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.

Enterprise

Why Google Cloud is providing security for AWS and Azure users too

“To just focus on Google Cloud, we wouldn't be serving our customers,” Google Cloud security chief Phil Venables told Protocol.

Google Cloud announced the newest addition to its menu of security offerings.

Photo: G/Unsplash

In August, Google Cloud pledged to invest $10 billion over five years in cybersecurity — a target that looks like it will be easily achieved, thanks to the $5.4 billion deal to acquire Mandiant and reported $500 million acquisition of Siemplify in the first few months of 2022 alone.

But the moves raise questions about Google Cloud’s main goal for its security operation. Does Google want to offer the most secure cloud platform in order to inspire more businesses to run on it — or build a major enterprise cybersecurity products and services business, in whatever environment it’s chosen?

Keep Reading Show less
Kyle Alspach

Kyle Alspach ( @KyleAlspach) is a senior reporter at Protocol, focused on cybersecurity. He has covered the tech industry since 2010 for outlets including VentureBeat, CRN and the Boston Globe. He lives in Portland, Oregon, and can be reached at kalspach@procotol.com.

Sponsored Content

Foursquare data story: leveraging location data for site selection

We take a closer look at points of interest and foot traffic patterns to demonstrate how location data can be leveraged to inform better site selecti­on strategies.

Imagine: You’re the leader of a real estate team at a restaurant brand looking to open a new location in Manhattan. You have two options you’re evaluating: one site in SoHo, and another site in the Flatiron neighborhood. Which do you choose?

Keep Reading Show less
Workplace

The tools that make you pay for not getting stuff done

Some tools let you put your money on the line for productivity. Should you bite?

Commitment contracts are popular in a niche corner of the internet, and the tools have built up loyal followings of people who find the extra motivation effective.

Photoillustration: Anna Shvets/Pexels; Protocol

Danny Reeves, CEO and co-founder of Beeminder, is used to defending his product.

“When people first hear about it, they’re kind of appalled,” Reeves said. “Making money off of people’s failure is how they view it.”

Keep Reading Show less
Lizzy Lawrence

Lizzy Lawrence ( @LizzyLaw_) is a reporter at Protocol, covering tools and productivity in the workplace. She's a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, where she studied sociology and international studies. She served as editor in chief of The Michigan Daily, her school's independent newspaper. She's based in D.C., and can be reached at llawrence@protocol.com.

Elon Musk has bots on his mind.

Photo: Christian Marquardt/Getty Images

Elon Musk says he needs proof that less than 5% of Twitter's users are bots — or the deal isn't going ahead.

Keep Reading Show less
Jamie Condliffe

Jamie Condliffe ( @jme_c) is the executive editor at Protocol, based in London. Prior to joining Protocol in 2019, he worked on the business desk at The New York Times, where he edited the DealBook newsletter and wrote Bits, the weekly tech newsletter. He has previously worked at MIT Technology Review, Gizmodo, and New Scientist, and has held lectureships at the University of Oxford and Imperial College London. He also holds a doctorate in engineering from the University of Oxford.

Policy

Nobody will help Big Tech prevent online terrorism but itself

There’s no will in Congress or the C-suites of social media giants for a new approach, but smaller platforms would have room to step up — if they decided to.

Timothy Kujawski of Buffalo lights candles at a makeshift memorial as people gather at the scene of a mass shooting at Tops Friendly Market at Jefferson Avenue and Riley Street on Sunday, May 15, 2022 in Buffalo, NY. The fatal shooting of 10 people at a grocery store in a historically Black neighborhood of Buffalo by a young white gunman is being investigated as a hate crime and an act of racially motivated violent extremism, according to federal officials.

Photo: Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The shooting in Buffalo, New York, that killed 10 people over the weekend has put the spotlight back on social media companies. Some of the attack was livestreamed, beginning on Amazon-owned Twitch, and the alleged shooter appears to have written about how his racist motivations arose from misinformation on smaller or fringe sites including 4chan.

In response, policymakers are directing their anger at tech platforms, with New York Governor Kathy Hochul calling for the companies to be “more vigilant in monitoring” and for “a legal responsibility to ensure that such hate cannot populate these sites.”

Keep Reading Show less
Ben Brody

Ben Brody (@ BenBrodyDC) is a senior reporter at Protocol focusing on how Congress, courts and agencies affect the online world we live in. He formerly covered tech policy and lobbying (including antitrust, Section 230 and privacy) at Bloomberg News, where he previously reported on the influence industry, government ethics and the 2016 presidential election. Before that, Ben covered business news at CNNMoney and AdAge, and all manner of stories in and around New York. He still loves appearing on the New York news radio he grew up with.

Latest Stories
Bulletins