How Google Can Give Samsung a Brain

Jon Markman

It turns out that making a digital voice assistant people actually want to use is really hard work. That’s good news for Google, and kick in the rear for everyone else.

Samsung is considering dropping Bixby, its much maligned voice assistant, according to a Reuters report July 29. The move would erase four years of development, while elevating Google on most of the world’s smartphones.

When Samsung purchased Viv Labs in 2016 it was supposed to push the South Korean electronics giant over the top in the artificial intelligence wars. Viv founders created Siri, iPhone’s voice assistant. However, when Bixby debuted two years later it was a complete bust.

Despite its impressive pedigree, the software quickly built a reputation for being flaky.

A Reddit forum devoted to hating on Bixby is 151,000 members strong. And when Samsung, in 2019, put a dedicated Bixby button on its Galaxy smartphones, DYI hackers immediately showed users how to turn it off. Now Samsung may be turning off the whole thing, permanently.

That idea is supported by the departure of several key Viv staff during the past month, according to LinkedIn. Viv’s senior engineer for development, lead conversation designer, its manager of developer relations, and Adam Cheyer, co-founder, have all moved on.

Moving on from Bixby makes perfect sense for Samsung, too.

The Google Assistant is widely recognized as the smartest voice AI, and it is built into Android, the operating system used on every Samsung device. I have Assistant on my Google Pixel phone and Sonos speakers and use it numerous times a day as it is sensational. Adding Assistant to Galaxy phones would greatly improve user experiences. It might also come with a sizeable dowry.

Alphabet ((GOOGL) -Get Report), Google’s parent company, reportedly pays Apple ((AAPL) -Get Report) as much at $9 billion per year to be the default search engine on iPhones. During the first quarter of 2020, Samsung was the world’s leading smartphone vendor, with 20% market share, versus 14% for Apple. Paying up to secure placement on Galaxy devices would be a no-brainer for Google. It would give the Mountain View, Calif.-based company a stranglehold on mobile voice search.

That, however, would only be the beginning of what is possible. Google is building an entire ecosystem around Assistant. More data means better algorithms, and ultimately more applications.

Google software engineers have been tinkering with language processing since 2010 when Apple acquired Siri. Since they have harnessed the full power of the company. Assistant’s responses today are the product of machine learning gleaned from countless millions of interactions with Android smartphone users. Assistant gets a little bit smarter with every query, every reply.

In the spring of 2018 Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive officer, showed off Duplex at the company developer conference. Stunned software engineers gasped as Assistant called a hair salon, then booked an appointment for a client. The software had all of the intonations of a human. The salon worker had no idea she was not talking with a person.


When the software rolled out to Google Pixel smartphones later that year, Duplex came bundled as a call screening service. The voice assistant picks up calls from unfamiliar phone numbers, then like the best secretary ever, begins asking the caller about the reason for the call. A real-time transcript of the conversation appears on the smartphone screen.

It’s not difficult to see the where Google is headed with AI voice. The goal is to collect as much data as possible, then build software that learns, thinks and sounds enough like humans to make people comfortable. The possible business applications for such a tool are unlimited.

For example, Verizon ((VZ) -Get Report) and Google in July announced a pilot program to implement AI software for natural language recognition at Verizon customer service centers.

Google is beating the pants off its AI competitors because the company collects the most data, and has the best engineering talent working on the problem. Collecting data from Samsung, even for a big fee, furthers the lead.

Mary Meeker, a legendary internet analyst, in 2016 correctly predicted that voice would become integral to the way people interact with technology. Four years later voice searches are soaring and consumers are inundated with voice controlled smart speakers and automated home devices.

Buy Alphabet shares into weakness. Voice AI is a big story with virtually unlimited potential. 

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