Olivia Norton
Credit: Lindsay Siu

Olivia Norton, 29

Co-founder and chief technology officer

Life Story: Sanctuary AI was spun off from robot developer Kindred Systems Inc.’s artificial general intelligence division in January. “The day-to-day goals for me are aligned with our previous work,” Olivia Norton observes. “We continue to tackle the same hard problem, with a mandate to create synthetic humans that are indistinguishable from us.”

Norton was born and raised in Calgary, where her mother worked in geoscience and her father was an architect. She received a BSc in computer engineering with a specialization in biomedical engineering from the University of Calgary in 2011. Norton then stayed in her hometown to work for Quorum Business Solutions Inc., which creates software for the energy industry, until moving to Vancouver in 2014 to attend UBC. While she was completing a master of engineering in electrical and computer engineering, she was hired by Kindred, where she led the development of an AI system that can enable machines from full-sized humanoid robots to kitten-sized quadrupeds to learn complex tasks.

The Bottom Line: Kindred, which will maintain a minority ownership in Sanctuary, raised more than US$44 million in venture capital from investors including Data Collective, Eclipse Ventures LLC, First Round Capital, Google Ventures and Tencent Holdings Ltd.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
The first one is “Get out of your own damn way.” The second one is “Set expectations and then exceed them.” The final thing is “Don’t get stuck thinking. Try something.”

Your favourite book, album, song, movie or TV show is…
My [favourite books] include Quiet. It’s a description of some the key differences between introverts and extroverts. In terms of fiction, Altered Carbon. Atlas Shrugged and World War Z—I’ve got a bit of a zombie thing.

TV shows: Stranger Things, Black Mirror and Westworld.

Who is your role model or mentor?
When I was young, I read a lot of the Tamora Pierce universe. Her books are geared toward teenagers, and they tend toward female protagonists as well. Those characters I think did really play a role in what I wanted to be when I grew up. In the last three years, working with [Kindred and Sanctuary co-founders] Suzanne [Gildert] and Geordie [Rose] has been a big impact on my entrepreneurial understanding. Kevin Ludbrook [then director of Quorum Business Solutions] was my first manager and was always an inspiration—keeping track of large, shifting projects, making sure people were feeling their best and doing their best work.

What’s your biggest regret?
I occasionally regret the handyman-versus-the-specialist approach that I take to life. I like to try and do a lot of things, and usually that is great because I can pick up anything and make it go. But sometimes I really wish for the focus and the expertise of just a single driving motivation.

A little-known fact about me is…
I went to provincials in wrestling in high school, and I ran two marathons last year. I’m also an expert in the original 151 Pokemon.