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Uber Just Bought An AI Startup To Make Its Self-Driving Cars Smarter

The ride-hail giant is opening up an AI Lab.

Posted on December 5, 2016, at 1:17 p.m. ET

Afp / AFP / Getty Images

An Uber car outfitted with self-driving technology in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Uber is doubling down on self-driving cars. The company said Monday that it has acquired an artificial intelligence startup called Geometric Intelligence and tapped the company's founders as co-directors of its new in-house AI research lab. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Dubbed Uber AI Labs, Uber’s new artificial intelligence research arm is intended to explore AI applications beyond self-driving car efforts, the company said in a blog post announcing the acquisition. Machine learning could improve routing algorithms, or the process of matching up riders for UberPool.

Geometric Intelligence's approach to artificial intelligence is unique in that it focuses on developing AI that "learns" by extrapolating from a palette of rules, rather than crunching vast piles of data. Uber told The New York Times it found this “evolutionary” method of developing AI particularly compelling because it aims to mimic how the human mind learns.

Most members of the 15-person team, who are scattered at universities around the US, will move to San Francisco, where Uber is based, to form the AI unit’s “initial core.”

In September, Uber began a pilot program that allows passengers in Pittsburgh to hail self-driving cars, which carry both a safety driver (ready to take the wheel during emergencies) and a co-pilot (to monitor the car and its route on a laptop). The company entered the self-driving car race later than some other tech companies and automakers, but got a jumpstart by poaching about 40 researchers from Carnegie Mellon University’s robotics unit.

Speaking at Vanity Fair’s New Establishment Summit this past October, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick said the ridehail juggernaut is at the “very beginning stages of becoming a robotics company.” The acquisition of Geometric Intelligence, a 15-person artificial intelligence startup founded by three academics, nearly two years after the company opened up its Advanced Technologies Center in Pittsburgh, shows how that evolution has progressed.

Silicon Valley companies have recently been competing to hire AI researchers. Apple, for example, has in the past year acquired three AI companies, and brought on a director of artificial intelligence in October. Uber is now joining the recruitment rush.

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