Samsung Buys AI Startup Founded by Siri Creators

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 06: View of Samsung signage at the official 2016 CFDA Fashion Awards after party hosted by Samsung 837 in NYC on June 6, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for Samsung)

Samsung Electronics Co. said Thursday that it will buy U.S. artificial intelligence company Viv Labs Inc., as the South Korean smartphone giant turns to the creators of Apple Inc.’s Siri service to beef up its own mobile software and services.

The deal, for an undisclosed amount, is Samsung’s fourth U.S. technology company acquisition in a little more than two years, underscoring the technology player’s new willingness to look outside the company to spur innovation, particularly in areas like software, where it has traditionally been weak.

The aim for Samsung is to pack its phones with more eye-popping features to help its premium devices stand out from a pack of competitors, including Apple’s iPhones.

After its acquisition last year of mobile payments startup LoopPay for about $160 million, Samsung adopted the Burlington, Mass.-based company’s technology to launch Samsung Pay, a mobile payment service that rivals Apple Pay.

Samsung is looking to follow a similar model with San Jose, Calif.-based Viv Labs, which was founded four years ago by a team that includes Siri co-creators Dag Kittlaus and Adam Cheyer.

Unlike with Siri, which Mr. Kittlaus sold to Apple in 2010 before departing the company the next year, Mr. Kittlaus took an open-development approach with Viv Labs, allowing third-party developers to contribute new functions and features to the Viv virtual-assistant service.

“Siri and some of the other assistants are Chapter One,” Mr. Kittlaus said in an interview, calling Viv’s open model “the missing ingredient to take this to a completely different level.”

In contrast to Siri, which can offer what Mr. Kittlaus described as “dozens” of features, he said that Viv Labs would allow for “hundreds of thousands” of capabilities. Apple didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Mr. Kittlaus said that the company’s sale to Samsung, the world’s largest maker of smartphones, was a “fast-forward option” on his ultimate goal of helping the service reach “ubiquity.”

“There isn’t another company in the world…with the scale and scope of what Samsung does,” he said.

Samsung will plan to introduce Viv into its smartphones starting in the second half of 2017, said Injong Rhee, chief technology officer at Samsung’s mobile division. Mr. Rhee said that the company eventually hoped to extend Viv to other Samsung devices, including home appliances, ultimately making Viv a part of its entire lineup of products.

Samsung’s move comes amid heightened industry interest in artificial intelligence and virtual assistants as a new frontier for users to seek out information and make decisions. On Tuesday, Alphabet Inc. unit Google introduced a wireless speaker called Home and a digital helper called Google Assistant that aims to integrate artificial intelligence to respond to voice commands.

Mr. Rhee said that there were no plans yet to open up the technology to other handset makers, and that the company hadn’t yet decided whether to keep the Viv name, use a new brand name or introduce Viv’s technology under the name of Samsung’s own homegrown virtual assistant, S Voice.

As with Samsung’s previous acquisitions, Viv Labs and its 30 employees will continue to operate independently from the Suwon, South Korea-based parent, though Mr. Kittlaus will ultimately report up to Mr. Rhee.

Samsung’s buying spree began in August 2014 when it bought SmartThings, a U.S.-based startup that helps connect home appliances to one another, for about $250 million. After buying LoopPay last year, Samsung bought Joyent, a San Francisco-based cloud services company, in June this year.

Samsung and Viv Labs began talking seriously about an acquisition earlier this year, said Jacopo Lenzi, senior vice president at Samsung’s Global Innovation Center, which has been responsible for the recent spate of deals.

Viv had raised venture capital from investors including Horizon Ventures, Iconiq Capital and Pritzker Group Venture Capital.

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