Zuckerberg's New Year's resolution: Build a smart home that rivals sci fi

Facebook head Mark Zuckerberg announced a challenge in a post on Sunday to write the code for a virtual assistant that would combine existing Internet of Things technology with voice control and artificial intelligence, letting him control devices at home and visualize data using virtual-reality technology.

Robert Galbraith/Reuters
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks during a keynote address at Facebook's f8 developers conference in San Francisco, Calif., in April 2014. Mr. Zuckerberg unveiled plans to code his own artificially intelligent digital assistant that would control devices in his home and help him him with running Facebook.

Mark Zuckerberg wants to build an artificially-intelligent assistant that will control his home and eventually provide assistance with his work, he announced in a Facebook post on Sunday.

The project, which Mr. Zuckerberg likened to Jarvis, the robotic butler used by Tony Stark in the “Iron Man” films, would begin with existing Internet of Things devices, which allow users to control the temperature, lights, and other electronic devices while away from home.

“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,” he wrote on the social media site. “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,” he added, referring to his newborn daughter.

Zuckerberg’s vision for his own personalized assistant, which he says will involve a “simple AI” bears similarities to a proposal by Tesla head Elon Musk, who previously unveiled a lab that allows him to use gestures and projected images to manipulate rocket parts.

“On the work side, it'll help me visualize data in [virtual reality] to help me build better services and lead my organizations more effectively,” he wrote, noting that he hopes to write the code for the software himself.

Exactly how Zuckerberg’s software will work and whether it will eventually become a commercially available product is still up in the air. But the idea of a connected home is increasingly moving from a sci-fi vision to reality.

The Internet of Things is a rapidly growing market, with the market research firm Gartner estimating that 6.4 billion devices will be in use worldwide in 2016, with 5.5 million new devices connected every day. Such devices are expected to be a heavy focus of this week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, including a discussion of the security and privacy concerns around connected devices.

But using voice commands to control anything from a thermostat to a coffeemaker is still a developing technology, with many connected-home devices controlled primarily through a smartphone.

Last month, Nuance Communications, the speech recognition company that originally developed the software behind Samsung’s S Voice and Apple’s Siri digital assistant — though Apple has often declined to confirm that publicly — released software to allow a broader range of developers to use its language detection software.

Known as Nuance Mix, the software, which is currently available in a beta version, is designed to work with a broader range of phone apps and devices, the company says.

“A lot of these devices don't necessarily have a screen," Kenn Harper, a senior director at Nuance told the Verge. "So a thermostat may have a tiny screen or a couple of buttons, but if you want to tell if you're traveling for a couple of days ... how would you do that without speech?"

Technologies powered by artificial intelligence and machine learning are also advancing, with researchers and companies introducing innovations that allow computers to quickly identify patterns, recognize letters in a range of languages and write e-mail replies automatically.

But the rise of AI has also spurred a debate over its impact in the tech world, with figures such as Tesla’s Mr. Musk, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, and physicist Stephen Hawking warning that overly powerful AI could be more powerful than a nuclear weapon.

In response, Musk and other tech figures and researchers announced an investment in a non-profit research lab called Open AI last month, saying that making AI research public would take it out of the hands of a small group of private companies.

“I think the best defense against the misuse of AI is to empower as many people as possible to have AI. If everyone has AI powers, then there’s not any one person or a small set of individuals who can have AI superpower,” Musk said in an interview on the site Medium in December.

Facebook has also branched out into the world of AI with M, its virtual assistant built on its Messenger service, which is aiming to compete with Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana, which it unveiled in August.

But as the technology improves, questions about the unintended consequences of smart home products and AI still linger in the background of many discussion of the technology.

Privacy advocates and security experts say that Internet of Things devices built on different standards that interface with each other and don’t accept regular security updates can be problematic.

“Suddenly you’ve got layers of connectivity – 10 devices that are interconnected and sharing information in ways that were never envisioned by any one designer, that can bring about new issue[s] that no one ever considered,” Jeff Greene, senior policy counsel at Symantec told USA Today.

Amid praise for Zuckerberg’s efforts, which follow challenges to learn Mandarin and read two books a month in recent years, a note of concern about the impact of the project crept in. Responding to user’s question about whether AI could grow to “run the world like in movies,” he emphasized the positive benefits of the technology.

“I think we can build AI so it works for us and helps us. Some people fear-monger about how AI is a huge danger, but that seems far-fetched to me and much less likely than disasters due to widespread disease, violence, etc.,” he wrote.

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