After being involved in two serious car accidents, Chien-Chih “Ernie” Ho dedicated himself to a lifelong goal: Develop self-driving car technology that could save millions of lives.
Ho had learned from watching a TED Talk that self-driving car technology could prevent accidents — potentially saving 3 million lives each year — furthering his interest in the burgeoning area. However, as a student at National Chengchi University, a top business school in Taiwan, he had limited access to resources in technology education. Though he taught himself programming, winning several international software competitions in the process, it was difficult to find opportunities in the self-driving car industries.
“In Taiwan, few people and schools are involved in the autonomous vehicle industry” he says. “I knew I needed an environment where I could learn advanced technologies. My mentor told me that if I wanted to study disruptive technology, I needed to go to MIT.”
Diving into robotics at MIT
To gain the tools and knowledge he needed to pursue his passion, he applied and was accepted to MIT Professional Education’s Advanced Study Program (ASP) through the School of Engineering, and became a full-time student in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Driven by his goal, he moved to Cambridge in 2015 and enrolled in courses like 6.034 (Artificial Intelligence) and 6.141 (Robotics: Science and Systems).
“That was my starting point,” he says. “It was the first time that I felt like my dream was finally starting to take off.”
While taking the Artificial Intelligence course, Ho connected with his instructor, Patrick Winston, the Ford Professor of Artificial Intelligence and Computer Science. As a principal investigator at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), Winston studies how vision, language, and motor faculties account for intelligence, and explores applications of AI.
“I was a little intimidated by Professor Winston at first — he’s so smart and respected,” he says. “But he’s genuinely committed to helping his students. After I took his course, he became my research advisor, and played a critical role in many areas of my life. Even now, I still come back to his office and get his advice whenever I need to make a big decision.”
In addition to taking courses, he began doing research with CSAIL and the MIT Media Lab, gaining hands-on experience building autonomous vehicles.
“Deploy or die”
After completing his year of study in ASP, he stayed at MIT for an additional six months as a visiting researcher in the MIT Media Lab. This experience not only helped him continue developing his AI and machine learning skills; it left him with a motto that has shaped his career: deploy or die.
“At the MIT Media Lab, I was exposed to so many ideas from diverse fields — psychology, architecture, computer science, and more,” he says. “But I was continually reminded that innovation alone isn’t enough. If you’re not developing something that will make an impact on the world, what’s the point?”
Under the guidance of Winston and Kai-Fu Lee, he decided to put his new mindset into practice at Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Institute — the birthplace of the autonomous vehicle. That’s where he built on his ASP experience by earning a master’s degree in robotic system development.
Connecting to the MIT community
Today, Ho continues to pursue his dream of building smart cities and autonomous vehicles as the founder of Beyond Sight, Inc. The venture, which resulted from a business deal with a global manufacturing company, seeks to address critical issues for autonomous vehicles, including sensor occlusion, pedestrian unpredictability, and labor-intensive data labeling.
“The idea came to me when I was at MIT Media Lab, where people always think differently,” he says.
He is also the co-founder and CEO of an AI-enabled anti-money laundering platform, UnBlock Analysis, and is preparing to launch another AI-enabled venture within the year. As he continues to work toward autonomous vehicle design — his “20-to-30-year plan” — he actively taps into the strong network of peers and mentors he connected with during his time at MIT.
In fact, UnBlock Analysis’ co-founder is former Wells Fargo Senior Vice President Hwa Ping Chang, an MIT alumnus whom Ernie met through a networking group.
“Before I came to MIT, I would build something, and no one would challenge it,” he says. “Now I have a network of people who push me to be better by asking me ‘Why do you want to build that?’ or ‘Why not build it another way?’ and then together, we transform ideas into something that impacts the world. I wouldn’t have that network without my MIT experience and the opportunity provided by MIT Professional Education’s Advanced Study Program. I’m very grateful.”