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Uber bets on artificial intelligence with acquisition and new lab

Jeff Swensen/New York Times

An Uber self-driving Ford Fusion rolled through the streets of Pittsburgh in September.

SAN FRANCISCO — Uber envisions a future in which a fleet of vehicles can make the most complex maneuvers while carting passengers around without the help of a driver. To achieve that, cars will need to get a whole lot smarter.

Enter Gary Marcus and Zoubin Ghahramani. The two men are being appointed as codirectors of Uber’s new in-house research arm on artificial intelligence, which the ride-hailing company unveiled Monday. The research arm’s aim is to apply AI in areas like self-driving vehicles, along with solving other technological challenges through machine learning.

The two are joining Uber through an acquisition of their startup, Geometric Intelligence. Unlike most AI startups that generally follow one method of study of artificial intelligence, Geometric Intelligence takes a multidisciplinary approach to the field.

All 15 people from the startup will be absorbed by Uber. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

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The acquisition and new research arm, which will be called Uber’s AI Labs, exemplifies how seriously Silicon Valley tech companies are betting on artificial intelligence. Google, Facebook, and others have also pushed into artificial intelligence, which underlies voice- recognition software, digital assistants like Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri, and technologies like self-driving cars. Many companies are racing to bring on new AI talent to compete against one another.

“Every major company realizes how essential AI is to what they’re doing,” Marcus said 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.”

With the Geometric Intelligence deal, Uber, which is now valued at close to $70 billion, said it hoped that 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.

Besides autonomous vehicles, Uber said it expected its AI Labs to apply its method to other tasks, including combating fraud, extracting information from street signs, and learning to improve its mapping research and capabilities.

“When step function changes in this field occur, we’re going to see very significant differences in how businesses run themselves,” Jeff Holden, Uber’s chief product officer, said in an interview. He said the AI Labs and Uber’s Advanced Technologies Center, which is home to the company’s self-driving car research, will work in tandem with each other.

“It’s going to be a very long time before a self-driving car will be able to make all the kinds of trips that Uber does every single day,” Holden said. “But the answers to this are all going to come in the form of artificial intelligence.”

Holden said recruiting AI research talent is highly competitive, especially as Google, Apple, and Tesla are also developing self-driving cars or related projects.

“From a defensive perspective, if someone else develops them first, we’re in trouble,” he said.