I wrote a blog post last month highlighting some of the exciting trends in the computing industry. One trend I discussed is the rapid progress in a branch of artificial intelligence called deep learning. Big tech companies are making significant investments in deep learning, but there are also opportunities for startups:

Many of the papers, data sets, and software tools related to deep learning have been open sourced. This has had a democratizing effect, allowing individuals and small organizations to build powerful applications. WhatsApp was able to build a global messaging system that served 900M users with just 50 engineers, compared to the thousands of engineers that were needed for prior generations of messaging systems. This “WhatsApp effect” is now happening in AI. Software tools like Theano and TensorFlow, combined with cloud data centers for training, and inexpensive GPUs for deployment, allow small teams of engineers to build state-of-the-art AI systems.

You might have seen recent press coverage of a software developer named George Hotz who built his own self-driving car.

I first met George a few months ago, and, like a lot of people who had seen the press coverage, I was skeptical. How could someone build such an advanced system all by himself? After spending time with George, my skepticism turned into enthusiasm. I tested his car, and, along with some of my colleagues and friends with AI expertise, dug into the details of the deep learning system he’d developed.

Comma’s self-driving car

I came away convinced that George’s system is a textbook example of the “WhatsApp effect” happening to AI.

George is certainly brilliant (he’s a famous hacker for a reason), and he’s no longer alone: he’s now working with a small team of machine learning experts. But he’s also 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.

Today we are announcing that a16z is leading a $3.1M investment in George’s company, Comma.ai. This investment will help them continue to build their team (they’re hiring), and bring their technology to market. Expect more announcements from Comma in the next few months. We are very excited to support George and his team on this ambitious project.