Amazon wants to build an autonomous car army​

The best patent applications of the week.

Amazon wants to build an autonomous car army​

Amazon filed a patent for building a little autonomous car army.

Image: DailyPM/Noun Project and Protocol

Big Tech didn't disappoint this week, with a few patent applications that made me do a double take. Google wants to make the content of photos searchable, Amazon wants to build an army (of autonomous cars), Apple wants to help you party and Facebook loves straps.

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.

Alphabet

Photo search engine

I don't have any allergies, but I have family and friends who are allergic to everything from gluten to peanuts to sesame seeds. Menus often have little notations next to items that may contain gluten or nuts, but not always, and that can be scary.

This patent imagines a way for you to take a picture of something, where your phone acts as a search engine, using the information in the picture as the "search term." In the example images, a full menu is depicted, including chips and salsa in the appetizer section. The patent describes how the phone turns the text into a selectable box. If you click on chips and salsa, it could access information you gave it upfront (in this case, your allergies), compare it to the list of ingredients and then alert you if there's something that might make you have a reaction. And if you don't have any allergies, you could use this system to find pictures of chips and salsa, recipes for chips and salsa, and maybe even the best nearby place to get chips and salsa.

Now I want chips and salsa.

Amazon

A little army of delivery vehicles

This patent is blowing my mind. Autonomous delivery vehicles are becoming more popular, with companies like Nuro getting permission to launch a fleet of driverless cars to make local deliveries. But, as this patent notes, autonomous delivery equipment, such as sensors, navigation equipment and processors, can be very pricey. And if the car itself is small, all the equipment might not leave much room for groceries.

Instead, this patent imagines one car acting as a primary car, housing all the necessary equipment and sending commands to other vehicles that don't need all that equipment. The primary car could send a bunch of other cars off to do other deliveries. In the end, there's just a little army of autonomous cars being directed by one primary car, and I don't know about you, but that sounds both cool and terrifying.

Apple

Music party

Being in charge of the music at a party is a little intimidating. You have to make sure that the good vibes remain constant, that the volume isn't too annoying and that you are playing the right mix of music to make everyone happy.

This patent imagines a way for one phone to hook up to speakers around the house, but other people can pair their phones to control playback and volume, so that the burden of being a great DJ doesn't fall on one person. Or if a bunch of people are watching Netflix streamed by one phone, everyone could connect so that everyone is in charge of the remote.

Facebook

Research tool for workplace emotions

Companies rely on employee surveys to get a general sense of how people feel about different aspects of the company. But those surveys take time and effort, and getting a 100% return rate is difficult. Facebook wants to personalize and streamline gathering employee sentiment data by programming chatbots to see how employees are feeling about their workplace. Employees can choose to talk to a chatbot at any time of day, engage in natural conversations and the chatbot could gather and analyze the data. I imagine people would rather vent to a chatbot than try to rank how they feel on a scale of one to 10.

Similarly, Facebook wants to scrape social media data to tell a brand whether the brand is being destroyed on social media, which could lead to stock prices falling. That way the brand can act appropriately and quickly.

Big week for straps

Last week Facebook filed a patent for a yarn strap; this week, Facebook wants to create a way to attach various straps to the VR device. This way, multiple people can use the device and personalize how the strap fits.

Protocol | Workplace

Instacart workers are on strike. How far can it get them?

Instacart activists want a nationwide strike to start today, but many workers are too afraid of the company and feel they can't afford a day off of work.

Gig workers protest in front of an Amazon facility in 2020.

Photo: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Starting today, an Instacart organizing group is asking the app's gig workers to go on a nationwide strike to demand better payment structures, benefits and other changes to the way the company treats its workers — but if past strikes are any indication, most Instacart users probably won't even notice.

The majority of Instacart workers on forums like Reddit and Facebook appear either unaware of the planned strike or don't plan to participate because they are skeptical of its power, afraid of retaliation from the company or are too reliant on what they do make from the app to be able to afford to take even one day off of the platform. "Not unless someone is going to pay my bills," "It will never work, you will never be able to get every shopper to organize" and "Last time there was a 'strike' Instacart took away our quality bonus pay," are just a few of the comments Instacart shoppers have left in response to news of the strike.

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Anna Kramer

Anna Kramer is a reporter at Protocol (Twitter: @ anna_c_kramer, email: akramer@protocol.com), where she writes about labor and workplace issues. Prior to joining the team, she covered tech and small business for the San Francisco Chronicle and privacy for Bloomberg Law. She is a recent graduate of Brown University, where she studied International Relations and Arabic and wrote her senior thesis about surveillance tools and technological development in the Middle East.

The way we work has fundamentally changed. COVID-19 upended business dealings and office work processes, putting into hyperdrive a move towards digital collaboration platforms that allow teams to streamline processes and communicate from anywhere. According to the International Data Corporation, the revenue for worldwide collaboration applications increased 32.9 percent from 2019 to 2020, reaching $22.6 billion; it's expected to become a $50.7 billion industry by 2025.

"While consumers and early adopter businesses had widely embraced collaborative applications prior to the pandemic, the market saw five years' worth of new users in the first six months of 2020," said Wayne Kurtzman, research director of social and collaboration at IDC. "This has cemented collaboration, at least to some extent, for every business, large and small."

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Kate Silver

Kate Silver is an award-winning reporter and editor with 15-plus years of journalism experience. Based in Chicago, she specializes in feature and business reporting. Kate's reporting has appeared in the Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Atlantic's CityLab, Atlas Obscura, The Telegraph and many other outlets.

Protocol | China

WeChat promises to stop accessing users’ photo albums amid public outcry

A tech blogger claimed that popular Chinese apps snoop around users' photo libraries, provoking heightened public concerns over privacy.

A survey launched by Sina Tech shows 94% of the some 30,000 responding users said they are not comfortable with apps reading their photo libraries just to allow them to share images faster in chats.

Photo: S3studio via Getty Images

A Chinese tech blogger dropped a bombshell last Friday, claiming on Chinese media that he found that several popular Chinese apps, including the Tencent-owned chat apps WeChat and QQ, as well as the Alibaba-owned ecommerce app Taobao, frequently access iPhone users' photo albums in the background even when those apps are not in use.

The original Weibo post from the tech blogger, using the handle of @Hackl0us, provoked intense debates about user privacy on the Chinese internet and consequently prompted WeChat to announce that it would stop fetching users' photo album data in the background.

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Shen Lu

Shen Lu is a reporter with Protocol | China. Her writing has appeared in Foreign Policy, The New York Times and POLITICO, among other publications. She can be reached at shenlu@protocol.com.

Protocol | Enterprise

As businesses struggle with data, enterprise tech is cleaning up

Enterprise tech's vision of "big data" largely fell flat inside silos. But now, an army of providers think they've figured out the problems. And customers and investors are taking note.

Corporate data tends to settle in silos that makes it harder to understand the bigger picture. Enterprise tech vendors smell a lucrative opportunity.

Photo: Jim Witkowski/Unsplash

Data isn't the new oil; it's the new gold. And in any gold rush, the ones who make the most money in the long run are the tool makers and suppliers.

Enterprise tech vendors have long peddled a vision of corporate America centered around so-called "big data." But there was a big problem: Many of those projects failed to produce a return. An army of new providers think they've finally figured out the problem, and investors and customers are taking note.

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Joe Williams

Joe Williams is a senior reporter at Protocol covering enterprise software, including industry giants like Salesforce, Microsoft, IBM and Oracle. He previously covered emerging technology for Business Insider. Joe can be reached at JWilliams@Protocol.com. To share information confidentially, he can also be contacted on a non-work device via Signal (+1-309-265-6120) or JPW53189@protonmail.com.

Protocol | Policy

What Frances Haugen’s SEC complaint means for the rest of tech

Haugen argues Facebook misled investors by failing to disclose its platforms' harms. If the SEC bites, the rest of tech could be next.

The question is whether the SEC will find the contents of Haugen's complaint relevant to investors' interests.

Photo: Matt McClain-Pool/Getty Images

Whistleblowers like former Facebook staffer Frances Haugen have pretty limited options when it comes to actually seeking redress for the harms they've observed and documented. There's no federal privacy law in the U.S. to speak of, Section 230 protects platforms for online speech and companies like Facebook are under no obligation to share any information with lawmakers, or anyone else, about what's happening on their sites.

But there is one agency that not only governs all publicly-traded companies, including in tech, but also offers whistleblowers like Haugen the opportunity for a payout: the Securities and Exchange Commission.

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Issie Lapowsky

Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol's chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol's fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University's Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.

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