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Uber hired noted AI researcher Raquel Urtasun to lead its self-driving expansion into Canada

Urtasun will continue to teach at the University of Toronto part-time and will be joined by eight of her students.

Raquel Urtason

Uber has hired leading AI researcher and University of Toronto associate professor Raquel Urtasun to head up its self-driving efforts in Canada. The city will serve as the home to the ride-hail company’s first self-driving car center outside of the U.S.

The ride-hail company, which has autonomous driving outposts in Pittsburgh and San Francisco, will also invest $5 million Canadian over a number of years into the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence, which Urtason helped found. The Vector Institute is an AI-focused research center, funded in part by the Canadian government, that has also partnered with other major players in the AI space like Google and Nvidia as well as Accenture and Shopify.

“The federal and Ontario governments have shown their leadership with a $100 million investment to stand up the Vector Institute,” an Uber spokesperson said. “Their commitment inspired Uber to make its own investment in Vector, and to build a self-driving team with deep roots in Toronto.”

In the past, Uber has come under fire for its “one-way relationship” with the cities its driverless cars are built and tested in. In Pittsburgh, where the ride-hail company has its autonomous headquarters and first began testing its cars, Mayor Bill Peduto blasted the company for not investing in the city when officials asked Uber for help in winning the national Smart Cities contest. In Toronto, as a platinum partner to the Vector Institute, Uber appears to be side-stepping its prior slip-ups.

It also seems to sweeten the deal for Urtasun, who will continue to work part-time at the University. She will be joined at Uber’s new Advanced Technology Center — separate from the Vector Institute — by eight of her students.

This investment in the Canadian autonomous space comes just weeks after Ford announced a $1 billion pledge to establish a research and development center in Ottawa.

Sources say conversations between Uber and Urtasun were under way as early as the beginning of 2017, around the same time the company's head of self-driving, Anthony Levandowski, became the center of a lawsuit his former employer Alphabet brought against the ride-hail company.

For that reason and more, Urtasun’s hire is a big coup for Uber. For one, the announcement comes just a few months after Susan Fowler, a former engineer at the company, published allegations of sexual harassment and sexism at the company. Urtasun is one of the first top female engineers in Uber’s self driving department — a much-needed addition for the company.

It also gives the company’s autonomous department a seemingly necessary injection of talent. Urtasun’s many accomplishments include winning three Google Faculty Research Awards, a number of fellowships for her work in machine learning and an Nvidia Pioneers of AI award.

Additionally, the company has seen some internal turmoil in its executive ranks. Just a few weeks ago, Levandowski moved away from his role as lead of the department ahead of a preliminary injunction hearing in the Alphabet case. Before that, Uber’s autonomous arm saw dozens of departures of the company’s top self-driving talent many of whom left over concern with the progress of the technology, as we first reported.

Now, sources say a number of engineers are stuck in limbo and are waiting to see what comes of Alphabet’s bid for an injunction against Uber — which could require the company to stop some of its self-driving operations. Others have already begun to look for new positions, two sources say.

The partnership with the Vector Institute might help Uber attract some of the University’s deep pool of AI talent and, perhaps, keep some of the existing engineers on staff. Noted alumni of the University include one of the “godfathers” of AI, Geoffrey Hinton, as well as Geometric Intelligence — which was acquired by Uber — co-founder Zoubin Gahramani.

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