As burgeoning industries like ML and AI careen into the future, which city will they call home? In the first part of this series, Pittsburgh is characterized as a resilient city with a history of innovation. But, the city’s complex industrial past creates benefits as well as challenges for industry development. As tech leaders in the Pittsburgh Robotics Network commit to making Pittsburgh the next robotics capital of the world, key players emphasize hurdles the Steel City needs to overcome before it can achieve its goal

What’s in this article:

The next industrial revolution

The twentieth century brought waves of economic change one after the other—the internet became globally accessible just 70 years after Henry Ford implemented his assembly line. And these rapid innovations have only sped up in recent years. Some folks believe that we’re already in our fourth industrial revolution, switching out water and steam with information and artificial intelligence; ore for data.

How does a digital industry pick a city?

But what primes a city to lead an industry, specifically one like machine learning or artificial intelligence? Before our digital moment, it’d be things like geography and transportation. A mix of rich iron ore deposits and three important rivers helped Pittsburgh become Steel City. Now, the “ore” comes from our pockets, and the “rivers” are global streams connecting everyone. The old criteria that picked centers of industry is out the window.

So, where should the revolution take place?

In a digital age, what makes a city a good “fit” for industry? Can the history of Pittsburgh’s steel mills inform how we get work done? In this series, I propose Pittsburgh. I’ll talk through the traits that make this city ideal for industry and offer some things industry can learn from Pittsburgh’s role in the first industrial revolution.

Pittsburgh—the next Robotics Capital of the World

Last month, Innotescus joined The Pittsburgh Robotics Network (PRN) to announce its commitment to make Pittsburgh the Robotics Capital of the World. A goal like this is potentially a surprise to strangers of southwestern Pennsylvania,but locals know that this aspiration suits the city. Through the last half-century, major businesses and universities have invested in the transformation of this smog-covered steel town.

A History of Innovation

As the US and the rest of the world slowly emerge from a global lockdown, Pittsburgh stands out as a bastion of the ML/AI industry. It recently ranked as the fourth-most resilient US tech hub during the pandemic, still managing to generate engineering jobs while the global economy pointed down.

That being said, robotics, ML, and AI are not nascent parts of Pittsburgh’s tech industry. The city and its institutions have been making strides in these fields for over four decades. A shortlist:

  • Artificial Intelligence was first created at Carnegie Mellon University over 70 years ago
  • In 2016, Uber first premiered its self-driving cars on Pittsburgh’s streets
  • Just over 50 years ago, the first-ever commercial video phone call was made here

ML/AI’s success in Pittsburgh has been nurtured by innovators, entrepreneurs, and leaders that see not just the value of automation, but the value of Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh’s Leaders Identify Challenges for AI/ML Start-ups

All that being said–why here now? From world-class universities to new autonomous vehicle innovations, to the work we do here at Innotescus, Pittsburgh, the robotics crucible, is radiating out. The city and its innovators want more, and they’re saying so.

“Really, the seminal event was when Google put an office in Pittsburgh in 2006. They have over 1,000 employees. Every major tech company — Amazon, Facebook, Apple — have all embedded hundreds of engineers in our community, so we’re growing really, really rapidly,” says Dave Mawhinney, the executive director of CMU’s Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship in an interview with TechCrunch. He says the challenge is getting capital that not only fuels major companies but also trickles down to smaller startups.

But the challenges may lie deeper. Outgoing Mayor Bill Peduto told TechCrunch, “As you look at cities like Pittsburgh and Detroit, you understand that their industrial past is something they take great pride in and they build off of.” The seemingly distant history may have more of a bearing on Pittsburgh’s future than we admit. As industries like AI/ML continue to inhabit more of the city, something can be learned from the transformations that occurred just about 100 years ago. Pittsburgh has a rich history of innovation, and familiarity with it may be an essential part to advancing the city.

Next in the series, we’ll discuss the parallels and differences between Pittsburgh’s industrial revolution and its information one.