Google wants to be your babysitter

Plus, a way to hide what you're doing on your computer, VR you can feel, robots you can high-five and other patents from big tech.

Google's automatic babysitter patent

If this Google patent comes true, your virtual assistant could also watch your kids while you're out.

Image: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

It's another week in quarantine, and while every day might feel the same as the last, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office keeps churning out new patents that definitely feel unique. Google can be your babysitter! Apple wants to make cars look awesome again! Facebook made robots with hands! And Microsoft wants to make sure you're still awake! It's an exciting time for the future of tech, even if the present is driving you a bit stir-crazy.

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

Google can be your babysitter

Not that many of us are leaving home much, but in that distant future when the world returns to normal, Google wants to be in charge of looking after your kids. Its vision for the future relies on sensing how many people are in a room, who they are, and controlling lots of internet-connected devices around the house. The virtual assistant in charge would be able to remotely lock doors or disable electrical sockets to keep small kids safe. It'll likely leave them feeling like Dave Bowman in "2001: A Space Odyssey" — including when their house has doors that Google Assistant won't open.

Communicating through light

Google is apparently looking into using light — rather than radio waves — to send information from one smart device to another. This idea, often referred to as "Li-Fi," has been bandied around for years: The concept is basically that light emitters could transmit a lot of data far more accurately in a confined area than traditional Wi-Fi. As the patent suggests, this could be useful for sharing information you only want shared in one room (as light can't pass through walls or other opaque objects), like encryption keys. Nobody's yet been able to commercialize this concept; sounds like a good moonshot to me.

Amazon

The one button missing from all internet ads

If you've ever bought anything that's advertised online, you've likely had the mildly frustrating problem of continuing to see ads for it all over the web. There have been many times where I've wished I could click on an ad and tell Google/Amazon/random DTC brand, "I already bought this product, please show me something else." (Facebook used to have an option like this, but inexplicably got rid of it.) It seems that Amazon is working on something similar, where you could tell advertisers that you already have a product or don't want to see any more ads for it. Now, if they could only figure out a way to do the same thing for subway ads.

Delivery drones with winches

Right now, Amazon's main delivery drone design requires the drone to land, plop down the package, and take off again before you can pick up what you ordered. It's efficient, but also a bit dangerous, as you can't be anywhere near the drone until it's safely back in the sky. Other companies, like Alphabet's Wing, use a winch system to lower the package down to you while the drone hovers overhead. It seems like Amazon is looking into doing something similar with its drones — in this case a tether system that would allow the drone to stay airborne while it lowered a package to you. Now there's no risk of ending up like Enrique Iglesias.

Apple

Built-in privacy screens

Sometimes you really don't want other people peeping at your laptop screen. You can buy one of those privacy filters, but then you're sort of broadcasting that there's something worth snooping at on your screen. Apple may have a solution in the works: A patent awarded this week describes a polarized liquid-crystal layer in a laptop display that could be switched on and off to give you privacy when you need it, without anyone necessarily realizing you're looking at something important.

Gull-wing doors

I don't know if it's because I recently rewatched the "Back to the Future" trilogy, but I'm extremely excited for gull-wing doors to make a comeback. Apple's new patent outlines a hinge mechanism for doors on a vehicle that can open upward while not actually requiring a lot of space around the vehicle to open. Doors like these could be great for autonomous vehicles (which Apple is working on, in some capacity), making it easy for people and things to get into vehicles without doors in the way. It would also make it easier to get more cars into smaller parking spots, presumably. Add on a Mr. Fusion reactor and a flux capacitor, and you've got yourself a pretty rad time machine, too. I wonder when Apple will file a patent for that.

Facebook

Robots you can high-five

This patent is interesting for a few reasons: It shows that Facebook is doing fundamental research in robotics, something far outside its current business model, and it shows how small robots could be linked together to perform tasks they couldn't do on their own. That sounds like the start of something like Voltron, which I'm very here for. But the most interesting thing about this patent to me — and it may just be a crude representation in the drawings — is that Facebook gave the robots in this patent arms with little hands on top. I'm pretty sure they're supposed to represent grippers, based on what the patent says, but I love the idea of just walking up to a robot, giving it a solid high-five, and carrying on. What better use for robots could there be?

VR suits

If you've been watching "Upload," you'll know that in the future, we'll apparently be able to get intimate with deceased lovers whose consciousnesses now live in the cloud through tactile VR suits. I'm not sure if that's the eventuality Facebook is preparing for with this new patent, but it's definitely a possibility. It outlines a set of haptic sensors that could be worn as sleeves or other garments that could re-create a sense of touch when interacting with a virtual world.

Microsoft

Drowsiness detector

If you've made it this far through this week's list, you probably won't have any need for this patent. Microsoft is apparently looking at developing a system that could detect when you're starting to feel sleepy. The new patent describes using heart rate and brain activity sensors to determine when someone's getting drowsy. The sensors could be contained in a wearable tethered to a user's phone. For example, the sensors might pick up that someone's starting to get drowsy while they're driving, and their phone would ping them to suggest they pull over and find a hotel. If you've ever been on a long road trip and had to drive through the night, this could be a (literal) lifesaver.

Earbuds that actually block out the world

Most noise-canceling earbuds will come with a few different sizes of rubber tips so they can fit as securely in your ear canal as possible, but they always seem to find a way to wriggle loose, breaking the seal and letting some of the world's sounds in. Microsoft's new earbud idea, which looks surprisingly like an AirPod, has an adjustable membrane around the earbud tip, so a person could find the exact right size for their ear and lock the membrane in on that shape. Hopefully whatever design Microsoft lands on is a little smaller than the wearable Pogs it recently released.

Fintech

Circle’s CEO: This is not the time to ‘go crazy’

Jeremy Allaire is leading the stablecoin powerhouse in a time of heightened regulation.

“It’s a complex environment. So every CEO and every board has to be a little bit cautious, because there’s a lot of uncertainty,” Circle CEO Jeremy Allaire told Protocol at Converge22.

Photo: Circle

Sitting solo on a San Francisco stage, Circle CEO Jeremy Allaire asked tennis superstar Serena Williams what it’s like to face “unrelenting skepticism.”

“What do you do when someone says you can’t do this?” Allaire asked the athlete turned VC, who was beaming into Circle’s Converge22 convention by video.

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Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers crypto and fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Google Voice at (925) 307-9342.

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Every great tech product that you rely on each day, from the smartphone in your pocket to your music streaming service and navigational system in the car, shares one important thing: part of its innovative design is protected by intellectual property (IP) laws.

From 5G to artificial intelligence, IP protection offers a powerful incentive for researchers to create ground-breaking products, and governmental leaders say its protection is an essential part of maintaining US technology leadership. To quote Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo: "intellectual property protection is vital for American innovation and entrepreneurship.”

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James Daly
James Daly has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, including understanding various audiences and targeting messaging accordingly. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, particularly in launching new ventures and building passionate audiences. Daly has led teams large and small to multiple awards and quantifiable success through a strategy built on teamwork, passion, fact-checking, intelligence, analytics, and audience growth while meeting budget goals and production deadlines in fast-paced environments. Daly is the Editorial Director of 2030 Media and a contributor at Wired.
Enterprise

Is Salesforce still a growth company? Investors are skeptical

Salesforce is betting that customer data platform Genie and new Slack features can push the company to $50 billion in revenue by 2026. But investors are skeptical about the company’s ability to deliver.

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Joe Williams is a writer-at-large at Protocol. He previously covered enterprise software for Protocol, Bloomberg and Business Insider. Joe can be reached at JoeWilliams@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.

Policy

The US and EU are splitting on tech policy. That’s putting the web at risk.

A conversation with Cédric O, the former French minister of state for digital.

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Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Cédric O, France’s former minister of state for digital, has been an advocate of Europe’s approach to tech and at the forefront of the continent’s relations with U.S. giants. Protocol caught up with O last week at a conference in New York focusing on social media’s negative effects on society and the possibilities of blockchain-based protocols for alternative networks.

O said watching the U.S. lag in tech policy — even as some states pass their own measures and federal bills gain momentum — has made him worry about the EU and U.S. decoupling. While not as drastic as a disentangling of economic fortunes between the West and China, such a divergence, as O describes it, could still make it functionally impossible for companies to serve users on both sides of the Atlantic with the same product.

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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.

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