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Samsung’s three new AI research centers are just the beginning

SVP of global research Larry Heck says Toronto, Cambridge, and Moscow are part of the long-term investment to make Samsung devices much, much smarter.

Samsung’s three new AI research centers are just the beginning
[Photo: John Tekeridis/Pexels]

The artificial intelligence arms race among some of tech’s biggest names took another turn this week as Samsung announced the opening of three new research centers in Toronto, Moscow, and Cambridge, England. It continues the company’s push into AI that began back in 2016 with the acquisition of Viv Labs–founded by the creators of Apple’s Siri–to develop its own AI-voice assistant Bixby.

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Samsung’s SVP, head of global research Larry Heck, who joined the company from Google last November, says the new centers represent an acknowledgement that we’re still in the early stages of AI, and there are some grand scientific challenges to be solved so that more people actually start using AI every day: “These challenges are going to need the top AI talent in the world to solve them, so what we recognized is that we need to go to where the talent is,” says Heck. “Toronto is a world-leading center for research, specifically in deep learning and computer vision, and similarly are Moscow and Cambridge. These are the first three, but we’ll be expanding and opening more.”

The three new centers join Samsung’s existing AI-research labs in Seoul and Mountain View, CA. While it does represent a significant boost in the company’s AI investment, don’t expect the results to land in your new phone next year. Heck says the work at these centers will be tackling advanced research problems, far out in front to provide a path forward for Bixby and their other AI efforts. “We’re not ready to announce when that type of capabilities will be available, but we know the priority is high,” says Heck.

Samsung’s move comes just weeks after Facebook announced new AI research labs in Pittsburgh and Seattle, and less than a couple months after Alphabet’s AI subsidiary DeepMind announced a new AI lab in Paris.

With all the hype surrounding AI right now, Heck says that adoption rates are actually pretty slow, largely due to systems not immediately living up to high expectations. The systems are designed to work well when it knows what you want to do, but its utility drops off a cliff when it doesn’t know what you’re asking it to do. “So the personal assistants out there right now would say, ‘I don’t know how to help you, I’m still learning’ and then give up,” says Heck. “I think that alone is a big factor in people seeing AI as not quite ready yet, still working out the kinks.”

These systems need to be leveraging all of their senses and also empowering users to leverage all their senses, like voice, vision, and touch, to learn faster and be more helpful. Heck says one key element that will move AI to being more widely adopted is multi-device systems—i.e., a variety of AI-enabled devices that communicate seamlessly with each other. And with top-selling smart devices that run the gamut of phones, TVs, refrigerators, washers and dryers, he sees Samsung as uniquely positioned to be a leader in that regard. It’s not just how each device uses AI, it’s how they use it together to be more helpful overall.

“This is the next great challenge for the company,” says Heck. “They know it’s not sufficient to only be thinking about the devices, you have to be thinking about the intelligence and AI.”

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About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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