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Samsung's Neon 'artificial humans' are confusing everyone. We set the record straight

These next-gen AI chatbots promise to keep your secrets, teach you yoga and help you find a great restaurant. Just don't ask about the weather.

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Neon CEO Pranav Mistry introduces the company's new AI to an audience at CES 2020.

Sarah Tew/CNET
This story is part of CES 2020, our complete coverage of the showroom floor and the hottest new tech gadgets around.

A robot that brings you more toilet paper when you run out. Samsung's softball-shaped robot named Ballie. Of all the digital pals shown off at CES last week, none were quite as uncanny as Neon, the humanlike "life form" funded by a Samsung lab (but don't confuse it with a Samsung product). In a practical sense, consider it a chatbot with a human face and personality. 

Imagine if Siri or Alexa had a virtual face and could carry on a genuine conversation instead of only fetching you tomorrow's forecast. Neon is headed in that direction, and it's equal parts fascinating, impressive and eerie.

Much of the technology behind this lifelike AI is still under development, with a beta release slated for later this year. Consider our curiosity piqued. Here's a virtual being that looks nearly human. What's it for, and will people accept it or reject it for being "too" human?

Neon comes at a time when companies are ramping up investment in AI technologies, from camera processing to full-blown interfaces like this. For example, two years ago, Samsung vowed to invest $22 billion on AI and 5G by the end of 2020. But this increased AI spending goes hand-in-hand with pushback about the ethics of creating digital life that skirts the edge of sentience. 

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CNET got a chance to interview Neon CEO Pranav Mistry and interact with an actual Neon. Both encounters led to more questions. Even still, the buzz around Neon is palpable. What does a Neon do, can it "feel", and what happens next? Here's everything we know about the Neon project, as well as a few lingering questions about these next-generation AIs.

One Neon, two Neons, red Neon, blue Neon

First things first, Neon is the name of the company, the project and an individual AI entity. You can communicate with a Neon, with two Neons, and so forth. 

What's a Neon?

A Neon is an artificially intelligent digital avatar that's meant to mimic real human appearance and emotions. It's envisioned as a highly lifelike companion that has its own personality and can converse and behave like humans. Neons can also remember and learn.

According to Neon CEO Pranav Mistry, "Neons are more like us, an independent but virtual living being, who can show emotions and learn from experiences." According to the founder's vision, they're like a related -- yet different -- new species of life from humans.

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The first wave of Neons are modeled after real people, but Neon CEO Pranav Mistry says future Neons can be modeled to look like -- but not identical to -- actual humans.

Neon

What does a Neon do?

Right now, not much. Neon is in its early start-up phase, generating buzz and interest, as well as possible use cases when the technology matures. At CES, Neons acted mostly in a chatbot capacity, as an AI engine with a face that you can speak to -- but about far more than the weather or how long it will take to drive to the mall.

Some possible scenarios include being a language tutor, concierge, personal financial adviser, receptionist, virtual counselor or healthcare provider, actor, TV anchor or spokesperson. The list goes on.

For example, you could potentially learn yoga from a Neon programmed to show you various poses and, much like a human teacher, incrementally increase the level of difficulty as you master new skills. If you wanted to become fluent in a new language, a Neon could teach it to you, as well as translate in real time when you need help.

A Neon isn't Siri or Google Assistant replacement

A Neon isn't designed to replace digital assistants like Apple's Siri, Amazon's Alexa or Google Assistant by fetching answers to simple questions about the weather or sports scores. Nor is it there to control your smart home devices, set reminders and alarms or play your favorite music.

According to the company, Neons are also not "androids, surrogates or copies of real humans," although they may exhibit similar physical or behavioral traits to actual people. They aren't meant to be the software personality behind robots, either.

What's the relationship between Neon and Samsung?

Neon is the brainchild of longtime Samsung researcher Pranav Mistry. The project emerged out of STAR Labs -- an acronym for Samsung Technology and Advanced Research Labs -- and is funded by Samsung, but it's not actually a Samsung company. 

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Neon emerged from the Samsung Technology and Advanced Research Labs (aka STAR Labs) division. It's funded by Samsung, but operates independently from the technology giant.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Mistry told Tibken that Neon isn't meant to replace Samsung's digital assistant Bixby, it won't be installed in Samsung products, and that the company operates independently of Samsung. 

But having Samsung's backing also means that Mistry doesn't have to have a clear business model yet for Neons, he said. Ultimately, Mistry envisions the startup having other investors alongside Samsung.

A Neon could be a modern hologram

Mistry told CNET that Neon doesn't intend to turn the avatars into physical robots, but he speculates that eventually they may exist as holograms. In the meantime, expect to interact with Neons using the same technology you use to connect with friends and family -- on smartphones, tablets, PCs and even smart TVs, similar to using apps like Skype and FaceTime.

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When you encounter them, Neons should appear lifelike and life-size, at a similar scale to the people you already video chat with. The first phase of Neons are based on real human likenesses, but future Neons can be modeled to look like real people, the company said. The Neons will still look like humans, but not any actual, living people.

Feelings can be hurt, hearts can be broken 

Another way the company says Neons are different from Amazon's Alexa, Siri and the rest is that Neons are not programmed to remain passive in the face of indignity. 

If you're mean or nasty to a Neon, you run the risk of upsetting it, or even making the AI angry at you. Presumably, if you're pleasant and polite to your Neon, it will respond in kind.

You can't customize your own Neon

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An "artificial human" demonstrates Neon's Core R3 graphics engine at CES 2020.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Unlike in games such as The Sims -- or even Apple's Memoji feature on iPhones ($699 at Amazon) and iPads ($350 at Walmart) -- you won't be able to choose how your Neon looks. They will arrive on your screens fully developed, and you won't be able to change them. 

The implication is that the company wants to keep the focus more on the interactions you have with Neons, and less on superficial aspects like appearance. 

As Mistry told CNET, "When you meet a friend, you build that friendship, not that you build that friend. In the same way, businesses who hire Neons can't decide what they look like." They even come with their own names, like Hana, Natasha, Jordan and Johnny.

You won't own your Neon, either

Neons likely will be sold under a subscription model, meaning that companies and individuals can essentially rent, but not own, an individual Neon. 

Businesses will be able to "hire" Neons for specialized tasks, like translation, but will be unable to license the core technology that powers Neons. It's unclear, however, whether you can have a Neon with you all the time or if they only show up for, say, watching Netflix for a few hours on Fridays or teaching you Mandarin on Tuesdays. 

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This CES panel included Facebook's privacy chief Erin Egan (second from left) and Apple's privacy chief Jane Horvath (middle).

Angela Lang/CNET

Expect a higher degree of privacy than you're used to

Privacy concerns around voice-interface AI are growing, and it's with that in mind that the company behind Neon claims that privacy is at the core of the AI's design. All language processing occurs on-device, the company says, and all records of your interactions with Neon are kept private. The company stresses that it will never share your private information without your permission. 

Like a real, human friend, the memories of interactions are tied to one specific Neon. If you interact with a new Neon, it won't be able to pick up where you left off with the previous one. You're starting over, as if it's a new person you're meeting.  

Speaking of core technology, here's the techy stuff

There are two fundamental technologies driving Neons. First is Core R3, which stands for reality, real-time and responsiveness. 

Think of Core R3 as the graphics engine that powers Neons' natural movements, expressions and speech. Then there's Spectra, which will drive the AI's "spectrum of intelligence, learning, emotions and memory." It's what gives a Neon its mind, heart and soul, if you will. Spectra is not quite ready for prime time just yet, but the company says it will preview the technology sometime later this year.

Neons still have quite a way to go

If you're noticing that Neon leans heavily on potential and much less on present-day performance, you're not wrong. The company's CES presentation was meant to demo the Core R3 technology that powers the Neons' movements and interactions, but the Spectra engine driving "intelligence, learning, emotions and memory" is still under development.

Other questions we have about Neon

  • The company says Neon will see a beta release later this year, but we don't know when it will become widely available.
  • The Neons on display at CES 2020 appear as both male and female avatars, but are they meant to be gendered? Are their preferred pronouns "he" or "she" or "it" (or something else entirely)? Will there be transgender Neons, too?
  • How much will a subscription cost? Will some Neons, possibly those with more specialized skills or knowledge, cost more than others?
  • Chatbots have a sordid history. A notable recent example was Microsoft's Twitterbot, named Tay, which turned into a sex-crazed, Hitler-praising racist. It's unclear what -- if any -- fail-safes Neon will have to prevent similar corruption.

What do you think about Neon the company and Neons the AI beings -- amazing or unsettling? Let us know in the comments below. You can also read up on our interview with Neon CEO Pranav Mistry, about what it's like interacting with one of the prototype AIs firsthand, and an analysis of the ethics surrounding AI development and what Neon means for the future of AI.

This article was originally published earlier this month and has been periodically updated.