It’s barely five minutes into our interview when Professor Danica Kragic’s telephone rings. “Sorry, but I have to get this one,” she says. A major donor recently sweetened the pot of a Swedish programme in artificial intelligence (AI) with an extra SEK 1 billion (100 million euros), and Kragic is responsible for distributing the money to research projects.
“With money and trust comes responsibility, and with this 1 billion I now have 1 billion responsibilities,” Kragic says with a sigh. But there’s no doubt the money is in good hands. Kragic is a professor and vice dean at the School of Computer Science and Communication at the Royal Institute of Technology, KTH, in Stockholm, Sweden. She is also director of the Centre for Autonomous Systems, a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences. And she’s on the board of directors at Saab and FAM AB, a Swedish foundation asset management company, founded by the three largest Wallenberg foundations.
The multitasker that didn’t fit in
Probably the most accurate title for her is that of “multitasker”, something she attributes to all the love and attention she had when growing up. “I wanted to do well in school and give something back to my family,” she says. “I still feel that way all the time – there’s a need to give something back.”
Kragic was born and raised in Croatia; she happened upon her current field – and Sweden – by chance when she spotted an ad in 1996 to work with robotics at KTH’s newly established Centre for Autonomous Systems. “It was a combination of luck, interest and education that made it happen,” she says. She got the job.
“I started, and I hated everything about it,” Kragic says in her usual candid manner. “I was the only girl in the beginning, the only one with a foreign background and the only person who hadn’t graduated from KTH. I wasn’t fitting in with my behaviour, my clothes, not with anything!”
A “never give upper”, Kragic stuck to the new job. More than 20 years on, she continues to enjoy the dynamics of working with young people and the challenges of robotics research.