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Apple wants to look under your skin

Plus medical AI stenographers, private collaborative docs, modular drones and other patents from Big Tech.

Apple wants to look under your skin

Apple's new patent outlines using "subepidermal features" — like the shape of your veins — to figure out if it's really you trying to unlock your phone.

Image: Apple/USPTO

The weekly Protocol patent roundup is here, which means it's time to kick back, relax and read about the zany things Big Tech now holds patents for.

There are a few trends that emerged this week that reflect some of Big Tech's ambitions: Google is interested in making voice assistants more useful, Amazon is trying to revolutionize shipping, Apple has some well-crafted gadgets, and Microsoft wants to make computing a little easier. And then there's Facebook, which was light on patents, but wants us all to see movie trailers customized to what we love.

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

An AI stenographer for doctors

If you've ever had the misfortune of having to try to read your doctors' handwritten notes, you'll know that anything that can take the pen out of their hands and onto a screen would be super helpful. That's basically what Google is envisioning in this patent: an AI assistant that could listen in to doctors' appointments, taking down notes on everything the doctor and patient say. The system could generate a transcript in real time, and it could also pull out important keywords; if the patient said they felt feverish and had a sore leg, it would collate those as symptoms for the doctor to follow up on. Other startups are working on similar ideas, but they don't have the weight of Google's AI prowess behind them — or the stigmas, for that matter.

Making talking to voice assistants less awkward

It's pretty amazing that there are tiny devices that I can wear in my ears that allow me to talk to a virtual assistant that can call me a car, respond to my texts or answer my random questions. That being said, it's still extremely awkward to talk to virtual assistants in public — if you're wearing something like a pair of AirPods and start talking to Siri while you're on the subway, you look like you're talking to yourself. But this new patent might help, with the idea being that you could pull out your phone and talk to your assistant like you were taking a call, rather than yelling into the ether. The phone would recognize the specific motion you did to invoke the assistant while pulling it up, and trigger it right away. It's a neat idea, but I think my favorite part of this patent is that the diagram seems to suggest this suited man is in an infinite loop or looking for coffee. I guess on a long enough scale, though, many of us are.

Amazon

Recyclable mailer envelopes

It might not be the most grandiose invention of all time, but it could have a big impact on the environment, given how many packages Amazon ships a day. The idea is simple: Many mailer envelopes are plastic on the inside and paper on the outside, which many recycling facilities can't process, sending them to the junk heap. Amazon's patent is for a flexible, all-cardboard model that uses various interconnected slats of cardboard to provide the cushioning on the inside of the package. Another green-friendly alternative: getting off your butt and going to the store for that dishwasher detergent.

Modular delivery drones

The future of package delivery looks a lot like high-tech Lego. Amazon's patent outlines a completely modular drone system, where every single aspect of the drone can be removed as needed. The system could act as a sort-of checklist to ensure a drone is ready before being deployed for a delivery, and it wouldn't take too much of a imagination jump to see an automated process in which a package makes its way down a conveyor belt, where it's attached to the drone's avionics unit, then its battery, then its propellor system, and then sent off on its way to your house. It could also cut down on repair costs: Instead of having to pull a whole drone out of operation if something's broken, you could just swap out the necessary part. Like I used to do when one of the Lego bricks went missing.

Apple

Vein-matching biometrics

Apple has been leading the charge of replacing passwords with biometric information (mainly, the details of your face) for a few years now, but this patent would be taking things deeper — literally. It outlines using "subepidermal features" — like the shape of your veins — to figure out if it's really you trying to unlock your phone. The patent suggests that this would be useful for more easily discerning truly identical twins, but I could see it also being helpful for the time we're all in now. The number of times I've recently tried to use Apple Pay while wearing a mask and not understanding why it wasn't working is … far too high. Maybe tech like this could help my phone realize it's me without my having to take my mask off. I also wanted to share this patent for the terrifying imagery it contains:

An Apple Kinect

This patent from Apple seems a lot like what it would look like if the company had released its own version of a Microsoft's Kinect motion-tracking sensor. The device in the patent tracks the gesticulations of the user in front of it, translating them into actions on the computer screen. It just so happens that Apple actually bought PrimeSense, the company originally behind the Kinect technology, back in 2013. It's reportedly been using the technology in its Face ID software (without the aforementioned veins), but it's possible that it could be working on some new ways of interacting with its other devices. And flailing wildly at my Apple TV would be a big improvement over the Apple TV remote, to be honest.

A cabinet

This is just a design patent for the cabinets Apple has started using in its retail stores, but it's very nice. I think it would look nice in my living room with my TV on top of it.

Facebook

Individualized movie trailers

In a world — where Mike Murphy wants to go see this specific movie, only one man is up for the task. Hopefully the final product would be a little better than this, but Facebook is exploring the possibility of creating personalized trailers for movies and TV shows, playing up the parts of the content that the viewer of the trailer might be more interested in. If it's a buddy-cop race car movie, perhaps they would show one person more explosions, another person fast cars, and another some witty banter between partners where one is just one day away from retirement. Whatever the producers — and Facebook's algorithm — would think most appropriate.

Microsoft

A mouse stylus

Have you ever wished your pointy device were more like another pointy device? Your (extremely specific) prayers may be answered soon. Microsoft is apparently exploring what it would be like to put some sort of mouse cursor on the end of a stylus, seemingly rather like the red nub found on ThinkPad laptops. You could hold the stylus in your hand and use the mouse with your thumb, which might be useful if you're giving a presentation and need to point to something onscreen. Though it doesn't seem like this would be easier than, you know, just bringing a mouse along with you as well.

Private mode for collaborative documents

If you're anything like me, you often start another Google Doc or Word file because you don't want to your co-workers to see you go through the extremely awkward and arduous process of writing your dumb sentences until they absolutely have to, and then copying that text in a big block back into the collaborative doc you're all working on. But Microsoft's new patent could make things a little easier — and not leave you with hundreds of abandoned documents in your cloud folder: It envisions building in a privacy mode for each collaborator so they can all work in the same document, without anyone else having to see. It's a self-deprecator's dream!

Another blood pressure monitor

Following last week's patent, Microsoft is back with another patent for a blood pressure monitor built into a wearable. Is there a product on the horizon, or is this just securing old research? Either way, it's making my chest tight.

People

Beeper built the universal messaging app the world needed

It's an app for all your social apps. And part of an entirely new way to think about chat.

Beeper is an app for all your messaging apps, including the hard-to-access ones.

Image: Beeper

Eric Migicovsky likes to tinker. And the former CEO of Pebble — he's now a partner at Y Combinator — knows a thing or two about messaging. "You remember on the Pebble," he asked me, "how we had this microphone, and on Android you could reply to all kinds of messages?" Migicovsky liked that feature, and he especially liked that it didn't care which app you used. Android-using Pebble wearers could speak their replies to texts, Messenger chats, almost any notification that popped up.

That kind of universal, non-siloed approach to messaging appealed to Migicovsky, and it didn't really exist anywhere else. "Remember Trillian from back in the day?" he asked, somewhat wistfully. "Or Adium?" They were the gold-standard of universal messaging apps; users could log in to their AIM, MSN, GChat and Yahoo accounts, and chat with everyone in one place.

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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.

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 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 (@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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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.

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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.
People

Amazon’s head of Alexa Trust on how Big Tech should talk about data

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Anne Toth, Amazon's director of Alexa Trust, has been working on tech privacy for decades.

Photo: Amazon

Anne Toth has had a long career in the tech industry, thinking about privacy and security at companies like Yahoo, Google and Slack, working with the World Economic Forum and advising companies around Silicon Valley.

Last August she took on a new job as the director of Alexa Trust, leading a big team tackling a big question: How do you make people feel good using a product like Alexa, which is designed to be deeply ingrained in their lives? "Alexa in your home is probably the closest sort of consumer experience or manifestation of AI in your life," she said. That comes with data questions, privacy questions, ethical questions and lots more.

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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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