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Power

Amazon's working on a less-forgetful Alexa

Plus Nest thermostats for every house, inflatable Amazon packages and other patents from Big Tech.

Amazon's forgetful Alexa

Alexa tends to forget what it was up to. Amazon wants to fix that.

Image: Courtesy of USPTO

Some of the patents awarded to Big Tech this week seem to yearn for that long-ago time when we could convene for meetings in offices or would even be commuting to and from work. Hopefully it won't be long before everyone is able to enjoy the mundanities of normal life again, and these patents will make some of those things a little easier.

And remember: Companies file all kinds of crazy patents for things, and though most never amount to anything, some end up defining the future.

Alphabet

Nest thermostats for older homes

If you've ever used a Nest thermostat, you'll know they work quite well but require you to be relatively handy to install them. Many houses, especially older ones and those in Europe, don't rely on electronic thermostats, instead using bimetallic strips that react to temperature changes to turn on boilers. Good luck controlling those with your phone. Nest wants to fix that, with a patent that outlines a simpler-to-install thermostat. It would plug into the existing sensors in the wall, as well as a power socket. You'd also connect up a wireless receiver to the boiler, which would tell it to turn up or down the heat. It could be a simple way to bring old homes into the future.

Streaming apps

The idea of always-connected devices streaming always-updated apps to phones isn't necessarily new, but the logistics, connectivity and security have always been issues. Google seems to be thinking about a way to make them work as "ephemeral apps," where a user would download a shell for an app to their phone, but the content of the app actually lives on a cloud. This would mean the device would require far less storage space, which could make them cheaper to produce. According to the patent, it could also make it easier for IT managers to revoke or grant access to specific apps as employees need them.

Summarizing voice messages

If you ever call my voicemail, you'll hear my message … saying that I don't listen to voicemail. I tell people this is because it's easier for me to manage email messages, but it's also because I'm extremely lazy. It seems that I might not be the only one: This new patent from Google looks at how AI can be used to summarize voice messages. The system would automatically pull out the pertinent information, like when someone recites a phone number to call them on or a location to check out, and then the app you're using would allow you to call that number directly or pull that location up on a map. It'd be a huge boon for extremely busy lazy people like me.

Amazon

Tracking workers with depth-sensing cameras

This new patent seems designed to bring the tracking technology found in Amazon Go stores to the company's warehouses. It outlines a camera-tracking system that can determine who workers are by looking at their faces and clothes and monitor their progress through the warehouse floor, into break rooms and even to the bathroom (though it doesn't suggest following them in there). The cameras could also see what products workers are picking off shelves and where they're taking them, which would help Amazon keep better track of its inventory and warehouse efficiency. But it might also create an unsettling panopticon where Amazon employees have little place to hide from the all-seeing eye of their bosses.

Helping Alexa remember what you were talking about

If you've used third-party Alexa apps, you've probably had the problem where you ask Alexa quickly to do something else, and she "forgets" that you were using the other app. Fixing this problem, and giving Alexa a better memory, is something Amazon is apparently working on. This patent outlines a system where, for example, someone using a cooking app on Alexa could say, "Alexa start a timer for 5 minutes," and the assistant will do that. Right now, Alexa may then just stay silent after completing the task, but in the situation in the patent, it would remember to return on the cooking app the user was using before. Then again, if Amazon could just get its drone delivery program off the ground, maybe I could have ordered some takeout instead of having to rely on Alexa for cooking help.

Inflatable drone delivery packages

Speaking of which: Amazon is back with yet another way of trying to keep people — and the things they order — safe during drone deliveries. While the division may be struggling to deliver on Bezos' 2013 promise of superfast drone deliveries for Prime members, it's still working on ways of getting those products to them. Eventually. This new patent suggests creating delivery packages that can inflate as they drop to earth, presumably to avoid potentially injuring anyone or anything on the way down. It's like that famous James Bond gadget, but for the stick of deodorant you really needed right away.

Apple

Teaching Siri where you are in the house

Apple's ecosystem of smart home devices has gotten pretty robust in recent years, but any automation in those smart home systems has to be set up by the user. I have it rigged so that when my iPhone leaves my apartment, the Home app will turn off all the lights, but I haven't yet set one up to turn them all on when I get back. This new patent suggests a more intelligent version of the app that could suggest automations. It gives the example of someone who always uses the smartphone to close their garage door when they come up at night, and turn on the lights in their kitchen when they walk into the kitchen. In an ideal world, the smart home system would recognize the repeated actions and build an automation for the user. Then again, that user probably isn't going into work anymore, so nobody will be testing this one for a while.

Facebook

Amphibious robots

This new patent from Facebook envisions a zany wheeled robot device that could drive through water, if needed. The main innovation here is putting all the moving parts above the wheels, presumably keeping the entire drive mechanism above any water or other terrain the bot would be going through. But the craziest part of the patent is the last diagram, where two of these bots have been snapped together with a chair and some giant arms, so a person could scoot around and pick things up with their amphibious vehicle. The arms seem like an extension from the high-fiving robot Facebook patented a few weeks ago, but I'm not entirely sure what Facebook could be envisioning using these gangly robots for — maybe making sure we're all staying 6 feet apart?

Clubhouse, but make it Facebook

If you're in tech, you have probably heard of Clubhouse — and maybe even tried to invest in it. (For the uninitiated, it's a social network for short audio clips.) And in true Facebook fashion, the company seems to have patented its own spin on the idea, much like it's done for every other social network that's come along in recent years. The patent, in Facebook's defense, does offer a few ways in which its audio-only social network might actually be useful: for those who are visually impaired and those who may be shy to write long posts on Facebook but may be more willing to dictate them. But I'm not sure how many of those there are, given the treatises I've seen all over Facebook..

Microsoft

Using mobile devices on a connected whiteboard

Collaboration software can get a bit overwhelming, with people drawing over other people and everyone talking over each other. Microsoft's new patent is aimed at tying a person's identity to what they're sharing on a connected whiteboard or computer display. In the system, a user's personal phone would connect over Wi-Fi or Bluetooth to the computer powering the display, and a camera would track their motion relative to the display. This would allow people to show up to a meeting room, and the system would automatically know who is who. The cameras would also be able to tell if a user passed their device to someone else to show them something: If that second person started writing something for the big display, it would have their name attached to it. This may make collaboration software a little easier to use, but that seems like a problem for a far away time when we're all back in offices having meetings together. Remember conference room meetings? I actually miss them now.

Microsoft wants to replace artists with AI

Better Zoom calls, simpler email attachments, smart iPhone cases and other patents from Big Tech.

Turning your stories into images.

Image: USPTO/Microsoft

Hello and welcome to 2021! The Big Tech patent roundup is back, after a short vacation and … all the things … that happened between the start of the year and now. It seems the tradition of tech companies filing weird and wonderful patents has carried into the new year; there are some real gems from the last few weeks. Microsoft is trying to outsource all creative endeavors to AI; Apple wants to make seat belts less annoying; and Amazon wants to cut down on some of the recyclable waste that its own success has inevitably created.

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.

People

Google's union has big goals — and big roadblocks

Absence of dues, retaliation fears and small numbers could pose problems for the union's dream of collective bargaining, but Googlers are undeterred.

Recruiting union members beyond the early adopters has had its challenges.

Photo: David Paul Morris/Getty Images

When the Alphabet Workers Union launched with more than 200 Googlers at the beginning of the year, it saw a quick flood of new sign-ups, nearly quadrupling membership over a few weeks. But even with the more than 710 members it now represents, the union still stands for just a tiny fraction of Google's more than 200,000 North American employees and contractors. The broader Alphabet workforce could prove difficult to win over, which is a hurdle that could stand in the way of the group's long-term ambitions for substantive culture change and even collective bargaining.

The initial boom of interest from Googlers was thrilling for Alex Peterson, a software engineer and union spokesperson. "It's really reinvigorating what it means to actually be a community of Googlers, which is something that's been eroding over the past four or five years, or even longer."

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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.

Politics

Facebook’s Oversight Board won’t save it from the Trump ban backlash

The Board's decision on whether to reinstate Trump could set a new precedent for Facebook. But does the average user care what the Board has to say?

A person holds a sign during a Free Speech Rally against tech companies, on Jan. 20 in California.

Photo: Valerie Macon/Getty Images

Two weeks after Facebook suspended former President Donald Trump's account indefinitely, Facebook answered a chorus of calls and referred the case to its newly created Oversight Board for review. Now, the board has 90 days to make a call as to whether Trump stays or goes permanently. The board's decision — and more specifically, how and why it arrives at that decision — could have consequences not only for other global leaders on Facebook, but for the future of the Board itself.

Facebook created its Oversight Board for such a time as this — a time when it would face a controversial content moderation decision and might need a gut check. Or a fall guy. There could be no decision more controversial than the one Facebook made on Jan. 7, when it decided to muzzle one of the most powerful people in the world with weeks remaining in his presidency. It stands to reason, then, that Facebook would tap in its newly anointed refs on the Oversight Board both to earnestly review the call and to put a little distance between Facebook and the decision.

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Issie Lapowsky
Issie Lapowsky (@issielapowsky) is a senior reporter at Protocol, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. 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. Email Issie.

Big Tech gets a win from Biden’s sweeping immigration actions

Tim Cook and Sundar Pichai praised President Biden's immigration actions, which read like a tech industry wishlist.

Newly-inaugurated President Joe Biden signed two immigration-related executive orders on Wednesday.

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Immediately after being sworn in as president Wednesday, Joe Biden signed two pro-immigration executive orders and delivered an immigration bill to Congress that reads like a tech industry wishlist. The move drew enthusiastic praise from tech leaders, including Apple CEO Tim Cook and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai.

President Biden nullified several of former-President Trump's most hawkish immigration policies. His executive orders reversed the so-called "Muslim ban" and instructed the attorney general and the secretary of Homeland Security to preserve the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, which the Trump administration had sought to end. He also sent an expansive immigration reform bill to Congress that would provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented individuals and make it easier for foreign U.S. graduates with STEM degrees to stay in the United States, among other provisions.

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Emily Birnbaum

Emily Birnbaum ( @birnbaum_e) is a tech policy reporter with Protocol. Her coverage focuses on the U.S. government's attempts to regulate one of the most powerful industries in the world, with a focus on antitrust, privacy and politics. Previously, she worked as a tech policy reporter with The Hill after spending several months as a breaking news reporter. She is a Bethesda, Maryland native and proud Kenyon College alumna.

Politics

This is the future of the FTC

President Joe Biden has named Becca Slaughter acting chair of the FTC. In conversation with Protocol, she laid out her priorities for the next four years.

FTC commissioner Becca Slaughter may be President Biden's pick for FTC chair.

Photo: David Becker/Getty Images

Becca Slaughter made a name for herself last year when, as a commissioner for the Federal Trade Commission, she breastfed her newborn baby during video testimony before the Senate, raising awareness about the plight of working parents during the pandemic.

But on Thursday, Slaughter's name began circulating for other reasons: She was just named as President Joe Biden's pick for acting chair of the FTC, an appointment that puts Slaughter at the head of antitrust investigations into tech giants, including Facebook.

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Issie Lapowsky
Issie Lapowsky (@issielapowsky) is a senior reporter at Protocol, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. 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. Email Issie.
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