Microsoft wants to replace artists with AI

Better Zoom calls, simpler email attachments, smart iPhone cases and other patents from Big Tech.

Microsoft wants to replace artists with AI

Turning your stories into images.

Image: USPTO/Microsoft

Hello and welcome to 2021! The Big Tech patent roundup is back, after a short vacation and … all the things … that happened between the start of the year and now. It seems the tradition of tech companies filing weird and wonderful patents has carried into the new year; there are some real gems from the last few weeks. Microsoft is trying to outsource all creative endeavors to AI; Apple wants to make seat belts less annoying; and Amazon wants to cut down on some of the recyclable waste that its own success has inevitably created.

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

Making Zoom meetings a little nicer

Even after nearly a year at home, some people have still not figured out the best way to set up their digital meetings. They're either too close to the camera or so far away they might as well not be there. Part of the problem lies in the cameras they have available, as many webcams are too wide-angled: No one needs to see what's 8 feet to either side of you on a Zoom call. But this recent Google patent might help; it involves the meeting platform being able to gauge how far you are from the camera (by measuring the proportions of your face) and zooming in on you when you're speaking, hopefully making everyone look a little more uniform. The patent also included this wonderful diagram to explain it, which appears to have been made in Microsoft Paint:

Amazon

Reusing Amazon boxes

Everyone is shopping online far more than ever before, meaning ever-more cardboard boxes are littering our homes and recycling facilities. Amazon's new patent aims to help rectify this by creating a system that allows customers to easily reuse boxes that products come in. It's trying to remove all the steps usually found in shipping — such as weighing your package, getting a price to ship and bringing the package to a shipping facility — and replacing them with software. You'd scan the box you have and what you're trying to send, and Amazon's app would recognize what it is and estimate how much it'll cost to ship. You then pack it up and a courier comes to retrieve it. Now your friends and loved ones will never be without their Bad Monkeys.



Choosing music based on BPM

If you're making a playlist to work out — or perhaps you're a spin class instructor looking for songs with specific tempos — this idea might be for you. Amazon's patent suggests creating a way to search music to download based on songs' beats per minute. If you want a mix of slow songs to cool down with and uptempo ones to rock out, this could be useful (and is similar to something Pandora offers today). Or if you want a playlist that includes the fastest music ever to help you write faster, this could help. Or maybe that's just me.

Apple

Auto-returning attachments

Have you ever been sent a PDF that you're supposed to download, print, sign, rescan and email back, and then you lost the file in your downloads, opened up an old version and had to hunt down for the right one before you sent it back? Maybe you're not as scatterbrained as me, but Apple's new idea for a system that allows you to just interact with an attachment that needs to be sent back to your correspondent without leaving the email program sounds like a dream. A better dream, though, would probably be to get rid of random attachments altogether.

Seat belts that move based on where you sit

If you've ever been the third person on a road trip and wanted to sit in the middle seat in the back, you've probably gotten stuck with a seatbelt that's a bit too small; the middle seat isn't quite as large as the other two. This new design from Apple would essentially recognize where you sit in the backseat and move the entire seat belt machinery along so that you would be comfortably strapped in wherever you're sitting. It would also automatically reveal the buckle, so you wouldn't have to spend time hunting for where it's gone. This all sounds like it would make losing out when someone calls "shotgun" a little more bearable.

Cases for your AirPods, stylus and iPhone

Apple hasn't been without Jony Ive for very long, but it seems it's going ham on truly zany design concepts in his absence. In this patent, Apple explores various ways to combine a holder for AirPods and a stylus into a folio-style case for an iPhone that could also charge your peripherals and potentially display messages on the exterior. If Apple could pull this off in a way that didn't lead to a giant lumpy mess in my pocket, I'd potentially be interested, but the drawings in the patent are … less than promising:

Facebook

Animating digital avatars with VR headsets

Facebook is still pushing hard to make interacting in VR the future of … interacting … and this patent might help things feel a bit more natural. It suggests using cameras mounted on a VR headset pointed back at you to map real human facial expressions onto your digital avatar. Most VR programs with avatars either have faces that don't move when you're speaking or they just flap their mouths wildly; a system like this could make talking to someone dressed as a wizard or an elf or whatever else they've chosen to represent themselves online feel at least a little more normal.

Microsoft

Cortana for your car

Microsoft is apparently looking into application-specific virtual assistants, such as one designed for use in a car. It's a Car-tana, if you will. The assistant would be designed to provide specific insights about driving and how you could be saving money. That would include things like preemptively letting you know when a part might need servicing, how many miles it's been since you last fueled up or that your electric car's charge is low and chargers are nearby. It could announce these things over the car's stereo system, allowing you to keep your eyes on the road.

Computer-generated songs

Who needs musicians? Microsoft's new patent seems to want to make them obsolete. It suggests a system that can take an input, like a picture or some text, and turn it into a song. It can identify elements in the input, like the sentiment of the words or aspects of the image (like if people are outside or in a crowd) and build a melody and lyrics off of that. Sadly, as this is just a written document, there are no examples of this concept's potential output, if Microsoft has even built something like this. But if it does prove to be possible, I've got the perfect robot to perform this system's songs.

Turning speech into images

Microsoft is really on the art-generating bandwagon this week. This patent outlines a similar idea to the last one, envisioning a system that can take what someone is saying and turn it into images. The system could even string together generated images into a sort-of picture book: You could narrate a day you've had to the AI, and it generates something like a series of Instagram Stories based on what you say to it. Though it'd probably just be easier to actually take photos of what happened, honestly.

Climate

A pro-China disinformation campaign is targeting rare earth miners

It’s uncommon for cyber criminals to target private industry. But a new operation has cast doubt on miners looking to gain a foothold in the West in an apparent attempt to protect China’s upper hand in a market that has become increasingly vital.

It is very uncommon for coordinated disinformation operations to target private industry, rather than governments or civil society, a cybersecurity expert says.

Photo: Goh Seng Chong/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Just when we thought the renewable energy supply chains couldn’t get more fraught, a sophisticated disinformation campaign has taken to social media to further complicate things.

Known as Dragonbridge, the campaign has existed for at least three years, but in the last few months it has shifted its focus to target several mining companies “with negative messaging in response to potential or planned rare earths production activities.” It was initially uncovered by cybersecurity firm Mandiant and peddles narratives in the Chinese interest via its network of thousands of fake social media accounts.

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Lisa Martine Jenkins

Lisa Martine Jenkins is a senior reporter at Protocol covering climate. Lisa previously wrote for Morning Consult, Chemical Watch and the Associated Press. Lisa is currently based in Brooklyn, and is originally from the Bay Area. Find her on Twitter ( @l_m_j_) or reach out via email (ljenkins@protocol.com).

Some of the most astounding tech-enabled advances of the next decade, from cutting-edge medical research to urban traffic control and factory floor optimization, will be enabled by a device often smaller than a thumbnail: the memory chip.

While vast amounts of data are created, stored and processed every moment — by some estimates, 2.5 quintillion bytes daily — the insights in that code are unlocked by the memory chips that hold it and transfer it. “Memory will propel the next 10 years into the most transformative years in human history,” said Sanjay Mehrotra, president and CEO of Micron Technology.

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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.
Fintech

Ripple’s CEO threatens to leave the US if it loses SEC case

CEO Brad Garlinghouse said a few countries have reached out to Ripple about relocating.

"There's no doubt that if the SEC doesn't win their case against us that that is good for crypto in the United States,” Brad Garlinghouse told Protocol.

Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile for Collision via Getty Images

Ripple CEO Brad Garlinghouse said the crypto company will move to another country if it loses in its legal battle with the SEC.

Garlinghouse said he’s confident that Ripple will prevail against the federal regulator, which accused the company of failing to register roughly $1.4 billion in XRP tokens as securities.

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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.

Policy

The Supreme Court’s EPA ruling is bad news for tech regulation, too

The justices just gave themselves a lot of discretion to smack down agency rules.

The ruling could also endanger work on competition issues by the FTC and net neutrality by the FCC.

Photo: Geoff Livingston/Getty Images

The Supreme Court’s decision last week gutting the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions didn’t just signal the conservative justices’ dislike of the Clean Air Act at a moment of climate crisis. It also served as a warning for anyone that would like to see more regulation of Big Tech.

At the heart of Chief Justice John Roberts’ decision in West Virginia v. EPA was a codification of the “major questions doctrine,” which, he wrote, requires “clear congressional authorization” when agencies want to regulate on areas of great “economic and political significance.”

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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.

Enterprise

Microsoft and Google are still using emotion AI, but with limits

Microsoft said accessibility goals overrode problems with emotion recognition and Google offers off-the-shelf emotion recognition technology amid growing concern over the controversial AI.

Emotion recognition is a well-established field of computer vision research; however, AI-based technologies used in an attempt to assess people’s emotional states have moved beyond the research phase.

Photo: Microsoft

Microsoft said last month it would no longer provide general use of an AI-based cloud software feature used to infer people’s emotions. However, despite its own admission that emotion recognition technology creates “risks,” it turns out the company will retain its emotion recognition capability in an app used by people with vision loss.

In fact, amid growing concerns over development and use of controversial emotion recognition in everyday software, both Microsoft and Google continue to incorporate the AI-based features in their products.

“The Seeing AI person channel enables you to recognize people and to get a description of them, including an estimate of their age and also their emotion,” said Saqib Shaikh, a software engineering manager and project lead for Seeing AI at Microsoft who helped build the app, in a tutorial about the product in a 2017 Microsoft video.

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Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye is an award-winning multimedia reporter digging deep and telling print, digital and audio stories. She covers AI and data for Protocol. Her reporting on AI and tech ethics issues has been published in OneZero, Fast Company, MIT Technology Review, CityLab, Ad Age and Digiday and heard on NPR. Kate is the creator of RedTailMedia.org and is the author of "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media," a book about how the 2008 presidential campaigns used digital media and data.

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