Thoughts from the Convention Floor
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Ali Tabibian: 00:01 Welcome, welcome, welcome, everyone to this episode of Tech Cars Machines. We are coming to you from Las Vegas where yours truly and 182,000 of my close friends are part of a boiling, roiling mass of techies that descend on the city the first calendar week of the year for the Consumer Electronics Show, or CES.
Ali Tabibian: 00:24 You can probably hear in the background quite literally the pulse of the show that's going on and will be probably part of the background in its entirety. The Tech, Cars, Machines podcast keeps growing in popularity. This fact, and I like to think our commitment to high quality analysis, brought us to the attention of the organizers of the Consumer Electronics Show. They invited us to record an episode on site and have provided this nice studio which we are in right now.
Ali Tabibian: 00:54 Special thanks to Pam Golden for reaching out to us and Robbie Lycett for arranging the logistics.
Ali Tabibian: 01:02 CES completely takes over and basically completely overwhelms Las Vegas. The lines for taxis, buses, any form of public transportation are too long to bother with. But because the roads are almost impassible as well around any major destination, it brings about a certain democratization of the environment and by that I mean that the types of people who are used to being whisked along in the fast lane of roads, airports, and life in general are reduced, thanks to really the overwhelmed infrastructure, to join the masses.
Ali Tabibian: 01:32 Unless you hunker down in a single hotel and are working mainly out of your dedicated conference rooms and suites inside that hotel, you need to hoof it with the rest of the poor huddled masses yearning to breathe tech.
Ali Tabibian: 01:47 And when I say the city is taken over, I really mean taken over. All three halls of the massive Vegas Convention Center are taken over by this show. This is also true for every major hotel in Las Vegas. All of them. And to give you a sense of the size of just the convention center where we've spent all of today, let me point the following.
Ali Tabibian: 02:09 This is where my kids once participated in a basketball tournament where 40 basketball courts were in operation simultaneously in just one of the five major halls. Some of these halls have multiple floors.
Ali Tabibian: 02:31 There are also two major adjacent buildings amongst the main halls themselves and all of these spaces are carved up amongst thousands of presenters. There are booths and there are pavilions and they range in size from the kind of space you'd find in a sort of a Moroccan old town market to spectacular carnival-like spaces covering tens of thousands of square feet which are showered by electronics and goods and products by the likes of Samsung, LG, and Mercedes.
Ali Tabibian: 03:01 There are spaces outside of the convention center referred to beaches where fleets of test vehicles are available for people to have some fun with.
Ali Tabibian: 03:10 Now you'll notice in the last couple sentences, we started talking about car stuff. You noticed I mentioned the Mercedes pavilion, test vehicles, wasn't this the Consumer Electronics Show? The answer is it used to be and it still is, to a certain extent, but it's a lot more now.
Ali Tabibian: 03:36 As the name suggests, when the Consumer Electronics Show started about 50 years ago, it was about consumer electronics. HiFi stereo equipment, cameras, TVs, DVD players and so on. Now over time it's no surprise to any of you that many of the gadgets that the show was about have been subsumed by smart phones and online streaming. Your cameras, and your navigation units are substantially in your phone these days and the functions of DVD players, for example, and music collections now are pretty much subsumed by internet streaming.
Ali Tabibian: 04:09 But as you listeners also know, a lot of the smartphone and connectivity technology started spilling into other types of equipment, including cars and machines. Sounds like Tech, Cars, Machines doesn't it?
Ali Tabibian: 04:24 In the case of CES, the machines are mainly consumer machines in the smart home category, less so the jet engines and aircraft and industrial equipment that we've talked about elsewhere in this podcast.
Ali Tabibian: 04:36 What's startling today, and especially startling if you haven't been here in the last five or six years which is sort of the point where smartphones really started taking over globally, is how little space relatively speaking is dedicated to the consumer electronics gadgetry that the show was originally about. And how much the cars and smart appliances and internet things devices have taken over. The exception, by the way, is televisions, which still command a huge amount of attention and floor space here.
Ali Tabibian: 05:06 If you walked around the convention center you'd see a rough relationship between the layout of the convention center, or I should say the layout of the entities presenting in the convention center, and the vertical stack of technologies that make up all the things here. For example, most of the semiconductor component presenters are in the sound halls. You'll run into names like Intel, Qualcomm, TDK and [inaudible 00:05:29] which is the sensor manufacturer from which we had an episode. Further north you see the personal electronic devices, little bit of cameras still believe it or not, Nikon. And appliances, TVs, once again being the big deal here.
Ali Tabibian: 05:43 And by the way, smartphones not as much because those devices have their own big reveal parties and the big daddy Apple doesn't like to participate in these mass events in any case.
Ali Tabibian: 05:54 The appliance manufacturers have spectacular set ups. Over tens of thousands of square feet where you can walk through deep canyons of TV monitors displaying images of the canyon, its waterfalls and whatnot. The assemblage of smart appliances from let's say alarm clocks that program themselves based on your schedule and outside information such as flight delayed, sleep in a bit more to refrigerators that can sense shortfalls and place orders, they're all on display.
Ali Tabibian: 06:24 When you put it all together, you have the makings of a fantastic utopian techno-home where everything you need is either streamed to you or automatically ordered and delivered to you, probably via robot and hopefully those deliveries will include the anti-depressants you need since never leaving home means you've lost all your friends.
Ali Tabibian: 06:43 Further north, in the north hall, are the auto manufacturers. Typically they're showing off their autonomous driving and infotainment solutions although as much as this show is about electronics, you can see from where the attendees are massing, that they're equally enamored with the aesthetics of the vehicles that are on display.
Ali Tabibian: 07:01 In the dashboard there's a rush for the largest, most beautiful, sweeping panels which really rival the beauty of the nicest TVs you could have. And there's a big business brewing on how to monetize all that visual real estate. People like Toyota and then Mitsubishi as a supplier are pushing things really hard in this direction. The usual suspect for monetization of that visual display, is commerce, letting your car finding you the cheapest gas or the best restaurant and setting the navigation address to get there automatically.
Ali Tabibian: 07:54 And the future is literally here, there is a multi-passenger flying car on the display next to the Mercedes pavilion. I have a couple photos and we'll try to post them into where we usually put the transcript on the website which includes the player for this episode. The northernmost part of the convention center is strangely called Westgate. The occupants there tend to be heavily oriented towards special purpose autonomous vehicles, machine vision, robotics companies, a little bit more of the futuristic stuff.
Ali Tabibian: 08:28 But there was one entity at Westgate which is in the future is here today category. You, our listeners, know that we have for some time been proposing shuttles as a great, near-term, real world application of advanced autonomy. The type of shuttles we mean that repetitively travel a prescribed route at low speeds, typically carrying people, sometimes cargo. We've had our eyes on one of these companies for a while, and I think we've mentioned them in some of our publications, and that is Detroit based May Mobility.
Ali Tabibian: 08:57 And founder and CEO Dr. Ed Olson, a really good guy was kind enough to give us some time. Let's take a listen.
Ali Tabibian: 09:04 Ed, tell me a little about where are we right now?
Ed Olson: 09:07 Well, we're in the middle of one of our concept vehicles, we call it Myla 2. It's a low speed electric vehicle that serves commuter routes in downtown urban cores.
Ali Tabibian: 09:19 Excellent, and from what I can see, this is a four person shuttle, is that right?
Ed Olson: 09:23 Yeah, we seat four people. You can't see it over the air here but we're facing each other. The front two seats face the back two seats, and then in the middle there are 49" touch displays that can deliver new services and value to our riders.
Ali Tabibian: 09:38 Excellent. And basically if I were to describe it for our listeners, it's essentially a very nice golf cart, four person golf cart, the seats facing each other, as you mentioned, much nicer layout, much nicer seats, and then with a glass top as well. Is that an accurate description?
Ed Olson: 09:55 I think that's fair. And it looks a little quirky, it's certainly not a minivan but it has a real upside. When these are out on the streets, whether it's Detroit or Columbus, people notice these and they recognize that this is something different and that's a real value add for us.
Ali Tabibian: 10:12 The one we're on doesn't have doors attached, I'm assuming, especially when I'm looking at the map here, downtown Detroit, downtown Columbus, presumably it has doors when it's running in real life?
Ed Olson: 10:22 Absolutely. We're big fans of doors, especially in the great north. In this case we took the doors off just to encourage people to actually come in and touch the vehicle. There's a lot of concept cars that are glossy and shiny but don't touch and that's not who we are. We build vehicles for real riders to experience.
Ali Tabibian: 10:40 And that's what's always been really attractive about what you guys've been doing. You've been out in the field, you've actually been doing it as opposed to demo-ing it or talking about it, and that's really the big difference in terms of what I've always felt was applied autonomy for [inaudible 00:10:54].
Ali Tabibian: 10:56 Gimme a minute on yourself, your background, where are you from, how did you wind up doing this?
Ed Olson: 11:02 I have a technical background, so I went to school at MIT, got my undergrad through my PhD there. While I was there I started working on autonomous robots for the first time. First building autonomous underwater robots for the Office of Naval Research. Then was a participant in the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge. On MIT's team we were one of the teams that finished the race.
Ed Olson: 11:24 After that, went the faculty route which was a real surprise to everyone because I was always running off every summer to do a startup of some variety or another. But got a faculty job at the University of Michigan, build a huge research lab that built amazing robots, and then was principal investigator on Ford's autonomous vehicle program and then co-director of autonomous driving at Toyota Research Institute.
Ed Olson: 11:46 A lot of autonomous cars, but really got an itch to build something that we could put into the world that would solve real problems acknowledging and respecting the limitations where the technology is today. And it made the most sense to do this in a startup so in 2017 I started May Mobility.
Ali Tabibian: 12:05 Wow, so that's so impressive. We're talking about a company that's two years old, essentially, right?
Ed Olson: 12:10 Yes, that's right.
Ali Tabibian: 12:12 How many people do you have? How many vehicles do you have out there? In what cities? How many miles? Wow us.
Ed Olson: 12:18 Our first money was in the door in May of 2017, five months later we were operating on public streets in downtown Detroit for a week long pilot. At that point we had 15 employees. All hands on deck for that pilot.
Ed Olson: 12:34 Since then we've grown to 60 people, we're about 18 months old. We're in commercial, regular commercial service in two cities, Columbus, Ohio and Detroit, Michigan with two other customers announced in Providence, Rhode Island, and Grand Rapids, Michigan. We carried over 30,000 passengers in Detroit, and we've driven rider satisfaction and utilization of the transit service, much much higher versus a traditional service.
Ali Tabibian: 13:02 Amazing.
Ali Tabibian: 13:03 Define the problem that you're solving for us in terms of the routes, the speed limits, whatever else is germane to really allow you to find out the problem for something that's manageable for today?
Ed Olson: 13:16 Here's the main point that our customers have. Transportation is expensive and so if you are a transportation provider, whether you're corporate, VP of parking and transportation or you're a municipal transportation planner, the problem that you have is that you can't put enough vehicles on road, on a route to keep the wait time tolerable. If you can only put one vehicle on a route and the route's running every hour then you have this vicious cycle of declining services, which causes your ridership to decline which means that you can no longer justify the transportation spend you've got and before you know it your transportation service dies.
Ed Olson: 13:53 The fundamental value proposition of May Mobility is that we can provide three to six times the level of service to our customers versus a traditional human driven system.
Ed Olson: 14:03 I think a key point is that our value proposition has nothing to do for the customer with the fact that we're autonomous. They don't care. What they do care about is that we can provide better service, and the way that we achieve that is because we are autonomous.
Ali Tabibian: 14:17 Exactly.
Ali Tabibian: 14:17 And you are running routes, essentially like a municipal transportation system. This is not program your destination and off you go on an ad hoc basis.
Ed Olson: 14:26 That's right. That's a reflection on where the technology is today, we'll eventually do robo-taxis and all the rest, but the reality is that today, those systems are not ready for prime time.
Ed Olson: 14:38 One of the ways that we carve away technical complexity is by saying there's some roads we're not gonna go on. We're gonna keep the speeds below 25 miles per hour, and you cut away some of that complexity and you realize that, oh wait, actually the technology that we have today can actually solve this problem.
Ali Tabibian: 14:54 Excellent. And the way that you're implementing the technology, is it all in this vehicle, or do you also install some infrastructure along the route?
Ed Olson: 15:02 So we take a slightly contrarian view point on how to build an autonomous system. We design our cars to be self sufficient for about 95% of the time. But sometimes, in an environment, there might be one intersection that's just a bear. We've got high speed cross traffic. What most companies do in that case is they'll put an increasingly exotic sensors on the roof of their car. Drives up the cost of the vehicle, drives up the cost of the service and means that we're no longer satisfying the customer's problem.
Ed Olson: 15:32 What we'll do, is we'll put a sensor in the environment. We'll bolt a radar or a camera onto a post and that allows us to continue to build very low cost vehicles but still have the sensor data that allows us to handle those situations safely.
Ali Tabibian: 15:46 Outstanding. Outstanding.
Ali Tabibian: 15:48 Tell me a little bit about your investors, where you're headed next?
Ed Olson: 15:54 We have in 18 months we've raised about 11 and a half million dollars in total, so everything we've done here we've done for about 10 and a half million dollars. Our last round was led by Toyota AI ventures and BMW I ventures, and obviously we're really excited to have the support of two of the world's great auto makers.
Ali Tabibian: 16:14 That is very very impressive. And to what extent do those partnerships ... do those partnerships ever limit you at all or are they structured in a way where it's all positive?
Ed Olson: 16:23 Those are clean deals but they give us access to really smart people but also the vehicle platforms that those companies built. It's a great positive relationship.
Ali Tabibian: 16:34 Our listeners tend to be executives and investors. There's nothing in your current investor group that would limit any particular corporate or other investor for having a reason to talk to you?
Ed Olson: 16:44 Definitely not. And we continue to talk to the other OEMs, we think that there's gonna be lots of different vehicles and different products that we're going to build and we see May Mobility as a company that could work with a lot of strategics.
Ali Tabibian: 16:58 Great. Ed you've been wonderful, is there anything else you'd like to add?
Ed Olson: 17:01 The one thing that I think is most exciting about what we're doing is that May operates the only autonomous vehicle service in the country where anyone can just walk up without an NDA or without a liability waiver and experience autonomous technology. That's in Columbus, Ohio, we operate from 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., seven days a week. I hope everybody gets a chance to go and see it.
Ali Tabibian: 17:23 Bravo, bravo really Ed. It's been really fun watching you guys over the last couple years and just watching the speed with which you've made progress.
Ali Tabibian: 17:31 Thank you so much for taking the time.
Ed Olson: 17:33 Thank you.
Ali Tabibian: 17:36 When you're one of the 200,000 people at the show here, you don't expect to run into too many people you know, but it does happen to me a few times a day here at CES. Maybe what that really means is I've been doing this thing for too long and feel free to send career advice via LinkedIn.
Ali Tabibian: 17:52 But it's a particular pleasure when you run into someone you really like, such as Pete Bonee, who is also at one of the top artificial intelligence chip companies in Silicon Valley and who's been coming here long enough where he can give us a sense of the show's history.
Ali Tabibian: 18:09 Pete was kind enough to sit down with us in our studio for a few minutes, let's take a listen.
Ali Tabibian: 18:14 Right now he's with a company called NovuMind. It's one of those outstanding AI chip companies. Last year at CES they, Pete correct me if I'm wrong, I guess I could call it a prototype. You'd demo-d a prototype and things went very well for it. They now have a working chip.
Ali Tabibian: 18:30 This time back at CES they're being wined and dined by some of the big companies around here who wanna put their chip to work. Pete is one of the more experienced executives that you'll run into in Silicon Valley and he is a veteran and I thought it would be great to get a little bit of a history from Pete, where it is, where it's come, and how he feels things have gotten better or not.
Ali Tabibian: 18:52 Pete thanks so much for joining us.
Pete Bonee: 18:54 Ali, thanks for having me.
Ali Tabibian: 18:55 Absolutely. And isn't it great to just sit down for a few minutes after ...
Pete Bonee: 18:59 It's lovely to put up your feet.
Ali Tabibian: 19:01 That's right, that 10 hours of running.
Ali Tabibian: 19:05 Tell us a little bit about what your background is, maybe just 30 seconds and then give us a few minutes on what you're up to today at NovuMind because I know that's one of the really, probably one of the most interesting AI companies out there.
Pete Bonee: 19:17 Well sure Ali.
Pete Bonee: 19:17 Well as you know, I've been around Silicon Valley and technology for a number of years both as an operator in companies and a founder of a couple of start ups and also as a VC investor. These days I'm working at NovuMind, helping the CEO with strategy and go to market strategy in particular.
Pete Bonee: 19:36 And it's an exciting company. As you know, we've got the industry's most power efficient AI processor chip for inference. As the world moves towards deployment of artificial intelligence, out at the edge of the network where all the data is, for example to transform an ordinary camera into an artificial intelligence camera that doesn't just give you a video output, but it tells you what it's seeing. That's a need for embedding AI inference intelligence into a tight spot, operating at just hundreds of milliwatts of power and having it perform some very sophisticated computation. That's what our chip does. It's definitely a very hot, very interesting area and that's one of the things that I'm doing here at CES is talking to people who have applications for that chip.
Ali Tabibian: 20:31 And just walking around CES, there doesn't seem to be any shortage of applications for analyzing video and audio and doing something more with it, right? And I think part of challenge would be, boy our listeners are getting a really blast, so to speak, of what's going on in the background here at CES. This is one of the car audio companies that's showing off its products in the background.
Ali Tabibian: 20:55 There's no shortage of opportunities to process audio and video in particular.
Pete Bonee: 21:02 Oh, absolutely. And the blast that we just heard from our next door neighbor here, the next booth. This will be an example of a real world problem where in real time a human has no difficulty distinguishing your speech from the background voice so it doesn't bother me at all, I was focused on what you were saying. And you can train an AI inference engine with convolutional neural networks to do that kind of thing.
Pete Bonee: 21:28 And there are all kinds of applications like that where people would want to embed this processing power but unfortunately to do it, you need a lot of processing power and people look at using expensive GPUs from [inaudible 00:21:42] and things like that. If you wanna accomplish this function without spending $1000 on a chip and if you wanna operate the chip at just a few watts, you needs a new kind of solution and that's what we're working on and it's very exciting to have that.
Ali Tabibian: 22:01 Absolutely. We ran into each other at the Samsung booth and just look at the issue there. They had these mind-boggling, beautiful, beautiful high resolution screens, really reality resolution but they don't have content for it.
Ali Tabibian: 22:15 To take existing content, have it intelligently upscale to show off the screen is a perfect example for what you're up to these days.
Pete Bonee: 22:22 That's right.
Ali Tabibian: 22:23 Great.
Ali Tabibian: 22:24 Alright, well let's talk a little bit about the show that we both ran into each other here. CES. I think you were mentioning that you started maybe actually, remember attending a CES in Chicago, is that right?
Pete Bonee: 22:36 Well that's right and forgive me, I don't recall the name back then, it might've been Consumer Electronics Show or something like that, and it was in Chicago and it was probably in the early 90s when I was in the voice processing industry. I remember that well and since then I couldn't tell you how many of the CES events I've been to, but it's been a bunch.
Pete Bonee: 23:01 And I've been here in various capacities. I've been manning a booth, I have been here as a board member of a company to look at their booth and see what kind of traffic they're getting. I've been here as a venture investor, just kind of scouting out some of the new things and some of the start ups that are being featured. I've been here in various capacities over the years and I look forward to coming every year now.
Pete Bonee: 23:28 It's a place to come and see what's new and some of the industry themes and frankly to see some of the early themes, or some of the disruptive technologies that might be percolating up and maybe haven't hit mainstream yet but you can see the early renditions of those technologies and then years later they pop into the mainstream. It's quite an event.
Ali Tabibian: 23:53 Let me ask you this, when you first started going to these shows, was it really about consumer electronics or did it have as much of the other stuff, the industrial IOT, the vehicles, and the automobiles that it does now?
Pete Bonee: 24:09 The auto industry, I think, has been recently involved in CES. I don't recall that way back then and that's an example of one of the, sort of the secular themes, if you will, of things that you see here. But I do recall both consumer and enterprise and industrial kinds of things in the past.
Pete Bonee: 24:29 For example in my voice, telecom, voice processing days, I might've been here a couple of times looking at digital phones, voiceover IP, desktop business phones. Now that would definitely not be a popular thing in 2019, but a couple of decades ago it was a very advanced thing that I needed to understand and this was the place to come to see everybody who was working on such a thing.
Ali Tabibian: 24:57 Interesting. And was it always, in the tech world we follow a [inaudible 00:25:01] of technology stack all the way from the components up to the software and the services. Right now, CES has the whole stack. You get semiconductor companies here all the way to the people who are wrapping services around the finished product. Was it always that way or was it something different? More hardware oriented?
Pete Bonee: 25:19 I think ... that's an excellent question and I think it's always kind of a mix. One of the things that strikes me is that you see a lot of players who are at a very specific point in the stack, and CES is, I think, a great place for them to connect with each other.
Pete Bonee: 25:36 I may stumble into a camera company from Shenzhen, China that has a camera which has great technical specs but no intelligence wrapped around it and they're looking for applications. And in the same hall, you may see a cloud based facial recognition expert company. And those two companies, I'm sure when they're here, they take the opportunity to talk to each other. In effect it's a virtual full stack experience for companies.
Ali Tabibian: 26:08 Interesting.
Ali Tabibian: 26:08 And what about the type of attendees over the years? Let's talk maybe just in terms of the type of person who's here. It's really not a lay crowd, I mean, people here are generally industry participants. Has it always been that way, and did it always have what is now quite a substantial mix of executive talent running around?
Pete Bonee: 26:32 Yeah, I think so. There's an interesting mix of people. Of course the general trend is everybody seems to be getting younger, to me, it'll be shown. But, no, it's true. You've got people working on the technology, you've got obviously people doing business development, marketing related activities and you've got the executive crowd as well and the investment crowd. You've got people from the large banks who are here doing research and you've got venture investors who are looking for emerging things.
Pete Bonee: 27:03 It's an interesting mix of people.
Ali Tabibian: 27:05 What about the, sort of the, origins or the nationalities of the people involved? I imagine many moons ago it was mostly American, maybe some Japanese firms involved.
Pete Bonee: 27:15 Yeah. I think that's exactly right. It was more American and some Japanese companies and lately there's been more of a blend of companies from everywhere. And more start up companies also, then there were in the past.
Ali Tabibian: 27:33 That's an interesting change.
Pete Bonee: 27:35 What does occur to me is, there're many things that you'll see at the CES events that are catchy technologies that you stop and you look at and as technologies they're interesting but you wonder, who's gonna buy this? What's the use case? And then inevitably, a few years later, some of those things will pop into the mainstream.
Pete Bonee: 27:59 And example would be tablet computers. Many moons ago there were companies like Go Computer that were working on tablet computers, the technology took time to mature, the LCD technology, the touch technology, and the gesture recognizing software and so forth and it was ... when did the iPad come out? About five years ago or something like that. All of a sudden it burst into the mainstream.
Pete Bonee: 28:28 And you do ask yourself if I had seen the technology earlier, could I have predicted that better? So I think there's a lot of value in that kind of things at CES. It's case gonna be, when will this become a mainstream product? You might be able to glean that by talking to the product manager, people in the booth, other people looking at the technology and ask what they're thinking. What's their vision?
Pete Bonee: 28:53 And that takes time.
Ali Tabibian: 28:55 And usually it's a lot more revealing than trying to look through the company's marketing collateral. It really is a much better way of learning than sort of what's publicly available. That's great.
Ali Tabibian: 29:07 Pete, I'm afraid that our chance to sit is coming to an end. I think we have to get up and start walking again.
Pete Bonee: 29:14 Oh goody.
Ali Tabibian: 29:16 I wanna thank you so much for taking the time here, helping us both take a rest while we reminisce a bit over how lucky we both are to have been attending these events for some time.
Pete Bonee: 29:26 Well, it's my pleasure Ali. Thanks for having me.
Ali Tabibian: 29:28 Great, thank you so much.
Ali Tabibian: 29:31 That's it, dear listeners, for this special edition of Tech, Cars, Machines. Thanks again for the Consumer Electronics Show for inviting us and giving us studio space. We have been bringing this to you from the floor of the Las Vegas Convention Center, January 2019.