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Geordie Rose, co-founder and chief executive officer of Kindred, right, and Suzanne Gildert, co-founder and chief technology officer, sit with Thormang, a full scale humanoid robot used for research, Oct. 19, 2016.

Darryl Dyck/Bloomberg

Kindred Systems Inc., a smart-robot manufacturing startup co-founded by Canadian inventor and theoretical physicist Geordie Rose, has secured $28-million (U.S.) in a venture financing deal led by Chinese internet giant Tencent Holdings Ltd., which is quickly emerging as one of the most active foreign investors in the North American startup space.

Kindred, which is attempting to build C-3PO-like robots that can think for themselves and perform tasks previously done by humans – including sorting and packing orders in e-commerce distribution centres – also said Tuesday that it has begun pilot programs with major global retailers, including Gap Inc., in their existing fulfilment centres using the startup's first commercial offering, a product it calls Kindred Sort.

Kindred previously raised $15-million from some of California's best-known venture capital firms, including Google Ventures, Data Collective, Eclipse Ventures and First Round Capital. The three-year-old company, whose team is spread between San Francisco, Toronto and Vancouver, was co-founded by a group including CEO Dr. Rose and chief science officer Dr. Suzanne Gildert, a former employee at Dr. Rose's previous company, Burnaby, B.C.-based quantum computing pioneer D-Wave Systems Inc.

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Kindred says its machines will allow retailers to alleviate labour shortages, not by replacing workers but by performing jobs employers are struggling to fill with humans because of significant growth in online sales.

The company has been training its robots to physically interact with the world in part by having human operators – sometimes with a mouse, and sometimes wearing a robot suit – remotely control the machines to perform tasks such as sorting. As the human operators perform the tasks, Kindred's systems capture data about what the operator is doing and how the robot is responding, allowing it to infer goals and automate the behaviour using artificial intelligence "machine learning."

"In the future, all machines will benefit from being able to understand and interact intelligently with the world around them, and Kindred is on the forefront of creating the building blocks for this future," Kindred co-founder and head of product George Babu said in a release. The company earlier this year hired former Wal-Mart Stores Inc. senior executive Jim Liefer as its chief operating officer.

Tencent has previously backed Waterloo-based internet messenger Kik Interactive Inc. and Montreal artificial intelligence startup Element AI. Last week, The Globe reported Tencent has also agreed to provide at least $40-million of a $50-million venture financing deal raised by WP Technology Inc., better known as Wattpad, a popular online platform for amateur fiction with 60 million users globally.

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