to his company last year, Knight reports. (See “Can This Man Make AI More Human?”). 

“Holden points to future advances in machine learning that ‘are going to allow us to do radically different kinds of things,’” Knight writes. “He adds, ‘The question is, what role are we going to play in that?’”

Evidently, a major one — if all goes according to plan.

“This isn’t Uber’s first AI-related acquisition. In August, Uber acquired Otto, an autonomous truck and transportation startup for $680 million. Otto founder Lior Ron said he could improve the truck’s self-driving features using Uber’s driving data to build on its AI technology,” Fortune’s Polina Marinova reminds us.

“The move into AI is an important one for Uber as it reinvents itself into a tech giant and leader in the AI field. With a $70 billion valuation, Uber is aggressively trying to prove that it’s no longer just a ride-sharing platform, she writes. “‘They’re reinventing themselves as an AI company. They want to join the Big Four,’ AI expert Oren Etzioni told Wired, referring to Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple.”

Indeed, writes Cade Metz for Wired, “whatever Uber sees in Geometric Intelligence, the acquisition is an example of what Etzioni calls ‘an Amazon gambit.’ Just as Amazon transformed itself from an online bookseller into a company that dominates the world of cloud computing — so much so that the cloud may one day be its most profitable business — Uber is transforming itself from a ride-hailing company into an outfit that does self-driving cars and trucks, hardcore machine learning, even flying automobiles.”

Is Hanna-Barbera Uber’s next acquisition?

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