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FISITA PLUS 2020 - The Leadership Interview with Argo AI - Background excerpt

5 August 2020

Bryan Salesky, Co-Founder & CEO, Argo AI, took part in the Leadership Interview hosted by Paul Mascarenas OBE, at FISITA PLUS on Thursday 23 July. We'll be posting some extracts over the next couple of weeks.


Do you think you could give us a kind of a background on how you got into robotics and an interest in self-driving technology and maybe give us an overview of your you know education work experience prior to founding ARGO AI? 

I graduated at a university called the University of Pittsburgh it’s really actually a stone's throw from Carnegie Mellon in western Pennsylvania. I majored in computer engineering and always had an interest in working with software that would control or do things in the physical world. I wasn’t always excited to do things that you couldn’t tangibly see or that would like do real work and in the world that’s what I was really passionate about and driven by when I graduated college.

I worked at a very old company but that was doing some neat things in railroad control systems and learned a lot about mission-critical safety-critical electromechanical systems and learned quite a bit about sort of what it means to a really important industry and if software fails it costs them a lot of money. They could even calculate down to the second how much money they'd be losing and so it was a great way to get exposure to software engineering in a in a truly kind of mission and life critical industry.

From there a friend of mine told me about some of the great work that was happening at the robotics Institute and I took an opportunity to join a place called the National robotics Engineering Center, which was a pretty special Centre for a university because their whole mission was to really do what’s called commercializing technology so taking things that came out of the lab taking the great ideas and innovations that professors throughout the university had been working on and finding a way to push it into companies. 

We worked with John Deere on smart systems for all sorts of agriculture equipment and we did autonomous mining trucks for Caterpillar. I had an opportunity to work on the third instalment of the series of Grand Challenge races as the software lead on that project and we really sort of pushed the limits of what was possible in that race with self-driving and that’s sort of how I got real passionate around the self-driving space and from that point forward I really dedicated my career to autonomous driving.

I think so many of the really smart people I worked with at Carnegie Mellon they've gone on to do some really amazing things. When you look back on the last ten years, a small group of us went from Stanford and Carnegie Mellon who had participated in those races and we joined forces and also helped spearhead developing the Google self-driving car in the early days.

Then from Google I ended up in late 2016 starting and founding the company called Argo AI with the intention of building autonomous vehicles but doing it with very close collaboration with the OEMs because it felt like that was just really important as a way to scale this out across the world. You really need an OEM partner who can help you do that because the car is obviously super sophisticated, probably the most complex consumer product as you know, and sort of brings me up to where we are today.

Could we talk some more about the DARPA challenge that for our global audience may not be so familiar with?

A lot of folks are probably familiar with DARPA but if you’re not it’s a research agency that’s part of the US government that does a lot of fundamental research. They drive research in areas that some may have never even heard of. They have a phrase they call DARPA-hards - any problems they try to solve or things that just never been done before and they also spearheaded a set of races called the Grand Challenge.

The third one became known as the urban challenge. The first of the Grand Challenges were desert races, so it was very it was very focused on off-road autonomy. The third one was more in an urban setting. The goal was to spur industry and government participation in Academia bringing all three groups together to compete against one another and competition drives a lot of innovation and results. So, it’s a brilliant way to bring all three together and really innovate in the area of autonomous vehicles.

In the urban challenge you had to visit various waypoints along the way and you had to follow the rules of the road and interact with other robots on the field, which I know this may sound kind a little bit crazy now but in 2007 that was really unheard of. It was actually really exciting to have all these different robotics systems on the same playing field interacting with each other - it’s actually really neat.

FISITA PLUS sessions were held every Thursday throughout July. Replays of all are available as follows: