For autonomous vehicle startup Cruise, the future isn’t just about artificial intelligence. It’s about machine learning, and that’s why Cruise is teaching its electric vehicles to drive themselves in San Francisco — one of the most complicated urban environments for self-driving cars to operate in.
“Learning how to drive in San Francisco is amazing for AI,” said Hussein Mehanna, the company’s head of AI, noting that the dense and unpredictable streets are ultimately an advantage. “The more interesting the data, the more the machine can learn.”
Mehanna hopes that learning will not only revolutionize autonomous driving, but also plant Cruise at the forefront of the next big thing: AI-based companies.
Taking machine learning to a new level
General Motors bought Cruise back in 2016 for around $1 billion, and through subsequent investment rounds, it’s grown to a nearly $30 billion valuation. The company’s goals are spectacularly ambitious, with CEO Dan Ammann effectively calling for the end of personal-car ownership and spurring Cruise to go after a multi-trillion-dollar future global ride-hailing opportunity.
In order to get there, Cruise needs game-changing hardware and software — a quest overseen by Kyle Vogt, its cofounder and chief technology officer — and high-profile partners, including ones it already has like GM and Honda. But Cruise also needs artificial intelligence and machine learning at a level that, frankly, nobody has seen before.
As powerful as 21st-century AI sounds, Mehanna said it’s only recently that its full capabilities have been unleashed. Advancements in robotics and machine learning have made that possible.
“I always had a fascination with AI,” Mehanna, whose career path to Cruise included stints at Facebook and Google, told Insider in an interview. But where are all the robots we might have expected to see by now?
Mehanna said the kind of AI we see in demonstrations — dancing humanoids robots on YouTube, for example — doesn’t scale.
“They’re scripted to handle a certain number of use cases,” he said.
Enter machine learning, which he said has the critical power to generalize.
This is, to put it mildly, huge. At Cruise, Mehnna’s team is tackling a whole new way of undertaking computer science, led by those autonomous EVs cruising through San Francisco.
If it all comes together and Cruise is able to successfully commercialize its service, then Mehanna said that the company could notch an unprecedented achievement: becoming what he termed the first “AI-native company.”
Dreaming of robots that can do much, much more
“It’s a new concept, and we’re inventing it,” he said. The analogy that leaped to mind for him was being able to handle HTML coding for the internet of the late 1990s.
“If you knew HTML, you were a rocket scientist,” he said. The skillset led to internet-native companies such as Google. That history is now staged to repeat with Cruise.
“In five to 10 years, AI natives will be the status quo,” he said.
The endgame of this process should be what he called a “general-purpose robot,” able to learn as humans now learn. It could drive a car, fly a plane, or attend to more mundane tasks.
“My dream,” he said, “is to get my laundry folded by a robot.”
Talking to Mehanna, one gets that sense that we’re just at the beginning of something radical in changing how the world operates. Cruise has already made huge leaps in teaching a car to drive itself, once the stuff of science-fiction movies. But for Mehanna, those apparent leaps are but small steps toward robotic applications and machine learning remaking numerous aspects of everyday life — aspects that we take for granted or have long assumed would always have to involve natural, rather than artificial intelligence.
In the short term, however, he’s simply contemplating machine learning as a prerequisite to Cruise accomplishing what it set out to do five years ago.
“At Cruise, you can’t have a company without AI,” he said.