Power

Facebook wants to know how much money you have

Plus, Apple has patented the interior design of some potted plants next to a table; Microsoft plans to track workers through their office; Alphabet wants a folding device, too; and Amazon will sell the Platonic ideal of products.

An eyeball looking at a screen

This week, the big tech companies filed patents for new ways to surveil people and new ways for tech to be helpful.

Illustration: PM Images/Getty Images

The big tech companies file all kinds of crazy patents for things, and though most never amount to anything, others end up defining the future. Every week, we round up the most interesting to emerge from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's weekly drop of new patents, which it is still doing every Tuesday, and which, in these uncertain times, allows me to know what day it is at least once a week.

This week, the big tech companies filed patents for new ways to surveil people and new ways for tech to be helpful, from providing better job applications, smarter speaker assistants, or, you know, implantable brain-monitoring devices. Hopefully that last one is a few years out.

Alphabet

Foldable Google phone?

Making phones, tablets and computers with foldable displays is all the rage these days. This week, Google received a patent that's basically a twofer, outlining a hinge mechanism for a folding device and software to determine what state the phone is in (such as whether the display is folded open or closed). Google hasn't publicly said that it's working on a foldable Pixel phone or computer, but it started working on support for foldable devices in Android in late 2018. Perhaps soon Google will join the ranks of device-makers that haven't quite figured out how to make a folding screen work, but would still like to charge you a lot of money for the pleasure of owning one.

Upgrade your body

There are already implantable medical devices on the market that can be used to monitor your glucose levels or stimulate your heart, but what about to interact with your brain? It sounds like something ripped from a cyberpunk movie, but many organizations are looking into exactly this idea, from Elon Musk's Neuralink to Facebook. And it's something Verily has also been working on in the background. This patent outlines an implantable device that links up to "a neural interface comprising a plurality of electrical leads." The patent goes into few details over what the brain interface could be used for, beyond "monitoring," but I'm guessing it won't be to store illegal hard drives or jack into a computer simulation, or anything else Keanu Reeves may have tried in the '90s.

Fixing your mistakes for you

If you've ever applied to a bunch of similar jobs or sent the same email to a lot of individual people, you've almost certainly had that mortifying moment when you realize you forgot to change who the email was addressed to, and your stomach drops when you see that you've emailed Sheila and called her Jeff. Google's new patent outlines a copy-paste system that recognizes the context in which text is being pasted. It could swap out names based on the email addresses and other cues.

Amazon

Computer-generated ideal products

Amazon's new patent sounds like it's working on using computers to create the Platonic ideal of the products it sells. The system it outlines suggests taking images of several of the items it sells within a given category, and merging them together to create one generic image that represents that category. This could be marginally useful for brands listing on Amazon, I guess? If you sell shoes and you're not Nike, you'd probably be slightly miffed if a retailer's website puts a picture of Nikes up to represent the "shoe" part of their site. But I could also see it being super confusing for customers who actually want to buy that amalgam of every shoe design Amazon sells. Perhaps that's a future product line for AmazonBasics.

Apple

Speaker zones

Say your kids are on the couch trying to watch TV while you're at the table in the same room trying to watch something on your laptop. It's virtually impossible, as the sound will be clashing, unless you pop in some headphones. Apple's new patent imagines a helpful scenario to keep the kids happy if you've forgotten your headphones: connected speakers that can blast different audio streams to different parts of a room. It's similar to how HomePod speakers can be connected to form audio zones in a house, but in the patent, each unit has speakers pointing in every direction, allowing some of them to fire one type of audio in one direction and another in the other. It's not clear how insane this would sound if you were standing directly in the middle of where the two zones met, but I'm guessing pretty insane.

Potted plants?

Apple is meticulous about its brand image, and that means trying to manage every single aspect of what it does. That includes, apparently, trademarking some potted trees next to some display tables for Apple stores. Apple's former head of retail, Angela Ahrendts, made it her mission to add a ton of greenery to Apple's stores (or "town squares," as she liked to call them), but it remains to be seen whether her successor, Deirdre O'Brien, will be as interested in green spaces.

Facebook

Measuring your lot in life

Facebook knows so much about the people that use its social networks, so perhaps this isn't that surprising a patent, but it's still a bit jarring. Facebook's new patent describes using data it has on people to guess their socioeconomic status. It suggests taking "biographic, demographic and other types of descriptive information, such as work experience, educational history, gender, hobbies or preferences, location and the like" from posts and information shared by a user to determine whether they're working class, middle class or upper class. And the end goal? To provide "sponsored content" for a "product or service to target users of the online system belonging to a particular socioeconomic group." I can't wait to find out which direct-to-consumer brands target me on Facebook based on my lot in life.

Microsoft

Tracking you through the office

This new patent sounds both deeply futuristic and invasive. Microsoft's patent outlines a system of sensors dotted around an office building, in lighting fixtures and other unassuming places, that are all meshed together and talking to each other. As a person passes by the sensors, they'll try to determine who they are, by comparing speech to stored recordings of the employee's voice, as well as things like "height, shoulder width, stride length, and/or facial features," according to the patent. Once the system figures out who is walking by, it can do things like preemptively turn on the lights when they walk into their office. Seems like a fair trade-off for constant biometric surveillance!

Making VR headsets a little less gross

It's far from the only thing keeping AR and VR headsets from hitting the mainstream, but have you ever thought about everyone who's ever sweated on a headset that's handed to you in a public setting? Microsoft's patent outlines how a headset like its HoloLens could wick sweat away from a wearer's forehead and the heat-generating system they're wearing in front of their eyes. The system has a "vapor-permeable spacer" between the device and the wearer that helps evaporate sweat and dissipate heat from the device. But I'd still probably wipe any headset down before putting it on.

"You don't want to work here — this job goes nowhere"

When you're interviewing for a new job, it's pretty common to ask what the prospects for growth at the company are. Microsoft's new patent would give people that information before even applying. It envisions a function on a job-seeking social network — Microsoft just happens to own one of those — that could show potential applicants what the likelihood for job growth is beyond the role they're applying for and what the attrition rate is for people with similar skills and backgrounds.

A real keyboard for your touchscreen device

All-screen laptop-shaped devices are apparently the future, whether we want them or not. Lenovo, Apple and Microsoft itself (which was conveniently awarded a patent on the topic this week!) are all in various stages of thinking about devices that don't have physical keyboards. Microsoft is thinking of way to have and not have a keyboard all at once: a physical keyboard that flips out from underneath the bottom of its folding tablet. It's like when Ryan Seacrest invested in that case company that turned your iPhone into a BlackBerry. Eventually, people do new things because they're easier overall, or they just don't do them. Time will tell if all-screen laptops are truly where we're heading.
Climate

The minerals we need to save the planet are getting way too expensive

Supply chain problems and rising demand have sent prices spiraling upward for the minerals and metals essential for the clean energy transition.

Critical mineral prices have exploded over the past year.

Photo: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The newest source of the alarm bells echoing throughout the renewables industry? Spiking critical mineral and metal prices.

According to a new report from the International Energy Agency, a maelstrom of rising demand and tattered supply chains have caused prices for the materials needed for clean energy technologies to soar in the last year. And this increase has only accelerated since 2022 began.

Keep Reading Show less
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).

Sponsored Content

Why the digital transformation of industries is creating a more sustainable future

Qualcomm’s chief sustainability officer Angela Baker on how companies can view going “digital” as a way not only toward growth, as laid out in a recent report, but also toward establishing and meeting environmental, social and governance goals.

Three letters dominate business practice at present: ESG, or environmental, social and governance goals. The number of mentions of the environment in financial earnings has doubled in the last five years, according to GlobalData: 600,000 companies mentioned the term in their annual or quarterly results last year.

But meeting those ESG goals can be a challenge — one that businesses can’t and shouldn’t take lightly. Ahead of an exclusive fireside chat at Davos, Angela Baker, chief sustainability officer at Qualcomm, sat down with Protocol to speak about how best to achieve those targets and how Qualcomm thinks about its own sustainability strategy, net zero commitment, other ESG targets and more.

Keep Reading Show less
Chris Stokel-Walker

Chris Stokel-Walker is a freelance technology and culture journalist and author of "YouTubers: How YouTube Shook Up TV and Created a New Generation of Stars." His work has been published in The New York Times, The Guardian and Wired.

Enterprise

The 911 system is outdated. Updating it to the cloud is risky.

Unlike tech companies, emergency services departments can’t afford to make mistakes when migrating to the cloud. Integrating new software in an industry where there’s no margin for error is risky, and sometimes deadly.

In an industry where seconds can mean the difference between life and death, many public safety departments are hesitant to take risks on new cloud-based technologies.

Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Dialing 911 could be the most important phone call you will ever make. But what happens when the software that’s supposed to deliver that call fails you? It may seem simple, but the technology behind a call for help is complicated, and when it fails, deadly.

The infrastructure supporting emergency contact centers is one of the most critical assets for any city, town or local government. But just as the pandemic exposed the creaky tech infrastructure that runs local governments, in many cases the technology in those call centers is outdated and hasn’t been touched for decades.

Keep Reading Show less
Aisha Counts

Aisha Counts (@aishacounts) is a reporter at Protocol covering enterprise software. Formerly, she was a management consultant for EY. She's based in Los Angeles and can be reached at acounts@protocol.com.

Entertainment

'The Wilds' is a must-watch guilty pleasure and more weekend recs

Don’t know what to do this weekend? We’ve got you covered.

Our favorite things this week.

Illustration: Protocol

The East Coast is getting a little preview of summer this weekend. If you want to stay indoors and beat the heat, we have a few suggestions this week to keep you entertained, like a new season of Amazon Prime’s guilty-pleasure show, “The Wilds,” a new game from Horizon Worlds that’s fun for everyone and a sneak peek from Adam Mosseri into what Instagram is thinking about Web3.

Keep Reading Show less
Janko Roettgers

Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.

Workplace

Work expands to fill the time – but only if you let it

The former Todoist productivity expert drops time-blocking tips, lofi beats playlists for concentrating and other knowledge bombs.

“I do hope the productivity space as a whole is more intentional about pushing narratives that are about life versus just work.”

Photo: Courtesy of Fadeke Adegbuyi

Fadeke Adegbuyi knows how to dole out productivity advice. When she was a marketing manager at Doist, she taught users via blogs and newsletters about how to better organize their lives. Doist, the company behind to-do-list app Todoist and messaging app Twist, has pushed remote and asynchronous work for years. Adegbuyi’s job was to translate these ideas to the masses.

“We were thinking about asynchronous communication from a work point of view, of like: What is most effective for doing ambitious and awesome work, and also, what is most advantageous for living a life that feels balanced?” Adegbuyi said.

Keep Reading Show less
Lizzy Lawrence

Lizzy Lawrence ( @LizzyLaw_) is a reporter at Protocol, covering tools and productivity in the workplace. She's a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, where she studied sociology and international studies. She served as editor in chief of The Michigan Daily, her school's independent newspaper. She's based in D.C., and can be reached at llawrence@protocol.com.

Latest Stories
Bulletins