Samsung Neon: Here's when we'll get details on the mysterious AI

The "artificial human" company has a booth at Sunday's CES Unveiled, but it isn't actually showing its technology. And it won't be a part of Samsung's keynote Monday, either.

Shara Tibken
Shara Tibken Former managing editor
Shara Tibken was a managing editor at CNET News, overseeing a team covering tech policy, EU tech, mobile and the digital divide. She previously covered mobile as a senior reporter at CNET and also wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. Shara is a native Midwesterner who still prefers "pop" over "soda."
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Samsung's Neon company has a booth Sunday at CES Unveiled, but it's not actually unveiling its technology there. Instead we have to wait until Tuesday.

Roger Cheng/CNET

CES 2020 has barely started in Las Vegas, but it seems like everyone's already talking about one company: Neon, a mysterious new venture funded by Samsung

The company has been tweeting out teasers over the past three weeks, hinting at something new to come. "Have you ever met an 'Artificial?'" Neon tweeted several times since its Twitter account launched in December. Its LinkedIn page says it's "bringing science fiction to reality" and has "the mission to imagine and create a better future for all." 

Heading into CES, little was known about Neon, beyond the fact it's run by Pranav Mistry, the Samsung research exec who in October was named CEO of Samsung's Bay Area-based Technology and Advanced Research Labs (aka STAR Labs). 

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On Saturday, Mistry tweeted out two photos of what appears to be an avatar (or "artificial human?") that he called "CORE R3." And unlisted videos, spotted on Reddit and compiled into a video by the Good Content tech page on YouTube, show various other human-like avatars that look a lot like real people.

"It can now autonomously create new expressions, new movements, new dialog (even in Hindi), completely different from the original captured data," Mistry tweeted.

The hints have caused people to speculate on what Neon could actually be. Could it be a replacement for Samsung's Bixby smart digital assistant? (Neon shot that theory down pretty quickly.) Will it show up on Samsung devices? Does this mean we're soon going to be living in a real-life version of HBO's Westworld?

Many Samsung watchers expected the company to unveil Neon at its CES keynote Monday at 6:30 p.m. PT. But Neon won't actually be a part of the keynote. 

Reps at Neon's booth at CES Unveiled, an exhibition of various tech companies held Sunday at the Mandalay Bay conference center in Las Vegas, stressed that while Neon was formed out of Samsung's research arm, it's not really a part of Samsung, the electronics giant. They handed out passes to get a demo of Neon's technology on Tuesday at the earliest.

Samsung is among the tech giants have been making a big push to make our devices smarter. The so-called internet of things, or IoT, embraces the notion that everything around us should communicate and work together. The aim is to make life easier, letting us do things like close our garage doors while we're away or get an alert from our  refrigerators  when we're out of milk. But many of our devices still don't talk to each other, and they're often not as smart as promised. 

Neon's mystique

As companies like Google , Amazon and, yes, Samsung have discovered, the key to actually making smart devices useful is packing in artificial intelligence, typically in the form of voice assistants. Every tech heavyweight is investing in these assistants because they're heralded as the future of how we'll interact with our gadgets. The ultimate promise for the smart technology is to predict what you want before you even ask -- or make you forget you're not interacting with a real human. 

Two years ago, Samsung said it would spend $22 billion on AI by 2020 and would employ 1,000 AI specialists by the same time frame. It has opened AI centers around the globe to work on solving problems for making technology smarter.

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The company at last year's CES showed off several robots that could do things like monitor health and help with mobility issues, and its Bot Chef aids cooks

Most of Samsung's efforts in AI have revolved around Bixby, which first arrived in 2017's Galaxy S8. The digital assistant has since made its way to smart TVs , refrigerators, washers , air conditioners, speakers and more. Samsung previously aimed to put Bixby voice controls into every device it sells by 2020.

As with bringing connectivity to everything, it appears that Samsung has fallen short of that goal. Samsung declined to say what percentage of its devices are internet connected beyond saying that the "majority" of Samsung products are smart.

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"AI will truly transform every experience we have with consumer electronics," Eui-Suk Chung, Samsung's head of software and AI, said during Samsung Developer Conference in 2018. "With Samsung, Bixby is our singular commitment to AI. We believe Bixby fundamentally changes how people use technology and what they can do with AI."

So far, though, Bixby has lagged behind Amazon's Alexa and Google's Assistant, both in terms of market share and capabilities. Some analysts have questioned whether Bixby will ever catch up, even with Samsung's money and might behind it.

Neon could represent Samsung's next effort in AI, though it's unclear how it will interact -- or not -- with Bixby. The company on Christmas tweeted that "contrary to some news, Neon is NOT about Bixby, or anything you have seen before." 

Mistry, meanwhile, said in an interview last month with Indian business news publication Mint that AI "has many years of development to go before science fiction becomes reality," hinting that Neon may not produce technology that's immediately available. It's likely whatever Neon announces won't be reality for some time. Mistry did give some other clues about Neon ambitions, though.

"While films may disrupt our sense of reality, 'virtual humans' or 'digital humans' will be reality," he told Mint in late December. "A digital human could extend its role to become a part of our everyday lives: a virtual news anchor, virtual receptionist or even an AI-generated film star."

CNET's Eli Blumenthal contributed to this report.