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.


Get what matters in tech, in your inbox every morning. Sign up for Source Code.


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.

Google’s latest plans for Chromecast are all about free TV

The company is in talks to add dozens of free linear channels to its newest streaming dongle.

Google launched its new Google TV service a year ago. Now, the company wants to add free TV channels to it.

Photo: Google

Google is looking to make its Chromecast streaming device more appealing to cord cutters. The company has plans to add free TV channels to Google TV, the Android-based smart TV platform that powers Chromecast as well as select smart TVs from companies including Sony and TCL, Protocol has learned.

To achieve this, Google has held talks with companies distributing so-called FAST (free, ad-supported streaming television) channels, according to multiple industry insiders. These channels have the look and feel of traditional linear TV networks, complete with ad breaks and on-screen graphics. Free streaming channels could launch on Google TV as early as this fall, but the company may also wait to announce the initiative in conjunction with its smart TV partners in early 2022.

Keep Reading Show less
Janko Roettgers

Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.

While it's easy to get lost in the operational and technical side of a transaction, it's important to remember the third component of a payment. That is, the human behind the screen.

Over the last two years, many retailers have seen the benefit of investing in new, flexible payments. Ones that reflect the changing lifestyles of younger spenders, who are increasingly holding onto their cash — despite reports to the contrary. This means it's more important than ever for merchants to take note of the latest payment innovations so they can tap into the savings of the COVID-19 generation.

Keep Reading Show less
Antoine Nougue,Checkout.com

Antoine Nougue is Head of Europe at Checkout.com. He works with ambitious enterprise businesses to help them scale and grow their operations through payment processing services. He is responsible for leading the European sales, customer success, engineering & implementation teams and is based out of London, U.K.

Protocol | Policy

Iris scans for food in Jordanian refugee camps

More than 80% of the refugees in Jordanian camps now use iris scans to pay for their groceries. Refugee advocates say this is a huge future privacy problem.

A refugee uses their iris to access their account.

Photo: KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP via Getty Images

Every day, tens of thousands of refugees in the two main camps in Jordan pay for their groceries and withdraw their cash not with a card, but with a scan of their eye.

Nowhere in the United States can someone pay for groceries with an iris scan (though the Department of Homeland Security is considering collecting iris scans from U.S. immigrants, and Clear uses iris scans to verify identities for paying customers at airports) — but in the Jordanian refugee camps, biometric scanners are an everyday sight at grocery stores and ATMs. More than 80% of the 33,000-plus refugees who receive cash assistance and (most of them Syrian) and live in these camps use the United Nations' Refugee Agency iris-scanning system, which verifies identity through eye scans in order to distribute cash and food refugee assistance. Refugees can opt out of the program, but verifying identity without it is so complex that most do not.

Keep Reading Show less
Anna Kramer

Anna Kramer is a reporter at Protocol (Twitter: @ anna_c_kramer, email: akramer@protocol.com), where she writes about labor and workplace issues. 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.

Protocol | China

Weibo is muzzling users for discussing a landmark #metoo case

A number of accounts have been suspended, even deleted, after voicing support for the plaintiff.

Photo: Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

As a Beijing court dismissed China's landmark sexual harassment case on Tuesday, Weibo censors acted to muzzle a number of accounts that voiced support for the accuser, or even simply discussed the trial beforehand.

In 2018, the plaintiff Zhou Xiaoxuan, better known by the nickname Xianzi, filed a high-profile #MeToo case against Zhu Jun, a renowned state broadcast show host. Zhou claimed that Zhu sexually harassed her while she was an intern on Zhu's show in 2014. Chinese web users have closely followed the civil suit, which has also drawn international media attention.

Keep Reading Show less
Shen Lu

Shen Lu is a reporter with Protocol | China. Her writing has appeared in Foreign Policy, The New York Times and POLITICO, among other publications. She can be reached at shenlu@protocol.com.

Protocol | Enterprise

Take that, Slack: ServiceNow gets a little closer to Microsoft Teams

ServiceNow is expanding its decade-long partnership with Microsoft as both companies intensify their rivalry with Salesforce.

Microsoft and ServiceNow's "coopetition" is aimed at a higher goal: undermining Salesforce, which is fast becoming the main rival for both vendors.

Photo: Uwe Anspach/Getty Images

For ServiceNow, Microsoft is the lesser of two evils compared to Salesforce.

After ditching Slack for Teams following the Salesforce acquisition, ServiceNow is deepening its decade-long partnership with Microsoft, promising co-development of new products and fresh integration capabilities within Teams, it plans to announce Thursday.

Keep Reading Show less
Joe Williams

Joe Williams is a senior reporter at Protocol covering enterprise software, including industry giants like Salesforce, Microsoft, IBM and Oracle. He previously covered emerging technology for Business Insider. Joe can be reached at JWilliams@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.

Latest Stories