Sanctuary AI sets its sights on the future of robotics

A Canadian startup could be making your new robot coworker (eventually).

What happened: Vancouver’s Sanctuary AI had a busy week. It debuted a new version of Phoenix, its humanoid robot, then struck a deal with Microsoft to develop artificial general intelligence, a kind of AI that will let robots learn, reason, and respond to their environments.

  • Sanctuary claims it improved Phoenix’s mobility, visual acuity, and tactile sensing, while reducing building time and cost — in short, it’s better at everything and easier to make.

Catch-up: Sanctuary is making a name for itself in humanoid robotics, a field that is surging thanks to companies like BMW, Mercedes, and Amazon that want to put robots to work in commercial settings.

  • Last month, Sanctuary partnered with auto parts giant Magna to test its own robots in factories, one year after a similar test in a Mark’s store.
  • In March, it got an unspecified investment from Accenture, adding to a list of backers that includes Bell, Verizon, Finning, and Workday Ventures.

Zoom out: We don’t have a ton of footage of the new Phoenix in action, but there are videos of the last generation packing boxes, inspecting lab samples, and sorting things onto trays.

Why it matters: If those videos don’t seem impressive, think longer term. Based on statements in this week’s announcements, Sanctuary seems just as excited about feeding better behaviour data into Carbon, the AI that controls Phoenix, so it can make a truly impressive robot down the line.

  • Robots need artificial general intelligence to work on their own — and be worth the cost. But that could take five years to several decades, depending on who you ask.

Big picture: Other Canadian startups are also gearing up for a robotics boom. Forcen recently secured $8.35 million in funding to further develop its sensing systems, which — as the name implies — let a robot sense things about their environment.