Not-So-Artificial Intelligence

It seems like every day another company launches their own AI-driven virtual assistant. ‘Fido: The AI assistant for your Wi-Fi-enabled smart dogfood dispenser.’ Just another app in the lineup behind the Alexa’s, Siri’s, and Watsons of the world.

At this year’s CES, Samsung’s STAR Labs debuted a completely different take on the virtual assistant that’s as impressive as it is uncanny. It’s called NEON, the first “artificial human,” and each one is a unique computationally-created avatar that starts from a human-first approach. Platforms that employ behavioral neural networks, evolutionary generative intelligence, and computational reality provide the lifelike experience — which I wholeheartedly accept because those are some fancy words. “We have always dreamed of such virtual beings in science fictions and movies,” said STAR Labs CEO Pranav Mistry.


These Neons don’t have clever techy names. They’re named and rendered just like people. Karen, the airline worker. Frank, the architect. Maya, the student. And you talk to them like you would a companion, and they learn and grow based on what you tell them — a function giving off major Her vibes. STAR Labs envisions the Neons to become typical service providers of tomorrow: customer service, financial advisors, healthcare providers, or concierge.

Mr. Mistry claims, “Neon is like a new kind of life. There are millions of species on our planet and we hope to add one more.” Definitely don’t see anything wrong with that kind of ambition — we surely won’t end up in a Terminator, Matrix, or I, Robot situation here.

Sci-fi aside, what’s interesting is the different approach to branding STAR Labs is taking. What the big mainstream assistants all leverage is their corporate-affiliated knowledgebase, presenting themselves as all-knowing sources of information available at a user’s voice command. Google Assistant is great because it’s got Google behind it, and now you can tap into that with your voice. It takes something that already exists and lets the user access it through different, more convenient means. But the Neons act and respond like real people, not just like Samsung with a human face. And their branding follows: you’re not talking to Samsung Avatar-X, you’re talking to Andrew, and he just wants to know how you’re doing because you seem really concerned about something.

Though the technology behind the Neons is still under development and a long way from wider release, it points to a deeper trend we can expect in the coming years. More and more, people are specifically choosing brands that align with their values. “Purpose-driven companies witness higher market share gains and grow three times faster on average than their competitors” reports Deloitte. In essence, consumers are looking to brands an extension of themselves. If I care about the environment, I’ll choose brands that match my values because what I buy reflects who I am. As digital channels fracture and multiply, the brands that will rise to the top are those that embody consumers themselves. For brands to succeed, it means moving from a functional relationship to an emotional relationship — and for AI assistants, it means shifting the focus from utility and efficiency to companionship and creativity.