Power

Microsoft wants a chatbot therapist to see you now

The big tech companies file all kinds of crazy patents for things. Most never amount to anything, but others end up defining the future.

A woman sits in a chair looking at a tablet

Microsoft has applied for a patent for a technology that would provide therapy via chatbot.

Photo: SDI Productions via Getty Images

This week, Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft all got patents for technologies that would help people cut down on physical interactions, which might be a good thing, given … everything … going on in the world right now. From hands-free payments in stores to automated psychologists and quiet delivery drones, companies are making it easier to cut down on in-person interactions with other people.


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Alphabet

Paying for things with your face

We've suddenly all become very interested in social distancing and touching as few things as possible, which makes this patent application from Google seem especially timely. It outlines a facial-recognition payments system where customers could walk up to the counter at a store, tell the merchant how they want to pay ("I'd like to use my AmEx") and then have their face scanned by a camera to pay.

The camera would determine whether they have an account with Google's system, and if there's a match, charge their card, all without having to touch anything — other than whatever you bought, that is. Hopefully it was more hand sanitizer.

Bugging people when they're offline

One benefit of being out of cell range is notifications tend to die down — a moment's peace. But a new patent for Google outlines a system where apps, movies, ads and all sorts of other content we download while we're online can still notify us later when we're offline. In the future, to make sure all notifications are off, you may need to just turn your phone off completely.

Amazon

Quieter delivery drones

The age of autonomous vehicles flying around delivering our packages is nearly upon us. While many people have been concerned with how these things will get to where they're going safely, there's another pressing matter to be dealt with: Most drones sound like a swarm of angry bees is descending upon you whenever they're flying nearby. If we're going to be inundated with drones, these things need to get quieter, or we'll all quickly go insane. Amazon might have a solution: It was awarded a patent for changing the height and pitch of the propeller blades on its drones as they approach people to help cut down on their high-pitched whine.

Eliminating grocery bagging

If you're trying to avoid interacting with a cashier, or even a self-check-out machine, Amazon's new patent for a shopping basket and bag combination may interest you. Inside a regular shopping basket sits a bag (which could be made from reusable materials like paper, leather, canvas or some other fabric) that marries up exactly with the dimensions of the basket. When you're ready to check out, you just pull the soft bag out, drop the shopping basket, and head home.

But wait, when do you pay? Well, this would work only when you're at a store like Amazon Go, where cameras are recording everything you put into your basket as you go through the store, or if you're in a warehouse fulfilling an already-paid-for order for something like Amazon Prime Now. Thankfully Amazon owns both of those.

Apple

Touch-sensitive keyboards

What if your keyboard was also your mouse? That's the rather odd question a new patent from Apple posits. The patent outlines a mechanical keyboard that has sensors built into each key that could tell the difference between someone typing on a key and someone moving their finger over the surface like a trackpad.

The patent suggests that different finger gestures could trigger different actions, such as double-tapping on a key (instead of pressing down) would trigger a mouse click, or swiping four fingers down across the keyboard would scroll the page you're on. This could potentially be an elegant solution for keeping future iPad Pro models slim while also providing the simple functionality that people have been calling for on the tablets. But it also seems way more complicated than just putting a trackpad below the keyboard.

Turning your trackpad into a touchscreen

Apple was also awarded another odd patent for turning one part of a laptop into another part. The company has been putting out laptops with a Touch Bar — a small touchscreen in place of where the Function keys are usually found — for a few years now, but this patent takes things a bit further. It suggests turning the trackpad into a touchscreen, with much of the same functionality of the existing Touch Bar. The trackpad could display notifications, or be used to autofill words as you're typing. It would be nice to have function keys again, and given MacBook trackpads are already covered in glass, this probably wouldn't feel too different.

Virtual workstations while driving

Two of the most common causes for motion sickness, together at last. Apple has a patent that aims to be a kind of cure for vehicle motion sickness that is caused by reading or working while in motion. The answer? A VR or mixed-reality system that you could wear while traveling. But given that VR can itself cause motion sickness in a lot of people, I'm skeptical that combining driving and VR will help.

The application suggests that the system could mirror the world around the vehicle you're traveling in — either through virtually recreating the road out the window, or just by overlaying virtual information on top of what you're actually seeing outside. This apparently will make you less likely to get motion sick, and make it far easier to fire up a massive spreadsheet from the back of the Uber you're in on the way to a meeting.

Wirelessly charging a headset

It seems increasingly likely that an Apple-branded AR or VR headset is coming out in the near future, especially given this patent application. It outlines a system for using wireless inductive charging (the same type of charging found on newer iPhones and the Apple Watch) to charge a headset.

Apple doesn't currently make headsets of any kind, so this seems to be a new product idea it's exploring. In the patent, the strap of the headset has conductive pads so when it's draped over a stand, the device charges.

Facebook

Autoblocking troll accounts

Keeping jerks off the internet is about as easy as holding back the tide. But Facebook has been trying for years to use automated systems to nip problems in the bud. A new patent outlines possible new methods, such as blocking not only the account of someone who violates Facebook's terms of service, but also the device that person primarily signs on from. That system would be automatically blocked from creating additional accounts to get back onto the network.

This patent also describes a system whereby Facebook could distinguish between users of the same device, so that the system could block certain users from making new accounts while still allowing others. The idea here is that if you troll from the computers at the public library, let's say, Facebook should still be able to find you while not penalizing other library goers.

Microsoft

Using chatbots as therapists

The demand for virtual therapy is high and growing. Microsoft looks to be wanting to get in on the market, with a patent application for a chatbot that can discuss how you're feeling, and recommend changes in behavior based on what you say. In one example, a person says they feel tired from the way their colleagues have been pressuring them, and the chatbot suggests getting out for a 30-minute run.

In other situations, the patent describes the chatbot calling an actual human psychologist to step in. Hopefully this bot is a little less susceptible to learning bad habits than Microsoft's infamous Tay, or it's more politically correct follow-up, Zo.

Conscientious appliance use

Microsoft recently announced it's planning to hit the lofty target of being carbon-negative by 2030, and it seems it wants to help you out as well. A new patent application outlines a system that could help homeowners determine the best time to run certain applications — like washing machines or dishwashers — to have the smallest impact on their carbon footprint.

The system would take into account things like the times of the day when most people are using energy, and when more energy comes from renewables rather than carbon sources. The system would present options about when it would be best to run their energy-intensive machines.

Glowing keyboards

Have you ever seen one of those helpful piano keyboards where the keys you're supposed to hit light up? It's sort of like Guitar Hero in the real world. Microsoft has patented something similar: a keyboard that's backlit so that keys or the areas around keys can be illuminated to help show you what to press. This could be useful for games with complicated control combinations, or keyboard shortcut combinations that you don't know.

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Photo: Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash

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Tomio Geron

Tomio Geron ( @tomiogeron) is a San Francisco-based reporter covering fintech. He was previously a reporter and editor at The Wall Street Journal, covering venture capital and startups. Before that, he worked as a staff writer at Forbes, covering social media and venture capital, and also edited the Midas List of top tech investors. He has also worked at newspapers covering crime, courts, health and other topics. He can be reached at tgeron@protocol.com or tgeron@protonmail.com.

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