Q: Pittsburgh will be the first U.S. city to have commuters riding in self-driving cars. How did it happen?
Burgh Diaspora Comment: Why did Uber think of Pittsburgh as the site of a contemporary Manhattan Project? What's the attraction? Pittsburgh is one of "five significant cities in the world" with an artificial intelligence knowledge cluster. Uber already has a presence in one of them, the Bay Area. The other three are Boston, Zurich, and Beijing. Recently, professor Ruslan Salakhutdinov left the University of Toronto for Carnegie Mellon University (located in the City of Pittsburgh) because the machine learning program at CMU, as he put it, is "a huge powerhouse." If Uber is a moth, then CMU knowledge production is the flame.
Q: Then what happened?
Comment: The relationship between Uber and Mayor Peduto evolved very quickly, over the course of a year. Both the City and the State of Pennsylvania have been accommodating, forming what the Washington Post characterized as, "Pittsburgh might be the exact environment that innovators love to leap into — a legal void that can be defined by technologists, not bureaucrats."
This attitude of deregulation is a product of the political familiarity with university research at both the city and state level. Before serving as Pittsburgh's mayor, Tom Murphy helped to create the Ben Franklin Technology Partnership as a state legislator. This experience would serve him well while guiding Pittsburgh through its early stages of economic restructuring in the wake of the steel industry implosion in the 1980s. Murphy said the following at a conference I attended last April:
The first person I have ever heard to mention the idea of the university, as the steel mills are collapsing, that universities could be the economic driver of Pittsburgh was Doctor Cyert, who was the president of CMU.
As I have learned, Richard Cyert is the person most responsible for Pittsburgh's economic transformation that Mayor Peduto enjoys today. As Stanford birthed the powerhouse of Silicon Valley, so has CMU lured the likes of Google, Disney, and Uber. I used to think the talent produced in Pittsburgh was the main attraction. Almost exactly a year ago, the New York Times Magazine set me straight:
Carnegie Mellon’s experience is a familiar one in the world of high-tech research. As a field matures, universities can wake up one day to find money flooding the premises; suddenly they’re in a talent war with deep-pocketed firms from Silicon Valley. The impacts are also intellectual. When researchers leave for industry, their expertise winks off the map; they usually can’t publish what they discover — or even talk about it over drinks with former colleagues. In the long run, raids can generate symbiotic relationships; researchers who return to academia years later bring their real-world experience into the classroom and can draw on their network of wealthy industry contacts to fund university research. But as Carnegie Mellon’s roboticists are finding, reaching that end point can make for a bumpy ride.
The robotics knowledge produced at CMU matured to the point where it would interest Uber. The group of applied scientists could converse with basic researchers and a market-facing tech company such as Uber. The National Robotics Engineering Center, founded in 1995, would serve as the translator between "early-stage inquiry" and the making of "commercial products". Uber poached the workers the Engineering Center, not the scholars at the Robotics Institute (created in 1979).
Basic research isn't of much use to anyone without these translators. Without them, the Industrial Revolution wouldn't have spread from Britain to France. Without them, Mayor Peduto is managing decline instead of serving as a model for Rust Belt revitalization.
Q: What was the agreement? Do they assume all the risk if there’s an accident?
Comment: Peduto states, "There is no formal agreement." Many researchers simply moved from CMU to Uber, a matter of blocks not time zones. Uber's CEO is on the Mayor's turf, not the other way around. When he was a member of the City Council, Peduto represented the East End where CMU is located. He doesn't have to trust Travis Kalanick. He can visit with a robot scientist in his own backyard.
Q: Why is Pittsburgh a good place for this experiment?
Comment: The short answer to this question, even in Peduto's words, is Carnegie Mellon University. He also references another knowledge cluster in addition to AI/robotics, cybersecurity. Somehow overlooked, CMU's Software Engineering Institute (a legacy of the Cyert era) might receive over $1.7 billion from the Department of Defense during the next 10 years for cybersecurity R&D. After World War II, economic development concentrated in places with federal labs and/or top-tier research universities. Pittsburgh is blessed with both. Uber in Pittsburgh is no accident, some 60 years in the making. Peduto doesn't forget Pittsburgh's former industrial prowess, uttering "advanced manufacturing", which is a buzz term used by margin-challenged producers to keep the subsidies coming. The region continues to deleverage from manufacturing employment, much for the better.
Q: Uber has been a job creator in Pittsburgh by providing work for drivers. Now, the city is poised to become a leader in building a technology that could make those jobs obsolete. Does that concern you?
Comment: In some ways, Mayor Peduto throws advance manufacturing under the bus in this answer. The future economy concerns autonomous vehicles, not drivers providing a service. Even the cars as a thing have ceased to be a commodity of value. The car isn't an item for purchase. It's a service and a data collector. I'd reckon that even the service takes a backseat to the data produced.
Key quote, "Pittsburgh is one of the only cities that has traffic signals that can learn." The reason for that, once again, is CMU. The new jobs, the ones we can't imagine today, will show up in Pittsburgh because of Carnegie Mellon, not because Rust Belters make things.
Q: But people are upset. Kalanick has said he hopes to replace all of Uber’s human drivers with technology.
Comment: Peduto quips, "We would hope to replace drivers lost with advanced manufacturing jobs." Pittsburgh won't be a hub of making autonomous vehicles. I would bet that ends up in Mexico. Pittsburgh will make the tech that allows autonomous vehicles to operate everywhere. Human drivers will have to take advantage of new industries that stem from the presence of autonomous vehicles. Cybersecurity looks good.
Q: Still, there could be blowback.
Comment: I love Peduto's response. He recounts his journey from Rust Belt shame to Rust Belt chic. The key to revitalizing urban manufacturing centers is to transition from the psychogeography of managing decline to managing growth. From "The Robots That Saved Pittsburgh":
“The big challenge now is figuring out a way to disseminate the city’s new prosperity to all of its residents, not just the high-tech guys,” says Peduto, 49, who just ran and won the mayor’s job on a promise to create “the first progressive administration for a Rust Belt city in America.”
Paradoxically, all the urban poverty and blight is still there. Pittsburgh still has major Rust Belt problems. Yet the main issue is inequality and displacement. Peduto will be judged on how well he manages the renaissance.
Q: Is there an application for self-driving cars in public transit?
Comment: Peduto describes Rust Belt demographics in one sentence, "Think about someone who is elderly who lives a mile away from the bus stop." Among shrinking cities struggling with an aging population, Pittsburgh is exceptional. The exodus from the region in the 1980s blew a giant generational hole in the birth rates that still hobbles the economy (and municipal finances) in 2016. This unique experience allowed Peduto to imagine the benefits of autonomous vehicles for his constituents, more so than anywhere else.
Q: This is coming quickly. Like all of a sudden — boom, driverless cars! How can that be?
Comment: Peduto doesn't answer the question. Earlier this month, the head of CMU's National Robotics Engineering Center did:
Robotics is exploding, and the adoption curve, the tech disruption curve—these are getting steeper and steeper. I’ve been doing robotics for two decades, and if you look at the progress made between 1995 to 2005, in the past couple years we’ve seen more progress than in that whole decade.
Not only is the place right, so is the time. Pittsburgh as "Roboburgh" is old hype without much substance. Many regional watchers are still waiting for the supposed startup boom. Attracting part of Uber or Google doesn't count as a success story. Pittsburgh doesn't have Microsoft or Facebook (both companies were founded somewhere other than where they are headquartered now) to call its own. I don't know if that will change. It could change along with the acceleration in robotics. The knowledge cluster is two years old, not thirty seven years old.
Q: Have you taken a ride in a self-driving car?
Comment: "The day they announced, [Kalanick] picked me up from work and took me home," said Mayor Peduto. Again, I would stress Peduto's familiarity with CMU as critical to this relationship. The trust was there before Uber existed.
Q: A lot of people are scared of self-driving cars. Have you talked to Kalanick about that?
Comment: Peduto name drops, "I had dinner with him one night. One person at the table was the guy who created Google Maps, and the other person is the reason you don’t see the fail whale on Twitter anymore." 20 years ago, such a story wouldn't have been odd in Pittsburgh. This is old hat because CMU links the city to Silicon Valley.
Q: It sounds like they were sidestepping the issue.
Comment: Great line from Peduto, "we didn’t make steel, we made the middle class." From the cradle of robber barons, income equality was born. Pittsburgh doesn't make robots. It makes the upper middle class.