Look closely at Mythe, the latest member of the team at Sanctuary Cognitive Systems Corp., and you’ll notice something uncanny about her.
Her head bobs and shifts subtly and mechanically as her luminescent green eyes slowly scan the room, taking in the surroundings of Sanctuary’s office, near Science World in Vancouver. Every so often, she blinks in a way that is unsettlingly human, save for the “cha-ching” sound her eyelids make.
Dressed in a conservative white blouse, grey jacket and black skirt, Mythe looks like an ultrarealistic fashion model. Her movements are limited to a few above-the-shoulders gestures, but then, she’s just an early, “zero-point-zero” version of what her creators at this pioneering tech startup intend to develop: humanoid robots that can move, speak and think for themselves and interact – as intellectual peers – with real people on a daily basis in intimate and vital roles as therapists, caregivers, teachers, scientists, even lovers.
If that sounds like a mind-boggling moonshot, Sanctuary co-founder Geordie Rose is the first to admit it. He’s on a mission to unlock how human intelligence works and to replicate it on a mass scale – a goal, he says, that would unleash “the most valuable thing ever created.”
“What we’re talking about is fundamentally altering the basis of capitalism itself,” he says, by introducing an entirely new type of synthetic species that could do much of the work now done by humans.
It might be easy to dismiss Mr. Rose if not for his track record. The visionary entrepreneur is the closest thing Canada has to Elon Musk. His previous startups have pushed the boundaries of innovation – and attracted hundreds of millions of dollars in financing from some of the world’s most sophisticated venture investors, including Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos. Mr. Rose’s first company, Vancouver-based D-Wave Systems, developed the world’s first quantum computer, a machine built to harness the quantum mechanical properties of atoms, vastly surpassing the processing power of conventional computers. His second startup, Kindred Systems Inc., is now working to bring smart industrial robots into e-commerce warehouses.
Mr. Rose describes his latest endeavour as “the biggest single quest that humanity has ever undertaken.” To get there, the plan is to rig Mythe and other robots with thousands of sensors and actuators – internal machine components to manipulate their body parts – so they can move about and experience things much as humans do, and to power their brains with a complex mix of artificial-intelligence algorithms.
Mythe’s robotic, anatomically correct silicone body is no gimmick. Mr. Rose and his colleagues believe the brain accumulates knowledge from the body’s trial-and-error interactions with the physical world; that’s where they theorize intelligence comes from, and that’s how their robots will learn.
The market for artificial intelligence is exploding as the corporate world embraces machine-learning algorithms that allow computers to match or surpass human abilities in tasks such as predicting consumer behaviour, farming, driving or playing Go, the complex ancient board game. The US$40-billion market for industrial robots is expected to mushroom, expanding beyond factories and warehouses to deliver food, inspect aircraft engines, put out fires and even pollinate flowers.
But none of those machines are capable of anything “remotely [close to] what we’d call intelligence,” says Mr. Rose, 46, who was once named one of the world’s 100 leading global thinkers by Foreign Policy Magazine. Veteran Canadian tech entrepreneur and investor Ken Nickerson says that current AI technology lacks “self-awareness, any sense of morality and, to a large degree, self-task assignment, [and] has no independent sense of what it should do, no inner direction, no self-motivating factor, no spark.”
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