STEM POWER: Suzanne Gildert

B.C.'s Most Influential Women 2018 - Robotics and Artificial intelligence

Credit: Adam Blasberg

Co-founder and CEO, Sanctuary AI

As she outlines her new company’s plans to build highly humanlike robots that can live alongside people, Suzanne Gildert makes it all sound doable—and inevitable. Such machines would resemble those in the dystopic HBO show Westworld but “without all the horrible parts,” says Gildert, who radiates youthful enthusiasm. “We don’t want the things we create to become slaves, or entities that end up being tortured or treated like playthings. We want them to be eventually thought of as being the same as we are, like having citizenship and rights.”

Gildert, previously chief science officer at robot maker Kindred Systems Inc., is well-equipped for the task. Raised in a working-class neighbourhood in Manchester, England, she earned a PhD in experimental physics at the University of Birmingham, specializing in quantum physics. In 2010, Geordie Rose recruited her to his D-Wave Systems Inc., the Burnaby-based developer of the world’s first commercial quantum computer.

Four years later the pair left to co-found Kindred, headquartered in San Francisco, whose original goal was to create humanlike intelligence in machines. Gildert’s Vancouver-based artificial general intelligence (AGI) research group diverged from the rest of the company, which now makes non-humanoid robots for industrial use. With Rose and other members of the group, she recently launched spinoff Sanctuary AI.

Sanctuary, which will be privately funded to start, won’t focus on a market product anytime soon. Expecting its robots to develop “in a childlike way in the first few years,” Gildert says her team’s current mind architectures follow how evolution built brains. “The part we consider human is a thin veneer on top of an old brain that could also control a giraffe or a honeybee,” she explains. “So we’re looking at a lot of the lower-level stuff as a foundation.”

How can we get more women into STEM?

Because the technology sector has so many men in leadership roles, women must seek out those who are open to helping them rise, Gildert says. A female mentor isn’t essential, she contends: “You could find a male mentor who’s very pro–women in tech, too.”