Technology

Samsung’s Unpacked is an opportunity to show us real AI on our phones

Samsung is announcing new phones this week, and they’re going to be the most AI phones that ever AI’ed. That’s not a guess, although it would be an easy one coming off the heels of “Put a ChatGPT on it” CES 2024. No, Samsung is telling us in the loudest ways possible — including putting it on the Sphere, which is the 2024 equivalent of shouting it from the rooftops. But what exactly does AI on a phone look like? So far, it has amounted to a handful of tech demos. This week’s Galaxy Unpacked event is an opportunity to show us the potential of AI on a mobile device. And unlike a washing machine with ChatGPT preinstalled, AI could be really useful on our phones.

AI showed up in a big way in 2023, but as a tool on our mobile devices, it’s been kind of a no-show so far. That’s just been the reality of our current technology; the massive language models that power chatbots like ChatGPT simply can’t run on our phones. You can download a ChatGPT app that runs queries in the cloud, but it can’t tell you whether an important email just came in. Things are slowly changing: the Pixel 8 Pro arrived in October, capable of running Google’s foundation models on-device, with some AI-powered updates promised later. But so far, only a couple of them have arrived, and they’re a little underwhelming.

A December software update added the ability to use AI to summarize Recorder transcripts — a feature I immediately put to use because I stan the Pixel Recorder app. But it can’t handle long recordings; anything over 10 minutes seems to be off-limits. That ruled out most of my recordings. Video Boost arrived in the same update, billed as Night Sight for videos. It’s fine, but the effects aren’t as dramatic as Night Sight is for still photos, and you might have to wait an hour or two for your video while it’s processed in the cloud.

Still, there’s something more promising in the works. At that Pixel launch event late last year, Google announced Assistant with Bard, its ChatGPT-style AI chatbot. Bard hasn’t been the very most impressive AI out of the gate, but it’s been steadily gaining useful capabilities — transforming it into an assistant that’s capable of carrying out much more complex tasks than setting a timer would be a step in the right direction. And judging by Samsung’s Unpacked teaser visuals, Bard might have something to do with this week’s announcements.

Could the Galaxy S24 series launch with some version of Bard? Where would Bixby be in all of this? Remember Bixby? It would seem unusual for Google to launch its AI showpiece with a competitor’s phone, but then again, Samsung sells more Android phones than Google by a wide margin. The AI era might turn these frenemies into even closer collaborators.

a:hover]:text-gray-63 [&>a:hover]:shadow-underline-black dark:[&>a:hover]:text-gray-bd dark:[&>a:hover]:shadow-underline-gray [&>a]:shadow-underline-gray-63 dark:[&>a]:text-gray-bd dark:[&>a]:shadow-underline-gray”>Photo by David Pierce / The Verge

There’s clearly a lot more that AI can be doing on our phones, and the clearest vision of this future so far didn’t come from Google or Samsung. It actually wasn’t a phone at all — it was the Rabbit R1, CES 2024’s breakaway hit. It’s a little Teenage Engineering-designed gadget that acts as an AI assistant for your phone. You grant it access to your apps and accounts and then ask it to do things like book a flight or order a pizza. Rather than opening apps and tapping through menus, it will allegedly do the grunt work for you. The dream!

It’s compelling, even if it seems likely to be gobbled up by phones themselves in the future. But if you’re looking for an indication of how ready people are to enlist AI to help manage their digital lives, look no further than the tens of thousands of people who preordered the R1 within the first week. 

Clearly, we’re ready to take a break from the tedious work of tapping on our phones all day long — will the Galaxy S24 show us what that future looks like? Or will it be just another tech demo?

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