by Tim Albright
At the start of each year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg tries to better himself by learning something new or beginning an endeavor that he thinks will better himself, his company, or those around him.
For 2016, he posted that this year’s personal challenge will be to build a “simple AI (artificial intelligence) to help run my home and help me with work.”
He referenced Iron Man alter ego Tony Stark’s home automation system, Jarvis, in his post. It is a pretty heady task and one that several others have attempted for business opportunities.
However, the thing that Zuckerberg has going for him is that he is in charge of the most popular website on the planet and a pretty successful business. He has connections that most of us could only dream of. The number of respondents (29,000-plus) and “Likes” (400,000-plus) the post has garnered gives an indication of the interest level. Arnold Schwarzenegger even offered his voice to the project once it reached that point.
One part of the post states that the Facebook founder will begin by “researching what technology is already out there.” This would include the Nest, Apple HomeKit, Google Brillo, Philips and Samsung smart devices, plus the Amazon Echo. The latter already has integration with Clare Controls and Lutron. Such research would also include Crestron, AMX, Control4, Savant, RTI, URCand others in the home control space.
The Echo, or a similar product, is already on Zuckerberg’s mind. He writes, “I’ll start teaching it to understand my voice to control everything in our home — music, lights, temperature and so on.”
He goes on to say there is a virtual reality portion to it to help him “visualize work flow.” This will most certainly be done using the Facebook property Oculus.
Will Zuckerberg Make Our Homes Smarter?
The world of home automation is nothing new. Residential systems have always included the ability to control lighting, speakers, HVAC and more. There are even those talented programmers who have figured out a way to control waterfalls, scent diffusors and more.
Will Zuckerberg’s sudden interest in home automation impact the home control industry and homeowners who are interested in incorporating technology into their homes?
“It could be huge from a systematic approach. It could be bigger and more put together than anything out there” says integrator Joe Whitaker of The Thoughtful Home by JWhitaker Designs, Clayton, Mo. This may spell bad news for integrators who make a living designing and installing systems for homeowners, as Zuckerberg’s consumer-focused venture could cut the professional out completely. At first it would require the A/V professionals to explain and maybe even install the product. As it evolved, though, the homeowners would be able to simply place these devices in their homes.
“He’s going to build the back end, ‘Jarvis’ end, to talk to all of it. They have already tied things together,” Whitaker suggests. “He has the potential to be the OS of the home.”
Home systems integrator Rich Green of Rich Green Design, Palo Alto, Calif., has some experience with Silicon Valley having worked with Nest founder Tony Fadell on a number of projects.
“Tony was building a house and hated the thermostat we were specifying. He said, ‘I can do better’ and along comes Nest.”
This may be where Zuckerberg is coming from. His exposure to control and automation systems is not limited to the silver screen. Facebook has a large corporate office with control and automation from the major manufacturers throughout. It has Crestron Master level programmers on staff to program and maintain their systems. He may very well see these systems and has decided for his home he wants something a little more voice-activated and intelligent.
“With the connected home it’s currently a fractured and extremely difficult market,” Green says. “What’s beyond the API? They have to get talking cloud to cloud, manipulating the big data to get predictive human behavior.”
Promises of a Self-Aware Home
When it comes to integration into the home, Zuckerberg has already demonstrated his ability to get Facebook authentication into other environments. There are several applications that allow you to “sign in” with your Facebook credentials. These range from Spotify to gaming sites. Imagine a home where you walk in and it recognizes you because of your Facebook profile; it recognizes your friends and lets them in the door because you are friends with them on Facebook. It might cause you to prune your friends list a bit, but the idea is still quite revolutionary. It might not be that far-fetched, either.
Noted Zuckerberg: “Artificial intelligence may seem like something out of science fiction, but most of us already use tools and services every day that rely on AI. When you do a voice search on your phone, put a check into an ATM, or use a fitness tracker to count your steps, you’re using basic forms of pattern recognition and artificial intelligence. More sophisticated AI systems can already diagnose diseases, drive cars and search the skies for planets better than people.”
Whether Zuckerberg succeeds or fails is yet to be seen. But his track record on most of his yearly “self-improvement” goals is good — by his own admission the only one that still proves difficult is learning Mandarin Chinese, but he delivered a speech in the language last year so he’s not too bad.
Zuckerberg will learn what a number of us already know, namely that building a smart home should not be taken lightly nor is it accomplished in a weekend project. There are scenarios and designs, language barriers, plus the piece he will spend most of his time on, cross-manufacturer communication.
As he walks this out throughout 2016 it will be interesting to see who comes alongside to help, and to see the outcome for his home — and perhaps for our homes of the future.