Skip to Content

Uber’s Woes Show the Difficulty of Commercializing AI

The recent departure of key research figures is a troubling development for a company with grand ambitions for self-driving cars.
March 27, 2017

Uber’s efforts to stay one step ahead of the competition by investing heavily in robotics and AI research are showing signs of trouble.

In recent months, Uber has lost several senior members of its Advanced Technologies Group, a self-driving car project headquartered in Pittsburgh. And the head of its new AI lab, Gary Marcus, also stepped down from his role after just a few months in charge. These are part of a bigger picture that highlights the challenges involved with commercializing technology that remains extremely complex and cutting-edge.

Uber created its AI lab in December after acquiring Geometric Intelligence, a startup headed by Marcus, a cognitive scientist from New York University. Marcus, who remains an advisor on AI to Uber, will discuss the challenges that remain in artificial intelligence today at EmTech Digital, a conference organized by MIT Technology Review.

The newest setback from Uber came last week, when it was forced to halt testing of its self-driving vehicles in Arizona after one car was involved in an accident with another vehicle. There is no indication yet that the self-driving car was at fault.

As Marcus will explain, making computers as smart as humans in critical situations such as driving remains a formidable challenge. Self-driving cars cannot yet react to any eventuality they might encounter on the road, and they require huge amounts of data to learn.

Uber has rushed to develop automated vehicles for fear that the technology could easily disrupt the taxi industry. The company got up to speed quickly, and has self-driving cars on the roads of several cities. But as MIT Technology Review discovered, these systems do not yet work perfectly, even in ordinary driving situations.

There are significant engineering challenges, too. For example, it isn’t clear how to make self-driving cars cope with degraded sensors, or how active systems like lidar, a type of laser system, might interfere with each other if lots of self-driving cars were on the roads (see “What You Need to Know Before Getting in a Self-Driving Car”).

Marcus has been an outspoken critic of what he sees as an overreliance on neural-network-based machine-learning approaches in artificial intelligence. He founded Geometric Intelligence, in 2014, to explore alternative approaches (see “Can This Man Make AI More Human?”).

Among other things, Geometric Intelligence sought to find more efficient ways for machines to learn. While a human can learn to recognize a new traffic sign very quickly, a computer requires many thousands of examples using today’s best machine-learning approaches.

Other companies working on automated driving have also found progress slower than they might have hoped. Google has spun out a company, called Waymo, out of its self-driving car project, but its technology is not yet available commercially.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

Rendering of Waterfront Toronto project
Rendering of Waterfront Toronto project

Toronto wants to kill the smart city forever

The city wants to get right what Sidewalk Labs got so wrong.

Muhammad bin Salman funds anti-aging research
Muhammad bin Salman funds anti-aging research

Saudi Arabia plans to spend $1 billion a year discovering treatments to slow aging

The oil kingdom fears that its population is aging at an accelerated rate and hopes to test drugs to reverse the problem. First up might be the diabetes drug metformin.

Yann LeCun
Yann LeCun

Yann LeCun has a bold new vision for the future of AI

One of the godfathers of deep learning pulls together old ideas to sketch out a fresh path for AI, but raises as many questions as he answers.

images created by Google Imagen
images created by Google Imagen

The dark secret behind those cute AI-generated animal images

Google Brain has revealed its own image-making AI, called Imagen. But don't expect to see anything that isn't wholesome.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.