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Samsung’s new Galaxy S24 translates live phone calls with AI

Does anyone really need an AI-first smartphone? The Korean electronics giant makes its case.

Samsung's Galaxy S24 Ultra remains the biggest — and most expensive — new phone in the company's revised lineup. (Chris Velazco/The Washington Post)
5 min

SAN JOSE — “Hello,” I say. “My father’s 87th birthday is coming up, and I was hoping to make a reservation for Sept. 3 at 9:30 p.m.”

The voice on the other end asks for my name, and I give it to her. Then comes the complication: Dad has a gluten sensitivity, so could they prepare him a gluten-free meal that evening? “Yes, it’s possible,” she says. Except I don’t really hear her say that, because she’s speaking Korean.

The phone I’m using, one of Samsung’s new Galaxy S24 models, which it unveiled Wednesday at an event here, is transcribing my requests and reading them out loud in Korean to the other party. That same process works in reverse to render her responses in English to me. In my years of covering gadgets, this is first time ever I’ve seen a smartphone accurately translate phone calls in real time out of the box, and the results are undeniably impressive — even if I don’t know how often I’d use the feature.

This Live Translate tool might be the most interesting result of Samsung’s long-simmering interest in AI, meant to drive interest in its smartphone business in what the company sees as a milestone year for artificial intelligence. And it’s just one of many features Samsung hopes will convince us this year that owning an AI-first smartphone is a must.

People who buy a new Galaxy S24, S24 Plus, or S24 Ultra will probably notice some of the usual changes that come with a new phone — brighter screens, different cameras, and snappier performance. (That said, the phones largely look the same as last year’s models.) But they’ll also be able to transcribe their voice recordings, and automatically format, summarize, or translate notes they’ve written or typed.

Like we’ve seen elsewhere, users also have the power to remove some objects in photos and carefully readjust others, yielding images that are more perfect than reality. Meanwhile, holding down the home button and circling snippets of text or parts of photos prompts the phone to identify the selection and offer more info about them online.

It works surprisingly well, too: After setting this Google-powered “circle search” feature to ponder a photo of my glasses, it managed to correctly link me to the exact website I bought them from.

If some of these tricks sound genuinely helpful to you, an AI-forward phone may do well for you. But if the opposite is true, it’s not hard to see why: We’re just a little over a year into a new era of artificial intelligence, and hardware makers large and small are still trying to figure out what AI gadgets for everyday use should actually do for us.

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Devices like Samsung’s Galaxy S24 phones reflect the early stages of that thinking, which means that beyond a smattering of AI features, they mostly uphold the smartphone status quo. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and Samsung isn’t alone in this approach; Google continues to pitch AI-heavy Pixel phones, which also come with tools for summarizing text and editing photos. (In fact, the two companies’ close relationship means there’s a lot of overlap between the AI features available on their respective phones.)

Playing up these software tools in this moment of frothy enthusiasm could get wider swaths of people thinking about what they want out of AI — that’s something we could all stand to do more of. And more practically, this AI push may help Samsung gain ground against Apple, which at the end of 2023 overtook the Korean company as the market leader in terms of global smartphone shipments according to research firm IDC.

While Apple is reportedly working on software features that rely on generative AI, the company has never publicly acknowledged these plans and is said to be in the midst of a major AI team reorganization.

“[Generative] AI is integral to Samsung’s long-term product strategy,” said Sheng Win Chow, a smartphone analyst for the research firm Canalys. “Samsung must seek a new way to compete with Apple and extend its market leadership in the Android ecosystem through product innovation and business models beyond just hardware.”

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As smartphone makers like Samsung grow to rely more heavily on AI as a way for make their products stand out to us, they must also grapple with an existential question: Are the days of the smartphone itself numbered?

Helmed by former Apple executives, the California start-up Humane is preparing to release an AI pin you’re meant to clip to your shirt; from there, it will handle phone calls, chew on complex voice commands and project relevant information onto your hand.

And another AI start-up, Rabbit, also unveiled a cute, pocketable device called the R1 at CES that uses a novel “large action model” to interact with apps and services on a user’s behalf. It hopes to ship the first wave of handhelds to preorder customers by Easter, and sparked some interest among larger hardware companies — high-ranking members of Samsung’s U.S. Research arm who deal with partnerships and investment met with the start-up after its trade show debut.

For now, smartphones aren’t going anywhere, but the promises they’re making to us are changing — and we’re getting ready to put them to the test. Our advice in the meantime? Don’t rush to invest in any gadget that leans hard on AI, unless you have a firm sense of what they can do for you right now.

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