Predicting future needs and the technology needed to achieve those needs



Mark Zuckerberg


Mark Zuckerberg



THE GUARDIAN 4 JANUARY 2016 - Mark Zuckerberg plans to make his own AI butler - like Jarvis in Iron Man

In 2015, the Facebook co-founder challenged himself to read one book every two weeks, but for 2016 he’s going to engineer a robot for his home.

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, of course) to spend 2016 building an artificially intelligent assistant to help run his life at home and work – and directly compared it to Jarvis, the AI companion developed by Stark in the Iron Man films.

It’s the latest of Zuckerberg’s annual personal goals, mini-challenges that the CEO sets himself every year. Previous aims have included spending a year eating only meat from animals he killed himself in 2011, to read two books a month in 2015, and to learn Mandarin in a year in 2010.

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 visualise data in VR to help me build better services and lead my organisations more effectively. “This should be a fun intellectual challenge to code this for myself,” Zuckerberg added. “I’m looking forward to sharing what I learn over the course of the year.”

While Zuckerberg was keen to emphasise the similarities between his plan and the fictional Stark’s home-built AI Jarvis (which, in the Iron Man and Avengers movies, stands for “Just A Rather Very Intelligent System”), others have pointed to a less flattering comparison: Oscar Isaac’s character, Nathan Bateman, in last year’s thriller Ex Machina.

Bateman is the founder of a vague search engine/social network hybrid called Bluebook but keeps his lifelike AI, Ava, locked in his basement.




Priscilla and Mark Zuckerberg




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 recognise 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 “visualise 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 is firmly focused on entertainment.

Even building a good data-visualisation 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.


Hints at Mark Zuckerberg’s possible dream home can be seen at a Las Vegas convention hall this week. It’s sci-fi, occasionally creepy, and sometimes doesn’t work.

The security cameras recognise a spouse or friend by name, a tracker monitors the baby’s breathing and the Facebook founder’s voice could control most things in a quiet room.

Of course, it can take a while to warm consumers up to the idea of recording video of each family member. “People here say it’s going to break up a lot of marriages,” says Daniel Vazquez, a spokesman for the French firm Netatmo, which sells just such a facial recognition camera.

Zuckerberg made headlines this week when he announced his 2016 resolution was to build an artificial intelligence butler that could do all of this and more for his homes. It would be modelled, he said, on Tony Stark’s virtual butler, Jarvis, in the Iron Man movies.

A wander through the technology industry’s main convention, the Consumer Electronics Show, this week in Las Vegas offers a taste of what this kind of living would look like, if technology firms can work out some of the kinks.

It’s indicative of the so-called smart home industry, which expected to take in $1.2bn this year and move 8.9m units, up 21% from last year, the Consumer Technology Association said this week. Companies advertise living spaces out of science fiction movies, but still haven’t sold regular consumers on the idea that it’s something they need.





In competition with Facebook, Boston Dynamics was acquired by Google in 2013. It had initially existed largely as a contractor for the US military, developing machines that can walk on rugged terrain. The BigDog quadrupedal cargo robot was the outcome: built like an ox, and walking with an unearthly whirring sound, even in its prototype form it demonstrates unnerving surefootedness. Unfortunately, they are too noisy for the US marines, which cancelled a contract with Boston Dynamics in December.

But the company is also looking at non-military uses of its robots, and has committed to taking no further contracts from the US Department of Defense. So what’s the first outcome? Atlas, a 150kg, 1.8 metre tall bipedal robot – that can do the hoovering.

Using a human shape is pretty inconvenient in robot design, because it turns out it is quite hard to balance on two legs, but our vanity means we keep on building them anyway. And so keep an eye on Boston Dynamics for your best hope of a Google-powered robot butler in the future. Hopefully, they will have dealt with the noise by then. This is then a race between Google and Facebook to make Jarvis a reality.


Samsung has launched a new hub for smarthome devices, which it hopes will kickstart the evolution of the internet of things (IoT).

Its Hub will securely unite sensors and accessories from a range of manufacturers using the SmartThings open system.

The device and service will be available from 10 September, and follows Samsung’s acquisition of the IoT company SmartThings in April last year.

The internet of things is the idea of creating a home where everything is connected to the internet, creating “swarm intelligence” from individually dumb devices. Bins, toasters, washing machines and lights will be able to talk to each other for automatic, more efficient control and monitoring.

Lights could talk to the heating system or door to know when you’re home. A fridge could detect when the milk is empty and order another pint, or the security camera could turn on all the lights if it detects an intruder.

The Hub will work with a range of SmartThings-branded devices as well as other products from Samsung and accessories from Bose, Philips, Honeywell, Yale, LIFX, Aeon and others.

Samsung’s president of UK and Ireland Andy Griffiths said: “We believe a connected home will provide users [with] more information, more piece of mind and more control in their lives – but privacy is fundamental.

“The whole thing is encrypted end-to-end – think bank-level security – while we have continuous security checks and third-party auditing. Only you will have access to any data stored in the cloud.”

Samsung will sell a starter pack costing £199 with the Hub, a door closer sensor, a motion sensor, a presence sensor and a power outlet switch for turning something else on and off. A range of other SmartThings devices including a moisture sensor, a camera and a sleep monitor will also be available for around £30 each, with more in the pipeline for next year.

The whole system will be controlled by a SmartThings app, which will be available for Android, iOS and Windows Phone, making it one of the systems with the most cross-platform support.

The Korean company is also attempting to foster a community of developers who are free to create new apps and new integrations with products beyond the original launch platform.

Samsung has also pledged to make 100% of its devices, from TVs and sound systems to washing machines and fridges, internet connected within five years, which will all integrate into the SmartThings Hub.

Samsung isn’t alone in attempting to secure a foothold in the burgeoning IoT space. Apple launched its HomeKit system last year and is expected to push it heavily this year with its new iPhone and iPad software iOS 9.

Google also launched its own IoT platform based on Android, called Project Brillo, over the summer to complement its Nest group of products, while many others have built apps and devices that connect to control certain aspects but cannot integrate with other devices.

“We’re entering a whole IoT era, starting this year, and it will increasingly become the norm in the next three to five years. What we’re doing is appealing to the early adopters,” said Griffiths.











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