Samsung to buy Viv Labs to challenge Google Assistant

AI startup Viv Labs was founded by the team that created Siri, and has a similar conversational interface

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Samsung's Galaxy S7 Active is a fortified version of the Galaxy S7.

Credit: Agam Shah

Samsung Electronics has agreed to buy Viv Labs, an artificial intelligence startup created by Dag Kittlaus, Adam Cheyer and Chris Brigham.

You may not have heard of Kittlaus, Cheyer or Brigham, but if you own an iPhone you've probably spoken with one of their creations, Siri. Apple bought their first startup, a spinoff from SRI International, in 2010. A couple of years later, they left to create Viv.

Samsung's move into AI could be seen as a reaction to Google's launch of a new AI assistant on its Pixel and Pixel XL smartphones on Tuesday.

Like Google Assistant, Viv is designed to answer natural language queries by integrating with a variety of web services. But where Google already has a range of in-house services -- Maps, Gmail, search -- from which to gather context, Viv aims to build an open ecosystem. Many of the useful functions will be delivered by third party developers, a model similar to the one Amazon.com is pursuing for its Echo devices.

Initially, the Viv team planned to sell the service to consumer electronics manufacturers and app developers as a way to give AI capabilities to the Internet of Things.

CEO Kittlaus told TechCrunch back in May that the company's goal was "ubiquity."

Samsung's agreeing to buy the company, though, is going to limit the number of vendors likely to be distributing Viv. Being in every room in the home is still a possibility, though, as in addition to smartphones Samsung also makes TVs, refrigerators, washing machines, air conditioners, microwave ovens and robot vacuum cleaners.

Announcing the deal on Thursday, Samsung said it is committed to virtual personal assistants as part of the company's broader vision to deliver an AI-based open ecosystem across all of its devices and services.

That continuity is good news for developers who had invested in integrating their services with Viv, but finding themselves now tied to Samsung may not be so welcome.

Samsung already has a personal assistant on its smartphones: S Voice. Early versions of this used the Vlingo speech-to-text engine, while more recent ones rely on a speech-to-text service provided by Nuance Communications, the same one used by Viv and which also powered Siri. It hasn't said whether it will replace S Voice with Viv on future phones, or integrate Viv's capabilities into future versions of S Voice.

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