Power

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?

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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