A Q&A with Cruise’s Head of AI, Hussein Mehanna

Two men stand in bright sunlight in front of an orange-and-white car equipped with roof-mounted sensors.
Cruise's Michael Thomas (left) and Hussein Mehanna pose in front of Piglet, one of the company's fleet of autonomous test vehicles, outside Cruise's San Francisco headquarters. Photo: Tekla S. Perry

By: Tekla S. Perry

In 2016, Cruisean autonomous vehicle startup acquired by General Motors, had about 50 employees. At the beginning of 2019, the headcount at its San Francisco headquarters—mostly software engineers, mostly working on projects connected to machine learning and artificial intelligence—hit around 1000. Now that number is up to 1500, and by the end of this year it’s expected to reach about 2000, sprawling into a recently purchased building that had housed Dropbox. And that’s not counting the 200 or so tech workers that Cruise is aiming to install in a Seattle, Wash., satellite development center and a handful of others in Phoenix, Ariz., and Pasadena, Calif.

Cruise’s recent hires aren’t all engineers—it takes more than engineering talent to manage operations. And there are hundreds of so-called safety drivers that are required to sit in the 180 or so autonomous test vehicles whenever they roam the San Francisco streets. But that’s still a lot of AI experts to be hiring in a time of AI engineer shortages.

Hussein Mehanna, head of AI/ML at Cruise, says the company’s hiring efforts are on track, due to the appeal of the challenge of autonomous vehicles in drawing in AI experts from other fields. Mehanna himself joined Cruise in May from Google, where he was director of engineering at Google Cloud AI. Mehanna had been there about a year and a half, a relatively quick career stop after a short stint at Snap following four years working in machine learning at Facebook.

Mehanna has been immersed in AI and machine learning research since his graduate studies in speech recognition and natural language processing at the University of Cambridge. I sat down with Mehanna to talk about his career, the challenges of recruiting AI experts and autonomous vehicle development in general—and some of the challenges specific to San Francisco. We were joined by Michael Thomas, Cruise’s manager of AI/ML recruiting, who had also spent time recruiting AI engineers at Google and then Facebook.

IEEE Spectrum: When you were at Cambridge, did you think AI was going to take off like a rocket?

Mehanna: Did I imagine that AI was going to be as dominant and prevailing and sometimes hyped as it is now? No. I do recall in 2003 that my supervisor and I were wondering if neural networks could help at all in speech recognition. I remember my supervisor saying if anyone could figure out how use a neural net for speech he would give them a grant immediately. So he was on the right path. Now neural networks have dominated vision, speech, and language [processing]. But that boom started in 2012.

I didn’t [expect it], but I certainly aimed for it when [I was at] Microsoft, where I deliberately pushed my career towards machine learning instead of big data, which was more popular at the time. And [I aimed for it] when I joined Facebook.

In the early days, Facebook wasn’t that open to PhDs, or researchers. It actually had a negative sentiment about researchers. And then Facebook shifted to becoming one of the key places where PhD students wanted to do internships or join after they graduated. It was a mindset shift, they were [once] at a point in time where they thought what was needed for success wasn’t research, but now it’s different.

There was definitely an element of risk [in taking a machine learning career path], but I was very lucky, things developed very fast.

IEEE Spectrum: Is it getting harder or easier to find AI engineers to hire, given the reported shortages?

Mehanna: There is a mismatch [between job openings and qualified engineers], though it is hard to quantify it with numbers. There is good news as well: I see a lot more students diving deep into machine learning and data in their [undergraduate] computer science studies, so it’s not as bleak as it seems. But there is massive demand in the market.

Here at Cruise, demand for AI talent is just growing and growing. It might be is saturating or slowing down at other kinds of companies, though, [which] are leveraging more traditional applications—ad prediction, recommendations—that have been out there in the market for a while. These are more mature, better understood problems.

I believe autonomous vehicle technologies is the most difficult AI problem out there. The magnitude of the challenge of these problems is 1000 times more than other problems. They aren’t as well understood yet, and they require far deeper technology. And also the quality at which they are expected to operate is off the roof.

The autonomous vehicle problem is the engineering challenge of our generation. There’s a lot of code to write, and if we think we are going to hire armies of people to write it line by line, it’s not going to work. Machine learning can accelerate the process of generating the code, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t going to have engineers; we actually need a lot more engineers.

Sometimes people worry that AI is taking jobs. It is taking some developer jobs, but it is actually generating other developer jobs as well, protecting developers from the mundane and helping them build software faster and faster.

IEEE Spectrum: Are you concerned that the demand for AI in industry is drawing out the people in academia who are needed to educate future engineers, that is, the “eating the seed corn” problem?

Mehanna: There are some negative examples in the industry, but that’s not our style. We are looking for collaborations with professors, we want to cultivate a very deep and respectful relationship with universities.

And there’s another angle to this: Universities require a thriving industry for them to thrive. It is going to be extremely beneficial for academia to have this flourishing industry in AI, because it attracts more students to academia. I think we are doing them a fantastic favor by building these career opportunities. This is not the same as in my early days, [when] people told me “don’t go to AI; go to networking, work in the mobile industry; mobile is flourishing.”

IEEE Spectrum: Where are you looking as you try to find a thousand or so engineers to hire this year?

Thomas: We look for people who want to use machine learning to solve problems.  They can be in many different industries—in the financial markets, in social media, in advertising.  The autonomous vehicle industry is in its infancy. You can compare it to mobile in the early days: When the iPhone first came out, everyone was looking for developers with mobile experience, but you weren’t going to find them unless you went to straight to Apple, [so you had to hire other kinds of engineers]. This is the same type of thing: it is so new that you aren’t going to find experts in this area, because we are all still learning.

Mehanna: Because autonomous vehicle technology is the new frontier for AI experts, [the number of] people with both AI and autonomous vehicle experience is quite limited. So we are acquiring AI experts wherever they are, and helping them grow into the autonomous vehicle area. You don’t have to be an autonomous vehicle expert to flourish in this world. It’s not too late to move; even though there is a lot of great tech developed, there’s even more innovation ahead, so now would be a great time for AI experts working on other problems or applications to shift their attention to autonomous vehicles.

It feels like the Internet in 1980. It’s about to happen, but there are endless applications [to be developed over] the next few decades. Even if we can get a car to drive safely, there is the question of how can we tune the ride comfort, and then applying it all to different cities, different vehicles, different driving situations, and who knows to what other applications.

I can see how I can spend a lifetime career trying to solve this problem.

IEEE Spectrum: Why are you doing most of your development in San Francisco?

Mehanna: I think the best talent of the world is in Silicon Valley, and solving the autonomous vehicle problem is going to require the best of the best. It’s not just the engineering talent that is here, but [also] the entrepreneurial spirit. Solving the problem just as a technology is not going to be successful, you need to solve the product and the technology together. And the entrepreneurial spirit is one of the key reasons Cruise secured 7.5 billion in funding [besides GM, the company has a number of outside investors, including Honda and Softbank] That [funding] is another Cruise is ahead of many others, because this problem requires deep resources.

[And then there is the driving environment.] When I speak to my peers in the industry, they have a lot of respect for us, because the problems to solve in San Francisco technically are an order of magnitude harder. It is a tight environment, with a lot of pedestrians, and driving patterns that, let’s put it this way, are not necessarily the best in the nation. Which means we are seeing more problems ahead of our competitors, which gets us to better [software]. I think if you can do an autonomous vehicle in San Francisco you can do it almost anywhere.

This article originally appeared in IEEE Spectrum on 9 July 2019.