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'Human-like intelligence': A look at Vancouver's AI-powered robot workforce

The rise of the smart robots.
From a robot vacuum to a dextrous AI robot that performs dangerous tasks, Vancouver, B.C. has positioned itself as a leader in AI robotics in 2023.

Imagine walking down the street and having to question if the people walking past you were actually human. 

While it may seem the stuff of science fiction--and it is still a far way off--artificially intelligent (AI) robots are being implemented in places where people have traditionally worked. 

A Vancouver company called Sanctuary AI is on a mission to develop the world's-first human-like intelligence in general-purpose robots. Not only are these robots about the size and shape of people, but they also have human-like intelligence. As a result, they have a capacity to respond and adapt to their environments similar to the way humans do. 

In March, the company's robots were deployed at a retail store in Langley, where they successfully performed 110 retail-related tasks, including "picking and packing merchandise, cleaning, tagging, labelling, folding, and more."

But these humanoids have the capacity to do much more than work in a clothing store. 

Sanctuary AI Co-Founder and CEO Geordie Rose told V.I.A. that general-purpose robots can do any job that a person could reasonably be expected to do. In order to do this, they require "human-like morphology and human-like intelligence." 

"One system that can do any job (from aerospace engineer to nurse to truck driver to zoologist) clearly needs both," he said. 

In the past, robots have typically catered toward specific purposes, such as moving a car part to a specific location or vacuuming, but were otherwise limited in scope. 

But as Canada grapples with declining birth rates and an aging population, Sanctuary AI robots have been designed to address growing labour shortages across numerous industries. In B.C., the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade expects there will be close to a million job openings over the next decade, adding to 150,000 already vacant jobs and a max exodus of individuals set to retire. 

The company's robots think and move like people, and they can be used to "fill gaps in the labour market, perform dangerous tasks, and augment the human workforce," Rose explained.

How does a robot "think like a person"? 

While they are often confused, robotics and artificial intelligence don't always come hand-in-hand. Robots without "intelligence" are programmed to perform a specific task, whereas AI emulates the human mind to solve problems and learn the way people do. 

To recreate human-like intelligence, Sanctuary AI built an AI control system called Carbon that gives its robots the "ability to think and complete tasks like a person." The system features reasoning, task, and motion plans that are both explainable and auditable.

Sanctuary AI robots, named Phoenix, also have impressive hands that "rival human hands in their dexterity and fine manipulation," noted Rose, adding that they have 20 degrees of freedom and "proprietary haptic technology."

The haptic technology allows the robots to have a sense of touch to perform tasks. "Given that more than 98 per cent of all work requires the dexterity of the human hand, one can’t create a truly useful humanoid robot without human-like hands," he noted.

Phoenix can do a range of things that require fine manipulation by dexterity, such as placing items in a plastic bag or stacking blocks, but the humanoid doesn't closely resemble humans. Unlike humans, it can perform dangerous tasks without an immediate safety risk.

Rose said the company's focus was to emulate human intelligence rather than focus on appearance. "People tend to feel uncomfortable around things that appear eerily human but are not, a phenomenon called the 'uncanny valley.'"

With a human-like AI controlling Sanctuary AI general-purpose robots, the company believes its humanoids have the capacity to perform physical labour across virtually every industry. It has emerged as a leader in a brand new category that, according to Goldman Sachs, has the potential to be a market of up to US$154. billion by 2035.

But not all intelligent robots need to look human-like to work in places where people do. 

Robots revolutionize the airport 

Another Vancouver-based robotics company utilizes AI to transform the way their robots interact with environments. 

Founded in 2015, A&K Robotics created a janitorial robot vacuum that cleans large spaces, such as B.C.'s largest building, Vancouver International Airport (YVR). Now, it has developed an intelligent navigation system that transforms manual machines into self-driving robots. The robot pods are being tested in a couple of airports around the world, including in Rome and Atlanta. 

Co-founder and COO Jessica Yip said airports are an "incredible launchpad" for autonomous vehicles because they are so large but vehicles in them move at a slower pace, allowing more time for the robots to process information and make decisions. Additionally, airport corridors don't have clearly defined lanes, allowing them to move with greater flexibility and access more spaces. 

Airports face a growing labour shortage and people with mobility issues often endure long waits for assistance due to a lack of staff. 

"With our research, a general statistic is one to two per cent of total travellers need mobility assistance and this demand has been growing at a rate of about 10 to 15 per cent year over year," she told V.I.A.  "This means this demand has gone up about double every five years." 

A & K Robotics has focused on providing autonomous navigation to people with mobility issues, outfitting its robots with a variety of sensors that access data about the environment around them, including lasers, different types of cameras, and sonar. Artificial intelligence then utilizes this information to enable the robot to make "smart driving decisions," Yip explained. 

"The only thing we don't rely on is GPS because that just isn't as reliable indoors," she added. 

The company hopes to expand the use of its robots across industries with large-scale, indoor infrastructure, including schools and healthcare. In the future, they could be used to deliver food and other goods to people across cities. 

"Having a large-size passenger car deliver a pizza across town, I don't think that's the way we should continue to do things," she said, laughing. "I think the next step for us would be to help deliver food and people across short distances." 

Have a look at Sanctuary AI's Phoenix using its signature dexterity to place objects in a plastic bag.