In the first week of 2016, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg announced in a post that his goal for the year was to “build a simple AI to run my home and help me with my work.” He clarified, “You can think of it kind of like Jarvis in Iron Man.” Zuckerberg went on to describe his plan to explore presently available smart home technologies, implement them into his home, and train the system to coordinate with his family life and workaday. (Interestingly, Zuckerberg’s AI may utilize a number of devices, but he refers to the technology as a singular system, implying that he intends to develop a unified AI to oversee the many individual devices.)
The Facebook founder isn’t alone in his want for an AI-powered smart home. Though, where Zuckerberg likely looks to the Internet of Things to manage his smart home, a young Chinese company aims to create hardware that’s already equipped with AI, freeing devices from their reliance on a steady Internet connection. After all, what if you lose WiFi? Dr. Yu Kai, the founder and former head of Baidu’s Institute of Deep Learning, says his company will revolutionize AI. On their website (which appears to be unavailable at the time of this article update – September 2017), Horizon Robotics claims they want to define the “brain engine” of robots. In other words, they want to get AI algorithms out of cloud systems and built into devices.
Horizon Robotics’ software will need to be sophisticated to enough to compete with other AI on the market. But they hope to really stand out by creating computer chips equipped with AI networks. (To be sure, Facebook open-sourced their AI hardware late last year – but it’s still unclear whether Zuckerberg’s Jarvis will have a built-in AI network.)
“General processors are too slow for AI functions,” Dr. Kai Yu told South China Morning Post. “A dedicated chip will dramatically increase the speed of these functions.”
Since many AI services like Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa are cloud-based, Dr Kai Yu notes the potential obstacle if the Internet were to go or slow down. By building AI networks directly into devices, Horizon Robotics wants to eliminate – or at least minimize – that concern.
Horizon Robotics was founded in Beijing in July, 2015 and had a successful seed funding round in September that brought investment from venture capital groups like Morningside Ventuers, Hillhouse Sequoia Capital, GSR Ventures, Innovation Works and ZhenFund.
The company projects its first AI-chip design will be completed by June 2016, and will be implemented mainly into smart home appliances. Dr. Kai Yu told South China Morning Post the products will be made available for several Chinese partners, manufacturers of home appliances, but he wouldn’t disclose which partners exactly. The initial range of products will however be displayed at the Appliance and Electronic World Expo in Shanghai. Commercial chips won’t be available until sometime in 2017.
“AI functions may look easy, but these are extremely difficult to perform,” Dr. Kay Yu said. “Even a robot broom needs to know the floor layout, sense obstacles, plan its activity and recognize its user’s voice.”
This isn’t the first AI system developed by Horizon Robotics, who have previously developed an AI system – also intended to be implemented in smart home appliances – compatible with current general-purpose processors.
Like many other AI-related technologies, smart home devices are quickly becoming an everyday reality. And not just for billionaires. The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2016 featured two entire floors of expo showrooms with devices ranging from smart vacuums to smart thermostats and smart speakers. The degree to which each can be considered AI varies – but their connection to the Internet of Things, and design to adjust to our preferences remains the same. Samsung, Bosch, and others displayed their individual hubs, which, like Iron Man’s Jarvis, enable all the devices to be monitored and connected from a single place.
Meanwhile, technology research firm Gartner has predicted that the typical Western family home may have more than 500 smart devices available in the home by 2022. Holger Knoepke, vice president of connected home for German company, Deutsche Telekom, told the BBC that he believes smart home services are in increasing demand. “50% to 80% of people say they’re interested in smart home services,” he said. “They could end up paying €5 to €10 a month, which equates to more than €15 billion ($17 billion) a year in Western Europe by 2019.”
Back at Horizon Robotics, Dr. Kai Yu recognizes that creating a chip with a built-in AI network is an innovative step, and not one to be taken lightly. “Our vision is bold,” he told the South China Morning Post, “but we need to control risks at the same time.”
Image credit: Marvel Studios