Can Open Source AI be the next big thing?

Open Source has gone through numerous challenges since the term was coined. WordPress gave birth to a new era in Open Source CMS, then followed by many others in the CMS Market. Today we are taking upon a new concept which is Open Source AI. AI in the hands of big tech companies can be dangerous due to the scale of monopoly they will create out of it commercially. Open Source can be used for free as well as commercially, but the goal is that everyone should benefit from it not just companies. Here is an interesting read, originally published and written by Engadget

It’s only been a few years since Amazon unveiled the Alexa-powered Echo, but since then, smart speakers have become a major consumer-electronics category. Key to its success is the notion of the always-on virtual assistant, which other companies like Apple and Google have adopted as well. In fact, not only has Google made Assistant the driving force behind its Android smartphones, it has launched its own line of Echo rivals.

But underneath all of this technology is the potential risk to your privacy. In just the past few months, news reports have uncovered a series of alarming revelations that companies like Amazon, Google and even Apple have been listening in on conversations without permission. The data that they collect are also often stored indefinitely unless you explicitly delete it or turn off the recording ability. The companies have since responded that the listening of information only occurs to a small percentage of its customers and that the data are anonymized. While that may be true, it’s disconcerting that none of this is transparent, and that the customer is rarely in complete control of their data.

An easy way to avoid this, of course, is to not partake in this technology at all. But a company based in Lawrence, Kansas, is working on an alternative solution: a virtual assistant aimed at preserving privacy and that’s also open source. It’s called Mycroft, and though you may not have heard of it, the company’s been around since 2015.

Mycroft CEO and founder Joshua Montgomery had a big challenge in front of him: Amazon. Amazon had announced Alexa in November of 2014, but it was still in private beta when the idea for Mycroft came about. Amazon launched their Super Bowl ad with Alec Baldwin, and then Google got in on the game, and suddenly it’s the fastest-growing segment of the technology market.

Thus, the idea for Mycroft was born. The team even came up with a smart speaker reference device called the Mark I and put it on Kickstarter in August of 2015, just three months after Amazon debuted the very first Echo to the public. It funded, but it really was mostly intended for developers and makers like themselves.

The Mark II showing recipe conversions

There are several companies that have chosen to work with Mycroft because they didn’t want to be beholden to Amazon or Google. Mycroft has received investment from Jaguar Land , Rover, for example, and has implemented the Mycroft platform in an F-Type sports car as a test. A tiny personal robot from Spain called the One uses Mycroft, and Chatterbox, a voice AI designed to teach children to code, also uses Mycroft as its platform. Montgomery says he’s received a lot of attention from players in the hospitality industry, such as cruise ships and hotels, because there’s a strong incentive to preserve the privacy of guests.

The One is an open-source robot that uses Mycroft AI

The privacy aspect of these technologies is a bigger issue than most people realize. The level of integration that voice assistants will eventually have on our day-to-day lives is going to be equivalent to the level of integration that smartphones have on our lives today. And so giving these companies access to everything we say and everything we do and allowing them to take that and manipulate us and monetize us is something really scary.

An updated design of the Mycroft Mark II.

Of course, as such a small company, Mycroft has run into problems along the way that are probably relatively minor for companies like Amazon and Google. For example, with its work with Jaguar, it learned that it needed to support 40 languages instead of just English. It had to collaborate with Mozilla and the larger open-source community for internationalization efforts, which unfortunately takes a lot of time.

Another issue is that in order to build machine-learning, you have to have a bunch of data, and with only a 15 percent contribution from the community, that, again, takes a lot of time. Yet, Montgomery said that Precise, its wake-word spotter — the tech used to detect voice — is on par with Amazon and Google.

As of right now and for the foreseeable future, the company said it will be focused on getting the best user experience possible, especially on core functions like alarms, timers and getting the news and weather. It’s also concentrating its efforts on the production of the second-gen of its smart speaker, the Mark II, to Kickstarter backers. But while the Mark II is a much more consumer-friendly version of the hardware, Montgomery admits that the Mycroft platform is not quite consumer-ready just yet.

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