Chad McClymonds
Robots & Machines

The Guy Who First Hacked the iPhone and Built a Self-Driving Car Just Got Funding

The kit to make a self-driving car could be on the market this year.

Sarah MarquartMarch 10th 2016

George Hotz has built a self-driving car, a 2016 Acura ILX. He claims he was able to do it in about a month in his home garage. The 26-year old hopes to bring the assisted-driving system to market before the end of the year.

If Hotz’s name sounds familiar, that’s because it was all over the news not too long ago. Hotz was the first person to hack the iPhone in 2007 (he was still in high school). Three years later, he became the first to hack the PlayStation 3 and released the software.

At 22, Hotz was being sued by Sony, appeared on TV and news shows, and profiled in the New Yorker. “I live by morals, I don’t live by laws,” Hotz declared in the story. “Laws are something made by assholes.”

Decision Making

Hotz began working on the self driving car in October 2015. Soon, the car was full of electronics, including an Intel NUC minicomputer, a couple GPS units, a lidar on the roof, and a communications switch. Oh, and a lot of duct tape.

feat_georgehotz52_1280
Credit: Peter Bohler for Bloomberg Businessweek

The car, which uses off-the-shelf electronics, sports six cameras. Two would go inside near the rearview mirror, one in the back, two on the sides to cover blind spots, and a fisheye camera up top.

Once the hardware was in place, Hotz took the car for a drive and let the AI observe and record. Back in his garage, he downloaded the data from the drive and set algorithms to work analyzing how he handled various situations. The car learned that Hotz tends to stay in the middle of a lane and maintain a safe distance from the car in front of him. Once the analysis was complete, the software was able to predict the safest path for the vehicle.

After a few weeks, the car learned to drive itself, lock onto the car in front of it, and take cues from neighboring cars. The steering, along with the gas and brake pedals, are all automated.

Holtz didn’t program these behaviors. In fact, he can’t really explain all the reasons it does what it does. It’s started making decisions on its own.

Despite these achievements, Hotz’s machine learning startup, “comma.ai” has run into a few issues over the past few months. These include a cease-and-desist letter from the California Department of Motor Vehicles for operating a “level-4” autonomous vehicle.  Though Hotz is contesting the DMV and says his prototype is currently only a “level-3” semi-autonomous car, but the cease-and-desist is still slowing him down, as he now can only test the vehicle in a private parking lot.

On the other hand, comma.ai also secured some seed money from VC firm Andreessen Horowitz since coming out of stealth, bringing the startup’s valuation to $20 million, according to a new profile by Forbes. Hotz also received a visit from Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang, who gave the startup $30,000 worth of Nvidia GPUs to power its self-driving Acura prototype.

Two major breakthroughs made Hotz’s system possible. The first is computer power. Hotz uses graphics chips (ones that normally power video game consoles) to process images pulled in from the car’s camera and Intel chips to run his AI calculations. This all cost Hotz a total of $20,000, not including the cost of the car itself.

The second major breakthrough is advances in deep learning. Deep learning refers to an AI technology that allows researchers to assign a task to computers and then sit back as the machines, in essence, teach themselves how to accomplish a job through trial and error. Eventually, they become masters.

Hotz has actually come up with new AI discoveries, ones he isn’t disclosing, that improve how the AI software interprets data coming from the camera.

“Technology is What We Make It”

It’s evident that Hotz, the former hacker, loves puzzles. But what exactly was his motivation for this project? Well, it sounds somewhat grim at first:

“I want [AI] to take everyone’s jobs. Most people would be happy with that, especially the ones who don’t like their jobs. Let’s free them of mental tedium and push that to machines. In the next 10 years, you’ll see a big segment of the human labor force fall away. In 25 years, AI will be able to do almost everything a human can do. The last people with jobs will be AI programmers.”

While AI does the hard word, humans will be free to plug into their computers and get lost in virtual reality.

His desire to have AI take over so many jobs stems partly from a near-religious belief in the power and ultimate purpose of technology. “Technology isn’t good or bad,” he says. “There are upsides like nuclear power and downsides like nuclear bombs. Technology is what we make of it. There’s a chance that AI might kill us all, but what we know is that if you’re on the other side of technology, you lose. Betting on technology is always the correct bet.”

Hotz really sees the autonomous car as Step 1 in this revolution. Transportation is an area where AI can have a massive impact. He hopes to take his technology to retail next, building systems that provide flawless self-checkout at stores.

In terms of when we’ll see Hotz’s kit on the market, the timing is vague. However, Hotz says he’ll release a YouTube video a few months from now in which his Acura beats a Tesla Model S on Interstate 405 in Los Angeles.

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