Silicon Valley was taken aback when Bloomberg profiled a 26-year-old named George Hotz in December who said he had single-handedly built a self-driving car in his garage. It was true that Hotz was an accomplished hacker, being the first person to jailbreak an iPhone. But could a solo effort comprised of $13 cameras really produce results to rival the work of giants like Google, Ford and General Motors, not to mention well-funded upstarts like Tesla?
The skepticism has turned to validation, as Hotz—who made a name for himself by hacking the first iPhone and later, the Playstation 3—has received $3.1 million in funding, led by one of the Valley’s most prestigious firms, Andreesen Horowitz.
A partner at the firm, Chris Dixon, wrote on Medium that he had tested Hotz’s car, brought AI experts to inspect it, and generally “dug deep” into the system. The result was the freshly cut cheque to Hotz’s company, Comma.ai.
Dixon writes that Hotz’s project is a harbinger of what he calls “the WhatsApp effect” on AI. He’s referring to the fact that WhatsApp had a tiny team of engineers capable of building a platform serving an enormous number of people. The chat app, the world’s most popular, has 57 engineers and a billion monthly active users. (For perspective: When Facebook acquired it in 2014, it had fewer than 50 engineers, and 400 million active users.)
WhatsApp's low headcount also meant it could raise a relatively small amount of money. It took about $58 million in funding before it was acquired by Facebook—for $22 billion.
Dixon thinks the same thing is starting to happen in AI, and Hotz is among the first people to capitalize on the trend.
“I came away convinced that George’s system is a textbook example,” he wrote. “He’s … riding a wave of exponentially improving hardware, software, and, most importantly, data. The more his system gets used, the more data it collects, and the smarter it becomes.”
What’s Hotz going to do with the money? Hire very few people, for one. “I’m looking for the kind of person who can make YouTube in a month,” he told Recode.
Hotz’s long-term plan, according to the Bloomberg profile, is to sell a $1,000 kit made of cheap cameras and software, either to automakers or directly to car owners. His more immediate goal is to beat the giants of the self-driving car industry, like Mobileye that supplies software to Tesla, BMW, General Motors and others, by doing things faster and cheaper than them.
Hotz made that clear when Tesla’s Elon Musk offered him a multimillion-dollar job at the car company, according to Bloomberg:
I appreciate the offer, but like I’ve said, I’m not looking for a job. I’ll ping you when I crush Mobileye.