Sanctuary AI deploys “the world’s first human-like robot” at a Mark’s store in Langley

The Vancouver robotics company partnered with Canadian Tire to see its technology complete over 100 retail-related tasks.

Sanctuary AI's robot

Credit: Sanctuary AI

The Vancouver company partnered with Canadian Tire to see its technology complete over 100 tasks

Bringing up artificial intelligence is always a great way to divide the room. While some people love its transformative capabilities in terms of efficiency, decision making and opportunities for growth, others are spooked by its risks to jobs, privacy, security and ethics. But regardless of which side of the continuum you fall on, it’s hard to deny that the kind of headway that robotics companies like Sanctuary AI are making is nothing short of remarkable.  

Co-founded by former BCBusiness 30 Under 30 winner Olivia Norton, D-Wave‘s co-founder Geordie Rose and others, Sanctuary has been trying to create the world’s first general-purpose robots with human-like intelligence since 2018. According to its chief marketing officer, Ben Reed, most robots tend to be special-purpose, in that they’re designed with a specific purpose in mind. (Think AI that does predictive text as you type text messages, or AI that gives you restaurant recommendations based on previous restaurants you’ve been to.) But Sanctuary is different in that it’s been grappling with the question: “Is it possible to create a piece of hardware that can replicate, in the same form and function as a person, the way in which a person does things?”  

Turns out the answer is “yes.” 

This week, Sanctuary successfully deployed its technology (a humanoid general-purpose robot) at a Mark’s retail store in Langley. “We’ve been able to demonstrate our technology has the physical capability to do hundreds and hundreds of different tasks that people typically are capable of doing,” says Reed, who has been with the company since 2021.  

The week-long pilot, which took place in partnership with Canadian Tire Corporation, saw the robot complete 110 tasks including (but not limited to) packing merchandise, stacking shelves, cleaning, labelling and folding. Sanctuary previously mirrored the commercial setting in its labs—where robots run around every single day, as Reed puts it—in hopes of getting the outcome that it did.  

Sanctuary's robot at Mark'sSanctuary AI

This is the first time that the 100-person company has deployed its robots externally, or “the first time that technology of this kind has been deployed anywhere in the world, out in a commercial customer facility,” says Reed. And the way that it achieved this milestone is by replicating the finite number of ways that a human hand can function: “We’ve actually replicated what we believe are the world’s best hands,” he maintains.  

While the robot in this deployment was indeed operated by a person, making sure that the hardware can mimic the dexterity and manipulation skills of human hands is a key component of building general-purpose intelligence. As such, organizations don’t need to redesign their operations to adopt this type of technology, they can continue business as usual because these robots are made to function in environments that are already made for people. 

“The point of this is not specifically that our technology is designed for the retail sector, but in general across almost all industries,” adds Reed, noting that Sanctuary’s technology is helping address “millions of unfilled job vacancies.” In other words, he’s referring to positions that organizations have difficulty filling (or retaining people in) because they’re “dull or dirty or dangerous.” 

In fact, to address such “labor-related challenges in the economy,” Sanctuary got a $30 million boost from the federal government last year through the Strategic Investment Fund (SIF), which supports large-scale projects like this. Overall the company has received over $100 million in funding since 2018, and has been working with an “ecosystem of companies” like Bell, Canadian Tire, Verizon Ventures and others to get to where it’s at today.  

So, is this all a little unnerving? Maybe. Uncertainty’s not fun but it’s a part of change, innovation, evolution, you name it. One thing we do know for sure that this is an exciting time to be in the industry, especially in B.C.