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28 June 2017

Samsung Bixby is promising, but Siri has nothing to worry about

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Bixby is no Siri killer.

One looks out on the world while the other looks in. That is one difference between Samsung’s Bixby digital assistant and Apple’s Siri. The other is that Siri shows the polish of six-plus years of development and AI growth, while Bixby has all the earmarks of still-under-construction project.

While Siri is focused on the world of information and intelligence it can glean from outside sources, with a an increasing amount of internal control, Bixby is a navel-gazer, focused primarily on understanding everything you can do via touch on a Samsung Galaxy S8 (and S8+) and transforming it into something you can do via speech.

A hobbled version of Bixby launched with the Samsung Galaxy S8 in April. It was useful primarily for scanning in products and codes and not much else.

Over the past couple of weeks, however, Samsung has opened a more functional, listening, and speaking Bixby to a small group of Samsung Galaxy S8 owners. I’m in that group and now I’ve had the full (or should I say fuller?) Bixby experience. 

In short, Samsung’s digital assistant is, at times, inspiring, and, at others, painfully disappointing.

I expect that disappointment to fade over time, though, because, like most good artificial intelligence, Bixby is a learning system. On device, it learns how I speak and, off device, takes anonymized intelligence from a growing number of users to improve its response and abilities.

Those abilities are focused almost entirely on accessing apps, functions, and intentions on the phone and, ultimately, every single smart Samsung device.

Bixby at work.

Bixby at work.

Unlike other voice assistants that started on the phone and only slowly migrated to other products and platforms, Samsung’s Bixby strategy is a comprehensive one with an omnipresent Bixby that follows your from one device to another. Eventually, you’ll be sending a text through your refrigerator and checking email on your washing machine.

Eventually, you’ll be sending a text through your refrigerator and checking email on your washing machine.

But that’s the future. For now, Bixby understands a lot about the Samsung Galaxy S8 and the context of your requests and is capable of completing multi-task requests like, “Call Lance and turn on the speaker phone.” (Yes, Siri can do this, too.)

The Samsung Galaxy S8 comes with a dedicated Bixby button on the right-hand side. I used it for a while, but found that when I squeezed the phone to press the Bixby button, I often inadvertently pressed the sleep button on the other side. Fortunately, you can activate Bixby Voice Wake-Up, which lets me say “Hi Bixby” and then try whatever command I want. Through Bixby, I can access and control virtually any setting, including those buried under Advanced Settings, like Smart Stay, which keeps the phone on when you’re looking at the screen.

Samsung execs told me that the broader goal with Bixby is to increase the utility of the phone’s advanced functions (often buried under layers of menus and settings) by making them accessible via voice. 

It’s an admirable goal, but to get the most out of Bixby, you must first learn how to speak to the digital assistant. Bixby responded perfectly when I told it to show me the third photo in my Gallery, but it didn’t understand when I said, “Lower my brightness a lot.”

Bixby may not be all that smart right now, but it's constantly -- especially with your help -- learning.

Bixby may not be all that smart right now, but it’s constantly — especially with your help — learning.

Samsung is also a bit more transparent about how Bixby learns than Apple is with Siri.

Samsung is also a bit more transparent about how Bixby learns than Apple is with Siri.

I tried again with, “lower my brightness to 25%.” Jackpot. It worked perfectly. This is also, by the way, something Siri can do. 

Bixby is most effective with native Samsung apps and phone features. For example, if I wanted to crop the last photo I took, I could simply say to Bixby, “I want to crop my last photo,” and it opens the photo and the editing tools for cropping the image.

It’s capabilities do extend beyond native apps via the opt-in Bixby Labs, which, when enabled, adds support for third-party apps like Twitter and Instagram. 

The Instagram integration worked okay. When I said, “Take a screenshot and post on Instagram,” Bixby grabbed my current screen and composed an Instagram post, asking me to fill in the caption. Even though I can separately ask Bixby to take a photo, a panorama or a selfie, I could not get it to take a selfie and use that to compose a new Instagram post. 

I could also open Twitter with my voice, but when I said, “Let’s compose a Tweet” Bixby opened the Clock.

Bixby’s utility was often up-ended by inaccurate speech recognition and there are reports that the chief delay in releasing Bixby broadly has been understanding English. Even though it has me as a contact in the phone, Bixby never understood my last name (Apple’s Siri has it down pat).  In addition, Bixby had a bad habit of cutting off the beginning of my requests.

At other times, I’d say something like, “Let’s create a GIF” and Bixby would brightly respond with, “Here you go!” while doing nothing.

But here’s the interesting thing about Bixby. It is learning. When Bixby can’t fully complete a request, it presents a menu of options and it also often asks you to rate its response. What you choose and how you rate Bixby will help define how that request works in the future.

On my second attempt at making a GIF, Bixby switched the screen to video recording. It wasn’t exactly what I wanted, but it’s a start.

For every successful or near-successful request, there was a miscommunication or dead end.

I’m still excited by Bixby’s potential.

I was disappointed that when I asked Bixby to play music, it responded that it couldn’t do that right now, instead of at least offering the option to select a music genre in Google Play.

Bixby’s gaze can turn outward. I used it to search and set location-based reminders, both of which it handled without issue. When I told it to remind me of a task when I reached work, Bixby smartly asked me to supply a work address.

Samsung’s digital assistant enters the world knowing more about its residence (the phone) than Siri did when it launched six years ago on the iPhone 4S. However, what Bixby can do today no longer seems so remarkable when compared to today’s Siri. Ask Siri, for example to take a selfie. Yup, it can do that. 

If Samsung wants to catch Apple in the digital assistant space, Bixby needs to get smarter and become a much better listener. 

Even so, I’m still excited by Bixby’s potential.

By design, Bixby’s abilities should, ultimately, match the smartphone’s beat for-beat and, if Samsung is successful, extend beyond what we usually think of as “devices” and into a world of chatty home appliances. It’s a vision others are trying to fulfill by building their AI voice assistants into home hubs like Google Home and Apple HomePod, but that Samsung could complete by putting Bixby in everything else.

Bonus: Samsung Galaxy S8 travel guide

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