Galaxy S8 and beyond: Samsung bets big on Bixby's AI

The digital voice assistant will debut soon on Samsung's next flagship phone, and the company plans to quickly add it to more products.

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."
Shara Tibken
6 min read
Watch this: Samsung's Bixby voice assistant will reach beyond Galaxy S8

"Hi, Bixby. What's Samsung planning to do with you?"

A lot, it turns out.

Bixby is Samsung's new digital voice assistant, and it will debut on the upcoming Galaxy S8. It will have its own dedicated button on the side of the phone, letting you communicate with the artificial intelligence in a sort of a walkie-talkie way. But Samsung's plan for Bixby, which it views as a "bright sidekick" to control your phone, doesn't stop there, said Injong Rhee, head of R&D for Samsung's mobile software and services operations.

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Injong Rhee, Samsung's head of R&D for mobile software and services, has led the development of Bixby.

Shara Tibken/CNET

"We start off with the phone and can quickly expand into other devices," said Rhee, a Samsung exec known for his loose locks and casual style.

Bixby is the latest entrant in the crowded field of digital assistants that already includes Apple's Siri, Amazon's Alexa, Google Assistant and Microsoft's Cortana. Every tech heavyweight is investing in these assistants because they're heralded as the future of how we'll interact with our gadgets. The hope is to build a relationship with you now and ultimately get you to buy more of their products later.

Samsung believes artificial intelligence is the next major wave of computing, and Bixby is the manifestation of that belief. It's not alone. Gartner reckons that by 2019, digital assistants will be the primary way consumers interact with their smart homes.

Samsung's going about AI differently than its rivals, though. Instead of being able to answer questions like "What's the weather today," Bixby will help you control your phone. You'll be able to do things like say, "Find a photo of the Sagrada Familia. Send that image to Sally."

"A lot [of our competitors] are more glorified extensions of search," Rhee said. Samsung aims for Bixby to be a new interface combining touch and voice.

Rhee predicts that anything you can control with touch on your phone can one day be controlled with voice.

"When the smartphone came out, touch interface became the norm," he said. "Ten years after the introduction of smartphones, another revolution is waiting. That revolution comes from machine learning and deep learning."

Take two

We sat in a conference room last week on the fifth floor of Samsung's 28-story, ultramodern mobile R&D center in Suwon, South Korea, as Rhee laid out the case for Bixby. On March 29, Samsung will host an event in New York to unveil the Galaxy S8 and its digital assistant.

There are reasons to be skeptical about Bixby -- it isn't Samsung's first attempt at a voice assistant. In 2012, the company launched S Voice with the Galaxy S3. The technology was unreliable and widely panned.

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Welcome to Samsung's headquarters in Suwon, South Korea.

Shara Tibken/CNET

"S Voice was pretty basic ... and never really tried that hard to catch up" with other voice assistants, Jackdaw Research analyst Jan Dawson said. "Samsung will have to demonstrate that it's built something truly competitive when it announces the S8."

At first, though, Bixby will have limited functionality. It initially will be available in only English and Korean, with Chinese and US Spanish added shortly thereafter. You can access "Bixby Home" by swiping left to where Flipboard used to be on the devices. Bixby Home includes cards with suggestions to make your life easier. If you typically call your mom at 4 p.m., for instance, a card will suggest that before you even open the phone function.

Bixby at first will work with only 10 Samsung preloaded apps, including the photo gallery, the phone, contacts, messaging and settings -- but not email or calendar. It plans to eventually let third-party app developers take advantage of Bixby.

Bixby also has an image-recognition component, called Bixby Vision, that identifies landmarks, types of wine, products and text for translation. Bixby will tell you what the items are and, in the US, send you to Amazon to buy them.

Rhee, wearing a bright purple sweater and jeans, in contrast to the dark suits and collared shirts favored by his colleagues, shared his vision of Bixby coming to the wide breadth of products Samsung makes. Imagine a Bixby button on Samsung TVs, home appliances and just about everything else Samsung sells.

"Anywhere that has an internet connection and microphone, Bixby can be used," he said.

Bixby's backstory

About 18 months ago, Samsung set out to make what it eventually named Bixby, which doesn't stand for anything and was chosen because it was popular with millennials.

"We were really changing that philosophy behind this to make it so much more accessible and easier for people to adopt," Rhee said.

While working on Bixby, Samsung found it lacked some capabilities, so last year it bought AI startup Viv Labs and Joyent, a cloud computing company.

The initial version of Bixby will use only technology that Samsung created in-house. Future Bixby updates will incorporate Viv, which Rhee said will help it work with third-party apps.

"We're bringing Viv Labs to grow that ecosystem in a much more scalable manner," Rhee said.

Viv is intended to handle everyday tasks for you, like ordering flowers, booking hotel rooms and researching weather conditions, all in response to natural language commands. The creators -- who included one of Siri's makers, Dag Kittlaus -- claim their software understands your requests and engages in conversation with you to fulfill them, instead of making you speak formulated commands like other AI assistants do.

Samsung's "looking at a few more" companies it may acquire, Rhee said.

Push the button

As for that special button, Samsung decided not to incorporate Bixby into the home button, as Apple has done with Siri, Rhee said. That's because the home button is an "overloaded place," he said, and "having it in the home button, it's easier to make a mistake."

Watch this: Samsung teases Galaxy S8 reveal for late March

It also looks more natural to talk to the assistant when you hold the phone up to your face like, well, a phone, Rhee said. Bixby will have an audible wake word to call on the AI assistant if you're not pressing the button.

Tech research firm Creative Strategies found that among people who use voice assistants, only 6 percent use them in public.

"Consumers are still not that comfortable talking to tech," said Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi. "But this is changing, especially in the home, as devices such as Echo and Google Home roll out."

The Galaxy S8 won't be the only device to have a physical button you press. Rhee envisions buttons on all Bixby-enabled devices.

"The button is so important in a way," Rhee said, noting that in the future we'll have numerous smart devices in our homes that talk to us. "You say, 'Hello Bixby,' and everything wakes up and speaks to you. Having the button simplifies things for us, technologically and also user experience-wise."

Your washing machine or remote control may not just have a Bixby button. It may also one day have a fingerprint sensor, iris scanner or some other kind of biometrics to be sure it's actually you using the machine, Rhee said.

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Bixby may also show up as an app in devices from other companies in the future, including Apple's iPhone, Rhee said.

"Personally, it makes sense to me," he said.

As my time with Rhee wound down, I asked him something that's been on my mind since Bixby rumors started: Why did Samsung need to create its own digital assistant instead of using technology from Android software maker Google?

"Philosophically, we're looking at revolutionizing the phone interface," Rhee said. "We know and understand our applications better than anybody else out there. ... We control our experience, and as a device manager, that's really been our soul."

First published March 20, 6 a.m. PT.
Update at 10:20 a.m.: Adds additional Bixby details.

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