Mark Zuckerberg wants to overtake Elon Musk to become the real-world version of Marvel superhero Tony Stark.
The billionaire Facebook founder has expressed his desire in a Facebook post:
“My personal challenge for 2016 is to build a simple AI to run my home and help me with my work. You can think of it kind of like Jarvis in Iron Man.”
“I’m going to start by exploring what technology is already out there. Then I’ll start teaching it to understand my voice to control everything in our home — music, lights, temperature and so on. I’ll teach it to let friends in by looking at their faces when they ring the doorbell. I’ll teach it to let me know if anything is going on in Max’s room that I need to check on when I’m not with her. On the work side, it’ll help me visualize data in VR to help me build better services and lead my organizations more effectively.
Every challenge has a theme, and this year’s theme is an invention.”
And when he declares one of the challenges, he goes hard on it: in October last year, he showed off his language abilities, delivering a 20-minute speech to students at Beijing’s Tsinghua University entirely in Mandarin.
Zuckerberg will start the project by exploring what technology is already out there”. Existing home-automation tools from companies such as Google’s Nest, Phillips, and Samsung all allow a fairly high level of control of a “smart home”, and can be paired with voice control software, including that from Apple, Amazon and Massachusetts-based specialists Nuance.
Then I’ll start teaching it to understand my voice to control everything in our home – music, lights, temperature and so on. I’ll teach it to let friends in by looking at their faces when they ring the doorbell. I’ll teach it to let me know if anything is going on in Max’s [his daughter’s] room that I need to check on when I’m not with her.
On the work side, it’ll help me visualize data in VR to help me build better services and lead my organizations more effectively.
“This should be a fun intellectual challenge to code this for myself. I’m looking forward to sharing what I learn over the course of the year”
The home automation system that Zuckerberg envisions isn’t that far off already being a reality. In September, Samsung launched a hub for its SmartThings connected home system (calling it, in a fit of imagination, the SmartThings Hub), which lets users tie together a disparate collection of sensors in their house into a connected internet of things. Heating can talk to the door to turn on when you come home, lights can connect to the security camera to turn on if an intruder is detected, and a sleep sensor can dim the lights in the rest of the house once everyone in the building is asleep.
Amazon has also pushed its way into the same area, with its Alexa voice control system. Built into the Echo, a combined speaker and microphone which is designed to sit in the middle of the living room, it continuously listens for commands. It can be told to control music, share information like the weather or sporting fixtures, and control simple internet of things devices in its own right. Naturally, being Amazon, it can also buy things for you in seconds.
But just because there are off-the-shelf components available, doesn’t mean Zuckerberg doesn’t have his work cut out for him. For many users, the hurdle to a good home automation system isn’t the individual sensors, but the problem of tying them together into one system that does what they want.
Unless all the components come from one manufacturer, it is often tricky to use them together to build a connected home. Cross-platform initiatives, such as Google’s Brillo and Apple’s HomeKit, help that to a certain extent, but still, require compatibility to be baked-in from the start. It’s bad enough trying to get bluetooth headphones to speak to a laptop; imagine trying to teach your fridge to speak washing machine. That’s the sort of challenge Zuckerberg will have to overcome to even begin his project.
From there, though, he’ll be helped greatly by the fact that he runs Facebook. Some of the suggestions he’s given already play to his company’s strengths. For instance, his desire for his home to recognize friends faces as they ring the doorbell will be well-served by the massive database of facial recognition information Facebook has built up over its decade in operation. (A database that got the company in trouble in Europe, where privacy regulators ruled in 2011 that it was too invasive to automatically apply to pictures without permission.)
Similarly, Facebook’s recent experimentation with its AI concierge, M, could lead to Zuckerberg having a more natural-language conversation with his own Jarvis than he’d be able to create on his own. Currently existing as an extension to Facebook Messenger in the US, M uses a combination of artificial intelligence and human aid to do whatever it gets asked, from giving directions to your friend’s house, to ordering a parrot to go to a friend’s office.
And Zuckerberg’s goal for his system to “visualize data in VR” will obviously be helped by the fact that Facebook owns the market leader in virtual reality, Oculus, initially founded off the back of a Kickstarter campaign in 2012 and purchased by Facebook for $2bn two years later. But again, he’ll have work to do. Virtual reality systems are new enough that there isn’t much out there that uses them, and most of what has been created to date are firmly focused on entertainment.
Even building a good data-visualization system for virtual reality would involve striding out ahead of the pack, and building a halfway competent AI to go alongside it and pick what data to display is even more ambitious.
Of course, if we’re talking ambition, Tony Stark’s Jarvis ended up gaining sentience before being incarnated into a body built around the cosmic energy of the soul gem and defeating the evil machine intelligence Ultron. He was also voiced by Paul Bettany and could pick up Thor’s hammer. Good luck, Zuck.