Samsung made a bold proclamation at CES 2015. Within five years, every Samsung product would be internet-connected, then co-CEO B.K. Yoon declared. Not only would its phones and TVs be smart, but also its washing machines, ovens and a myriad of other electronics.
Fast-forward to CES 2020. Samsung's head of electronics is again hosting a keynote at the world's biggest tech show. This time around, the chief is H.S. Kim. At last year's CES, Kim said that Samsung has a "bold vision to take a half a billion devices we sell every year and make them connected and intelligent."
Kim's likely not going to stand on stage and say Samsung has accomplished this goal, but the company could have something even more innovative to share: a new, secretive artificial intelligence program called Neon.
Five years ago, "we were still on the high of the internet of things and [the belief that] everything was going to have sensors," Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi said. The reality, she said, is that what's more important is "what the things that are connected allow you to do."
Samsung is among the tech giants that have been making a big push to make our devices smarter. The so-called internet of things, or IoT, embraces the notion that everything around us should communicate and work together. The aim is to make life easier, letting us do things like close our garage doors while we're away or get an alert from our refrigerators when we're out of milk. But many of our devices still don't talk to each other, and they're often not as smart as promised.
Today, "the majority" of Samsung devices have Wi-Fi and Bluetooth links, but it turns out that some things, like various home appliances, don't need to be connected to the internet at all. And the things that are connected need to go about it in a smarter way. It's not enough that devices have Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connections. They also have to be able to do things that actually help users.
That's where one of Samsung's possible 2020 CES announcements comes in: a mysterious new artificial intelligence initiative called Neon. Little is known about the program beyond the fact it's run by Pranav Mistry, the Samsung research exec who in October was named CEO of Samsung's Bay Area-based Technology and Advanced Research Labs (STAR Labs).
Neon has its own social media platforms, where it has tweeted out logos and teasers, and its LinkedIn page says that it's "bringing science fiction to reality" and has "the mission to imagine and create a better future for all."
Samsung will host a keynote at 6:30 p.m. PT on Monday at CES in Las Vegas. While it will show off its upcoming crop of TVs and other electronics at the trade show, Samsung likely will use the keynote to think bigger and lay out its vision for the coming year and beyond.
As part of that, it's expected to unveil Neon, though it's unclear when Neon's aims will become a reality. Neon's website, neon.life, features a countdown clock that's timed for midnight on January 7.
"As we look ahead, we know people want more," Kim wrote in a blog post on Thursday. "Not simply more things, but more experiences that make these new technologies increasingly meaningful in their lives."
The company declined to comment about Neon, and it didn't have further comment about CES or 2020 beyond Kim's blog post.
As companies like Google, Amazon and, yes, Samsung have discovered, the key to actually making smart devices useful is packing in artificial intelligence, typically in the form of voice assistants. Every tech heavyweight is investing in these assistants because they're heralded as the future of how we'll interact with our gadgets. The ultimate promise for the smart technology is to predict what you want before you even ask — but in most cases, the digital assistants just aren't smart enough yet.
Two years ago, Samsung said it would spend $22 billion on AI by 2020 and would employ 1,000 AI specialists by the same time frame. It has opened AI centers around the globe to work on solving problems for making technology smarter.
Most of Samsung's efforts in AI have revolved around Bixby, which first arrived in 2017's Galaxy S8. The digital assistant has since made its way to smart TVs, refrigerators, washers, air conditioners, speakers and more. Samsung previously aimed to put Bixby voice controls into every device it sells by 2020.
As with bringing connectivity to everything, it appears that Samsung has fallen short of that goal. Samsung declined to say what percentage of its devices are internet connected beyond Kim writing that the "majority" of Samsung products are smart.
"AI will truly transform every experience we have with consumer electronics," Eui-Suk Chung, Samsung's head of software and AI, said during the Samsung Developer Conference in 2018. "With Samsung, Bixby is our singular commitment to AI. We believe Bixby fundamentally changes how people use technology and what they can do with AI."
So far, though, Bixby has lagged behind Amazon's Alexa and Google's Assistant both in terms of market share and capabilities. Some analysts have questioned whether Bixby will ever catch up, even with Samsung's money and might behind it.
Neon could represent Samsung's next effort in AI, though it's unclear how it will interact — or not — with Bixby. The company on Christmas tweeted that "contrary to some news, NEON is NOT about Bixby, or anything you have seen before."
Mistry, meanwhile, said in an interview with Indian business news publication Mint that AI "has many years of development to go before science fiction becomes reality," hinting that Neon may not produce technology that's immediately available. It's likely whatever Neon announces won't be reality for some time. Mistry did give some other clues about Neon's ambitions, though.
"While films may disrupt our sense of reality, 'virtual humans' or 'digital humans' will be reality," he told Mint in late December. "A digital human could extend its role to become a part of our everyday lives: a virtual news anchor, virtual receptionist or even an AI-generated film star."
The "Age of Experience"
Samsung, meanwhile, believes we're starting a new era of technology, something Kim dubbed "the Age of Experience" in a blog post Thursday. The key for this new era, he said, is giving users "personalized technology."
"The devices you use will understand you as an individual, blurring the boundaries between the digital and physical worlds, and changing the way you interact with your cities and communities," he wrote.
And "instead of changing your routine to incorporate more devices, your devices will work seamlessly for you," Kim added. "Just imagine how much more you could accomplish with an intelligent companion that supports you, instantly reacting to your needs."
For Samsung, that starts in 2020. While CES isn't a big mobile show, some of the big bets the company took last year will be key in its efforts to make our devices smarter. That includes 5G, the super-fast mobile technology that launched in 2019. While 5G had some hiccups last year, it's expected to become mainstream in 2020.
At the same time, Samsung believes that its efforts in AI and the internet of things will help it "lead in this Age of Experience," according to Kim.
"At Samsung, we see a future of opportunity," he wrote. "With the emergence of AI and IoT, finally enabled by the power of 5G, the start of 2020 marks a moment where the realization of our vision for a intelligently connected world becomes a reality."
We'll find out Monday just what it has in store.
This article originally appeared on CNET.