Mark Zuckerberg plans to make his own AI butler - like Jarvis in Iron Man
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.Its the latest of Zuckerbergs 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 Beijings 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 Googles 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 Ill start teaching it to understand my voice to control everything in our home music, lights, temperature and so on. Ill teach it to let friends in by looking at their faces when they ring the doorbell. Ill teach it to let me know if anything is going on in Maxs [his daughters] room that I need to check on when Im not with her.On the work side, itll 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. Im 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 Starks 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 Isaacs character, Nathan Bateman, in last years 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.Already thereThe home automation system that Zuckerberg envisions isnt 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, doesnt mean Zuckerberg doesnt have his work cut out for him. For many users, the hurdle to a good home automation system isnt 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 Googles Brillo and Apples HomeKit, help that to a certain extent, but still require compatibility to be baked-in from the start. Its bad enough trying to get bluetooth headphones to speak to a laptop; imagine trying to teach your fridge to speak washing machine. Thats the sort of challenge Zuckerberg will have to overcome to even begin his project.From there, though, hell be helped greatly by the fact that he runs Facebook. Some of the suggestions hes given already play to his companys 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, Facebooks recent experimentation with its AI concierge, M, could lead to Zuckerberg having a more natural-language conversation with his own Jarvis than hed 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 friends house, to ordering a parrot to go to a friends office.And Zuckerbergs 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, hell have work to do. Virtual reality systems are new enough that there isnt 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 were talking ambition, Tony Starks 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 Thors hammer. Good luck, Zuck.