An open-source artificial intelligence for everyone

Voice recognition is an increasingly popular way to interact with smart devices, but the technology behind it has mostly rested in the hands of tech giants — like Google Now and Apple’s Siri, which brought the concept to our mobile phones, and Amazon’s Echo, which applied it to home automation. Even startups in the space, like Ubi and ivee Sleek, have kept a proprietary hold over their hardware and software.

Mycroft, a voice-activated device now in the final days of crowdfunding, is shaking things up by going the open-source route. Built around a Raspberry Pi 2 running the Snappy Ubuntu Core operating system, plus an Arduino-controlled LED display, Mycroft is eminently open, accessible, hackable and extendable.

Voice-Activated Home AI: Mycroft

The device looks like a slightly anthropomorphized alarm clock. Using open, lightweight hardware keeps costs down, with the idea that homeowners should be able to afford to put a Mycroft in most rooms of the house. That way it can act as both an intercom and a Wi-Fi-connected ubiquitous computing system.

Like other voice-activated gadgets, Mycroft listens for its name (or any catchphrase) by processing audio locally on the device. When it hears a command, it sends the recording off to be processed by cloud services, where it is transcribed and translated into a series of actions — which could include retrieving information from a search engine or social media site, opening an intercom channel to another Mycroft device, giving commands to other home automation products, or just about anything else that can be accomplished via the Internet.

Along with releasing the entire source code (once it’s production-ready), the Mycroft team will provide APIs and software development kits so that anyone and everyone can add new capabilities and integrations with other smart products and services. The hardware is also extendable, as the case design exposes connectors for both the Raspberry Pi and the display controller.

The team’s desire to open Mycroft up to the global developer community isn’t just about democratizing voice-recognition technology; it’s also part of a vision for developing a robust artificial intelligence. In fact, the name “Mycroft” is an homage to a computer in a Robert Heinlein novel that gradually becomes self-aware as it is connected to more and more devices and networks. Similarly, the developers of this real-world Mycroft hope that the communal effort of piecemeal extensions to the hardware and software will add up to more than a very convenient listening machine — that, eventually, a sense of human-like intelligence will emerge that will make Mycroft greater than the sum of its parts.

Mycroft’s Kickstarter campaign runs through September 10, and the device should ship in the summer of 2016. Learn more in the video below.

Related: Ubi, ivee Sleek, Jibo, Amazon’s Alexa Fund