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A secretive Canadian startup called Kindred AI is teaching robots how to perform difficult dexterous tasks at superhuman speeds by pairing them with human “pilots” wearing virtual-reality headsets and holding motion-tracking controllers.

The technology offers a fascinating glimpse of how humans might work in synchronization with machines in the future, and it shows how tapping into human capabilities might amplify the capabilities of automated systems. For all the worry over robots and artificial intelligence eliminating jobs, there are plenty of things that machines still cannot do. The company demonstrated the hardware to MIT Technology Review last week, and says it plans to launch a product aimed at retailers in the coming months. The long-term ambitions are far grander. Kindred hopes that this human-assisted learning will foster a fundamentally new and more powerful kind of artificial intelligence.

Kindred was created by several people from D-Wave, a quantum computing company based in Burnaby, Canada. Kindred is currently testing conventional industrial robot arms capable of grasping and placing objects that can be awkward to handle, like small items of clothing, more quickly and reliably than would normally be possible. The arms do this by occasionally asking for help from a team of humans, who use virtual-reality hardware to view the challenge and temporarily take control of an arm.

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