Student Profile: Ernie Ho

By taking part in MIT Professional Education’s Advanced Study Program, Ernie Ho found the tools — and the community — he needed to realize his vision and launch his career in robotics.

How does a student at a top business school in Taiwan acquire the machine learning skills required to launch multiple tech startups? For Chien-Chih “Ernie” Ho, it was by accessing the latest research and strategies — and a powerful network of mentors and colleagues — in MIT Professional Education’s Advanced Study Program (ASP).

Diving into robotics at MIT

After being involved in two serious car accidents, Ernie dedicated himself to an important goal: to develop self-driving car technology that could save millions of lives by preventing similar collisions. However, as a student at National Chengchi University, an institute recognized for its business program, he had limited access to resources in technology education. Though he taught himself to program — 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. I knew I needed an environment where I could learn advanced technologies.” Ernie said. “My mentor told me that if I wanted to study disruptive technology, I needed to go to MIT.”

To gain the tools and knowledge he needed to pursue his passion, Ernie applied and was accepted to ASP through the School of Engineering, and became a full-time student in the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department in 2015.

Utilizing ASP’s flexible course selection and comprehensive support services, he was able to personalize the program to suit his unique career goals, enrolling in courses like Artificial Intelligence (6.034) and Robotics: Science and Systems (6.141).

“The ASP staff is really dedicated to helping students achieve their goals. Their advice and support was invaluable,” Ernie said. “It was the first time that I felt like my dream was finally starting to take off.”

Developing as an innovator and entrepreneur

While enrolled in the Artificial Intelligence course, Ernie 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), Professor 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,” Ernie said. “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, Ernie gained hands-on experience building autonomous vehicles by participating in research with CSAIL and the MIT Media Lab. 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 Media Lab, I was exposed to so many ideas from diverse fields — psychology, architecture, computer science, and more,” Ernie said. “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 Professor Winston and Dr. Kai-Fu Lee, Ernie decided to put his new mindset into practice at Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Institute — the birthplace of the autonomous vehicle — where he built on his ASP experience by earning a Master’s degree in Robotic System Development and working on a self-driving car perception system at Uber Advanced Technologies Group.

Connecting to the MIT community

For Ernie, the ASP experience not only provided a strong foundation in robotics — it helped him to build a network of colleagues who have helped shape his career path. Shortly after completing ASP, Ernie joined colleagues from MIT and Carnegie Mellon to compete in the Longhash Hackathon in Tokyo. The team took second place with an AI algorithm designed to identify suspicious blockchain transactions. The idea eventually became Ernie’s first business venture — the anti-money laundering platform, UnBlock Analysis. His strategy partner, former Wells Fargo Senior Vice President Hwa Ping Chang, was also an MIT connection. The two connected through an online MIT networking group.

In addition to his work with UnBlock Analysis, Ernie continues to develop technology related to autonomous vehicles through his startup Beyond Sight, Inc. The company, 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.

As he builds his companies, Ernie remains grateful for his time at MIT — and the many ways that ASP prepared him for his current career. “If I hadn’t participated in ASP, I wouldn’t have the skillset to build autonomous vehicles, or the entrepreneurship skills to start a high-risk business,” Ernie said. “More important, I wouldn’t have met the talented people that have helped to build UnBlock Analysis and Beyond Sight — ventures that I hope will make the world a safer and better place.”