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Samsung’s new virtual assistant will make using your phone easier

Google, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft are all known for having smart, artificial intelligence-equipped digital assistants, and now you can add Samsung into that mix. Today, the company has officially announced its own spin on the virtual assistant, and it’s calling it Bixby.

Samsung’s approach to an AI assistant (or “agent,” as the company likes to call them) is a bit different than what you or I might be used to from Siri or Cortana. Instead of being a database that you fire questions at or tell to do specific things, Bixby is meant to be a helper on your device, to make it easier to access to accomplish the litany of tasks that modern gadgets such as smartphones are capable of. A less charitable interpretation might be that Bixby exists to solve one of the most difficult challenges in all of tech: make Samsung’s own poorly designed software and interfaces easier to use.

Bixby will first appear on the Galaxy S8, expected to be announced later this month. The phone will have a dedicated button to launch the assistant, but Samsung says that its initial capabilities will be limited to a handful of preinstalled apps, with others added over time. It will also be limited to just English and Korean at first, though there are plans to add other languages such as Chinese and US Spanish shortly after launch.

How much you’ll get out of Bixby, should you buy an S8, will vary depending on your own needs, and it won’t be super powerful at first. Samsung isn’t providing specifics on how exactly it will work on the phone, but in a blog post announcing the service, it says, “When using a Bixby-enabled application, users will be able to call upon Bixby at any time and it will understand the current context and state of the application and will allow users to carry out the current work-in-progress continuously.” That’s a lot of words to say that Bixby will know what you’re looking at on your screen and provide options to take action on what’s there.

It’s admittedly hard to wrap your head around how exactly Bixby is different from Google Assistant, Siri, Cortana, and others without using it. Dr. Injong Rhee, Samsung’s head of research and development for software and services, says it’s “philosophically different from other agents,” and its purpose is to “change user behavior from just using touch commands.” Bixby is not what you’ll use when you want to check the weather, convert 48 ounces to cups, or find out how old Jake Gyllenhaal is, but it can help you send the picture you’re looking at in your phone’s gallery app to your mom without having to switch apps or type her contact info in.

Dr. Injong Rhee, Samsung’s head of research and development for software and services.
Photo by Dan Seifert / The Verge

“Bixby is an intelligent user interface, emphasis on interface,” says Rhee. “A lot of other agents are focused on being knowledgeable, providing answers to fact-based questions, glorified extensions of search. Bixby is capable of developing a new interface to our devices, or devices that are going to host Bixby.” It’s designed to let you seamlessly switch between voice commands and touch interfaces, and help you along various steps of your task. Samsung says this is different from other assistants, which try to complete every task from start to finish and fail completely if they are unable to. “Bixby will be smart enough to understand commands with incomplete information and execute the commanded task to the best of its knowledge, and then will prompt users to provide more information and take the execution of the task in piecemeal,” explains the company in its blog post. Bixby may not be able to do everything at first, but it will get you as far along as it can in the task before you have to intervene.

Samsung knows it can’t compete with Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and others when it comes to raw machine learning power and putting vast amounts of information at your fingertips, so it’s using Bixby to solve a simpler task that those companies have largely ignored. It’s not hugely different from Google’s efforts with Now on Tap, but Samsung argues that its deeper integration of Bixby within apps will make it more useful and more reliable than prior efforts.

The overarching goal, according to Rhee, is “to make the interface of the phone simpler and more natural to use.” He claims that out of the box, our smartphones can perform over 10,000 tasks, while current digital assistants — he contends — can only do about 100. Samsung’s goal is to have Bixby be able to perform every task that you can do with touch via voice. “Everything you can do with a touch command, you can do with a voice command when using a Bixby-enabled application,” boasts Rhee.

Samsung’s ambitions for Bixby don’t end with the phone, however, and the company envisions the assistant being useful in a whole range of its products, from appliances to TV remotes to wearables. Rhee says that Bixby can work with anything that “has an internet connection and a microphone.” He posits that the assistant could help you make use of all of the complex features and options on modern appliances, such as your washing machine or microwave, many of which often go unused. Since it’s a cloud-based service, its capabilities can carry across devices: you could ask your washing machine to make a call, and it will route the call through the cell phone in your pocket, for example.

Dr. Rhee says the thing that will unite all of these various Bixby-enabled devices is a dedicated hardware button to launch the service. “Having a button solves a lot of problems for us,” says Rhee, noting that it can take care of both launching the assistant and biometrically authenticating the user at the same time, should Samsung decide to combine a fingerprint scanner with it.

There are bigger implications for the Bixby button, too; it can be seen as the bridge between Samsung, the established hardware maker and the ambitions of Samsung, the software and services company. (Bixby Bridge is a literal bridge located about 120 miles south of San Francisco, so the metaphor is perhaps a bit heavy handed.) Rhee notes that a dedicated button moves the assistant away from the “already overloaded” home button, how Siri and Google Assistant are launched, and should increase the adoption rate of it for S8 owners. But it’s a big gamble: if Bixby isn’t able to deliver a great experience every single time, it makes an entire button on your phone’s precious real estate virtually useless.

These are all lofty ambitions and Rhee admits it’s going to take a long time for Bixby to accomplish them all. Samsung is planning to release an SDK for third-party developers to plug into to expand the assistant’s capabilities, but history has shown that just because an SDK exists, there’s no guarantee developers will come running.

Though Bixby is a product of Samsung’s own internal development, the company’s recent acquisition, Viv, will be put to work making Bixby play nice with other third-party services. Viv has a pedigree here: the company was founded by the creators of Apple’s Siri assistant, which had many third-party integrations before it was folded into iOS itself. If there’s a bull case to be made that Bixby will be successful, Viv will be central to it.

Of course, first impressions are everything when it comes to virtual assistants (just ask all the people that tried Siri when it first came out, found it disappointing, and never looked at it again), and Bixby is going to have to deliver if it is going to be as revolutionary as Samsung hopes. Samsung’s first attempt at a voice assistant, the clumsy and slow S Voice, doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence either.

We’ll find out just how good Bixby’s first impressions are in a matter of weeks when the Galaxy S8 debuts.


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