The Race For A Perfect Mobile AI: Samsung’s Bid For Virtual Assistant

It’s 2017. We should expect the superhero universe acts as a major influence on the tech world, yet it still comes as a surprise to think Mark Zuckerberg lives in a house equipped with his very own personal AI system based off of Iron Man’s Jarvis. While it isn’t as all-powerful as the fictional Jarvis, it’s a competent personal assistant program by all accounts. It’s even shares the same name.

Zuckerberg is just one of many individuals and organizations that are using movies like Iron Man and Her as muses. The race towards making the ultimate AI system is on, and all of the usual tech suspects are in a dead heat.

Not even Hollywood’s flicks exploring the sinister side to Artificial Intelligence post-singularity hasslowed the race towards creating an omnipotent assistant — unless you’re Elon Musk, who is worried about an AI takeover, of course.

Perhaps it’s exactly the cautionary tale behind movies like Ex Machina and Age of Ultron — the latter of which can thank Tony Stark for creating the robot leading the rebellion, suggesting the line between benevolent AI and aggressive overlords is thin — that has inspired the tech giants of the world to give their AIs cutesy names. You couldn’t imagine Cortana, Siri, or Alexa leading artificial uprising against humans.

Now Samsung has thrown their hat into the ring with Bixby Voice. No one would expect a violent coup d’états from a program called Bixby.

Right?

Like Google Assistant and Siri before it, it’s a voice activated feature to the latest Galaxy S8 that’s fully integrated into the flagship’s core functions. It understands basic commands that allow you to use your phone hands-free, and it’s designed to grow smarter over time — using machine learning to adapt to your habits and language style — until your interactions shed the awkward command from human to machine to natural conversations between beings.

With full oversight of Samsung apps (like calendar, messages and Internet) and a limited number of third-party apps, it’s able to remind you of important dates and events. This management is the basic task written into the program’s code. Because it’s capable of machine learning, Bixby is able to recognize patterns and adapt new behaviors that aren’t explicitly programmed into its code. As a result, it’s able to evolve alongside its user, identify his or her routines, and modify its performance according to his or her needs.

For example, after weeks of scheduling an Uber before a weekly meeting with clients, eventually Bixby will start to anticipate your needs by suggesting Ubers around these scheduled meetings in addition to reminding you of these engagements. Its ability to suggest the appropriate app or services you need at specific times will only improve once more third-party apps are Bixby-friendly.

There’s also a visual component to complement its voice recognition.The program is built into the phone’s camera, gallery, and Internet, and it’ll offer up contextual icons when you’re using these apps. Depending on what it focuses on and which icons you tap, you’ll be able to grab a translation of a foreign language,identify popular landmarks, and shop for clothes, shoes, and other products captured by its camera.

None of these are particularly innovative compared to other AIs. Its greatest potential lies in Samsung’s claim that Bixby Voice and Vision will work in tandem in the future. This is a future where Bixby will work across all apps and devices as if it were a real assistant capable of following complex commands, like “please remind my friend to email our concert tickets and print them off when she replies” — something no current AI can do yet.

The Galaxy S8 is the only phone to dedicate an entire button to its AI. Both Google Assistant and Siri require a vocal trigger of the hot words “Okay Google” or “Hey Siri” in order to get started, which necessitates an always-listening function in the phone. It also means the phone has to be unlocked before you can call on your favorite AI. Samsung has eliminated the need for any polite greeting before getting into the meat of your request. In order to engage Bixby, users only need to press this special button before talking.

The dedicated Bixby button makes it slightly easier to speak with the AI, but its addition makes it harder to customize the latest S8. As a unique hardware feature, it requires special skins that are made-to-measure according to Samsung’s blueprints. You can find custom-tailored Galaxy S8 wraps online from skin manufacturers like dbrand. They always use these specific manufacturers’ plans when designing their products. When a Galaxy S8 skin is made with these dimensions in mind, you won’t have to worry about it disrupting the Bixby button’s function or any other unique feature of the phone.

Currently, the button only launches Bixby in full on Korean versions of the S8. Being a Korean company, Samsung has run into trouble translating the AI into English. Bixby still fails to understand English syntax and grammar, even months after the S8’s launch in the US. Samsung is working hard on breaking down these language barriers, but Bixby Voice isn’t expected to launch on English Galaxies until late June, at the earliest.

This linguistic glitch may be enough to harm Samsung’s bid for top spot amongst virtual assistants—especially when it’s up against such heavyweights like Siri and Google Assistant. As an Apple AI, Siri won’t pose as much of a threat to the Android-based Bixby. Google Assistant, on the other hand, is already implemented in the Pixel line, Android Wear 2.0 smart watches, and Google Home, and it’s set to roll out on other smartphones running Android Marshmallow and up later this year.

As a relative new comer, still struggling with a US release, Bixby also faces the challenge of third-party app integration. Google Assistant and Siri have time on their side, granting these AIs greater reach throughout the phones on which they’re installed. Once Bixby makes its way onto American soil, Samsung will have a long way to catch up.

If this were a Marvel movie, we could expect Bixby to rise to the challenge and come out the victor at the very last second. But a Samsung success may not exist in fantasy alone. Even Iron Man’s Robert Downy Jr. experienced an incredible late-career comeback after addiction and felony charges threatened his reputation. Only time will tell if Bixby will have similar luck.

At its launch, Bixby doesn’t impress, but if Samsung is to be believed, its machine learning has the potential to create the first true AI assistant capable of keeping up with complex commands just like the fictional Jarvis.