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Vancouver Company Behind Humanoid Service Robot Phoenix Says Service Robots for the Home Far From Reality


Sanctuary AI, a Vancouver-based company is in the process of developing a humanoid service robot known as Phoenix. Once fully developed, Phoenix will possess the capability to comprehend our desires, grasp the intricacies of the world, and execute our commands effectively.

“The long-term total addressable market is unparalleled in the history of business and technology, which is the labor market—everything we wish to be done,” says Geordie Rose, chief executive of Sanctuary AI.

However, before we get too carried away, he cautiously adds, “We still have a long journey ahead from where we currently stand.”

Mr. Rose refrains from providing a specific timeframe for when a service robot might find its place in your home, handling tasks such as laundry or bathroom cleaning. “Nevertheless, other experts in the field, whom I’ve consulted with, suggest this could become a reality within the next decade.”

Numerous other companies worldwide are actively engaged in advancing this technology. For instance, in the UK, Dyson is investing in AI and robotics for household chores. One of the most prominent players in this market is Tesla, Elon Musk’s electric car company. They are developing the Optimus humanoid robot, which Mr. Musk envisions could be available to the public in just a few years.

“Ten years, given the current pace of technological progress, is an eternity. Every month, there are groundbreaking developments in the AI field that fundamentally reshape the landscape,” notes Mr. Rose, who possesses a background in theoretical physics and previously founded a quantum computing firm.

Tasks that appear straightforward to many humans present significant challenges to humanoid robots. For instance, Sanctuary’s robot Phoenix engaged in a trial project involving packing clothes into plastic bags in the backroom of a Canadian store. “This presents a complex challenge for an AI-driven robotics system because bags are pliable, transparent, and have specific openings. Normally, after manually opening the bag, you need to free one hand before placing an item inside,” explains Mr. Rose.

“The manipulation of bags is actually a very difficult task for robots,” he adds—a fact that makes today’s humanoid robots appear much less intimidating than their Hollywood counterparts.

Sanctuary has developed a training system for Phoenix to perform specific tasks like bag packing. In collaboration with a business, they record a specific task and then digitally recreate the entire process.

This data is utilized to construct a virtual environment that not only includes all objects but also simulates real-world physics, including gravity and resistance. AI then practices the task in this virtual environment, with the ability to attempt it a million times. When developers believe the AI has mastered the task in the virtual realm, it can then be tested in the physical world.

This approach has enabled Phoenix to learn and perform approximately 20 different roles.

Mr. Rose envisions this as the path forward for humanoid robots—mastering specific tasks that offer practical value to businesses. The prospect of a robot handling household chores is a more distant reality. One of the most formidable challenges lies in imbuing the robot with a sense of touch, enabling it to gauge the appropriate pressure to apply to objects.

“We possess a capability for these types of tasks that has evolved over a billion years. They are inherently difficult for machines,” Mr. Rose observes.

Sota Takahashi

Sota Takahashi is a Japanese-born electrical engineer. At the age of 18, he moved to Seattle and completed his Electrical Engineering degree at the University of Washington, Seattle. Being a fan of all things tech, he channels his geeky side through this website, and with his wife Linda, shares knowledge about robot pets and how they can be lifelong and advantageous companions for both children and the elderly.

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