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Uber lab focusing on artificial intelligence to be established in Toronto

Uber has announced it's opening a lab to develop artificial intelligence for autonomous cars.
Uber has announced it's opening a lab to develop artificial intelligence for autonomous cars. Eric Risberg / File / AP Photo

TORONTO – Uber has hailed a prominent artificial-intelligence academic to lead a driverless-car project in Toronto – the ride-hailing company’s first such research hub outside the United States, its CEO announced Monday.

In a blog post, Travis Kalanick said he was proud to have Raquel Urtasun, an associate professor at the University of Toronto, on board. He described her as “one of the world’s leading researchers” in the fields of machine perception and artificial intelligence.

“Raquel will remain in Toronto to lead a new branch of our advanced technologies group – our first outside the U.S.,” Kalanick said in his blog. “Raquel’s work focuses on developing the software that allows self-driving cars to ‘see:’ recognizing objects so they can navigate the world smoothly and safely.”

READ MORE: Uber’s driverless cars hit the road in test program

Urtasun was not immediately available for comment, however, in an interview with Wired, she acknowledged her hire as a high-profile woman by a company looking to change an image some have attacked as misogynist.

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“I had a lengthy conversation with Travis,” Wired quoted her as saying. “I am really convinced he is taking all the necessary steps.”

Urtasun is expected to take eight students with her and Uber said it hoped to attract others from the region’s “impressive” talent pool.

READ MORE: Driverless cars in Canada: What they are and how they work

The associate computer science professor has been an assistant professor at the Toyota Technological Institute at Chicago and a visiting professor in Switzerland. Her research interests are listed as including machine learning, computer vision, robotics and remote sensing.

In February, she was awarded a fellowship given each year to Canada’s top six scientists and engineers for her work on machine perception for self-driving cars.

Kalanick said Toronto has become an important hub of artificial intelligence research, which he called “critical to the future of transportation.”

“That’s why we’re also making a significant multi-year financial commitment as a platinum sponsor of the Vector Institute, which Raquel helped to set up as a co-founder,” Kalanick said.

READ MORE: Ontario monitoring U.S. investigation into fatal collision involving driverless car

Urtasun is one of the co-founders of the independent, non-profit institute set up in March. Its aim is to push Canada to the forefront of research into artificial intelligence.

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The new lab will focus on improved mapping for autonomous cars but the company, which also does driverless-car research in San Francisco and Pittsburgh, said it had no plans to actually test the vehicles in Toronto.

“Self-driving technology promises to make our roads safer, our environment healthier and our cities more livable,” Kalanick said. “While there’s still a lot of work to be done, we believe that the combination of our global ride-sharing network with the cutting-edge software and hardware being built by our teams will make this vision a reality.”