Report: Uber hired 50 scientists from Carnegie Mellon to build self driving cars

We knew this day would come, but we didn’t know it would be this soon.

According to TechCrunch, Uber is building a research facility in Pittsburgh to invent its own self-driving cars. Not content to rely on Google, the on-demand ride company has reportedly recruited researchers from Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute to build the product.

It has staffed up with 50 senior scientists who will work on the software technology and the vehicles themselves. The Robotics Institute has been “cleaned out” with the flood of high profile departures, the TechCrunch report said.

After this story published, Uber released a blog post confirming the news. It called the center a “partnership” between Carnegie Mellon and Uber. The building will be called the Uber Advanced Technologies Center. As part of its development, Uber will fund faculty chairs and graduate fellowships at Carnegie Mellon. And in the blog post announcing the news, Uber included supportive quotes from Carnegie Mellon’s dean of the computer science department and the Pittsburgh mayor.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has said for a long time that the company intended to eventually shift to self-driving vehicles. That would cut a huge chunk of its revenue cost — drivers take 80 percent of every transaction. “When there’s no other dude in the car, the cost of taking an Uber anywhere becomes cheaper than owning a vehicle,” he explained at the Code conference in May.

Many have used Kalanick’s remarks as proof the company doesn’t care about its drivers’ well-being, since it hopes to eventually eliminate the need for them. On the flip side, the convenience, safety, and efficiency for passengers would be substantial.

A shift to self-driving cars would fundamentally change the nature of Uber’s business by putting the company in charge of the vehicle fleets it deploys. Until now, it has acted as a transportation platform, connecting willing riders to willing drivers, but not owning the hardware of the operation itself.

According to the report, Uber has already started to build work stations for the scientists, although there’s no word on the project’s timeline for completion.

DARPA-funded research IDs sex traffickers with machine learning

Carnegie Mellon University is touting a new $3.6 million research grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, to build machine learning algorithms that can index online sex ads in order to identify sex traffickers. The research is part of a larger DARPA program called Memex that aims to index seedy portions of the public web and deep web in order to identify any type of human trafficking on a larger scale.

One of the driving forces behind this type of effort is the simple fact that computers can analyze ads soliciting sex at a much greater scale than human investigators can. However, the press release announcing the DARPA grant noted, “In addition to analyzing obvious clues, CMU experts in computer vision, language technologies and machine learning will develop new tools for such tasks as analyzing the authors of ads or extracting subtle information from images.”

Even prior to this project, Carnegie Mellon said researchers at the university were working on the issue of sex trafficking and developed programs that law-enforcement agencies have already used to make arrests. That’s a reassuring piece of information considering that much university research, even the stuff involving serious issues, has a hard time making its way into the hands of law enforcement or others who can act on it.

Although, human trafficking for sex or otherwise does seem to be an issue that’s bringing together all sorts of organizations with unique abilities to combat it. Aside from the work at Carnegie Mellon, Google is doing a lot of work to identify victims and their traffickers, via targeted search results as well as partnerships with the Polaris Project and Palantir. There’s also Thorn, a non-profit started by Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore that uses various technologies to identify cases of child exploitation online.

Researchers try to make microchips more efficient by making them smarter

A new research project from Carnegie Mellon University, funded by a $2.6 million grant from the National Science Foundation, aims to make microchips smarter and more efficient by analyzing the data they collect about themselves. The Statistical Learning in Chip project is focused on developing an integrated machine learning engine that can help chips dynamically manage their resource consumption and keep it at optimum levels. This would make the chips, and the devices running on them, more energy-efficient, resulting in longer battery life and cooler operating temperatures.

Research pinnacle met: Robot butler microwaves meals

If “Judgement Day” ever arrives and Terminator robots take over the world, at least we’ll eat well. Herb, the Home Exploring Robot Butler, is a Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute project that has both the sensors and the smarts to microwave a meal autonomously.

Video game consoles are growing energy hogs

The amount of energy consumed by video game consoles has increased by almost 50 percent between 2007 and 2010 in the U.S., according to a report out from Carnegie Mellon University.