Mark Zuckerberg, artificial intelligence and Iron Man's Jarvis: How close are we really to having artificial robot butlers?

Dave Coplin
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Zuckerberg wants to create a digital helper like Jarvis in Marvel's Iron Man (Source: Getty)

It’s great to hear that Mark Zuckerberg is planning to build his own personal artificial intelligence service for helping him around the home and the office. It sounds wonderful doesn’t it? Perfectly paradoxical in the sense that it simultaneously feels like both science fiction and something that’s already happening in our homes today.

In truth, the ultimate vision in home (or office) automation requires a combination of two of the 21st century’s most crucial technologies; artificial intelligence and robotics.

Although artificial intelligence and robotics share a symbiotic relationship, it’s worth remembering that at the end of the day they remain two entirely different disciplines.

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At its most basic, artificial intelligence is simply the ability to spot patterns in lots of data and to use those patterns to infer meaning from which services can be built. Whilst our work in artificial intelligence continues to accelerate in both scope and impact, the hardware portion of this equation, the robots, are starting to rise.

A quick ad-hoc survey of my friends and family showed that robots featured heavily on this year’s must have Christmas present lists (in our house alone we added four new robots to our family this Christmas). Although these might still be classed as toys, they are already beginning to show signs of basic intelligence (using sensors and the intelligence provide by an internet connection to react and adapt to their surroundings).

Again, impressive from where we’ve come from but still a long way short of the kind of capability we’re going to need to create the perfect digital “Jeeves” - or Iron Man-style Jarvis, and as such, this ultimate combination of the best of both worlds remains tantalisingly out of reach.

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In reality, there is a fundamental truth that lies behind our consistent inability to live up to the dream of the perfect robotic assistant and it is quite simply that we continue to massively underestimate the intricacy of the human condition where the complex combination of physical and mental attributes are blended to create a mobile, articulate, independent being the operation and composition of which we are yet to fully comprehend, never mind replicate artificially.

But, whilst it’s clear that the entirety of the digital “Jeeves” vision might still be many years away (even for Zuckerberg) it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the fact that already, many of us are well on our way to making this happen for ourselves.

Over the last 12 months a fair few brave souls have taken the first steps into this world by connecting the most expensive and possibly the “dumbest” device they own (their house) to the collective “intelligence” of the internet and they are already beginning to see the potential.

By installing internet connected thermostats, lightbulbs and other equipment that perhaps still seems pointless and expensive to some people, they have been provided with insight and control that not just helps them to better match their local environment to their requirements, better still it is helping them save money and the planet by using the intelligence of the connected world to enable them to be far more efficient with their most precious resources; their time, their money and our planet.

But perhaps the most important thing that Zuckerberg and indeed, all of us need to bear in mind is that the true purpose of technology is to augment not replace our human condition, harnessing the best of the unique capabilities of each party to create outcomes that stretch our boundaries way further than we could ever have achieved on our own.

The future for 2016, like every other year before and after it, will belong to the humans, if only we can rise up to take advantage of it.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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