Pittsburgh’s autonomous tech will take the stage at annual CES convention in Las Vegas

Autonomous technology in Pittsburgh will be the focus, at least for an afternoon, at the world’s largest annual tech event next week.

Members of four Pittsburgh-area companies will step onto a Las Vegas showroom stage on Tuesday at the annual CES convention for a panel discussion on “Building Approachable Autonomous Technology in Pittsburgh.” The event runs through the week.

“Autonomous systems are geared to augment the human experience,” said Michael Harding, vice president for business investment at the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance, which is organizing the panel discussion along with the Pittsburgh Technology Council.

Harding expounded on the example of a restaurant waiter using a robot to bring a full tables’ worth of meals in one trip.

“Autonomous technology didn’t replace that waiter, it made him 10 times more efficient,” Harding said. “It typically replaces dull, dark and dangerous jobs first, so you can ‘upstream’ an employee and replace the job with something autonomous.”

The panel, hosted by Carnegie Mellon Corporate Relations Senior Director Lenna Cominos, will include:

• Sterling Anderson, co-founder of Aurora, a self-driving system designed to operate multiple types of vehicles. Aurora technology has been used by Toyota, FedEx, Volvo Trucks, Uber, Ryder and others.

• Patrick Mondi, CEO of Thoro.ai, whose software, hardware and cloud services have allowed machines to operate autonomously. Its technology has been used for moving warehouse pallets through a partnership with Illinois-based Big Joe Forklifts, and to power cleaning robots through a partnership with Minnesota company Nilfisk.

• Edwin Olson, founder and CEO of Aeva, whose May Mobility company, based in Michigan with a location in Pittsburgh, has deployed on-demand autonomous vehicle technology in places like Michigan, Texas, Minnesota and Arizona.

• Micol Marchetti-Bowick, chief technology officer at Velo AI, creator of Copilot, an AI-powered bicycle light that can identify approaching vehicles to alert cyclists, and also detect when a vehicle is safely passing a cyclist on the road.

Velo AI is particularly important to Jonathan Kersting, vice president of communications and media for the Pittsburgh Technology Council — he’s been cycling for the past three decades.

“I have a lot of friends who’ve been hit by cars,” Kersting said. “And the fact that Pittsburgh is part of a technology solution for that is pretty awesome stuff. To be able to take that to CES and say, ‘How about that, world?’ is pretty great.”

Kersting said the tech industry represents about a quarter of the jobs in the 13-county region the council serves.

“We can see how autonomous tech has become so prevalent around the world, and having a lot of it comin from Pittsburgh, and attracting people here, is fantastic. A student in high school on the North Side can say, ‘I can have a career in tech right here in Pittsburgh.’ We see it as a way to continue to grow the scope and breadth of tech here.”

Kersting, Harding and the panel participants, however, are not the only ones thinking critically about the role of autonomous tech in the economy. The Labor Innovation and Technology Summit, co-founded by the AFL-CIO and the Screen Actors’ Guild, will also take place alongside CES.

At the Horseshoe Las Vegas, the summit will focus on how the tech revolution affects the U.S. workforce. Union and labor officials will address “the importance of including workers in shaping the future of technology and innovation,” according to a news release.

Harding said the region’s industrial past is a big part of why Pittsburgh has a prominent place in the tech economy today.

“The reason we’re here today is Three Mile Island and its nuclear fallout,” Harding said. “They coudn’t send a human in there; it had to be a robot.”

That robot was developed by the National Robotics Engineering Consortium at Carnegie Mellon University.

“We came out of this gritty heritage, and a lot of the technology that’s been developed the past 30 years has happened at Carnegie Mellon,” Harding said. “When you’re walking through the airport and see ‘Orville’ scrubbing the floor, that’s a Pittsburgh company deploying that tech. It’s still mischaracterized, but that’s part of what’s great about being on the main stage at CES.”

Patrick Varine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Patrick by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .

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