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Power

It chased fraudsters. Now, Pindrop wants to simplify streaming.

The security startup has struck a partnership with TiVo to personalize voice search.

It chased fraudsters. Now, Pindrop wants to simplify streaming.

Pindrop is partnering with TiVo to bring its voice authentication technology to smart TVs and streaming devices.

Photo: Scott Eells/Getty Images

Chicken Man was trying to be clever.

Calling up banks to trick unsuspecting customer service agents, the scam artist would always play a recording of chickens in the background to mask his voice. Security experts at Pindrop, a voice authentication startup used by major financial institutions to screen 1.1 billion calls last year, got such a kick out of his efforts that they even named a conference room after him. However, Chicken Man couldn't defeat Pindrop's technology, and ultimately helped the company prepare for a new challenge: a typical family's living room.

On Tuesday, Pindrop announced a partnership with TiVo to bring its voice authentication technology to smart TVs and streaming devices. Instead of weeding out fraudsters, the technology is now being used to personalize voice search results and present the right content recommendations to each member of the family. Soon, the company even plans to infer emotional states from a person's voice, and tweak content recommendations accordingly.

Thanks to the unwitting help of fraudsters like Chicken Man, Pindrop has gotten very good at dealing with background noise. During a demo given to Protocol, an Android TV device featuring Pindrop's tech was able to identify two different speakers even with a blender running on high gear, as well as with one of the participants wearing a muffling N95 mask.

Personalization for smart devices is nothing new. Streaming services like Netflix and Disney+ have for years offered user profiles to personalize content recommendations. Similarly, Google and Amazon are both offering consumers a way to personalize responses from their respective voice assistants.

But while the tech and streaming giants require users to actively set up user profiles and authenticate the voices of each member of their household, Pindrop is taking a more organic approach. "We do something called passive clustering," explained CEO Vijay Balasubramaniyan. Pindrop's algorithms analyze over 250 voice characteristics, including intonation, rhythm and style.

In the living room, the technology is being used to develop unique profiles for everyone in the household; the profiles are then connected to content recommendation engines like the one developed by TiVo. Consumers can decide to name the profiles for each family member, but Pindrop doesn't need to know anything about the real identity of each user.

Once the first streaming products powered by Pindrop launch, the startup wants to fine-tune its technology to detect the emotion and age of consumers to further improve recommendations. TiVo has yet to announce any products that will feature Pindrop's technology, but Balasubramaniyan said that we may get an update on that in the next few months. In addition to its legacy DVR business, TiVo also launched its own Android TV streaming dongle last year, and is licensing its voice technology to other companies.

Pindrop's work for the living room also helped the company improve some of its other security efforts. One example: Live call center conversations are typically a lot longer than the voice commands used to search streaming services, but by optimizing for these short phrases, Pindrop was also able to improve its screening of interactions with the kind of automated call center platforms that ask consumers for one-word choices.

"Solving this problem for TV has helped us in the call center world," Balasubramaniyan said.

Politics

A Bloomberg-backed ‘tech co’ is building campaign tools for the left and right

The stealthy firm, which has been buying political tech firms for more than a year, is backed by Emma Bloomberg's philanthropic group.

The new firm, called Tech co., is backed by Michael Bloomberg's daughter, Emma Bloomberg.

Image: Clayton Cardinalli

A new company backed by Michael Bloomberg's daughter Emma Bloomberg has been quietly buying political tech firms and going on a hiring spree, as it seeks to create a digital organizing platform that operates "outside of a traditional 'Red/Blue' partisan paradigm."

Neither the existence of the firm, called simply Tech co. for now, nor its high-profile funder have been previously reported, though it's been up and running for at least a year. But a spate of recent job listings seeking data scientists, behavioral scientists and engineers have circulated through the insular political tech whisper mill, sparking curiosity as the startup prepares to emerge from stealth mode this spring.

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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.
Sponsored Content

Building better relationships in the age of all-remote work

How Stripe, Xero and ModSquad work with external partners and customers in Slack channels to build stronger, lasting relationships.

Image: Original by Damian Zaleski

Every business leader knows you can learn the most about your customers and partners by meeting them face-to-face. But in the wake of Covid-19, the kinds of conversations that were taking place over coffee, meals and in company halls are now relegated to video conferences—which can be less effective for nurturing relationships—and email.

Email inboxes, with hard-to-search threads and siloed messages, not only slow down communication but are also an easy target for scammers. Earlier this year, Google reported more than 18 million daily malware and phishing emails related to Covid-19 scams in just one week and more than 240 million daily spam messages.

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People

How Chess.com built a streaming empire

Twitch users watched 18.3 million hours of chess content in January, nearly as much as they consumed throughout 2019. Last week, chess even surpassed League of Legends, Fortnite and Valorant as the most-watched gaming category.

To date, Chess.com has over 57 million members.

Photo: William West/Getty Images

There's something inherently perverse in calling chess "open source." It's a bit like saying France "pivoted" from monarchy to republic, or that indoor plumbing was a "10x idea."

Nevertheless, it's true: Anyone has free rein to make a chess game.

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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.
Transforming 2021

Blockchain, QR codes and your phone: the race to build vaccine passports

Digital verification systems could give people the freedom to work and travel. Here's how they could actually happen.

One day, you might not need to carry that physical passport around, either.

Photo: CommonPass

There will come a time, hopefully in the near future, when you'll feel comfortable getting on a plane again. You might even stop at the lounge at the airport, head to the regional office when you land and maybe even see a concert that evening. This seemingly distant reality will depend upon vaccine rollouts continuing on schedule, an open-sourced digital verification system and, amazingly, the blockchain.

Several countries around the world have begun to prepare for what comes after vaccinations. Swaths of the population will be vaccinated before others, but that hasn't stopped industries decimated by the pandemic from pioneering ways to get some people back to work and play. One of the most promising efforts is the idea of a "vaccine passport," which would allow individuals to show proof that they've been vaccinated against COVID-19 in a way that could be verified by businesses to allow them to travel, work or relax in public without a great fear of spreading the virus.

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Mike Murphy

Mike Murphy ( @mcwm) is the director of special projects at Protocol, focusing on the industries being rapidly upended by technology and the companies disrupting incumbents. Previously, Mike was the technology editor at Quartz, where he frequently wrote on robotics, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.

Amazon's new interface tries to rein in the chaos

The company is rolling out a new interface with profiles and a big emphasis on live content to additional Fire TV streaming devices next month.

Amazon's new Fire TV interface is coming to additional streaming devices next month.

Image: Amazon

When Amazon's Fire TV team began pushing out a new interface to select streaming devices in December, it wasn't just aiming for a cosmetic refresh. The new Fire TV experience, which is scheduled to launch on Fire TV Stick 4K and Fire TV Cube devices next month, promises to rein in some of the sprawl caused by Fire TV's last major UI change. However, the new changes also show how hard it can be for TV platforms to do the right thing for consumers without offending content partners.

The idea was simple enough: Instead of making consumers browse bland lists of apps, forcing them to choose whether they'd want to spend their evening with Netflix or Hulu, Amazon's Fire TV team wanted them to get straight to the movies and shows that matter. That's why in late 2016, the company was first among the major smart TV platform providers to introduce what's known in the industry as a content-first user experience, with rows and rows of shows and movies — from various streaming apps — directly on the TV home screen.

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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.

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