Why Is Uber Hiring Robotics Researchers?

Something really weird seems to be going on at Uber Technologies Inc. A number of news outlets are reporting that the networked transportation giant has hired 40 top robotics scientists away from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

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The Pittsburg Tribune-Review reported that the scientists will leave Carnegie Mellon’s National Robotics Engineering Center and go to work at Uber’s Lawrenceville Research Center. None of the news stories said why Uber had hired the researchers or what they would be doing.

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What Is Uber up To?

One obvious project might be to develop some sort of robotic car similar to the Google (NASDAQ: GOOGL) and Mercedes self-driving cars. Another might be to try to develop better technology for Uber drivers to use; for example, Uber software to install in your self-driving car in order to turn it into a rental car or a taxi cab.

Another might be to set up a military robotics company to compete with Google’s Boston Dynamics. Boston Dynamics, , is the MIT linked outfit that builds creepy robots right out of Star Wars for the U.S. military. It has a close relationship with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, the Pentagon’s weird science division. Google bought Boston Dynamics a year or so back.

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If Uber could set up its own version of Boston Dynamics, it could make big money from defense contracts and from companies like Amazon.com that are increasingly using next generation robots. One obvious use of such technologies would be a robot delivery truck.

Uber Stabs University in the Back

Uber and Carnegie Mellon have been working together for quite some time, The Tribune-Review reported. The university has been trying to become the home of the Uber Advanced Technologies Center, a sort of think tank that Uber plans to set up.


The articles make it sound as if Uber is being its usual sleazy self here; it dangled donations and cash in front of the university to get in the door. Instead of entering into a partnership, Uber simply poached the Center’s best brains.

Uber, it seems, has many attributes, but ethics is definitely not one of them. One has to wonder how long such backstabbing can go on before it loses all of its business partners.

What Is Uber Anyway?

This affair once again raises the intriguing question: What exactly is Uber? It certainly isn’t a ride-sharing service like it claims. So what is it? Is Uber a technology company or a transportation company?

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Hard to say, but after this deal, Uber is behaving more and more like a hedge fund company or a venture capital firm. It uses its core transportation business to generate cash then reinvests that cash in other ventures.

This, of course, is a lot like Google, which uses its core advertising business to generate cash then reinvests the cash in other ventures, such as self-driving cars, and to buy companies like YouTube. Amazon.com (NASDAQ: AMZN) uses a similar business plan; its online retail generates cash to finance ventures like Amazon Web Services and the movie studio.

One can also compare the business model to Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE: BRK.A). At Berkshire Hathaway, Warren Buffett uses businesses like newspapers and insurance to generate float for acquisitions to expand the business. Uber is doing much the same thing.

That means Uber might be a pretty good business even if its ethics leave much to be desired. One has to wonder if Uber is planning to leave networked transportation or simply expand into something else.

There is one certainty here: Uber is likely to become a business giant and an important force in finance in the years ahead. What is not clear is whether an Uber IPO would be a good investment or not. If it becomes a leader in the world of robotics, it could be.