Growing up in Pamplona, Spain, Raquel Urtasun was an inquisitive child. From a young age, she enjoyed everything she got her hands on—from video games to basketball to literature, she loved it all. So when it came time to choose a major for her post-secondary studies, she had a tough time trying to decide. Ultimately, her love of math and physics led Urtasun to pursue a bachelor's degree in Telecommunication Engineering. It was during this time that she discovered her interest in a budding technology at the time: artificial intelligence. “I was fascinated with the possibilities it presented and the solutions it could provide to the world’s most pressing problems,” Urtasun said. Having access to this technology, she began working with electroencephalogram (EEG) machines, with the hopes of finding ways to help those with mobility and communication issues.
But while she was making incredible strides in this field, she did have her detractors. Due to the fact that she is a woman, many believed that she did not have a place in STEM. Even those she worked with directly did not believe she belonged in the tech space. “At the end of this experience, I asked myself what I really wanted to do. Do I stop because it is a bit discouraging or do I want to go on and do something exciting? I decided that I wanted to keep on pushing,” said Urtasun, reminding the students that with resilience, they can do anything they set their minds to.
After completing her bachelor’s degree, she headed to Switzerland where she completed her PhD and explored her old passion for video games through her new interest in AI. This was followed by a move to MIT and UC Berkeley to pursue her postdoctoral research. While living in the United States was a new and valuable experience for Urtasun, she had her sights set on Canada when it came to the country’s multiculturalism and values—something she aligns with after spending almost two decades travelling the world in pursuit of advancing her education. Becoming a professor at the University of Toronto was a natural next step for Urtasun, where she thrived and taught students about the wonders of artificial intelligence. She also pursued a career at Uber as Chief Scientist and Head of Research and Development, a position that technically did not exist—yet. “I went straight to them and told them what I wanted to do there,” said Urtasun. “In life, things may not go exactly how you want, but you have the power to try your best to make it happen.”
In 2020, Urtasun left her position at Uber to start her own business—a risky venture given the economy at the time. But Urtasun’s intelligence, grit and determination led her to creating Waabi
, an innovative self-driving trucking company where AI replaces drivers. Three years later, these trucks are making deliveries all across the U.S., and are set to go global within the next few years.
At the end of her engaging presentation, Urtasun shared this inspiring final thought with the Branksome Hall community: “We are in a very interesting time where the world is being transformed in so many ways. Be bold, aim high and never give up. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it, because YOU can.”
Branksome Hall thanks Professor Urtasun for giving such an engaging and inspiring address at Green Carpet. To hear more, check out the latest episode of The GarageCast
podcast, where she chats with Head, Innovation and Strategic Projects, Michael Ianni-Palarchio about the future of artificial intelligence and new AI tools that are rapidly becoming available to the public.