When you issue a command to a virtual assistant like Siri, Alexa, or Cortana, natural language processing technology (NLP) allows the program to interpret your speech and respond in everyday language. Apple, Amazon, Google, and Microsoft are making great strides forward in NLP technology, but unfortunately, these tech giants aren’t interested in sharing how they do it.
“There’s an entire community of developers looking to access this technology, but so far, it’s been the purview of a few large companies. The technology is walled-off, proprietary, and secretive,” said Joshua Montgomery, CEO of Kansas City-based Mycroft AI, Inc.
As an alternative to these market leaders, Montgomery and his team created Mycroft, the world’s first open-source AI voice assistant. Mycroft is free to download and use, and developers are invited to alter its code to expand and improve the NLP functionality. More than 700 independent developers are already making contributions to Mycroft’s software.
Mycroft AI, Inc. ran a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2015 to fund its initial product, the “Mark 1,” a smart speaker similar in function to the Amazon Echo and Google Home. But the Mark 1 is only the launching point for Mycroft, which also runs on desktop and can be integrated into any device, from wearables to automobiles.
“Ask yourself: if your technology could understand human speech and respond naturally, what would you build?” challenges Montgomery.
Adaptable Technology with Extraordinary Potential
Mycroft’s open-source software and hardware are the keys to its potential. The team based the Mark 1 unit on the Raspberry Pi circuit board and Arduino microcontroller, to encourage users to hack and modify the core equipment. Desktop users can run Mycroft on the developer-friendly Linux OS through the KDE Plasma distribution.
Independent developers can then “teach” Mycroft new skills beyond its original programming and share their code with the community, increasing Mycroft’s functionality for everyone. The number of potential applications is limitless.
Mycroft AI, Inc. is initially focusing on the automotive industry, where there’s a huge opportunity to improve voice control functionality in new vehicles.
“J.D. Power and Associates has reported that the voice control in the car is the single most complained-about feature in the automobile. We solved that problem, so that’s how we land with companies like Jaguar Land Rover, who’s a strategic investor and soon will be a customer, and General Motors, who we’re working with through 500 Startups,” Montgomery said.
The Leaders in Open-Source AI
After earning $189,000 in crowdfunding in 2015, Mycroft AI, Inc. went on to complete a $350,000 angel round and a $1.17 million seed round. The team completed the Techstars accelerator program in 2016 and are currently engaged with 500 Startups. They hope to leverage their funding and mentorship to increase their global influence.
“The seed money we’ve obtained allows us to position ourselves as the open technology in this space,” Montgomery said. “Our goal is that when you think ‘open’ and ‘virtual assistant,’ you’ll think Mycroft.”
This goal may be within reach if the company’s talks with GM, Jaguar, Walmart, GE, and Canonical Ltd. (publisher of the Ubuntu OS) are any indication. Although Mycroft isn’t currently available to developers using Windows or Mac, Montgomery said the software will eventually run on all operating systems.
The biggest threat for Mycroft comes from the possibility that one of the major NLP players will make its own software open source, but that doesn’t seem likely given their track record. Instead, Montgomery is confident in the multi-billion dollar market of companies who don’t want to do business with the Silicon Valley tech giants.
By 2020, it is estimated that 34 billion devices will be connected to the Internet of Things. Montgomery believes Mycroft AI, Inc. is in a position to capture a huge slice of that market with its free-to-use customizable, NLP technology.