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Report on Business Q&A: Tech visionary Geordie Rose is wired to build robots

Lifelike robots are terrifying to some, but to Geordie Rose they are inevitable. The inventor and theoretical physicist points to the machines of Westworld or Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

"There's nothing magical about the human mind," he says. "Once we have understood it, we can create machines just like it."

Nearly 20 years ago, Mr. Rose co-founded D-Wave Systems Inc., a groundbreaking quantum-computing company in British Columbia. Later, he co-founded Kindred Systems Inc., a robot-manufacturing startup in Toronto.

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He's also a Canadian national wrestling champion, a Brazilian jujitsu title-holder and elite powerlifter.

Geordie Rose, co-founder of Sanctuary, and formerly with Kindred Systems and D-Wave Systems.

Photo by Holly Peck

In 2018, he co-founded Sanctuary to make realistic robots that can do what we do – but better. Mr. Rose was interviewed for I’ll Go First, a new podcast series about entrepreneurs produced by The Globe and Mail.

Your business is putting a new spin on artificial intelligence by attempting to make machines that are indistinguishable from people.

We're an AI company, but we're a different kind of AI company. The type of AI that we're trying to build is more true to the original vision of the founders of the field, which is to try to create machines that can understand the world the same way people do. Success for us is being able to make a mind for a robot where the robot looks exactly like a person.

What can your robots do?

Right now, not very much. The best-known robotics techniques are kind of stone age compared to what humans can do. The systems we have now are able to move from the neck up, more or less like a person. It's not perfect but it's close. The next step is to actuate them from the belly button up – most of the tasks that people do in their everyday lives are actually done seated. That means that we can build machines that can do the kinds of jobs that humans do cheaper, better and more effectively than people do.

If robots are doing our jobs, what does the future hold?

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What I would like to see is the breaking of the dogma that you need to work in order to live. If robots are doing most jobs, you're now free to do something else that's worth more to human society. Your human brain is capable of such wonders – it shouldn't be picking a thing up and putting it down over and over for 12 hours a day. What a waste.

So what I want is to try to figure out how we can create a world where picking things up and putting them down is done by robots, and the types of things that human minds really want to be doing is what they are doing. And I do think that the value to society – the overall wealth that's generated by that – is greater.

Holly Peck, front, a research scientist, and Hatef Khadivi, a robotics engineer, work at Sanctuary in Vancouver.

DARRYL DYCK/Globe and Mail

You don't take a salary. Why?

I have what I sometimes call an 'anti-job.' What I do is I actually pay my own money to everyone else in the company and I don't take a salary. The reason is I am passionately committed to figuring this problem out and it's more important to me than money.

Why is that?

I guess I've had a weird life in that my attitude toward money is not normal. My family wasn't poor but was certainly on the lower end of middle class. I was born in East Africa and lived there for two years. Then we moved to Northern Ontario. A lot of my childhood was spent traipsing through the woods of some remote forest together. My dad owned a hunting and fishing camp so the money was never guaranteed.

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My dad later sold the business, and when I went to high school in Montreal my dad was a graduate student. So our income was basically the stipend of a graduate student. So we never had any money. But that didn't really matter. I've always thought of money as being kind of like air – you breathe it in, you breathe it out, you don't own it.

Did your time in Northern Ontario lead to your love for being active?

I don't know. I like sports because it's clear what you need to do, which is not true in life. If you have a job, or you're in a relationship, it's not clear what it means to be good at it, or to win, or to even get better. But sports are different. In sports there is this number that's associated with how good you are.

Name something that helps you de-stress.

It's another one of these niche sports – powerlifting. It's a competitive form of weightlifting. I have a gym in my basement, and I do this religiously because I'm addicted to the numbers-going-up thing. It's a way to take your mind off things that are more serious.

Gabriel, a robot at Sanctuary.

Photo by Holly Peck

So your hobby is powerlifting, which is essentially picking things up and putting them down.

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Yeah but I don't have to. That's the difference.

What's your perfect day off?

I don't take days off.

How many hours do you sleep at night?

About 10.

What's one big mistake that helped define your career?

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Not understanding that money is the thing that drives everything in a business. The three companies I've been involved in – D-Wave, Kindred and Sanctuary – were all founded to accomplish what is essentially a scientific objective. They weren't founded to make money. As soon as money enters into the picture, all of the attention and focus goes to increasing the amount of money you're making, and it draws you away from the original reason you started the organization. The biggest mistake that I've made in my career is not understanding that and keeping the mission pure.

In science fiction, robots and AI are used by the bad guys to do questionable things. Should we be worried about that?

Yes. Intelligence is an extremely powerful tool. When you ask the question 'are humans all good,' the answer is no. If you can create an AI with human-like intelligence you're going to get the breadth of possibilities, from the most saintly person who ever lived all the way to the most dastardly evil person who ever lived. What a lot of thinkers are worried about is the possibility that AI could be pushed in both directions even more than humans can, which would mean that you could condition an AI to do virtually anything you wanted.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

At the Sanctuary lab in Vancouver.

Photo by Holly Peck

About Sanctuary

Headquarters: Vancouver

In business since: January, 2018

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Employees: 10

Annual revenue: Not available

About the company: Since its launch, Sanctuary has built 50 robots, including five humanoid models. But don’t mistake the company for a manufacturer building robotic products for a specific market.

Mr. Rose, who is Sanctuary’s co-founder and chief executive officer – a role he shares with fellow founder Suzanne Gildert – says Sanctuary’s mission is to create machine life with “general human intelligence.” That is, human-like intelligence that goes beyond task automation and algorithm-based responses.

Mr. Rose is personally funding Sanctuary together with Ms. Gildert and a third co-founder, Olivia Norton. “We’re trying to do something that’s going to fundamentally change the world,” he says.

Sanctuary is an offshoot of Kindred Inc., an artificial intelligence company co-founded by Mr. Rose that uses reinforcement learning technology to build robots that can pick, sort and put items in their proper place. A number of major retailers, including the Gap, now use Kindred’s Sort robot to fulfill orders and replenish store inventory.

Most of Sanctuary’s 10 employees came from Kindred, says Mr. Rose, who had earlier founded a Vancouver-based quantum computer company called D-Wave Systems Inc.

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