Power

Microsoft envisions chatbots that rap

Looking at the patents that big tech was awarded or filed this week is like glimpsing into the future they envisioned before the world went into crisis mode.

Cartoon robots rapping

Microsoft's patent application for a chatbot that could rap even includes sample lyrics. (Yes, these are robots, not chatbots, but aren't they extremely cute?)

Photo: Westend61/Getty Images

It's an extremely weird time in this world, so anything that still has a sense of normalcy about it is quietly comforting. And it seems COVID-19 won't stop the bureaucracy of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office from publishing its weekly patents and patent applications, all of which were submitted long before the world was hit by this crisis.

This week we have ideas from Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft that range from the quaint (how robots corral themselves) to the futuristic (wearable computers made of … fluids). Time to dive in.


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


Alphabet

Making your own Hitchcock movie

There's a very famous camera trick that Alfred Hitchcock popularized called the "dolly zoom" that plays with perspective while filming. Traditionally, it's required some expensive camera lenses and a camera dolly (little tracks to move a tripod along on), hence the name. But Google is apparently working on a way of using "light-field data" — information about the intensity and direction of light in a scene — to re-create the effect. Google acquired the IP of a light-field camera startup a few years back, so perhaps the company is getting ready to put some game-changing video technology into a future Pixel device. I can't wait to to remake "Vertigo."

Being a courteous robot driver

Plenty of cars have blind-spot sensors these days, which warn you if there's a car in your blind spot. But the only way to avoid being in someone else's blind spot is just to be a conscientious driver. When it comes to robotic cars, which lack a conscience, that bit is a little harder. Waymo has a patent this week to design self-driving car software to address this. It would project rectangular buffer zones on either side of every vehicle traveling in front of a Waymo car so that it would know not to drive in the blind spots of cars around it.

Amazon

Fire escape for robots

Every good workplace needs a fire escape plan, involving how to get people out of the building and where they should reconvene. But what about robots? A new patent from Amazon envisions a system for moving robots to a designated safe area in the event of a fire. It maps out areas of an Amazon warehouse the robots can and can't move to in a fire, and designate a safe space to convene, such as behind a fire-resistant door. It's unclear if one robot would get a little hat and safety vest to lead all the other robots to safety, though.

Apple

Flexible keyboards

Ever since the days of the Power Glove, I've longed for some sort of flexible, wearable computing device. It's highly unlikely that that's what Apple had in mind with this patent, but who knows. It outlines a system for a flexible, illuminated keyboard that could be incorporated into fabric. It's probably some sort of response to Google's Jacquard rather than a retro-futuristic gaming controller, but I can still dare to dream.

Shape-changing mice

Apple's old standard computer mouse is not the most ergonomic, and according to this patent, the company seems to have finally realized that one size does not fit all hands, either. Here, the company patents a mouse that can expand its width and height to better support different-size hands. Not the most exciting thing, but a smart way to still offer only one mouse, while accommodating more body types.

Typing in VR, in the real world

It feels like with every passing week, we're learning a little more about Apple's work on a mixed-reality headset. This week, Apple has a patent application for a head-mountable computer system that can recognize inputs made in the physical world. For example, you could be wearing the headset, which is projecting a virtual keyboard in front of you, and you could tap away on those nonexistent keys and have the headset recognize what you're typing. I imagine that'll feel only slightly more awkward than typing on an iPad screen already does.

Facebook

Interpreting your speech through your muscles

Facebook purchased CTRL-Labs last year, and is already reaping the patent benefits. A new patent from CTRL, that's now assigned to Facebook, outlines the company's rather ornate sensing system designed for "using neuromuscular information to improve speech recognition." This could prove useful for some future voice-based AI system Facebook is working on, or could be a stepping stone along the way to its goal of building a brain-computer interface. I can't wait until Facebook knows everything I'm thinking all the time. Maybe then the targeted ads will finally be accurate.

Flexible circuits made out of fluids instead of electronics

This is a pretty wild idea: Instead of using electronic transistors, what if you used ones that relied on fluids? It's not a new idea — the company Fluidigm has been working on it for decades now — but Facebook seems to be looking into using these flexible, fluid circuits for wearables, especially for VR applications where you don't really want bulky electronics to take you out of the experience of the world you're in. Maybe those fancy bodysuits from "Ready Player One" aren't too far off.

Microsoft

Rapping chatbots!

Microsoft hasn't had the best luck with bots in the past, so if it ever progresses with this idea, it'll be … interesting … to see how it's used. The patent application outlines a chatbot that can be taught to rhyme or come up with poems, and challenge the human it's chatting with to do the same. The application suggests text-based "rap battles." I have no idea who would want to re-create "8 Mile" with a chatbot (perhaps an extremely bored child who's been cooped up inside for weeks?), but I'll leave you with a truly amazing example rhyme from the patent — may it bring you a moment of distraction from the world:

"Here's a skill I had, that you didn't know";

"Rhymes with code just like falling snow";

"Rhyme with me, go toe to toe";

"Maybe you can match my glow."

Protocol | Fintech

A lawsuit tests who controls the stock market

Citadel Securities seeks to block IEX's product that limits high-frequency trading advantages.

Kenneth Griffin is the founder and chief executive officer of Citadel LLC, which argued during Monday's hearing that IEX's D-Limit order type shouldn't have been approved by the SEC.

Photo: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Market maker Citadel Securities, stock exchange IEX and the Securities and Exchange Commission each gave oral arguments Monday in a legal case that could have large implications for financial markets.

Last October, Citadel Securities sued the SEC, seeking to reverse the SEC's previous decision last August to approve IEX's D-Limit order type, arguing that this order type would hurt the overall market. The case was argued before the U.S. Court of Appeals Monday.

Keep Reading Show less
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.

If you've ever tried to pick up a new fitness routine like running, chances are you may have fallen into the "motivation vs. habit" trap once or twice. You go for a run when the sun is shining, only to quickly fall off the wagon when the weather turns sour.

Similarly, for many businesses, 2020 acted as the storm cloud that disrupted their plans for innovation. With leaders busy grappling with the pandemic, innovation frequently got pushed to the backburner. In fact, according to McKinsey, the majority of organizations shifted their focus mainly to maintaining business continuity throughout the pandemic.

Keep Reading Show less
Gaurav Kataria
Group Product Manager, Trello at Atlassian

Everything you need to know about the Allbirds IPO

Allbirds wants to become an iconic global brand for shoes and everything else.

Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The humble venture capitalist puts on her Allbirds one shoe at a time, just like everybody else (or at least everyone else in Palo Alto).

Since its founding in 2015, Allbirds has become an essential component of the tech bro uniform, alongside such staples as the embroidered Patagonia quarter-zip, Lululemon ABC pants, the Zuck-inspired black T-shirt and a Y Combinator-branded Hydro Flask.

Keep Reading Show less
Hirsh Chitkara
Hirsh Chitkara (@ChitkaraHirsh) is a researcher at Protocol, based out of New York City. Before joining Protocol, he worked for Business Insider Intelligence, where he wrote about Big Tech, telecoms, workplace privacy, smart cities, and geopolitics. He also worked on the Strategy & Analytics team at the Cleveland Indians.
Protocol | Policy

It’s Frances Haugen’s world. We’re all just living in it.

With the release of the Facebook Papers, Haugen holds Facebook's future in her hands.

Haugen's decision to open the trove of documents up to outlets beyond the Journal has sparked a feeding frenzy.

Photo: Frances Haugen

Facebook knows a thing or two about optimizing content for outrage. As it turns out, so does Frances Haugen.

Or at least, the heavyweight team of media and political operatives helping manage the rollout of her massive trove of internal documents seems to have learned the lesson well. Because the document dump known as the Facebook Papers, published the same day as Facebook's earnings call with investors and the same week as the conference where it plans to lay out its future as a metaverse company, wasn't just designed for mass awareness.

Keep Reading Show less
Issie Lapowsky

Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol's chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol's fellowship program. 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.

Here are all the Facebook Papers stories

They paint a picture of Facebook that's very different from what Mark Zuckerberg likes to say.

Image: Getty Images, Protocol

Monday morning's news drop was a doozy. There was story after story about the goings-on inside Facebook, thanks to thousands of leaked documents from Frances Haugen, the whistleblower who wants the information within those files to spread far and wide. Haugen is also set to speak in front of the British Parliament on Monday, continuing the story that is becoming known as The Facebook Papers.

Keep Reading Show less
David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editorial director. 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.

Latest Stories