Samsung pushes Bixby into robots, cars at CES 2019

Samsung is putting its Bixby digital assistant in a range of devices, from smart TVs to appliances and AI speakers. 

John Kim/CNET

Samsung’s gearing up to supercharge Bixby through various partnerships and a move into new areas like robotics. 

The digital assistant will help people manage their health routine using robots or check to see if their car’s gas tank is full, Samsung  Monday during its press conference at CES in Las Vegas. Apps like Google Maps and Gmail will soon work with the digital assistant, and Bixby will be able to do even more on Samsung’s smart refrigerators and washing machines, like searching inside iTunes and on live TV. 

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. 

“We have a bold vision to take a half of 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 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 timeframe it’s given for making all of its products internet-connected and integrated with Bixby.

For Samsung and numerous others, artificial intelligence is the next big wave of computing. 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 the 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 still 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 gadgets

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

This year, Samsung said Bixby will be embedded in its 2019 QLED and premium TVs, and smart appliances like refrigerators, washers, as well as 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 users 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. 

Bixby will be part of Samsung’s new “Digital Cockpit” and robotics platforms. 

Robots galore

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. 

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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 wellbeing 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 purify air. The Bot Retail personalizes the retail experience and streamlines order and other tasks. GEMS, which appears to be worn on one’s legs, assists with walking, helps improve mobility and helps athletes better 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 set the car temperature before heading out for the day. Using onboard cameras, the new Digital Cockpit recognizes specific 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 new 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’ 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. 

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

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