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Hello again! The Big Tech patent roundup is back after a short hiatus to get our latest Protocol Manual out the door, and there's been no shortage of fantastic patents since I've last checked in with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Alphabet has apparently found a way to draw blood without needles, Amazon wants to advertise to you even when you're offline, and Microsoft is looking to robots to replace the jobs of … people who hire people for jobs.
And in honor of Eddie Van Halen, who died earlier this week, I also want to call your attention to perhaps one of the greatest patents ever filed. In 1987, Van Halen won a patent for a "musical instrument support," which allowed him to connect his guitar to a belt and use both his hands for finger tapping some radical licks. Rock on, Eddie.
And remember: The big tech companies file all kinds of crazy patents for things, and though most never amount to anything, some end up defining the future.
I had to double-check that this wasn't a patent from Amazon because this sounds a lot like Amazon's plan. But it seems that Google has similar designs on the logistics industry. The patent deals with how to plan trucking routes and warehouse interactions when much of the logistics stack is automated. That includes drones, automated warehouses, planes — much of what Amazon is concerning itself with these days. What does Google have up its sleeve?
Chances are, you don't enjoy getting blood drawn. If you do, I … don't know what to say to you. For everyone else, this new patent from Verily might be of interest. It's a system for drawing blood that apparently doesn't require a needle to break the surface of your skin. The system uses an "evacuated negative-pressure barrel" to induce a "micro-emergence of blood" from below your skin. It doesn't need a needle, but it also doesn't sound like it'd be a particularly pleasant experience, either?
This is a pretty neat concept from Google: to use a virtual assistant to synthesize every incoming message you get across all the various services and apps you use into one screen where the assistant decides what's most pertinent at any given moment. But my favorite part of the patent is the art, which for some reason implies that the person's phone is like 30 feet tall. All hail MEGAPHONE.
This patent is almost certainly meant for Amazon Prime Now workers bagging up orders for delivery (the bags in the art look a lot like those they currently use for the service), but in our new socially distant reality, this cart seems like a good idea for regular grocery stores, too. If there were a way that the store could track what I'm putting in my bags as I go (like Amazon Go), why risk contact with another person when I can just bag my own groceries as I move through the store?
One of the benefits of downloading a video you would've otherwise streamed is that there won't be any pesky ads in it if you don't have an internet connection. Well, that was before this patent. Amazon is apparently looking at ways of serving video ads even on devices that are offline. It seems pretty simple, too: When a device calls out to a service to download a video, that service calls out to an ad library to download a pertinent ad along with the video. Just because you're offline doesn't mean you'll be safe from Black Friday doorbusters anymore.
Apple continues to make the iPad more and more like a laptop with each new model, but the company seems staunchly opposed to just putting a touchscreen in its MacBooks. Instead of doing what every other major laptop-maker started doing years ago, Apple is seemingly looking into making the base of its laptops more interactive. This patent outlines a customizable surface on the base of the laptop, where certain areas with touchscreens on them could be reconfigured based on what the user is doing, kind of like a giant version of the Touch Bar found on many current Apple models. That could be something like a keypad popping up on the right of the trackpad when doing calculations, or a second screen for multitasking. It seems like just making the screen interactive might be a bit easier.
Facebook has been working on brain-computer interfaces for a while now, presumably so that the latency between when you see a politically charged rant on your uncle's Facebook wall and you respond to it drops to near zero. In this patent, we get a glimpse at some of the ideas Facebook has for the actual connections to your brain, and well, they kind of just look like giant Tesla car plugs for your skull. The plan would be to have some physical connector inserted into your skull, like a USB port for your brain, and then a connector like the one below plug in when it's time to jack into the Matrix. Hopefully with this, I'll finally be able to learn kung fu.
This patent deals with the concept of creating an algorithm to determine the likelihood of someone wanting to share something on their social media profile page, based on observing the way they use the service. A pretty straightforward idea, but the strangest part of this is in the art, with the person they've created to illustrate the concept apparently missing everywhere he isn't. What a strange way to live; get out of the past, man!
We're all working at home, many of us in tight quarters. You might even have your significant other next to you while you're reading this instead of concentrating on work right now. Even still, we've all got to participate in Zoom calls, but Microsoft might be working on a helpful fix. This patent outlines software that could detect people or objects other than you in the frame of your camera, and blur them out, making you the sole focus. That could be useful for work calls, but hopefully it's not implemented in future AR software built into your central nervous system that blocks out Jon Hamm from your view forever.
There's a lot of consternation around AI taking people's jobs, but what about AI taking the jobs of people listing jobs? Microsoft won a patent for software that turns a chatbot into an interviewer, where a job applicant could answer simple questions online before having to deal with a human. Depending on what the job is — perhaps something that requires specific technical knowledge — it might be useful to be able to screen people out, but most likely, you'd probably still want some human to chat with this human, just to make sure the applicant isn't an ax murderer.
Mike Murphy ( @mcwm) is the director of special projects at Protocol, focusing on the industries being rapidly upended by technology and the companies disrupting incumbents. Previously, Mike was the technology editor at Quartz, where he frequently wrote on robotics, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.