Facebook founder's New Year resolution could spark the rise of the robots

Would you like a personal robot?
Would you like a personal robot?
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As Mark Zuckerberg announces plans to build his own Artificial Intelligence (AI) assistant, Chris Bond looks at how much robots shape our lives.

As New Year’s resolutions go, Mark Zuckerberg’s is pretty ambitious.

The Terminator films were based on artificial intelligence growing out of control.

The Terminator films were based on artificial intelligence growing out of control.

Writing a post on his social media site, the Facebook founder said it was his personal challenge this year to invent a computerised servant to assist with household chores.

Zuckerberg likened the idea to the butler Jarvis in the Iron Man films, a highly advanced form of artificial intelligence (AI) who manages almost everything in the superhero’s life.

The tech billionaire said he plans to explore technology that already exists before personalising the invention so it can recognise his voice and control everything in his home, including the lights, music and heating.

Zuckerberg, who has a month-old daughter named Max, added: “I’ll teach it to let friends in by looking at their faces when they ring the doorbell. I’ll teach it to let me know if anything is going on in Max’s room that I need to check on when I’m not with her.”

Even just a decade ago this would have sounded like something straight out of a Hollywood sci-fi film, but since then robotics technology has advanced to a new level.

We already have Titan the robot who has performed on stage alongside Rihanna and JLS, and last summer Pepper, the humanoid robot that its makers say can recognise and respond to human emotions, went on sale in Japan.

It has given rise to a growing belief that we are on the cusp of a robotics revolution with these machines moving out of factories and playing a greater role in our daily lives.

Professor Tony Prescott, director of the Sheffield Centre for Robotics – jointly established by the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam University – believes we have come a long way in recent times.

“Robot systems that work in the home is going to happen but making them work in the physical world is difficult, it’s not the same as making AI work on the internet.”

He points to the development of the Pepper robot.

“It’s not fantastically advanced, it can’t have a conversation in any deep way, but what’s interesting about Pepper is that it’s relatively affordable for people to buy [it costs around £1,000],” he says.

“The next big challenge is to make robots that can pick things up and interact safely with people and objects in the home. Robots being able to prepare food is possible. This kind of thing is already happening in labs, it’s just a question of making it commercially viable.

“We have robotic vacuum cleaners and we have robots used in warehouses and they’re used to carry out deep sea maintenance. We even have robots operating in hospitals here in the UK delivering meals to people, so gradually this is going to have a greater impact on our everyday lives.”

But there are concerns about where all this technology is leading us. There have been several reports recently warning that these new technologies could result in mass unemployment.

In November, the Bank of England’s chief economist, Andy Haldane, said as many as 15 million jobs could be replaced by new technologies, while a study from Oxford University has suggested that 35 per cent of existing UK jobs are at risk of automation in the next 20 years.

Prof Prescott takes a more optimistic view and believes robots can play a positive role. “As with the internet there will be positives and negatives. People will still be needed to design and maintain them. It’s more likely they will take over the kind of jobs that people don’t want to do. I think they will create more jobs than they destroy.”

We might not be about to see robot butlers become the norm, but the technology that underpins robotics is already very much a part of our everyday lives.