AI helpers aren't just for Facebook's Zuckerberg: Here's how to build your own

Why you don't need to be Tony Stark to get started on creating your own digital assistant.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wants his AI to be able to interact 'like a person'.
Image: Facebook

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has announced that 2016 will be the year he creates his own personal AI to look after his home and his family.

Zuckerberg wants to use the AI to control his home using his voice, to recognise friends and open the door for them and to help him check on his newborn daughter Max.

But while building your very own digital concierge seems like the preserve of billionaires like Zuckerberg, the tech needed to forge your own virtual assistant is increasingly available to everyone.

Today there are a growing number of online services that provide the tools such an AI would rely upon. To name a few: voice recognition is available through Amazon's Alexa Voice Service, facial and emotion recognition via Microsoft's Project Oxford, natural language processing for understanding what is said and written via IBM Watson Services, and machine learning via the Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure cloud platforms.

Not only are these services available to anyone but many are initially free for personal use, for instance Microsoft's Project Oxford allows developers to make 5,000 free calls a month to its computer vision API.

You also don't need be a programming genius to piece together a simple app drawing on these services, thanks to the availability of SDKs that let you get started using a range of programming languages. For instance, anyone with a reasonable knowledge of JavaScript and Node.js can put together a simple app that recognises people using Microsoft's Project Oxford face detection API, using this intuitive and freely available Node module.

To collect information on what you're saying and doing, an AI aide could also require sensors beyond those available on computers and phones. Building this home-made hardware isn't as tricky as it once was, with help available in the form of the IBM mBed IoT Starter Kit and other electronics aimed at amateur makers.

Alongside phone-centric assistants such as Google Now and Apple Siri, one of the first products to introduce voice-controlled services to the home has been the Amazon Echo smart speaker, which relies on the Amazon Alexa Voice Service at the back end. It's a product that Zuckerberg says he uses to choose music by voice when looking after his daughter. But he says the service is lacking in some regards and intends to build an assistant with a broader range of capabilities.

"In this case it means I'll be able to interact with it like a person: I'll talk to it, it can see me and my facial expressions, it'll be able to predict some of what I need ahead of time, etc.

"I'm very interested in using voice and face recognition to set lights and temperature as well depending on who is in what rooms, etc. For example, I like rooms colder than [my wife] Cilla, but it's possible to just see who is in what room and adjust the temperatures automatically."

Zuckerberg predicts his AI will be "kind of like Jarvis in Iron Man", again reinforcing the idea that DIY digital helpers are exclusive to super rich playboys. But you don't need to be Tony Stark to start hacking together an AI assistant, why not give it a go?

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Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic. He writes about the technology that IT decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

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