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Tech in T.O.: Meet Raquel Urtasun, the driving force behind Uber’s self-driving cars

Meet Raquel Urtasun, the leader behind Uber’s self-driving cars
WATCH ABOVE: Raquel Urtasun set up roots in Toronto and it’s part of the reason why Uber announced plans to expand in the city. Urtasun explains what brought her Toronto and why she decided to stay.

This is the second of a 10-part series on Toronto’s technology community

As head of Uber ATG, Raquel Urtasun had her pick of where to settle down with the company and she chose Toronto.

“There are many reasons I chose Toronto as a place to live. First of all, it’s a great city, it has a lot of diversity,” she said.

“I was working in AI (artificial intelligence) and Toronto is really a global leader in AI and that is one of the reasons I came here.

“On top of this, Toronto is a very vibrant city (and a) fantastic place to live. And I really like the diversity here, as well as the fact that it’s a very cosmopolitan city. As a foreigner I actually feel at home in Toronto.”

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READ MORE: Uber’s self-driving cars back on the road in Toronto after 9-month hiatus

Originally from Spain, she attended University of Navarra for her bachelor’s degree and earned a Ph.D. degree from the computer science department at Ecole Polytechnique Federal de Lausanne (EPFL) in 2006 and did her post-doctorate at MIT and UC Berkeley.

Urtasun is an associate Professor in the department of computer science at the University of Toronto and is the co-founder of the Vector Institute for AI. She is well versed when it comes to self-driving vehicle technology, which is powered by AI.

“Self-driving cars have many potential benefits. There are 1.3 million that die every year [on the roads] That is almost a person every minute,” she said.

“It has the potential to be much safer and save a lot of lives. Also mobility is a problem as the population gets older.”

EXTENDED: Uber’s chief scientist Raquel Urtasun

Extended: Uber’s chief scientist Raquel Urtasun
Extended: Uber’s chief scientist Raquel Urtasun

In December 2018, Uber reintroduced a handful of self-driving cars on Toronto streets for the first time since a collision in the U.S. put a stop to all operations on public roads.

The cars currently in operation on Toronto streets and highways are on manual mode and operated by a driver while the passenger controls testing.

“With self-driving cars, we can drive them in the city and reduce potentially congestion,” she said.

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As part of #TechInTO, Global News anchor Farah Nasser spoke with leaders in Toronto’s technology industry. Urtasun said Toronto has been recognized for its leadership is AI and it’s drawing many people to the city.

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“There’s been an explosion with AI, and there are a couple of reasons why this is the case,” Urtasun said.

“We’ve been doing AI for many years in the city, and it’s recently in 2012 AI started to become very important for many different application demands — really enabling industry to have capabilities that were not there before. It’s clear that Toronto is the place to be for this.

“In the past two years there’s been an explosion in the city … Most of the talent that we farmed before was going to the U.S. after they graduated. Now I would say that people want to stay. Also we see people that left to the U.S. are coming back.”

READ MORE: Uber to invest $200M on new engineering hub, expand self-driving centre in Toronto

As technology sector continues to grow in Toronto, Urtasun said it’s a career young people should consider.

“Young people should be thinking about AI… And in particular, I want to ask young girls to actually be thinking that this is a fantastic career plan for them,” she said.

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“I was raised in Spain and we were 50-50 right in undergrad in electrical engineering and then I moved out of my hometown and I discovered the world is very different.

“One of the things we’ve seen is that there is an increased number of women in tech, but we are still a long way into what should be the future. So we definitely need to encourage more, particularly young girls, from a very, very young age to make sure that we don’t bias their decisions.”