Competition heats up to take lead in AI initiative at Samsung


Artificial intelligence is an immediate challenge for South Korean electronics behemoth Samsung Electronics, which is still lacking AI specialists and relevant technologies in its transition from a hardware-oriented technological focus to software. 

Vice Chairman Kwon Oh-hyun’s departure from the company next year sends Samsung the serious message that the Korean IT company — whose growth has been largely supported by its chipmaking unit for the past three decades — should find something other than hardware products to achieve new growth.

Kwon had said in a speech, “Samsung is in desperate need of breakthroughs for new growth.” 

As Samsung unveiled at a forum through Young Sohn, chief strategy officer and up-and-coming leader in the group, in California, the IT gadget manufacturer is expanding investments in new information and communication technology fields to acquire technologies and human resources in the following areas: AI, the Internet of Things, digital health care and data. 

Chief among them is AI, according to pundits, who say that this area remains Samsung’s weakness in an era of voice-activated, deep learning-based smartphones. 

How the tech giant, which specializes in memory chips and smartphones, catches up with big data moguls like Google and Amazon in the ongoing race for AI will determine the fate of Korea’s No. 1 IT business for the next 10 years, experts say.

Such vulnerability was shown when Samsung unveiled its first AI program Bixby this year, which, despite high expectations, was criticized for poor accuracy in speech recognition and comprehension of foreign languages such as English.

“Samsung wouldn’t deny it is far behind Google and Amazon in AI running on cloud and big data,” said Yoo Hoi-joon, a professor at the Korea Institute of Advanced Technology. “The company seems to have just launched a drive to build AI capabilities at each business division.” 

“Samsung has been lacking AI specialists and there is currently no senior executive with expertise in voice recognition,” said Chang Joon-hyuk, professor at Hanyang University, citing how the AI workforce at Google developing Google Assistant is 200-strong.

Currently, Bixby is led by the IT and mobile communications division and supported by the Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology and Digital Media & Communications R&D Center. 

SAIT is a center researching on future technologies looking to the distant future — five or 10 years — while DMC R&D Center is aiming to shift the paradigm of electronics within one or two years.

SAIT is led by chip expert Chung Chil-hee, while the DMC R&D Center is headed by Kim Chang-yong specializing in 5G, 3-D technologies and digital media. 

And multiple divisions at Samsung are in competition to take initiative in the AI drive. 

While the company’s IT and mobile communications division is recognized for initiating the AI drive with Bixby introduced on Galaxy S8 smartphones, the consumer electronics (CE) and semiconductor businesses are also showing efforts to take over the initiative.

In September and this month, CEO Yoon Boo-keun of the CE unit and CEO Shin Jong-kyun of the IT and mobile unit, separately held forums on AI with global scholars to learn technological trends and find applicable measures for Samsung’s home appliances and mobile products. 

The CE unit has been seen enhancing research on AI with Digital Media & Communications R&D Center to shift the current focus on the Bixby-led AI initiative to home appliances ranging from smart TV to refrigerator.

Connecting all Samsung household products among themselves and with mobile devices is an ultimate task of the CE division to realize Samsung’s smart home ambition. 

In this sense, AI is also a challenge for the CE unit to take on.

Based on cutting-edge semiconductor manufacturing technologies, Samsung’s system large-scale integration business is also currently focusing efforts to develop AI chipsets that will enhance computing in mobile devices. 

The chipmaking unit is confident that Samsung’s originality comes from hardware, and hopes not to lose out in the AI competition.

To this end, Samsung’s investment unit has invested $30 million in UK-based Graphcore and $40 million in China-based DeePhi Tech to support the research on hardware-level AI.

According to a Samsung official, one chief concern is that there is still no control tower for the AI initiative within the company. 

“In the absence of the de facto leader (Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong), the company doesn’t yet have one (a particular head or organization) to take the lead in AI,” the official said. “SAIT, DCM R&D Center and each business division are separately preparing for AI,” but they would need a clear control tower to create better synergy, the official said. 

In an apparent move to move forward, Rhee In-jong, the head of the mobile division who was responsible for the rollout of Bixby, was replaced earlier this month by Chung Eui-suk, formerly Samsung Research America’s vice chief, to lead the voice assistant, under Samsung’s mobile chief Koh Dong-jin.

The mobile division, meanwhile, continues to focus on improving the voice-activated Bixby. It unveiled an upgraded Bixby 2.0 last week. 

“Despite the challenges lying ahead, Samsung will continue to push for developing Bixby as it will pave the way for future business by collecting data and connecting its products,” said Kim Duk-jin, vice president of Korea-Insight Institute. “Samsung will be able to develop new products and services by analyzing their consumer spending patterns and needs.”

During the Samsung Developer Conference held on Oct. 18, Samsung said a more open and compatible Bixby will be applied into its smart TV and refrigerator next year and plans to expand the voice assistant into all of its appliances eventually. 

The firm also unveiled its plan of “Project Ambience” that will allow users to experience artificial intelligence technologies anywhere. When a chip or a small piece of hardware, called a dongle, is attached to any devices or automakers beyond Samsung’s own products they will be connected to Bixby.

Samsung is also reportedly stepping up its efforts to develop AI-powered news services integrated with Bixby in the hope of applying them into its Galaxy series. Industry sources say Samsung’s investment in local social network service Cyworld in August is related to launching its own AI-powered news services.