From University of Toronto (CA) : Women in STEM-Raquel Urtasun “The road ahead- Raquel Urtasun’s startup to ‘unleash full power of AI’ on self-driving cars”

From University of Toronto (CA)

June 10, 2021
Rahul Kalvapalle

Raquel Urtasun, a U of T professor of computer science and world-leading expert in machine learning and computer vision, has launched her own Toronto-based, self-driving vehicle company with more than $100 million in funding (photo by Natalia Dolan)

More than $100-million in funding. Two decades of artificial intelligence expertise. Ten years of experience in self-driving technology. A 40-strong team of scientists and engineers.

The list of resources at Raquel Urtasun’s fingertips as she takes the wheel of Waabi, an autonomous vehicle startup, is impressive to say the least. The goal? Use AI to finally resolve the technical and financial challenges that have hindered the full commercialization of self-driving technology.

It’s the first foray into entrepreneurship for Urtasun, a professor of computer science at the University of Toronto and one of the world’s leading experts in machine learning and computer vision. She says she was inspired to start her own company after four years as chief scientist and head of Uber ATG’s self-driving car lab in Toronto, where she realized need for a new generation of self-driving technologies that leverage AI’s full potential.

“The thought of what would be the best way to do this grew and grew in my head until it became clear that, if you really want to change technology, the best way to do it is to start a new company,” Urtasun says.

Urtasun’s new venture emerged from stealth mode earlier this week to announce one of the largest rounds of initial financing ever secured by a Canadian startup, raising more than $100 million from investors including Silicon Valley-based Khosla Ventures and Uber. Other investors include fellow U of T AI luminaries Geoffrey Hinton, a University Professor Emeritus, and Sanja Fidler, an associate professor of computer science, as well as Stanford University’s Fei-Fei Li and Pieter Abbeel of the University of California, Berkeley.

Urtasun says the self-driving industry’s current players aren’t taking full advantage of the power of AI.

“There is a little bit of AI there, but it doesn’t have a prominent role. Instead, it’s solving very specific sub-problems within the massive software stack – or brain of the self-driving car,” she says. “This causes difficulty in that it requires really complex, time-consuming manual tuning.

“As a consequence of this, scaling the technology is costly and technically very challenging.”

Waabi addresses this by utilizing “deep learning, probabilistic inference and complex optimization” to create a new class of algorithms, the likes of which Urtasun says have never been seen before in industry or academia.

Key to Waabi’s approach is its novel autonomous system – essentially, the software brain of the self-driving vehicle – that is “end-to-end trainable,” meaning the entire software stack can automatically learn from data, removing the need for constant manual tuning and tweaking.

The system is also “interpretable and explainable,” meaning it’s possible to deduce why it opts for certain manoeuvers over others – crucial for safety verification.

It’s also capable of complex reasoning, which Urtasun says is vital for eventual real-world applications.

“If you think about when you’re driving and arrive at an intersection, there’s a lot of things happening in your brain – you do very complex inference about what everybody’s doing at the intersection, how it will affect you, etc.” Urtasun says. “That’s what our new generation of algorithms provides – this ability to do really complex reasoning within the AI system.”

Waabi also has a revolutionary simulator system that can test the algorithms and software with “an unprecedented level of fidelity,” Urtasun says.

“When people in the industry say they test millions of miles of simulation, they’re really only testing the motion-planning component – which is one piece among this big software stack,” she says.

“Waabi has the ability to simulate how the world looks at scale, how sensors observe the scene and the behaviours of humans in a way that’s very realistic and in real time.”

That means significantly fewer hours of on-road drive testing.

“Typically, companies have hundreds of vehicles that they’re driving so that they can observe how the system works. And every time you change something, you change the behaviour, so you have to drive again and again and again,” Urtasun says. “[Waabi] can develop, test in simulation and reduce the need for driving in the real-world.”

It also means a system that’s safer because it can be trained to manage not only typical driving scenarios, but also ‘edge cases’ – situations that arise at extreme operating parameters.

“We can train the system to handle those edge cases in simulation,” Urtasun says. “So, you end up with a system that is much safer, that you can develop faster and that requires less capital to develop because you need very few people compared to the traditional approach – and less testing in the real world.

“[You] really unleash the power of AI.”

The company’s name reflects its approach. “Waabi” means “she has vision” in Ojibwe (“a new vision to help solve self-driving,” Urtasun says) and means “simple” in Japanese – an ode to the simplicity of the software stack.

“[It’s] a perfect definition of our technology and a perfect name for our company,” Urtasun says. “Plus, it sounds cool.”

The potential applications for Waabi’s technology are wide-ranging, Urtasun says, but the initial focus will be the long-haul trucking sector – a departure from her time at Uber, where she worked on passenger vehicles. She notes that truck-driving is recognized as one of the most dangerous occupations, and that the industry suffers from a shortage of drivers. “Automation can serve those industry needs,” she says.

Urtasun adds that long-haul trucking is also a prudent area to focus on because there’s less complexity involved with highway driving than is the case in cities.

“Highways are still very difficult – don’t get me wrong – but they’re less complex compared to a city like Toronto, with all the things that might happen and how people follow the rules – well, very few people follow the rules. So, you need to handle all that complexity.”

Toronto’s notoriously bad traffic aside, Urtasun says there’s nowhere else she’d rather set up an AI company.

“When people ask me, ‘Why here?’ I say, ‘Why not?’ I love Toronto, I love Canada. It’s an amazing place to do innovation – there’s incredible talent and support from the government,” she says, pointing to Toronto’s emergence as a world-leading AI hub thanks to initiatives such as the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence, which she co-founded.

“It’s been incredible to see the transformation that the city has gone through,” she says. “It was the case that people were leaving and going to California. Now, not only are we retaining talent but so much incredible talent is coming in – even from Silicon Valley,”

There’s also plenty of talent to be tapped at U of T, Urtasun adds.

“We have amazing U of T students who are doing great work within the company,” she says. “I really look forward to partnering closely with U of T to provide opportunities to the incredible talent that the university has. For me, it’s always been very important to [help develop] students – so that continues to be the case.”

As the CEO of an AI-powered autonomous vehicle startup, Urtasun says it’s important for her to set an example for women and girls interested in pursuing careers in technology.

“I think it’s very important that young girls, in particular, realize that this is not a man’s world. Technology is going to change the world and they definitely have a say,” she says.

She adds Waabi and other technology companies benefit immensely from diverse leadership and perspectives – and so do their customers.

“It’s important that in order to solve complex problems, we have diversity of opinions, approaches and backgrounds,” she says. “Waabi excels at all three types of diversity, which I think is the way to build incredible technology as well as showcase the diversity of the users who are going to use the technology at the end of the day.”

See the full article here .


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Stem Education Coalition

The University of Toronto (CA) is a public research university in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, located on the grounds that surround Queen’s Park. It was founded by royal charter in 1827 as King’s College, the oldest university in the province of Ontario.

Originally controlled by the Church of England, the university assumed its present name in 1850 upon becoming a secular institution.

As a collegiate university, it comprises eleven colleges each with substantial autonomy on financial and institutional affairs and significant differences in character and history. The university also operates two satellite campuses located in Scarborough and Mississauga.

University of Toronto has evolved into Canada’s leading institution of learning, discovery and knowledge creation. We are proud to be one of the world’s top research-intensive universities, driven to invent and innovate.

Our students have the opportunity to learn from and work with preeminent thought leaders through our multidisciplinary network of teaching and research faculty, alumni and partners.

The ideas, innovations and actions of more than 560,000 graduates continue to have a positive impact on the world.

Academically, the University of Toronto is noted for movements and curricula in literary criticism and communication theory, known collectively as the Toronto School.

The university was the birthplace of insulin and stem cell research, and was the site of the first electron microscope in North America; the identification of the first black hole Cygnus X-1; multi-touch technology, and the development of the theory of NP-completeness.

The university was one of several universities involved in early research of deep learning. It receives the most annual scientific research funding of any Canadian university and is one of two members of the Association of American Universities (US) outside the United States, the other being McGill(CA).

The Varsity Blues are the athletic teams that represent the university in intercollegiate league matches, with ties to gridiron football, rowing and ice hockey. The earliest recorded instance of gridiron football occurred at University of Toronto’s University College in November 1861.

The university’s Hart House is an early example of the North American student centre, simultaneously serving cultural, intellectual, and recreational interests within its large Gothic-revival complex.

The University of Toronto has educated three Governors General of Canada, four Prime Ministers of Canada, three foreign leaders, and fourteen Justices of the Supreme Court. As of March 2019, ten Nobel laureates, five Turing Award winners, 94 Rhodes Scholars, and one Fields Medalist have been affiliated with the university.

Early history

The founding of a colonial college had long been the desire of John Graves Simcoe, the first Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada and founder of York, the colonial capital. As an University of Oxford (UK)-educated military commander who had fought in the American Revolutionary War, Simcoe believed a college was needed to counter the spread of republicanism from the United States. The Upper Canada Executive Committee recommended in 1798 that a college be established in York.

On March 15, 1827, a royal charter was formally issued by King George IV, proclaiming “from this time one College, with the style and privileges of a University … for the education of youth in the principles of the Christian Religion, and for their instruction in the various branches of Science and Literature … to continue for ever, to be called King’s College.” The granting of the charter was largely the result of intense lobbying by John Strachan, the influential Anglican Bishop of Toronto who took office as the college’s first president. The original three-storey Greek Revival school building was built on the present site of Queen’s Park.

Under Strachan’s stewardship, King’s College was a religious institution closely aligned with the Church of England and the British colonial elite, known as the Family Compact. Reformist politicians opposed the clergy’s control over colonial institutions and fought to have the college secularized. In 1849, after a lengthy and heated debate, the newly elected responsible government of the Province of Canada voted to rename King’s College as the University of Toronto and severed the school’s ties with the church. Having anticipated this decision, the enraged Strachan had resigned a year earlier to open Trinity College as a private Anglican seminary. University College was created as the nondenominational teaching branch of the University of Toronto. During the American Civil War the threat of Union blockade on British North America prompted the creation of the University Rifle Corps which saw battle in resisting the Fenian raids on the Niagara border in 1866. The Corps was part of the Reserve Militia lead by Professor Henry Croft.

Established in 1878, the School of Practical Science was the precursor to the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering which has been nicknamed Skule since its earliest days. While the Faculty of Medicine opened in 1843 medical teaching was conducted by proprietary schools from 1853 until 1887 when the faculty absorbed the Toronto School of Medicine. Meanwhile the university continued to set examinations and confer medical degrees. The university opened the Faculty of Law in 1887, followed by the Faculty of Dentistry in 1888 when the Royal College of Dental Surgeons became an affiliate. Women were first admitted to the university in 1884.

A devastating fire in 1890 gutted the interior of University College and destroyed 33,000 volumes from the library but the university restored the building and replenished its library within two years. Over the next two decades a collegiate system took shape as the university arranged federation with several ecclesiastical colleges including Strachan’s Trinity College in 1904. The university operated the Royal Conservatory of Music from 1896 to 1991 and the Royal Ontario Museum from 1912 to 1968; both still retain close ties with the university as independent institutions. The University of Toronto Press was founded in 1901 as Canada’s first academic publishing house. The Faculty of Forestry founded in 1907 with Bernhard Fernow as dean was Canada’s first university faculty devoted to forest science. In 1910, the Faculty of Education opened its laboratory school, the University of Toronto Schools.

World wars and post-war years

The First and Second World Wars curtailed some university activities as undergraduate and graduate men eagerly enlisted. Intercollegiate athletic competitions and the Hart House Debates were suspended although exhibition and interfaculty games were still held. The David Dunlap Observatory in Richmond Hill opened in 1935 followed by the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies in 1949. The university opened satellite campuses in Scarborough in 1964 and in Mississauga in 1967. The university’s former affiliated schools at the Ontario Agricultural College and Glendon Hall became fully independent of the University of Toronto and became part of University of Guelph (CA) in 1964 and York University (CA) in 1965 respectively. Beginning in the 1980s reductions in government funding prompted more rigorous fundraising efforts.

Since 2000

In 2000 Kin-Yip Chun was reinstated as a professor of the university after he launched an unsuccessful lawsuit against the university alleging racial discrimination. In 2017 a human rights application was filed against the University by one of its students for allegedly delaying the investigation of sexual assault and being dismissive of their concerns. In 2018 the university cleared one of its professors of allegations of discrimination and antisemitism in an internal investigation after a complaint was filed by one of its students.

The University of Toronto was the first Canadian university to amass a financial endowment greater than c. $1 billion in 2007. On September 24, 2020 the university announced a $250 million gift to the Faculty of Medicine from businessman and philanthropist James C. Temerty- the largest single philanthropic donation in Canadian history. This broke the previous record for the school set in 2019 when Gerry Schwartz and Heather Reisman jointly donated $100 million for the creation of a 750,000-square foot innovation and artificial intelligence centre.


Since 1926 the University of Toronto has been a member of the Association of American Universities (US) a consortium of the leading North American research universities. The university manages by far the largest annual research budget of any university in Canada with sponsored direct-cost expenditures of $878 million in 2010. In 2018 the University of Toronto was named the top research university in Canada by Research Infosource with a sponsored research income (external sources of funding) of $1,147.584 million in 2017. In the same year the university’s faculty averaged a sponsored research income of $428,200 while graduate students averaged a sponsored research income of $63,700. The federal government was the largest source of funding with grants from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research; the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council; and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council amounting to about one-third of the research budget. About eight percent of research funding came from corporations- mostly in the healthcare industry.

The first practical electron microscope was built by the physics department in 1938. During World War II the university developed the G-suit- a life-saving garment worn by Allied fighter plane pilots later adopted for use by astronauts.Development of the infrared chemiluminescence technique improved analyses of energy behaviours in chemical reactions. In 1963 the asteroid 2104 Toronto was discovered in the David Dunlap Observatory (CA) in Richmond Hill and is named after the university. In 1972 studies on Cygnus X-1 led to the publication of the first observational evidence proving the existence of black holes. Toronto astronomers have also discovered the Uranian moons of Caliban and Sycorax; the dwarf galaxies of Andromeda I, II and III; and the supernova SN 1987A. A pioneer in computing technology the university designed and built UTEC- one of the world’s first operational computers- and later purchased Ferut- the second commercial computer after UNIVAC I. Multi-touch technology was developed at Toronto with applications ranging from handheld devices to collaboration walls. The AeroVelo Atlas which won the Igor I. Sikorsky Human Powered Helicopter Competition in 2013 was developed by the university’s team of students and graduates and was tested in Vaughan.

The discovery of insulin at the University of Toronto in 1921 is considered among the most significant events in the history of medicine. The stem cell was discovered at the university in 1963 forming the basis for bone marrow transplantation and all subsequent research on adult and embryonic stem cells. This was the first of many findings at Toronto relating to stem cells including the identification of pancreatic and retinal stem cells. The cancer stem cell was first identified in 1997 by Toronto researchers who have since found stem cell associations in leukemia; brain tumors; and colorectal cancer. Medical inventions developed at Toronto include the glycaemic index; the infant cereal Pablum; the use of protective hypothermia in open heart surgery; and the first artificial cardiac pacemaker. The first successful single-lung transplant was performed at Toronto in 1981 followed by the first nerve transplant in 1988; and the first double-lung transplant in 1989. Researchers identified the maturation promoting factor that regulates cell division and discovered the T-cell receptor which triggers responses of the immune system. The university is credited with isolating the genes that cause Fanconi anemia; cystic fibrosis; and early-onset Alzheimer’s disease among numerous other diseases. Between 1914 and 1972 the university operated the Connaught Medical Research Laboratories- now part of the pharmaceutical corporation Sanofi-Aventis. Among the research conducted at the laboratory was the development of gel electrophoresis.

The University of Toronto is the primary research presence that supports one of the world’s largest concentrations of biotechnology firms. More than 5,000 principal investigators reside within 2 kilometres (1.2 mi) from the university grounds in Toronto’s Discovery District conducting $1 billion of medical research annually. MaRS Discovery District is a research park that serves commercial enterprises and the university’s technology transfer ventures. In 2008, the university disclosed 159 inventions and had 114 active start-up companies. Its SciNet Consortium operates the most powerful supercomputer in Canada.