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Microsoft wants you to live on as a digital chatbot

Drone blimps, emotional video editing, better Apple Watches and other patents from Big Tech.

Microsoft wants you to live on as a digital chatbot

Is this the future of customer service or a really creepy way to honor loved ones who've died? Maybe both!

Image: USPTO

Hello patent roundup readers! It's been a while since I've brought you the latest Big Tech filings from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Blame Thanksgiving and the latest Protocol Manuals. But never fear: We're back now, and there were some truly great patents from the last few weeks. Amazon wants to edit content when it thinks you're sad and blanket the world in drone blimps; Apple is thinking about making long-living wearables; and Microsoft wants to digitally resurrect your dead loved ones.

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

News digests

Keeping up with the news is a difficult task, even on slow news days (remember those?), but Google thinks it can solve it with automation. Based on things people have searched for and their general popularity, Google could send people daily or weekly digests of headlines. The system's algorithm would rank each item on how important it thought it would be to the user. A much easier solution: just sign up for Source Code.

Amazon

Editing content if you look sad

Sometimes after a rough day, we turn to music, books, games or movies to cheer us up. But what if the content we ingested was specifically tuned to reverse whatever mood we're in? Amazon is thinking about using facial recognition to try to determine what mood a person is in by their facial expressions, and then tailoring — or even editing — content to fit the mood. If you're exasperated and just want something to zone out to, the system probably wouldn't show you "Love in the Time of Cholera." Maybe if you keep wearing a mask, the system won't know what sort of content to program for you.

Connected containers that reorder more products

Ever get down to the end of your jar of coffee beans and realize you don't have enough left for that morning cup you need? If so, Amazon's new patent might be welcome news. It outlines an internet-connected container that can gauge the weight of what's in it; if it's getting light, it can automatically reorder what you usually get. In this case, that could mean never being without your organic fair-trade medium roast coffee grounds ever again, which means more booked revenue for Amazon.

Drone-monitoring blimps

This looks like something out of Space Invaders. Apparently not content with the possibility of covering the sky in small delivery drones, Amazon seems to be looking into using blimps to monitor those drones, flying above them to track whether they're all doing as told. Can't wait to see Prime Air blimps replacing Goodyear at all major sporting events in the future — and everywhere else.

Apple

Batteries in a watch band

The Apple Watch is great, but all of the new features the company has introduced — like the always-on display and sleep tracking — really eat up a lot of battery. This new patent, though, could potentially go a long way to adding more battery capacity to Apple's watches without adding much more thickness. The idea is to basically incorporate tiny tubular cells into the design of the watch band — creating something that doesn't look wildly different from some of the bands Apple already sells today — that would still allow the watch band to be flexible. Just don't catch that band on anything!

All-fabric wearables

Apple is also looking into making wearables that might feel a little less like wearing a small iPhone on your wrist. This patent outlines incorporating circuits into stretchy fabrics that could even withstand being put through the wash. While I'd prefer an Apple Watch that can last more than a day or two between charges, it would probably be pretty nice to have one that I can easily wash; they do get pretty grimy after a while!

Facebook

Guessing who you are online

On the internet, nobody knows you're a dog — apart from maybe Facebook. The company is looking into how it can recognize people even if they're not logged into the social network. The patent outlines some more obvious ways — such as cookies that follow your browser around the web — as well as some deeper tracking, such as remembering logged-in users' MAC addresses, IP addresses, device serial numbers and device model numbers. Very little stays secret online these days.

Microsoft

Turning someone into a chatbot

This is a concept I'm endlessly fascinated by. I wrote a very long story about the idea of turning all your digital correspondence with another person into a simulacrum of that person and the nature of humanity, and whether we are more than the sum of our digital parts. Turns out, Microsoft appears to be exploring that very question itself. This patent envisions a system for taking digital content from a person ("images, voice data, social media posts, electronic messages, written letters," the patent says) and using machine learning to train a chatbot on replicating how that person would sound. Is this the future of customer service or a really creepy way to honor loved ones who've died? Maybe both!

Combatting "notification blindness"

If you're not extremely ornery like me, you've probably given up trying to maintain inbox zero and keep all the apps on your phone free of unread notifications. You'll have probably missed a few important notifications in the sea of spam emails, meeting invites, podcast reminders and whatever else pings your phone each day. Microsoft is working on determining the likelihood that displaying a notification badge will cause a user to either read the notification and do something about it, or to turn notifications off for that app entirely (something I do with merciless frequency). If the system decides it's more likely that they'll turn notifications off altogether, it might not show a badge.

Playing basketball on your own

We're having to do a lot on our own these days, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be able to have fun on our own. Microsoft is working on wearables that could be programmed to restrict motion to certain parts of the body, which would give the wearer a sensation of weight or touch. Done correctly, this could be used to simulate something like holding and shooting a basketball. Pair that up with an augmented reality system like HoloLens, and you've got virtual H-O-R-S-E on your hands. Who needs the NBA Bubble?

Politics

What tech policy could look like in Biden’s first 100 days

More antitrust laws and bridging the digital divide should be top of mind for the incoming administration.

Antitrust enforcement is one of the big lessons going into the Biden administration.
Photo: Alex Edelman/Getty Images

Although it is too soon to tell with certainty how President-elect Joe Biden will address the questions surrounding tech policy, it is clear that his inaugural transition on Wednesday will affect the world of tech.

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Penelope Blackwell
Penelope Blackwell is a reporting fellow at Protocol covering ed-tech, where she reports on the decisions leading up toward the advances of remote learning. Previously, she interned at The Baltimore Sun covering emerging news and produced content for Carnegie-Knight’s News21 documenting hate and bias incidents in the U.S. She is also a recent graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and Morgan State University.
People

Amazon’s head of Alexa Trust on how Big Tech should talk about data

Anne Toth, Amazon's director of Alexa Trust, explains what it takes to get people to feel comfortable using your product — and why that is work worth doing.

Anne Toth, Amazon's director of Alexa Trust, has been working on tech privacy for decades.

Photo: Amazon

Anne Toth has had a long career in the tech industry, thinking about privacy and security at companies like Yahoo, Google and Slack, working with the World Economic Forum and advising companies around Silicon Valley.

Last August she took on a new job as the director of Alexa Trust, leading a big team tackling a big question: How do you make people feel good using a product like Alexa, which is designed to be deeply ingrained in their lives? "Alexa in your home is probably the closest sort of consumer experience or manifestation of AI in your life," she said. That comes with data questions, privacy questions, ethical questions and lots more.

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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.

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Photo: IBM Research

The iconic image of quantum computing is the "Google chandelier," with its hundreds of intricately arranged copper wires descending like the tendrils of a metallic jellyfish. It's a grand and impressive device, but in that tangle of wires lurks a big problem.

"If you're thinking about the long-term prospects of quantum computing, that image should be just terrifying," Jim Clarke, the director of quantum hardware at Intel, told Protocol.

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Dan Garisto
Dan Garisto is a freelance science journalist who specializes in the physical sciences, with an emphasis on particle physics. He has an undergraduate degree in physics and is based in New York.
Election 2020

Google says it’s fighting election lies, but its ads fund them

A new report finds that more than 1,600 brands, from Disney to Procter & Gamble, have advertisements running on sites that push pro-Trump conspiracy theories. The majority of those ads are served by Google.

Google is the most dominant player in programmatic advertising, but it has a spotty record enforcing rules for publishers.

Photo: Alex Tai/Getty Images

Shortly after November's presidential election, a story appeared on the website of far-right personality Charlie Kirk, claiming that 10,000 dead people had returned mail-in ballots in Michigan. But after publishing, a correction appeared at the top of the story, completely debunking the misleading headline, which remains, months later, unchanged.

"We are not aware of a single confirmed case showing that a ballot was actually cast on behalf of a deceased individual," the correction, which quoted Michigan election officials, read.

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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.
People

Google’s productivity guru has some advice for you

Here's how Laura Mae Martin helps Google's top execs work smarter.

Laura Mae Martin, Google's executive productivity adviser, works one-on-one with the company's top brass.

Image: Google

If productivity were a product at Google, then Laura Mae Martin would be its product manager.

She's Google's executive productivity adviser, a job she created following a successful 20% project about managing inboxes that she debuted while working in keyword sales. As the company's top expert on productivity, her remit seems simple enough: Make Googlers more efficient in their day-to-day work lives. But in practice, that means working directly with the top executives of a trillion-dollar company to make some of tech's most sought-after talent better at what they do.

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Kevin McAllister

Kevin McAllister ( @k__mcallister) is an associate editor at Protocol, leading the development of Braintrust. Prior to joining the team, he was a rankings data reporter at The Wall Street Journal, where he oversaw structured data projects for the Journal's strategy team.

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