'Artificial intelligence' has become meaningless marketing jargon

Watch out, Android users: A new empty buzzword is in town, and it goes by the initials A.I.

Samsung Bixby - Artificial Intelligence
Credit: Betsy Weber

Well, it was bound to happen.

Over the past several months, smartphone manufacturers have been hungering for a new hook -- a new way to make mobile devices seem fresh, exciting, and wallet-worthy at a point when last year's models still seem perfectly fine to most people.

It's a cycle we've seen in AndroidLand plenty of times before. In the early days, each new iteration of a phone was faster than the last. More cores, more gigahertz -- more digits, damn it!

Then came the display resolution phase. Higher resolution, more pixels, crisper, clearer, even more pixels!

We saw a similar thing with camera quality for a while. Then the superlatives spread to thinness (seriously, how many times have we seen the "thinnest phone ever made"?) -- and lately, they've been zoning in on the non-problem of bezels and screen-to-body ratio.

Like I said, there's always something.

So it should probably come as no surprise, then, that the latest concept device-makers seem intent on driving into the ground is artificial intelligence. A.I. is rapidly becoming the consumer-tech buzzword du jour -- and already, it's basically been stripped of any real meaning.

The reason? Everything imaginable is being branded as "artificial intelligence" right now -- but in actuality, most of the stuff falls somewhere between a repackaging of something old and a parroting of something better.

That doesn't much matter, though -- because boy, oh boy, does it make for good marketing.

The Android A.I. overload

The latest high-profile example just landed on our virtual doorsteps: This week, Samsung revealed plans for Bixby, an A.I.-powered assistant it's planning to bake into its upcoming Galaxy S8 smartphone (and yes, "Bixby" is really what they're calling it).

Per the company's press release:

It will simplify user education with new voice interfaces and will make using your phone even more seamless and intuitive.

Oh. Okay, then.

If you'll allow me to do a little gobbledygook-to-English translation, what Samsung's trying to say is that Bixby will let you get around your phone by speaking. Within supported apps and processes (and that's a key point, because out of the box, Bixby will support only "a subset of preinstalled applications"), Bixby will let you complete "almost any task the application is capable of performing" by using your voice.

Based on what Samsung's saying, it appears Bixby will be more focused on that sort of behavior -- acting as a voice command system for typically touch-oriented actions -- as opposed to trying to be a full-fledged "assistant" in the style of Siri or Google Assistant.

Maybe I'm drastically underestimating how transformative such a system might be, but I can essentially see that covering two types of tasks:

1. Things you can already easily do with Google's own native voice command system

You know, like this -- again, from Samsung's Bixby press release:

For example, instead of taking multiple steps to make a call -- turning on and unlocking the phone, looking for the phone application, clicking on the contact bar to search for the person that you’re trying to call and pressing the phone icon to start dialing -- you will be able to do all these steps with one push of the Bixby button and a simple command.

In other words, another way to say "OK Google, call Mom" -- except with the requirement of a physical button press before you speak. Classic Samsung. (Think S Voice, S Translator, the Samsung music players, Samsung app store, web browser, "hubs," and so on.) This sort of scenario does little more than create unnecessary redundancy and confusion, as we've discussed ad nauseam with these sorts of situations in the past.

2. Things for which the value of having a voice command is questionable

Part of what's supposed to set Bixby apart is the fact that -- again, for the limited range of supported apps -- it'll let you perform practically any function you could accomplish via touch by using your voice instead.

As Philip Berne, a Samsung marketing manager, explained it on Twitter:

Bixby is not Alexa, or Siri. It's an interface. It's meant to [do] everything you could possibly do by touch, but with voice.

My question there is: Why?

There's the obvious accessibility angle -- and that's an area that's extremely valid and overdue for progress. (Google has been working on its own Voice Access hands-free system for similar purposes, but it's been in beta for almost a year and isn't the simplest interface to use.) That doesn't seem to be the angle Samsung's going for with this, though.

And when you set aside that possibility and look at Bixby as a general consumer feature, I'm just not sure when using your voice to get around an app would be genuinely compelling in any broad sense. If you're walking or driving, you (hopefully) aren't looking at your screen and performing intricate actions.

So fringe use-cases aside, when are you going to be looking at an app on your phone but finding it easier or more effective to speak an action aloud rather than simply tapping the command on the screen in front of you? Again, remember: Most actions where that would make obvious sense -- like controlling music playback or performing navigation-related tasks, for instance -- fall under our first category of things you can already do with Android's existing voice command system.

(One possibility: The answer may actually be "rarely" to "never" but that Samsung hopes it can convince you to change your mind -- because Bixby could be a killer new way to get you to stay within the Samsung ecosystem of products. The company says it plans to put Bixby into all of its appliances eventually -- air conditioners, TVs, you name it -- and to evolve it "from a smartphone interface to an interface for your life." In other words, it wants Bixby to be a common thread that ties numerous Samsung products together and gives you a reason to stay committed to that family for a wide range of future purchases.)

Buzz, buzz buzz, buzz buzz buzz buzz

Ultimately, when hearing about "revolutionary" new forms of artificial intelligence for smartphones, we have to ask the same question I posed about specs in 2013: So what? Sure, your new phone's got this-or-that A.I.-powered something -- but so what? What does that actually mean for my life? What makes this phone, this system, this made-for-advertising feature valuable in real-world terms?

I'm using Samsung as an example because it's the latest contender to throw its hat into the A.I.-everything ring, but it's far from the only player in the current buzzword-brandishing game. HTC has its own new A.I.-branded system of questionable value, and LG's been baking the same sort of overhyped crap into its devices for years now. Heck, even Google Assistant -- legitimately useful as it can be -- is mostly just a repackaging and expansion of a few long-familiar services.

To be sure, there is some genuinely impressive and futuristic progress being made in the field of artificial intelligence. Having yet another overlapping way to tell your phone to turn off its Wi-Fi, however, isn't it -- no more so than having a display with "even more pixels" or a phone that was "20% thinner" meant anything of great significance in the past.

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