Canadian scientist working to improve autonomous vehicle tech wins fellowship

Artificial intelligence will, in the not-too-distant future, be a major part of our lives. And Raquel Urtasun is working to make sure the technology behind it works seamlessly and safely.

Urtasun is a computer scientist at the University of Toronto and one of six winners of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council's E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship, announced today.

The fellowship is awarded annually to "enhance the career development of outstanding and highly promising scientists and engineers who are faculty members of Canadian universities."

Popular views of artificial intelligence influenced by science fiction are still far off, Urtasun said. But the more practical uses of AI, which we use every day, have already crept into our daily lives.

"When you do a search on your computer or web page or ask your phone for directions … it's already there," Urtasun told CBC News.

Urtasun's research centres on machine perception. If we're going to rely on machines more often — as has been the case over the past 10 years — the machines have to understand the world around them.

Urtasun has developed algorithms that help vehicles achieve this in real time and in 3D, making the cars safer for drivers and everyone else. She also helped create the KITTI benchmark, which is used by developers to test and assess vehicle performance. It is being used by more than 500 groups, including Toyota and Samsung.

Current technology in autonomous cars can cost upward of $100,000, Urtasun said, and uses mapping technology that relies more on the rules of the road in a particular city or country and traffic rules on a particular street.

"This is a very expensive approach," Urtasun said. "What I've been working on is how we can do this with cheaper sensors [without] this reliance on these maps. So I focus particularly in perception, which is basically making the car see and understand what is in front of it."

Weather challenges

The auto industry faces many challenges when it comes to truly autonomous vehicles. One important for Canada is how they can perform during a heavy snowstorm, blizzard or deluges of rain. While research is being conducted to overcome this particular problem — including that done at the University of Waterloo in Ontario — it's still a challenge.

But Urtasun said we don't need self-driving vehicles to be perfect for the technology to be beneficial.

"One thing that we need to think about is that we can benefit from an autonomous car without needing to have the car solve every single task at every possible time of the day and in every weather condition," she said. "We don't need to solve all possible problems."

Women in science

Relatively few women work in science compared with men. In 2011, Statistics Canada found that women accounted for just 39 per cent of university graduates with a science, technology, engineering or mathematics degree. Of those, only 20 per cent graduated from math and computer science programs.

As a result, there's been a call to get more women interested in scientific fields, particularly when they are young. 

Urtasun said she sometimes feels the pressure of being a woman working in computer science, where "people take you less seriously than if you were a man." 

"I work with primarily cars, which is quite a male-dominated topic," Urtasun said. "There are challenges, and it happens more regularly than one might have hoped. But at the end of the day, it's by example that we'll change that."

She said that she hopes girls and women won't believe that computer science is just for men.

In the meantime, Urtasun looks to the future and embraces the creativity her job provides her.

"I'm really, really happy," she said.

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