Making virtual assistants smarter with Samsung and Bixby
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Making virtual assistants smarter with Samsung and Bixby

Developers are working hard to make artificial intelligence (AI), well, not so artificial. The next generation of AI-powered voice-assistants won’t just carry out specific, narrow tasks. They’ll be able to converse with and learn from humans directly — and perform more tasks that we traditionally think of as those only people can do.

From conversational voice assistants to connected devices in the home, many exciting AI innovations were recently put on display at the recent 2019 Samsung Developer Conference.

During the program, I spoke with Larry Heck, CEO of Viv Labs and SVP of Samsung, about some of the most fascinating AI features around the corner, and how developers are powering those advancements. Larry also explained to me how Samsung’s next-generation AI voice-assistant Bixby and developer toolkit is just a glimpse of what’s to come.

Machines learning from human beings
Larry has spent decades in the artificial intelligence and speech recognition field, building his first speech recognizer in 1986 and leading research and development at Nuance from 1998 to 2005. To understand where the technology is heading, he says, the definition of AI needs some clarification.

“Intelligence has been defined by many different people,” he explains. “And it depends if you’re thinking about human intelligence or machine intelligence. If a machine is able to do things that normally would be considered in the territory of humans, then you start approaching artificial intelligence.”

He adds that most AI systems we interact with today — from smartphone apps to voice assistants — fall under the category of what’s called narrow AI. With narrow AI, the software can perform specific tasks and functions within pre-defined constraints, similar to how a human might solve very basic problems.

“I think that’s mostly where we’re at today, in the realm of narrow artificial intelligence,” Larry says.

But fast forward 30 years and Larry predicts that AI will be more conversational, with humans active participants in how the AI learns and improves itself. “For example,” he says, “instead of the AI saying ‘I don’t know how to do that. End of conversation,’ it should say ‘I don’t know how to do that. Can you teach me?'”

Larry says AI is evolving. “We are going to have to embrace the notion that this is a conversation,” he continues, “and that the user needs to actively participate in the creation of the AI.”

Developers and users both playing roles
Larry highlighted one of the key developer announcements made at the conference, which focused on real-life conversational voice-assistant functionality in Samsung’s voice assistant, Bixby.

Here’s an example of where voice functionality is headed, he says: “Let’s say you ask the voice assistant embedded in your refrigerator, ‘Hey Bixby, can you give me a recommendation for an anniversary gift for me parents?’ and Bixby says, ‘Okay, how about some flowers?”

But since the gift is for your parents, you tell Bixby that you were thinking a more “traditional” wedding anniversary gift. Except in this context, the AI system may not know precisely what traditional means in the context of what gifts to look for online.

The system would respond, “I don’t know what traditional wedding gifts are. Can you teach me?’ You, the user, would guide the digital assistant: ‘Sure, search for traditional wedding gifts on Wikipedia. Scroll down, scroll down, stop there.”

Bixby can then read the content of the webpage, see what these items are, and quickly process the information. The system might then say: “Okay, I’ll remember that for next time. And since it’s your parent’s 15th anniversary, a good traditional gift might be something with pearl.”

Eventually, that AI machine might communicate its findings to other AI systems across the world so that when another user asks the same question, the system doesn’t have to repeat the same search process.

Bixby tools and the future of developers
One of the big takeaways from the developer conference was how Viv Labs and Bixby are a sign of things to come as it relates to empowering developers to drive the next generation of AI.

“Of course, other assistants have developer tools, but for us it’s our primary focus,” he says. “As a result, I think the innovations you’ll see on the Bixby developer studio will be pretty special.”

If a developer programs an AI application for a Samsung Galaxy phone, for example, Bixby Views allows those functions to be ported to things like a TV or smartwatch with minimal coding.

“You develop for one and then get to use the AI on all devices,” says Larry. “It’s differentiating and compelling from a developer’s perspective, and ultimately the user.”

Bixby’s developer suite and Bixby Views provide a peek around the corner of what AI systems will likely be capable of in the near future. That means not just giving users smarter voice assistants – but actually enabling users to help create new AI solutions.

“I definitely think that’s something coming down the road,” Larry says. “Developers and Ph.D. programs need to focus on this space because it opens up all kinds of other possibilities going down this path of AI creating AI.”

Ultimately, Bixby tools and Samsung’s commitment to developers will help speed the development of conversational AI and software that learns from users.

“The vision is to get both developers and end users involved,” Larry says. “It’s getting to an AI that’s comprehensive across all the things a user wants to do and always there across all devices. We want to make the developer’s job easier and even to the point where users eventually power some development.”

Today, the only way we know to foster human intelligence is through humans teaching humans. Perhaps it is the logical next step that teaching artificially intelligent assistants to be more human – will be a job for humans too.


Over the next several months, we’ll be sharing podcasts weekly from interviews recorded at SDC and Web Summit. You can subscribe to all those conversations on Apple PodcastsGoogle PlaySpotify, or via RSS on your podcast app of choice.

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