The next computing revolution: AI assistants

Smartphones have dominated the last ten years of computing, but we’re on the cusp of the next big platform: voice-activated virtual assistants, powered by artificial intelligence.

While the smartphone isn’t going away, you’ll soon be able to interact with many more devices thanks to assistants like Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa.

All the big technology companies – Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft – are building assistant platforms. But perhaps the most promising is Samsung, which just announced a new AI version of its Bixby assistant.

Bixby 2.0 includes the integration of software called Viv. If you haven’t heard of Viv, it was created by the same people who developed Siri.

After selling Siri to Apple in 2010, the founders eventually left Apple and started a new company: Viv Labs. Their goal was to create a better version of Siri, this time using advanced artificial intelligence.

Viv Labs was acquired by Samsung last October, before it had even released a product. Now, a year later, Viv is finally seeing the light of day. And it won’t just be on smartphones. At a developer conference last month, Samsung chief product officer Gilles BianRosa announced that Bixby 2.0 will be integrated into its TVs next year. And that’s just the beginning.

One advantage Samsung has over its competition is the variety of hardware it sells. As well as smartphones, tablets and TVs, Samsung is a leading brand for washing machines, refrigerators, dishwashers and other household appliances. Expect all these to have Bixby added in the near future.

Samsung is also looking beyond its own range of hardware. As part of its initial push for Bixby 2.0 next year, it’ll be releasing a special dongle that plugs into everyday devices. The dongle will contain a microphone and wi-fi connectivity, enabling it to turn a dumb device into a smart object.

As if colonising all your household devices isn’t enough, Samsung will release a software development kit (SDK) for Bixby 2.0. This will allow third party companies to integrate the assistant directly into their products.

Samsung isn’t the only one doing this. Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa have already released SDKs. So far they’ve been used to integrate a voice assistant into TVs, dishwashers and even home robots.

Despite the competition, the Viv team could be the difference for Samsung. Viv’s founders not only pioneered assistant technology, with Siri, they’re also big thinkers about its future.

Viv’s chief architect, Adam Cheyer, often talks about the voice assistant platform being the next big paradigm in computing. According to Cheyer, paradigm shifts in computing tend to happen once a decade. In the eighties, it was the PC and Microsoft Windows. In the nineties, the Web. About ten years ago, smartphones shook up the computing landscape once again.

Cheyer thinks the next big thing is assistants. He imagines that before long, each one of us will have a single virtual assistant. It will be personalized to you and, unlike with the smartphone revolution, it won’t be restricted to one device.

But the assistant revolution won’t happen until thousands of third party services start using it as a platform. That’s what happened in each of the previous eras. One example: music software started out as a floppy disk (or perhaps a CD-ROM) in a PC, then it migrated to a website on the Web, and then it became a smartphone app (Spotify being the most popular at present).

In the assistant revolution, a company like Spotify will use that technology to allow you to access and interact with your music anywhere and everywhere. If you’re in your living room, it’ll be through speakers; if you’re in your car, through your car stereo; if you’re at the gym, through your phone and a pair of headphones; and so on.

Of course, this has already started to happen. If I’m at the gym, I can tell Siri to open bluetooth on my phone and start playing Bob Dylan. Sure enough, my wireless headphones will automatically connect to my phone and I’ll hear Dylan’s craggy voice. So the technology already works, although it’s inconsistent and Siri has a limited range of voice commands at this time.

Once virtual assistants mature, the kinks will get ironed out. But more importantly, assistants will become capable of performing more complex tasks.

Assistants will also get to know you extremely well and learn your unstated preferences. That’s where Samsung’s Viv may have an edge. Viv is reported to have “a patented exponential self learning system,” enabling it to rapidly teach itself based on input from both you (the user) and all those third parties.

In a year or two, perhaps your Bixby or Siri will know from past experience that, actually, you prefer Lorde at the gym and not Dylan. Or even better, it’ll offer up something you’ve never heard before – which miraculously makes you run faster or pump iron harder. All thanks to its clever AI software.

At least that’s the vision of Samsung, Apple, Google, Amazon and Microsoft. Any one of which could become the Windows or iPhone of the AI assistant generation.