Hey Bixby, control my new Samsung TV, fridge -- and robot from CES 2019

Pretty soon, you won't be able to avoid Samsung's digital assistant when you use one of its devices.

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

Bixby is about to take over Samsung's digital world.

Samsung's  at CES 2019, talking up how it's supercharging Bixby through various partnerships and moving into new areas like robotics. The digital assistant now will help people manage their health routines using new Samsung robots or check whether their car's gas tank is full.

Apps like Google Maps and Gmail will soon work with the digital assistant, Samsung said Monday during its press conference at  CES  in Las Vegas, and Bixby will be able to do even more on Samsung's smart refrigerators and washing machines, like searching iTunes  or letting you know which wash cycle to choose. 

The company is betting on artificial intelligence as the next major wave of computing. Samsung expects the technology to link its products together and let consumers do more with their electronics. And it aims to have Bixby in as many of its products as possible, as fast as possible. 

"We have a bold vision to take a half a billion devices we sell every year and make them connected and intelligent," Samsung co-CEO HS Kim said during Monday's press conference. "Bixby is a scalable, open platform, and it will continue to grow as more partners join the ecosystem."

Samsung has been building its capabilities in software and services over the past decade, but it's had more flops than successes. It's launched services, including Bixby's predecessor, S Voice, only to scrap them a few months or years later. Instead of using its homegrown Tizen operating system in its high-end smartphones, Samsung has relegated the software to wearables and other products and continues to rely on Google's Android software to power its smartphones and tablets

It's hoping to change that with Bixby. Samsung will spend $22 billion on artificial intelligence by 2020, and it has opened seven AI centers around the globe. Samsung plans to employ 1,000 artificial intelligence specialists by 2020 -- the same time frame it's given for making all of its products internet-connected and integrated with Bixby.

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For Samsung and numerous others, artificial intelligence is the next big wave of computing, and digital assistants are a step in that direction. 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 -- but in most cases, the digital assistants just aren't smart enough yet. And experts worry that Bixby is too late to compete with incumbents like Amazon's Alexa and Google Assistant. 

Only 4 percent of US adults accessing voice assistants on a smartphone use Bixby, according to a survey by Voicebot.AI. That compares with 44 percent for Siri , 30 percent for Google Assistant and 17 percent for Alexa.

But Samsung has a huge presence in American homes. Over 70 percent of Americans have at least one Samsung device and more than 25 percent have at least three, Yoon Lee, a Samsung senior vice president, said during Monday's press conference. That gives Samsung a huge potential market for Bixby. 

"With AI and other emerging technologies, we are hard at work improving those devices, helping them to better meet consumer needs and improve their daily lives," Lee said. 

Moving Bixby beyond mobile

Bixby debuted on the Galaxy S8 in 2017 and moved last year into Samsung's smart TVs . CES 2019 marks the expansion of Bixby into even more areas.

This year, Samsung said, Bixby will be embedded in its 2019 QLED and premium TVs, in smart appliances like refrigerators and washers, and in air conditioners, mobile devices, AI speakers and more. 

iTunes users will be able to use Bixby to search for TV and movies offered on Apple's service. Samsung on Sunday said its smart TVs this year will offer support for iTunes movie and TV shows beginning this spring. Samsung TVs will also support AirPlay 2Apple's upgraded Wi-Fi audio streaming technology, allowing customers to stream videos, music and other content directly to their TV from an Apple device.

New Family Hub refrigerator software will let people interact in natural language to get answers to complicated questions, preset the oven, search for recipes and even call an Uber. Bixby also shows information on the screen for a richer experience and displays an array of visual information. The new features will be available via an automatic update for most earlier Family Hub models.

Samsung's new front-load washer also integrates Bixby. The digital assistant lets users control its smart features like getting recommendations for the best wash cycle, scheduling a cycle to be completed at a users' preferred time, automatically connecting the dryer cycle when the washer is done, or monitoring usage to efficiently manage their laundry appliances. 

Robots galore

Bixby also will be part of Samsung's new "Digital Cockpit" and robotics platforms. 

When it comes to robots, Samsung hopes to use AI to "manage activities of daily living." The company unveiled four robots to help with various tasks. It brought one of them, the Samsung Bot Care, on stage to demonstrate its health-tracking capabilities. The bot talked to a Samsung executive, instructing him to place a finger on the robot's screen to take his blood pressure. The robot could help elderly users monitor their health -- or let their family members keep tabs from afar. 


Samsung Bot Care robot can monitor a person's vitals. 

James Martin/CNET

"It's a partner for everyday tasks to help keep you healthy," Gary Lee, Samsung senior vice president and head of the company's AI efforts, said during the press conference. "Family members ... can check on your well-being even from far away."

Along with Samsung Bot Care, there will be the Samsung Bot Air, Samsung Bot Retail and Samsung GEMS. The Bot Air uses sensors to detect the precise source of pollution and to purify air. The Bot Retail personalizes the retail experience and streamlines order-taking and other tasks. GEMS, which appears to be worn on one's legs, assists with walking, helps improve mobility and helps athletes train. 

For the Digital Cockpit in cars, Bixby will let drivers remotely check how much gas they have before going on a long road trip or to set the car temperature before heading out for the day. Using onboard cameras, the new Digital Cockpit recognizes drivers and passengers and sets up the car's personal space accordingly -- adjusting the display preferences, seat height, lighting and queuing up favorite playlists. Passengers can even enjoy personalized screens on the rear seats and connect to In-vehicle Samsung DeX to get work done on the go. 

Samsung on Monday also talked up partnerships with third-party companies for Bixby. Uber and Ticketmaster already use Bixby to make their services smarter. Now iHeartRadio has joined as a partner, and Samsung said it "will continue to grow as more partners, such as Google, join the ecosystem."

Samsung is "working very closely with Google" to make Google Maps, Gmail, Google Play and YouTube work with Bixby, Samsung's Kim said Monday. 

Along with new areas for Bixby, Samsung unveiled its core priorities when it comes to AI: fairness, accountability and transparency. 

"As it works to advance AI technology, Samsung is committed to ensuring the algorithms it builds are inclusive, the protection of user information and privacy are top priorities, and it's easy for consumers to understand what the company does with their data and how it is handled," the company said in a press release. 

All the cool new gadgets at CES 2019

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Originally published at 2 p.m. PT
Update at 4:41 p.m. PT:  Added more details from the press conference.

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