Silicon Valley is raiding tech academia: “Uber would like to buy your Robotics Department”

The National Robotics Engineering Center, part of the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon. Credit Christopher Payne for The New York Times


The National Robotics Engineering Center, part of the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon. Credit Christopher Payne for The New York Times

A great weekend read: Clive Thompson's piece in this weekend's New York Times Magazine on how Silicon Valley is raiding technology departments of universities around the U.S.

The San Francisco firm, famous for its popular car-dispatch services, is getting into the robotics business itself. In February, barely a mile away, it opened the Advanced Technologies Center in Pittsburgh, where the former university researchers are now developing technologies to help Uber extend its reach over the roads. These include producing better maps and safer guidance systems — and most lucrative, even if they’re still years away, Uber’s very own fleet of self-driving cars.

It was a startling raid of talent. By offering private-sector salaries substantially higher than university equivalents (as well as a chance to earn equity in a fast-rising tech firm), Uber was able to acquire a hefty chunk of the center’s brain trust, including some top experts in autonomous vehicles. In doing so, the company has placed a bet that self-driving robots are no longer the stuff of scholarly visions but valuable intellectual property.

Carnegie Mellon’s experience is a familiar one in the world of high-tech research. As a field matures, universities can wake up one day to find money flooding the premises; suddenly they’re in a talent war with deep-pocketed firms from Silicon Valley. The impacts are also intellectual. When researchers leave for industry, their expertise winks off the map; they usually can’t publish what they discover — or even talk about it over drinks with former colleagues. In the long run, raids can generate symbiotic relationships; researchers who return to academia years later bring their real-world experience into the classroom and can draw on their network of wealthy industry contacts to fund university research. But as Carnegie Mellon’s roboticists are finding, reaching that end point can make for a bumpy ride.

Uber Would Like to Buy Your Robotics Department [nytimes.com]

An Uber sign is seen in a car in New York June 30, 2015. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz


An Uber sign is seen in a car in New York June 30, 2015. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

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