Oct 06, 2017

Samsung preps an Indianised voice assistant different from what it built for 200 countries

BYSunny Sen

In April, when Samsung launched Bixby, its artificial intelligence-based voice assistant, in 200 countries, India was strangely not on its list. The Korean brand is the highest selling smartphone brand in the country but the company launched Bixby for India only in September.
Samsung had a good reason. It was quietly building an Indianised version of Bixby to cater to the local market, making India the only country in the world to have a tailor made voice assistant, two sources have told FactorDaily.
“The whole thing about the algorithm, the whole Indianisation was done in Samsung Research Institute, Bangalore. We are working on Bixby for India… The rest of the world, the 200 countries gets Bixby which understands the US accent,” said one of the sources.
Bixby is a relatively new entrant in the world of voice assistants. Apple has Siri, Google has Assistant, Microsoft has Cortana, and Amazon has Alexa. If that’s not enough, India’s Reliance Jio, the fastest growing mobile phone service in the world, has Hello! Jio.
In September, Samsung announced that Bixby will be available on three of its flagship phones Note8, Galaxy S8 and S8+ in India. All of them come with the customised Bixby. “Keeping in mind the diversity in Indian accents and our commitment to ‘Make for India’, Bixby has been optimised to understand Indian accents,” said a Samsung India spokesperson.

There are many voice assistants in the market now.

The company started working on the local version of Bixby almost at the same time when the company started developing it globally, almost two years ago. “India’s Bixby should be able to understand Indian accent,” said the first source. The team that works on Bixby is part of Samsung India’s 12,000 odd member R&D team, which is less than one-fifth of Samsung’s 70,000-strong workforce in India.

Bixby’s India roots

He also added that the same team was co-working with the Korean research and development centre to bring out the global voice assistant. “Lot of a portions of Bixby were made here,” he said.
The second source said that the main reason for Samsung to have an Indianised version is to build Bixby into other products that the company sells in India such as refrigerators, washing machines and microwave ovens. “The phones are the tip of the iceberg… If Samsung can bring the Bixby to a large number of devices in an emerging market like India – that will be a game changer for the company,” the source said.
According to IBEF, the consumer durable industry in India, compounding at 13% for over a decade, was worth $12.5 billion in 2016-17 and is expected to touch $20.6 billion by 2020.
Global research firm IDC estimates Samsung has a 24% share in India’s smartphone market, as of the second quarter of 2017.

Capitalising on the market

Samsung wants to make full use of its presence in India – especially when it comes to training the assistant. The company has a huge call centre operation in India, where hundreds of thousands call from different parts of the country for product queries and complaints. All these calls are recorded, which are then exposed to Bixby for training.
Almost every state in India has its own language, which also influences the way the people speak English. For example, the way a Tamil Nadu resident speaks English is different from someone in West Bengal.

“Bixby in the phone is also another way to train the voice assistant,” said the second source. “The more the person speaks to Bixby, the better it learns… It is a continuous process.” The source added: “All other countries have got the Bixby that is rolled out with the US accent understanding.”
Bixby, however, is not the only assistant to understand Indian languages. Google voice search that integrates with Assistant in nine languages. The search giant has been training its Assistant in neural machine translation, which translates whole sentences with context, mimicking the human brain and not just words.
Amazon wants Alexa to be a part of people’s homes and perform tasks. Microsoft has similar ambitions with Cortana. In a recent development, Alexa and Cortana joined hands to be able to interact with each other to further deepen the voice assistants’ training.

Bixby is just the beginning

The first source said that Bixby is part of Samsung’s larger plans to get make appliances and devices talk to each other as a part of its Internet of Things (IoT) philosophy. “Its IoT and then Bixby. The idea is to begin with Bixby,” he said.
“It’s a marathon in a sense that it is not just this device, it is on all the devices we actually build out there,” Injong Rhee, executive vice-president and head of R&D, software and services, Samsung Electronics told Wired. Bixby just needs a microphone patched to the internet to operate.
Rhee is confident that Bixby has better chances to win the voice assistant race. “As a manufacturer, we cannot just say Google Assistant come into the refrigerator, washing machine and our robo-vacuum cleaner. They don’t know how to do this. We are the manufacturer, we know all the functions in there and how to embed things,” he told Wired.
The company is also planning to allow third-party manufacturers to use Bixby for their phones, televisions and refrigerators. “Think about LG or Intex or Micromax or IFB coming with a Bixby voice assistant…,” said the second source.
Samsung didn’t give many details of Bixby’s India evolution. “We will continue to listen to our consumers and come up with more features and services that will enrich their lives,” said the company spokesperson.

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Sunny Sen is a writer of FactorDaily.