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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.

Protocol | Fintech

Jack Dorsey is so money: What Tidal and banking do for Square

Teaming up with Jay-Z's music streaming service may seem like a move done for flash, but it's ultimately all about the money (and Cash).

Jay-Z performs at the Tidal-X concert at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn in 2017.

Photo: Theo Wargo/Getty Images

It was a big week for Jack Dorsey, who started by turning heads in Wall Street, and then went Hollywood with an unexpected music-streaming deal.

Dorsey's payments company, Square, announced Monday that it now has an actual bank, Square Financial Services, which just got a charter approved. On Thursday, Dorsey announced Square was taking a majority stake in Tidal, the music-streaming service backed by Jay-Z, for $297 million.

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Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers 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 Signal at (510)731-8429.

Sponsored Content

The future of computing at the edge: an interview with Intel’s Tom Lantzsch

An interview with Tom Lantzsch, SVP and GM, Internet of Things Group at Intel

An interview with Tom Lantzsch

Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Internet of Things Group (IoT) at Intel Corporation

Edge computing had been on the rise in the last 18 months – and accelerated amid the need for new applications to solve challenges created by the Covid-19 pandemic. Tom Lantzsch, Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Internet of Things Group (IoT) at Intel Corp., thinks there are more innovations to come – and wants technology leaders to think equally about data and the algorithms as critical differentiators.

In his role at Intel, Lantzsch leads the worldwide group of solutions architects across IoT market segments, including retail, banking, hospitality, education, industrial, transportation, smart cities and healthcare. And he's seen first-hand how artificial intelligence run at the edge can have a big impact on customers' success.

Protocol sat down with Lantzsch to talk about the challenges faced by companies seeking to move from the cloud to the edge; some of the surprising ways that Intel has found to help customers and the next big breakthrough in this space.

What are the biggest trends you are seeing with edge computing and IoT?

A few years ago, there was a notion that the edge was going to be a simplistic model, where we were going to have everything connected up into the cloud and all the compute was going to happen in the cloud. At Intel, we had a bit of a contrarian view. We thought much of the interesting compute was going to happen closer to where data was created. And we believed, at that time, that camera technology was going to be the driving force – that just the sheer amount of content that was created would be overwhelming to ship to the cloud – so we'd have to do compute at the edge. A few years later – that hypothesis is in action and we're seeing edge compute happen in a big way.

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Saul Hudson
Saul Hudson has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, especially in understanding and targeting messages in cutting-edge technologies. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, in helping companies to build passionate audiences and accelerate their growth. Hudson has reported from more than 30 countries, from war zones to boardrooms to presidential palaces. He has led multinational, multi-lingual teams and managed operations for hundreds of journalists. Hudson is a Managing Partner at Angle42, a strategic communications consultancy.
People

Google’s trying to build a more inclusive, less chaotic future of work

Javier Soltero, the VP of Workspace at Google, said time management is everything.

With everyone working in new places, Google believes time management is everything.

Image: Google

Javier Soltero was still pretty new to the G Suite team when the pandemic hit. Pretty quickly, everything about Google's hugely popular suite of work tools seemed to change. (It's not even called G Suite anymore, but rather Workspace.) And Soltero had to both guide his team through a new way of working and help them build the tools to guide billions of Workspace users.

This week, Soltero and his team announced a number of new Workspace features designed to help people manage their time, collaborate and get stuff done more effectively. It offered new tools for frontline workers to communicate better, more hardware for hybrid meetings, lots of Assistant and Calendar features to make planning easier and a picture-in-picture mode so people could be on Meet calls without really having to pay attention.

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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.

Transforming 2021

Blockchain, QR codes and your phone: the race to build vaccine passports

Digital verification systems could give people the freedom to work and travel. Here's how they could actually happen.

One day, you might not need to carry that physical passport around, either.

Photo: CommonPass

There will come a time, hopefully in the near future, when you'll feel comfortable getting on a plane again. You might even stop at the lounge at the airport, head to the regional office when you land and maybe even see a concert that evening. This seemingly distant reality will depend upon vaccine rollouts continuing on schedule, an open-sourced digital verification system and, amazingly, the blockchain.

Several countries around the world have begun to prepare for what comes after vaccinations. Swaths of the population will be vaccinated before others, but that hasn't stopped industries decimated by the pandemic from pioneering ways to get some people back to work and play. One of the most promising efforts is the idea of a "vaccine passport," which would allow individuals to show proof that they've been vaccinated against COVID-19 in a way that could be verified by businesses to allow them to travel, work or relax in public without a great fear of spreading the virus.

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Mike Murphy

Mike Murphy ( @mcwm) is the director of special projects at Protocol, focusing on the industries being rapidly upended by technology and the companies disrupting incumbents. Previously, Mike was the technology editor at Quartz, where he frequently wrote on robotics, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.

Protocol | Policy

Far-right misinformation: Facebook's most engaging news

A new study shows that before and after the election, far-right misinformation pages drew more engagement than all other partisan news.

A new study finds that far right misinformation pulls in more engagement on Facebook than other types of partisan news.

Photo: Brett Jordan/Unsplash

In the months before and after the 2020 election, far-right pages that are known to spread misinformation consistently garnered more engagement on Facebook than any other partisan news, according to a New York University study published Wednesday.

The study looked at Facebook engagement for news sources across the political spectrum between Aug. 10, 2020 and Jan. 11, 2021, and found that on average, far-right pages that regularly trade in misinformation raked in 65% more engagement per follower than other far-right pages that aren't known for spreading misinformation.

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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.
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