The Cat's Meow

Kindred Sys­tems wants to de­sign ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence that learns like peo­ple do. No pres­sure

BC Business Magazine - - Celebrating 45 Years - —N.R.

At the re­cent Bctech Sum­mit, vis­i­tors couldn't re­sist the Kindred Sys­tems Inc. booth. No won­der: the com­pany had a cor­ral of furry robotic cats on dis­play. On hand to su­per­vise th­ese strangely fetch­ing fe­lines were co-founder and CEO Ge­ordie Rose, along with co­founder and chief sci­en­tific of­fi­cer Suzanne Gildert.

The cats are just one of a va­ri­ety of robots built by Kindred, whose goal is to cre­ate ma­chines with hu­man­like ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence. With AI, there are two key parts to a ro­bot body, Rose ex­plains: cam­eras and other sen­sors that per­ceive what's go­ing on around it, and the phys­i­cal ac­tions it can take. “The core tech­nol­ogy that we're de­vel­op­ing is a soft­ware layer that sits be­tween the per­cep­tion and the ac­tion,” he says.

Un­like hu­mans and other an­i­mals, most ma­chines lack gen­eral in­tel­li­gence; their ac­tions are pre­de­ter­mined, so they can't adapt to changes in their en­vi­ron­ment. To cre­ate a so-called strong AI that will work on any ma­chine, Kindred's soft­ware uses re­in­force­ment learn­ing. “You spec­ify what you want as an out­come but not the process to get there,” Rose

ex­plains. The ro­bot then ex­per­i­ments,

and the things that work stick: “It con­tin­u­ally gets bet­ter and bet­ter and bet­ter at the tasks that you've given it, even com­plex tasks.”

If that sounds daunt­ing, don't bet against Rose, who holds a PHD in the­o­ret­i­cal physics from UBC. Be­fore launch­ing Kindred in Van­cou­ver in 2014, he co-founded Burn­aby-based D-wave Sys­tems Inc., de­vel­oper of the first com­mer­cial quan­tum com­puter. Kindred, which is backed by Google Ven­tures, has since moved its head of­fice to San Fran­cisco, where most of the 40-strong team work. The com­pany's eight Van­cou­ver staff han­dle the bulk of AI re­search.

Kindred makes hu­manoids as well as quadrupeds, but its big­gest ro­bot fam­ily con­sists of one-armed, one­handed ma­chines suit­able for dex­trous ma­nip­u­la­tion and grasp­ing. In March, the com­pany was pre­par­ing to launch a prod­uct based on that body type. From su­per­mar­kets to fac­to­ries, grasp­ing ob­jects and mov­ing them is a core func­tion for much of the work­force, Rose notes, but such tasks are tough to au­to­mate. “Those are the ones that we're fo­cused on as a busi­ness, to go af­ter the things that are phys­i­cally easy, that re­quire think­ing and judg­ment and care, del­i­cacy when it's needed, but strength and power and speed when it's needed.”

Kindred wants to start by de­ploy­ing its soft­ware plat­form in a spe­cific ver­ti­cal in­dus­try. Once that prod­uct gains trac­tion, the plan is to do the same in other ver­ti­cals. “There are hun­dreds or thou­sands of op­por­tu­ni­ties to build ma­chines with gen­eral in­tel­li­gence,” Rose says. “Each of th­ese is a multi­bil­lion­dol­lar op­por­tu­nity.”

Al­though he con­cedes that pre­dict­ing the fu­ture is dif­fi­cult, Rose doesn't think robots will make hu­mans re­dun­dant any­time soon. “The type of work that is go­ing to be au­to­mated in the short term opens up all sorts of other pos­si­bil­i­ties,” he ar­gues. Au­tomat­ing cer­tain tasks at a ware­house will boost prof­its, Rose says, so the owner can hire more peo­ple to do things that ma­chines can't. “There's go­ing to be a net job gain in the man­u­fac­tur­ing and dis­tri­bu­tion cen­tre busi­nesses.”

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