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The Almighty Buck AI Robotics Transportation Technology

How Uber Turned Carnegie Mellon Into a Minor Nursery For Its Research Division (thestack.com) 51

An anonymous reader writes: A year after Uber announced a collaboration with the Robotics Department of Carnegie Mellon University, not a single project has been developed. The ride-sharing company set up its Advanced Technologies Center on CMU's doorstep in 2015 and promptly 'compensated' the poaching of 40 of the University's best talent with a $5.5 million grant, leaving CMU with a staff crisis. The university is taking the appropriation philosophically, and considering the relationship as symbiotic. In the meantime Uber is rapidly co-opting Carnegie Mellon into a feeding ground for its own labs, moving a great deal of robotics research out of academic transparency into the realm of jealously-guarded corporate secrets.
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How Uber Turned Carnegie Mellon Into a Minor Nursery For Its Research Division

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  • by 0100010001010011 ( 652467 ) on Monday March 21, 2016 @09:30PM (#51749545)

    out of academic transparency

    See all of those corporate logos all over Red Team's vehicles [cmu.edu]? Do you really think CMU published the coolest stuff they developed?

    https://www.fastcompany.com/10... [fastcompany.com]

    http://www.equipmentworld.com/... [equipmentworld.com]

    https://www.saic.com/ [saic.com]

    https://www.tttech.com/ [tttech.com]

    jealously-guarded corporate secrets.

    Patents are anything but that. In fact they tell the world exactly how you do something.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    this is barely even news. A certain industrial equipment manufacturer tried to do exactly the same thing with my grad school lab last year. They came in, offered several million dollars in funding over the course of several years, then fairly quickly started demanding greater control over all of our operations, to the point where they wanted us working full time at their site on their proprietary work. After a few months we broke off the relationship. It's not rare at all, it just usually doesn't involve na

  • by mi ( 197448 ) <slashdot-2016q1@virtual-estates.net> on Monday March 21, 2016 @10:09PM (#51749761) Homepage Journal

    'compensated' the poaching of 40 of the University's best talent with a $5.5 million grant

    Why did they even have to compensate for people? Was it a slave-purchasing transaction?

    The entire write-up (and, likely, TFA as well) can be rewritten with the opposite spin: about Uber offering wonderful opportunities to the researchers allowing the school to concentrate on what universities do best — educate.

    • by Indigo ( 2453 ) on Monday March 21, 2016 @10:16PM (#51749797)

      Sure, it's perfectly legal. As you said, the researchers aren't slaves. But it's still a huge fuck job. As a result of the "partnership", CMU is now down 40 top staff members, which was probably not mentioned in the original CMU / Uber partnership discussions, and affects them materially. For instance, in their ability continue providing quality education to current students, and their ability to recruit new students who aren't interested in doing research for Uber. I'd doubt that $5 million even begins to cover the damage.

      • by mi ( 197448 ) <slashdot-2016q1@virtual-estates.net> on Monday March 21, 2016 @11:22PM (#51750029) Homepage Journal

        Sure, it's perfectly legal.

        It is not merely legal — it is a very good outcome indeed.

        As a result of the "partnership", CMU is now down 40 top staff members

        As a result of the partnership, Uber is now up 40 researchers. And those 40 people are happy having a (much) better job.

        in their ability continue providing quality education to current students

        Quality education requires a chalk, a blackboard, and some notebooks (the paper kind). You don't need researchers for education — you need professors. Researchers you get for free — they are called "grad students". And as soon as they can find gainful employment, you replace them with new ones.

        The purpose of a university is to teach — any research done is coincidental to that primary purpose.

        I'd doubt that $5 million even begins to cover the damage.

        So long as nobody is forced into doing something they don't want to, there is no damage whatsoever. People change jobs all the time and we congratulate them, when they move up.

        • The purpose of a university is to teach — any research done is coincidental to that primary purpose.

          Isn't part of higher education the teaching of conducting research? If not, how the hell did universities become research centres in the first place?

          So long as nobody is forced into doing something they don't want to, there is no damage whatsoever.

          That's entirely true in a philosophy that views corporate hegemony and rapidly increasing concentration of wealth, power, and control over society as A-OK. But when one looks beyond that to the importance of individual rights and the common good, this is just another move toward ubiquitous serfdom.

          • by mi ( 197448 )

            the importance of individual rights and the common good

            These two objectives, whichever one you subjectively favor, are objectively at odds with each other. Fail.

        • Quality education requires a chalk, a blackboard, and some notebooks (the paper kind). You don't need researchers for education — you need professors. Researchers you get for free — they are called "grad students". And as soon as they can find gainful employment, you replace them with new ones.

          The purpose of a university is to teach — any research done is coincidental to that primary purpose.

          I once thought as you did. Mind you, not that I'm disagreeing with you, but rather the reality of the situation.

          As someone that once tried to become a professor and navigate the academic system, I can say from direct experience that you will not become a professor unless you have a very strong research resume and are involved in research (meaning, you regularly apply for and receive grants from federal government, etc.). When you interview, you come in to meet the department and explain your research intere

      • Had Uber walked with a couple of researchers, I'd say "Ok. That's just business."

        Walking out with 40 is rape. And the cash is "Shut up or I come visiting again" money. Uber has no scruples and while the taxi business was ripe for a wake up call, Uber doesn't get a pass for acting like a rich kid with big balls and a tiny cerebellum.

    • the thing that universities do best is fundamental research into expanding the world of academic knowledge. poaching peeps away from that hurts the mission of universities.

      • by mi ( 197448 )

        the thing that universities do best is fundamental research into expanding the world of academic knowledge

        Let's define terms, shall we? My dictionary says:

        university: a large and diverse institution of higher learning created to educate for life and for a profession and to grant degrees

        Like I said, any research efforts and facilities are merely there to facilitate the education — means, not purpose...

    • You apparently aren't familiar with therm collaboration or joint venture.
    • If you ever talk to a university dean or professor, the aim of a university to educate undergraduates is secondary. Most of the engineering budget comes from research grants to the department. At best, the jobs of a university is to educate graduate students and to conduct research from which to receive further research grants. I was told that a MIT's EE professor brings in 5 times his salary in research grants. So, as long as this happens, the university carries on. However, in times of intense growth
  • by swell ( 195815 ) <jabberwock@poetiMONETc.com minus painter> on Monday March 21, 2016 @10:47PM (#51749931)

    They proved that by their collaboration with the FBI while attacking the TOR network ... which they created in collaboration with the Department of Defense.
    https://yro.slashdot.org/story... [slashdot.org]

    If Uber wants a partner to secretly develop 'jealously-guarded corporate secrets' Carnegie Mellon is where it's at. A student looking for an education might best look elsewhere as CMU priorities have changed.

    • Well... (Score:5, Interesting)

      by s.petry ( 762400 ) on Monday March 21, 2016 @11:08PM (#51749983)

      A fair thing to do would be to lose all public funding and projects as soon as a corporation controls the educational system. If you want to be a private school then you don't get the benefits of public funding through projects. From a quick Google search, it looks like the US Federal Government is pumping a whole lot of cash into this school.

      • Here in the Bay Area, the CMU campus is actually on a Federal Base. It's part of NASA Aimes (or Moffett) I can't remember which one. I've been there, and in order to get in, have to go through armed guard gate since it's on base property.
    • by Anonymous Coward

      Although I don't approve of the FBI paying them to compromise TOR, I consider attacks on TOR a good thing. How do you know its secure until you try and break it?

    • by sociocapitalist ( 2471722 ) on Tuesday March 22, 2016 @04:28AM (#51750839)

      They proved that by their collaboration with the FBI while attacking the TOR network ... which they created in collaboration with the Department of Defense.
      https://yro.slashdot.org/story... [slashdot.org]

      If Uber wants a partner to secretly develop 'jealously-guarded corporate secrets' Carnegie Mellon is where it's at. A student looking for an education might best look elsewhere as CMU priorities have changed.

      I'd say that a CMU student is learning very well how the world works.

  • I've known of this for many years. For they came for NREC, but I said nothing because I was not a robotics engineer. Then they came for the infrastructure team at my current company, but I said nothing because I wasn't INFRA. When they came for me, I had no one... other than the myriad friends who work for them and say nice things like "competitive salary", "great benefits", and "flexible work schedule." On a more serious note, I have multiple friends who work for them now, and it sounds like a halycon envi

    • * first they came for NREC. I'm assuming there's more errors... really wish Slashdot had a nice linter...
    • "CMU, for tenured folks, ain't a bad place, but it can't compete for 25-35 year old engineers at their prime."

      Why it should!? Isn't it the point of a Engineering School or University to put 25-35 year old engineers at their prime so they can go to private companies to do their magic?

      • Not necessarily. A lot of the research institutions take the 25-35 engineers in their prime and have them working on doing the most advanced state-of-the-art-work out there, the stuff that doesn't pay money yet because it's still research, not development. The environment depends upon the focus of the institution.
  • Uber will fail (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 21, 2016 @11:25PM (#51750041)

    They aren't a technology company. They are nothing more than a normal online service.. not special at all. There is nothing unique about Uber. It's just silly hype and the value is most certainly going to crash because nothing Uber does represent intellectual property. Their choice of simplistic direct business model works in low skilled industries that are corrupt, have price fixing issues or just lack realistic price competition for some reason.

    That's all good and fun, but Uber itself is not actually worth anything. It's just a name and it's probably more likely to die than evolve into a long term brand. First off.. it doesn't in any way represent it's business model. It's just a word.

    Anybody can copy that model, use a better name, use better industry clout and eat Uber's market up easily. It would in no way be hard and in the big picture electric autonomous cars will be made by many vendors and Uber will have no ability to compete against the endless pockets of automotive and software giants. Uber should keep their business model simple and just make as much money while they can, expanding makes no sense other than to scam people out of capital.

    • They aren't a technology company. They are nothing more than a normal online service.. not special at all.

      Do you understand that an online service is technology?

      • by ceoyoyo ( 59147 )

        Technology someone else owns. TCP/IP, HTTP, Javascript, these are technology. Your web page isn't.

    • Let's adjust your post a bit:

      Anybody can copy that model, use a better name, use better industry clout and eat Facebook's market up easily. It would in no way be hard and in the big picture social networking software will be made by many vendors and Facebook will have no ability to compete against the endless pockets of media companies and software giants. Facebook should keep their business model simple and just make as much money while they can, expanding makes no sense other than to scam people out of capital.

      See how ignorant that sounds? The world does not work on who can sit in their bedroom writing the best code or thinking up some great ideas. It works on who can convince a bunch of investors to dump billions into a company that makes no money and is trying to distrupt an entire global industry. Uber might not succeed, but my bet is that the winner won't be a bunch of geeks who spent their lives doing research projects on autonomous cars.

      • Of course, you can adjust your adjustment and replace Facebook with MySpace and the OP's point holds true.

        -Chris

  • What's next, a major nursery for the army?
  • "I've worked in the private sector! They expect results!"

    I thought the point of all of this research was to better mankind. How is this research going to help mankind if all they produce are some papers that they file in the university library where the likelihood of someone reading it again is small? We would hope that at some point this research evolves into products and services that make our lives better. I mean that's why we spend our tax dollars on this, right? Even private schools get a lot of money from the government even if it is only the fact that they get taxed at a lower rate than any other corporate entity.

    So what if a university has had a mass exodus of researchers. It's a university, they can make more. If they cannot create more researchers from their students and staff then perhaps the school is lacking in some way and needs to disappear, or at least get out of the research business.

    But we don't have to think of a big picture of improving society, what of the individual? That person was doing this research for some reason. I'd expect, if asked, these people would state they were doing this research out of some personal desire to improve themselves. If they find a means to increase their happiness by leaving the university then there is nothing wrong with that.

    I recall my time studying computer engineering and there were a lot of graduate students and faculty that left the university to find more profitable work during the dot-com bubble. The quality of the instructors took a dive. In one class we had a professor take over a lecture for one of the graduate student instructors to announce to the class that they realized the guy was not teaching well. They offered all students in that section to change to another section with no questions asked. It took a couple years but they got more and better instructors.

    Now that I think about it this is just a different way to say, "Those who can, do, and those that can't, teach."

    This might suck for CMU and the students that attend there but in the long run more people came out ahead on this.

  • Company hires (presumably American) computer scientists at high wages... and you cry? WTF is wrong with you people.

    Consider Stanford ... Google's PageRank was developed at Stanford and Stanford owns the patent - they licensed it to Google for shares and Stanford eventually sold the shares for $336 million - why are you mourning these big corrupt universities, and them losing the ability to get massive paydays like that while paying a pittance to researchers?

    Are you on the side of researchers who now get hig

  • by rockmuelle ( 575982 ) on Tuesday March 22, 2016 @09:29AM (#51752353)

    What bothers me most about this situation is that these 40 researchers likely just threw away promising careers. Let me explain...

    Uber, love it or hate it, is currently fueled up by large amounts of venture capital. The vast majority of that money is spent on lawyers and lobbyists working to change the laws to allow Uber's core business (software for transportation and delivery networks) to continue to exist. Some of it is used to subsidize their independent contractors to allow the contractors to provide downstream services at a price that customers will accept. The rest of the money appears to be spent on research projects to replace humans contractors.

    Uber can do the latter for one simple reason: they have more money than needed for their core business. It's the same reason Google/Alphabet and Apple can invest in self-driving cars and other fun projects. The difference is that Google has a solid revenue stream from their advertising business, Apple has a strong hardware business, and neither rely on the VC community to fund their moonshots. Uber is not Google or Apple for one simple reason: they are not supported by revenue and won't be for a while.

    Now, at some point in the near future Uber's investors need an exit. Uber does not have the revenues to pay back investors using dividends. The billions put into the company need to be converted into tens or hundreds of billions at the next round. The IPO market is not terribly strong at this point and there are few hedge funds or private equity firms that could finance a private round of that scale. There will be pressure soon on Uber to find a way out.

    And, if you think Uber will suddenly find the revenue, consider this: the entire US taxi industry is worth around $11B. Given that Uber tends to undercut taxi rates by at least 20%, that's around $8B total Uber could expect if they cornered the entire market. Almost all of that will be paid to contractors, leaving a low margin business for Uber. I think Uber's investors know this, which is why they're currently letting Uber play around with moonshots while they still have cash in the bank. Ride sharing alone, the only thing Uber's been successful at, can't justify the investment and valuations. And at some point, Uber's contractors will need new cars, which their current paychecks don't really allow for.

    tl;dr up to now: Uber spends a lot of other people's money on things not directly related to its current core revenue-generating business. Those investors need an exit soon or they will cut their loses and move on to the Next Big Thing. There letting Uber try to find the NBT, but that won't last.

    Back to the researchers... They all left academic careers to pursue riches in the private sector. There's nothing wrong with that (it's exactly what I've done - I have a Ph.D. in CS and run a tech company). However, if they're like most academics I know, they don't really understand business enough to appreciate the consequences of this decision.

    As outlined above, Uber as a bottomless source of capital is not long for this world. When Uber starts reigning in projects to find out which ones can generate sustaining revenue (or worst case, gets sold for parts), research projects will be the first to go. No company that's not wildly profitable has been able to sustain that level of research spend. And even profitable companies tend to cut their research staff when they need to improve the numbers. This is just the reality of corporate research.

    Uber's cuts will likely coincide with the downturn in this business cycle, which will also mean fewer corporate research jobs, even for roboticists. As everyone with a Ph.D. knows, academic jobs are few and far between, even in the hottest fields. CMU will likely have their positions filled by the time their old staff wants their jobs back. What's worse is that there will be fewer jobs available and many of the researchers will have to take a step back in their careers to continue working in their chosen field.

    If only a few researcher

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