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The risk for Amazon of relying on AI to decide someone's mood

Amazon's new wearable wants to check users' body fat and "tone" with AI, which historically struggles with women and people of color.

The risk for Amazon of relying on AI to decide someone's mood

Amazon's new Halo app and wearable.

Photo: Amazon

On the surface, Amazon's new Halo wearable seems like a pretty straightforward offering, on par with Apple's offerings and Google's Fitbit. The water resistant wearable band tracks your activity and sleep quality, but the app also has a few features that go well beyond what competitors offer. Unlike the next Apple Watch or the newest Fitbit, they could have potentially damaging ramifications if rolled out improperly.

The wearable will track what it calls your "tone," listening to how you sound when you speak all day, as well as giving you suggestions on how to improve your tone. "For example, tone results may reveal that a difficult work call leads to less positivity in communication with a customer's family, an indication of the impact of stress on emotional well-being," the company said in a release.

This tweet from Ali Alkhatib, a research fellow at the Center for Applied Data Ethics, had me thinking about Amazon's past history with automated systems. Earlier this year, Amazon announced a one-year pause on allowing its facial-recognition software to be used by police. That same software in the past incorrectly matched 28 U.S. congresspeople with mugshots, and the ACLU found "the false matches were disproportionately of people of color." Amazon's Ring video doorbells have reportedly been accessed by the company's developers in the past. Ring has partnered with over 600 police forces across the U.S., having made a concerted effort to woo them into selling these cameras to their local communities.

Are we on the precipice of people being convicted of crimes on the basis of AI data that shows they had an aggressive tone? Or worse, should cops think to use deadly force in the heat of the moment when confronting yet another young Black man?

Let's step back and look at the new types of data that Amazon's Halo is collecting. The first measurement looks at body fat: The app uses your phone's depth-sensor cameras and machine-learning algorithms to build a 3D model of your body, which is uploaded to the cloud, processed (and then deleted, Amazon says), and used to determine what percentage of your body is fat. Amazon says it's as accurate as any measurement a doctor could make. The app can even show what your body might look like if you gain or lose weight.

The second, which is definitely the riskier of the two, is a measurement of the wearer's "tone." The wearable, much like an Amazon Echo, is apparently listening to what you say and how you say it over the course of a day. Amazon says its "AI analyzes qualities of the customer's voice such as pitch, intensity, tempo, and rhythm to predict how others would perceive and describe the customer's tone of voice." It then categorizes those tones with labels like "happy," "confused," or "worried," and gives you suggestions on how you can improve your interactions. It's like an overbearing parent telling their child that they don't like their tone. The Halo cannot, as of yet, put you into time out.

These are complex systems that would require diverse datasets to be able to pull off things like this with any level of accuracy. If Amazon relied on data that only used male bodies for the body-fat algorithms, or white voices for the tone system, it's likely the software would not work as well for everyone. Bias creeps into AI when datasets, and unwitting researchers, do not have a holistic, diverse representation of the general population. An Amazon spokesperson told Protocol that both features were "trained on a large amount of data across demographics," from both internal and publicly available sources.

People of color and women are traditionally more discriminated against by AI systems, and Amazon's own AI research has struggled with this very problem in the past. It's not much of a stretch to see a system trained on white women's voices finding a Black man's voice as sounding more aggressive than it actually was.

People

Google’s trying to build a more inclusive, less chaotic future of work

Javier Soltero, the VP of Workspace at Google, said time management is everything.

With everyone working in new places, Google believes time management is everything.

Image: Google

Javier Soltero was still pretty new to the G Suite team when the pandemic hit. Pretty quickly, everything about Google's hugely popular suite of work tools seemed to change. (It's not even called G Suite anymore, but rather Workspace.) And Soltero had to both guide his team through a new way of working and help them build the tools to guide billions of Workspace users.

This week, Soltero and his team announced a number of new Workspace features designed to help people manage their time, collaborate and get stuff done more effectively. It offered new tools for frontline workers to communicate better, more hardware for hybrid meetings, lots of Assistant and Calendar features to make planning easier and a picture-in-picture mode so people could be on Meet calls without really having to pay attention.

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David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editor at large. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

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The future of computing at the edge: an interview with Intel’s Tom Lantzsch

An interview with Tom Lantzsch, SVP and GM, Internet of Things Group at Intel

An interview with Tom Lantzsch

Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Internet of Things Group (IoT) at Intel Corporation

Edge computing had been on the rise in the last 18 months – and accelerated amid the need for new applications to solve challenges created by the Covid-19 pandemic. Tom Lantzsch, Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Internet of Things Group (IoT) at Intel Corp., thinks there are more innovations to come – and wants technology leaders to think equally about data and the algorithms as critical differentiators.

In his role at Intel, Lantzsch leads the worldwide group of solutions architects across IoT market segments, including retail, banking, hospitality, education, industrial, transportation, smart cities and healthcare. And he's seen first-hand how artificial intelligence run at the edge can have a big impact on customers' success.

Protocol sat down with Lantzsch to talk about the challenges faced by companies seeking to move from the cloud to the edge; some of the surprising ways that Intel has found to help customers and the next big breakthrough in this space.

What are the biggest trends you are seeing with edge computing and IoT?

A few years ago, there was a notion that the edge was going to be a simplistic model, where we were going to have everything connected up into the cloud and all the compute was going to happen in the cloud. At Intel, we had a bit of a contrarian view. We thought much of the interesting compute was going to happen closer to where data was created. And we believed, at that time, that camera technology was going to be the driving force – that just the sheer amount of content that was created would be overwhelming to ship to the cloud – so we'd have to do compute at the edge. A few years later – that hypothesis is in action and we're seeing edge compute happen in a big way.

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Saul Hudson
Saul Hudson has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, especially in understanding and targeting messages in cutting-edge technologies. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, in helping companies to build passionate audiences and accelerate their growth. Hudson has reported from more than 30 countries, from war zones to boardrooms to presidential palaces. He has led multinational, multi-lingual teams and managed operations for hundreds of journalists. Hudson is a Managing Partner at Angle42, a strategic communications consultancy.
Power

Google wants to help you get a life

Digital car windows, curved AR glasses, automatic presentations and other patents from Big Tech.

A new patent from Google offers a few suggestions.

Image: USPTO

Another week has come to pass, meaning it's time again for Big Tech patents! You've hopefully been busy reading all the new Manual Series stories that have come out this week and are now looking forward to hearing what comes after what comes next. Google wants to get rid of your double-chin selfie videos and find things for you as you sit bored at home; Apple wants to bring translucent displays to car windows; and Microsoft is exploring how much you can stress out a virtual assistant.

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.

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Mike Murphy

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.

Transforming 2021

Blockchain, QR codes and your phone: the race to build vaccine passports

Digital verification systems could give people the freedom to work and travel. Here's how they could actually happen.

One day, you might not need to carry that physical passport around, either.

Photo: CommonPass

There will come a time, hopefully in the near future, when you'll feel comfortable getting on a plane again. You might even stop at the lounge at the airport, head to the regional office when you land and maybe even see a concert that evening. This seemingly distant reality will depend upon vaccine rollouts continuing on schedule, an open-sourced digital verification system and, amazingly, the blockchain.

Several countries around the world have begun to prepare for what comes after vaccinations. Swaths of the population will be vaccinated before others, but that hasn't stopped industries decimated by the pandemic from pioneering ways to get some people back to work and play. One of the most promising efforts is the idea of a "vaccine passport," which would allow individuals to show proof that they've been vaccinated against COVID-19 in a way that could be verified by businesses to allow them to travel, work or relax in public without a great fear of spreading the virus.

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Mike Murphy

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.

People

Google vows to do better on DEI and firings. Timnit Gebru is not impressed.

Google AI lead Jeff Dean said Google had concluded its investigation into Timnit Gebru's dismissal in an email to employees Friday.

Google has ended its investigation into the dismissal of prominent AI ethicist Timnit Gebru.

Photo: John Nacion/Getty Images

Google has concluded its investigation into the firing of prominent AI ethics researcher Timnit Gebru, and it announced some changes to its hiring, firing and research policies in an email from AI leader Jeff Dean to employees Friday.

While Dean did not share the results of the investigation into the circumstances surrounding Gebru's dismissal, he said that the company would enact new policies to "review employee exits that are sensitive in nature." His email, which was obtained by Protocol, said the company will also begin linking performance reviews for vice presidents and above, in part regarding diversity and inclusion goals, and it will report DEI goals and progress to the Alphabet board of directors in quarterly reviews.

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Anna Kramer

Anna Kramer is a reporter at Protocol (@ anna_c_kramer), where she helps write and produce Source Code, Protocol's daily newsletter. 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.

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