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Can AI Reinvent the TV?

Leading television manufacturer Skyworth has signed a strategic cooperation agreement with Chinese internet giant Baidu. In the deal announced March 17, Baidu will invest CN¥1.01 billion (US$159.7 million) in Skyworth's Smart TV unit Coocaa; while its AI assistant system DuerOS will be integrated into Skyworth's agenda-setting Super AI TV.

Leading television manufacturer Skyworth has signed a strategic cooperation agreement with Chinese internet giant Baidu. In the deal announced March 17, Baidu will invest CN¥1.01 billion (US$159.7 million) in Skyworth’s Smart TV unit Coocaa; while its AI assistant system DuerOS will be integrated into Skyworth’s agenda-setting Super AI TV.

A Chinese TV manufacturer for more than 30 years, Skyworth is going through rough times. The company’s domestic TV sales fell 16 percent in 2017, while its global TV sales slipped three percent, part of an industry-wide trend.

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Skyworth Founder Huang Hongsheng (left) and Baidu Founder and CEO Robin Li (right) stand in the back row centre.

The TV has come a long way. Wood cabinets with monochrome cathode ray tubes evolved into HD flat colour screens with remote controls; while channel choices expanded from a handful to thousands. The device’s latest incarnations include so-called Smart TVs, and the latest buzz in the consumer electronics community: the “AI TV” of the future.

While the term “AI TV” may suggest a fully intelligent, Skynet-like TV bot, it rather refers to incorporating machine learning techniques such as facial recognition, voice-controlled assistants, personalized content suggestion, sentiment analysis, etc into the product. AI TV also sounds a lot fancier than Smart TV.

Skyworth believes the AI TV will help them bounce back. The company’s stock price surged by 18 percent after the Baidu agreement was announced.

Not to be outdone by Skyworth, other major global TV makers are jumping on the AI TV bandwagon. At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show Samsung Electronics introduced an AI-applied 85-inch 8K QLED TV, while LG integrated its AI system ThinQ into its new 4K OLED and Super UHD TVs. At February’s Appliance & Electronics World Expo in Shanghai, TCL showcased its X5 TV within facial recognition technique, and Hisense launched its VIDAA AI TV system.

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LG OLED TV with AI ThinQ®

AI TV’s voice-based interface takes the remote control out of the loop. Jing Kun is Baidu Project Manager of DuerOS, a Mandarin-based equivalent of Alexa. He told Synced he believes the TV is one of the most promising application areas for AI assistants. “While people are watching a TV, it’s difficult for them to interact with it. An intelligent voice interaction may be the way to push the user experience to the next level,” says Jing.

Most major TV manufacturers lack the R&D capabilities to build their own voice interaction system from scratch. As a result, they seek joint development agreements with AI tech providers such as Google, Amazon, or Chinese tech giants. LG’s new TVs have added Google Assistant and Alexa. Google Assistant is also in Sony’s X900F. Samsung is integrating its AI assistant Bixby — already available in its phones — into TVs as well.

Another use of AI is to better personalize content recommendations. Though Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Prime and other content providers have their own AI recommendation engines, AI TVs can search across all platforms for actors, titles, genres and other preferences, and tune content recommendations to suit family members.

Alex Haslam, a cord-cutting expert at Utah-based, told Synced, “Today’s viewers value choice, which is why streaming services like Netflix are so popular. Your TV being able to adapt to those choices will enhance the experience.” Scott Amyx, Managing Partner at Amyx Ventures, takes it further: “AI will eventually understand that streamlining preferences vary by day, time, mood, family member and who they are with.”

Today’s AI TVs will know what content was watched, when and for how long, and this data can be sold to advertisers.

But with front-facing cameras and sophisticated algorithms, the AI TV could also know who is watching, and whether for example they appear engaged, or look away during commercials, or even doze off. Amyx told Synced he has spoken with researchers and advertising executives who are continually seeking new ways to get the attention of viewers. “For example, through loud sounds that bring them back to the ad on the screen, a certain pitch of voice, etc.”

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Samsung ES9000 Smart TV with built-in camera

TVs capturing user behavior data has raised concerns about privacy and even risks. Consumer Reports recently discovered that millions of Smart TVs might have security vulnerabilities. Hackers could for example remotely change channels, play offensive content, or crank up the volume. The report suggests Samsung, TCL and other TV makers using the Roku Smart TV platform, as well as streaming devices such as the Roku Ultra, may be affected.

It’s still early to say whether AI TVs will live up to expectations. At present the hype may be greater than the performance. According to the China Electronic Chamber of Commerce and JD Appliance 2017 White Paper on Artificial Intelligence Television, “Some AI TVs can only achieve simple speech interaction, and lack AI-specific ‘cognitive-judgment-decision making’ capabilities.”

Manufacturers believe AI will soon be essential in TVs. Says Skyworth Founder Huang Hongsheng, “In the past, the remote control changed how watchers interact with televisions, so they didn’t have to walk across the room to press a button. Today’s AI can open another new path of convenience and communication, by making a television that ‘gets to know you’.”

Journalist: Tony Peng| Editor: Michael Sarazen

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