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Apple wants underwater iPhones and to track your neighborhood

The big tech companies file all kinds of crazy patents for things. Most never amount to anything, but others end up defining the future.

A man snorkeling with an iPhone.

This is the future Apple wants.

Photo: Roberto Moiola / Sysaworld via Getty Images

This week's patents from the five big tech companies are looking toward a more automated future.

One imagines drones that can safely deliver the things we've ordered from Amazon. Another dreams of chatbots being the cure for loneliness. Apple has one this week that would let the company know when you and your neighbors are turning on your sprinklers. There's even one from Google about reprimanding your kid for not speaking eloquently.

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Alphabet

Teaching kids how to use virtual assistants

It's not a stretch to say that just about every voice assistant on the market struggles to understand some accents more than others. Sometimes that can be adorable, but usually it's extremely frustrating, especially for kids who think they're saying the right things.

Google's patent outlines a voice system that can differentiate between adults and children who might be talking to it, and recognize when someone is speaking in complete sentences. It outlines situations where children might not quite say what they're supposed to ("OK Assista," instead of "OK Assistant") and tailor the voice assistant's answers accordingly, playing kid-friendly music or videos. It could also correct the kids, telling them the proper way to ask their question. It's not clear if it would do the same to an adult who's perhaps just a few too many beverages in and is trying to turn the lights on when they get home from the bar.



Robot small talk

We can't easily converse with most chatbots (although people are trying), but Google is apparently preparing for a world where we engage in small talk with the bots that exist to turn on our thermostats and tell us the weather. In the patent, Google describes a few scenarios where a person is chatting with a bot, while in the background the system in the exchange is "'chatty' or 'searchy.'" It'll then "be assigned an 'idle chatter score' and/or a 'search query suitability score,'" which the system will use to generate its mundane or helpful responses. I can't wait to find out how idle Google thinks my chatter is.

Amazon

Getting your house to do the shopping for you

Amazon wants to own as much of your shopping budget as it possibly can, and wants to automate what it calls "drudgery shopping" — buying things like detergent — by adding trackers into devices in your home. The company already offers the Dash Replenishment API, which manufacturers can choose to implement in their hardware, such as a printer automatically reordering ink when it's running low.

But a new patent application takes things a step further. It suggests auto-buying related products — for a washing machine, that could be detergent, but also fabric softener or dryer sheets, too, upselling customers with ease. The application also describes a system that wouldn't require integration within other hardware, but instead could determine, by being plugged into the same socket and reading how often the machine is using electricity, when it's time to reorder things. Apparently this is to allow us to spend more time on the "fun part" of shopping, like buying new ingredients for fancy recipes, but it also seems like a great way for Amazon to pad its bottom line with recurring revenue.

Delivery drones that know they're in trouble

Amazon is still in the process of moving its Prime Air delivery drone service beyond testing, but a new patent this week suggests it's preparing for the logistics of actually running the operation. It's great that it can deliver one package in a few minutes to one customer, but what about repeat trips in one day? Drones will start to wear out, and it's obviously not safe to have flying computers operating suboptimally flying above us. The patent describes a power-management system that can check onboard sensors to determine whether all systems are running as they should be — and the drone can continue on to its destination — or whether something's wrong and it needs to head off to the nearest "vehicle maintenance or service center," or if it just needs to go home and charge. All important things to tackle before a full-scale service can operate.

Apple

Underwater iPhones

Apple's iPhones and Apple Watches have been water-resistant for a few years now, but other than the occasional spilled drink or dip in the pool with a watch, they haven't really been meant for underwater use. Now a new patent application from Apple published this week suggests it's thinking about how people would use future devices underwater. Perhaps unsurprisingly, touch screens don't work too well when submerged, so if users wanted to do something like take a photo while snorkeling, they'd need some other input. The patent describes using Force Touch — the company's technology for recognizing different inputs based on how hard you press on a screen — "to determine where a user is touching the device." Apple's scaled back how the feature is used on some devices, but perhaps in the future you'll be able to selfie with swordfish and salmon, if you so desire.

Nicer car seats?

Apple has said it's likely not working on designing an entire car, but that hasn't stopped it thinking about all the parts of one. A patent it was awarded this week goes deep into the weeds of how car seats (or desk chairs) hold up over time. It describes a motorized "adaptive tensile control system" that can flex depending on who's sitting in it, to reduce strain on the seat cushions. Now, if only Apple could figure out how to do that for its cables

Watching over the neighborhood

There's been a lot of consternation about the sort of society Amazon is encouraging with its Ring cameras, but Apple might be interested in upping the ante. The company was awarded a patent for "aggregating automated-environment information across a neighborhood." The patent describes aggregating the data fed into a system like Apple's own Home app that smart devices — like thermostats, heating systems, lights, sprinklers, even door sensors that know when people are coming in and out of houses — along with everyone else in your neighborhood. The system would be able to determine locations for you and your neighbors, wrap all the aggregated information up together into a "neighborhood data bundle," which Apple could then use to assess "behavior patterns and identify opportunities to optimize behavior," like reducing energy consumption. Looking forward to Apple knowing when I and all my neighbors get in and out of the shower.

These are really just headphones

Apple also got a design patent for a pair of Beats headphones, but instead of headphones, it called them an "audio listening system." I will now refer to my glasses as an ocular vision system and my pants as an extremity containment system. In case you were wondering.

Facebook

Lip syncing with someone else's face

This is a weird one. Facebook was awarded a patent for a computer-vision system that could determine whether a picture of someone's face is similar to another person's, and if so, use that to manipulate and animate the picture to make it seem like the person is singing along to a song, or as it says: "Create personalized emoticons, personalized lip synching videos, and amplified expressions." This sounds a lot like the sort of facial-mapping AI usually called Deepfakes, which Facebook started blocking from its site (as best it could) earlier this year. But apparently they're fine if Facebook is the one making them.

Microsoft

Feeling virtual objects

Last week, Facebook was awarded a patent for a glove that could help people in VR feel the objects they're seeing, and not to be outdone, Microsoft has been awarded something similar. It's won a patent that outlines a wearable device that "may provide haptic feedback in the form of vibration when worn or carried by a user." The haptic mechanisms in the wearable (which also looks rather glove-like in Microsoft's drawings) would lightly vibrate when a user runs their hand over a surface in VR, giving the sense they're touching it, and might vibrate harder if they try to put their hand through the object. It also suggests potentially restricting movement through the glove at the wearer's joints, so that if you have something round in your hands like a basketball, you'd have to curve your hands to be able to properly hold it.

A better Outlook?

Every so often, some new startup comes along and says they're going to fix email. They never do, because inertia is real and every solution always sort of looks the same. But what if there was another way? Microsoft is apparently toying around with a way to use your email platform as a platform for all the communication in your life — which sounds a lot like a "searchable log of all conversation and knowledge." The patent outlines a tool that combines messaging, social media, calendars, to-dos, contacts, relevant news items, documents, and even search-engine history, all into one place. While I could see how this would be possible, it would require you to put a lot of faith into one system (would one password give hackers access to your whole life?), pulling all your data in one place, and probably be a lot to keep up on in one place. Also you'd probably have to use Bing.
Protocol | Fintech

Plaid’s COO is riding fintech’s choppy waves

He's a striking presence on the beach. If he navigates Plaid's data challenges, Eric Sager will loom large in the financial world as well.

Plaid COO Eric Sager is an avid surfer.

Photo: Plaid

Eric Sager is an avid surfer. It's a fitting passion for the No. 2 executive at Plaid, a startup that's riding fintech's rough waters — including a rogue wave on the horizon that could cause a wipeout.

As Plaid's chief operating officer, Sager has been helping the startup navigate that choppiness, from an abandoned merger with Visa to a harsh critique by the CEO of a top Wall Street bank.

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Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers 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 Signal at (510)731-8429.

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The future of computing at the edge: an interview with Intel’s Tom Lantzsch

An interview with Tom Lantzsch, SVP and GM, Internet of Things Group at Intel

An interview with Tom Lantzsch

Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Internet of Things Group (IoT) at Intel Corporation

Edge computing had been on the rise in the last 18 months – and accelerated amid the need for new applications to solve challenges created by the Covid-19 pandemic. Tom Lantzsch, Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Internet of Things Group (IoT) at Intel Corp., thinks there are more innovations to come – and wants technology leaders to think equally about data and the algorithms as critical differentiators.

In his role at Intel, Lantzsch leads the worldwide group of solutions architects across IoT market segments, including retail, banking, hospitality, education, industrial, transportation, smart cities and healthcare. And he's seen first-hand how artificial intelligence run at the edge can have a big impact on customers' success.

Protocol sat down with Lantzsch to talk about the challenges faced by companies seeking to move from the cloud to the edge; some of the surprising ways that Intel has found to help customers and the next big breakthrough in this space.

What are the biggest trends you are seeing with edge computing and IoT?

A few years ago, there was a notion that the edge was going to be a simplistic model, where we were going to have everything connected up into the cloud and all the compute was going to happen in the cloud. At Intel, we had a bit of a contrarian view. We thought much of the interesting compute was going to happen closer to where data was created. And we believed, at that time, that camera technology was going to be the driving force – that just the sheer amount of content that was created would be overwhelming to ship to the cloud – so we'd have to do compute at the edge. A few years later – that hypothesis is in action and we're seeing edge compute happen in a big way.

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Saul Hudson
Saul Hudson has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, especially in understanding and targeting messages in cutting-edge technologies. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, in helping companies to build passionate audiences and accelerate their growth. Hudson has reported from more than 30 countries, from war zones to boardrooms to presidential palaces. He has led multinational, multi-lingual teams and managed operations for hundreds of journalists. Hudson is a Managing Partner at Angle42, a strategic communications consultancy.
Protocol | Policy

Far-right misinformation: Facebook's most engaging news

A new study shows that before and after the election, far-right misinformation pages drew more engagement than all other partisan news.

A new study finds that far right misinformation pulls in more engagement on Facebook than other types of partisan news.

Photo: Brett Jordan/Unsplash

In the months before and after the 2020 election, far-right pages that are known to spread misinformation consistently garnered more engagement on Facebook than any other partisan news, according to a New York University study published Wednesday.

The study looked at Facebook engagement for news sources across the political spectrum between Aug. 10, 2020 and Jan. 11, 2021, and found that on average, far-right pages that regularly trade in misinformation raked in 65% more engagement per follower than other far-right pages that aren't known for spreading misinformation.

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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.
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.

Protocol | Enterprise

Tony Bates hears the call at Genesys

Running a contact center company isn't as sexy as his previous gigs. But this company could be the best chance for him to make a lasting mark.

Tony Bates arrived at Genesys as CEO after hopscotching through various parts of the tech industry.

Photo: Genesys

Be careful what you wish for. For Tony Bates, that's been running a big tech company.

He rose to Cisco's top ranks but didn't get the No. 1 job. His big CEO break was at Skype when it was poised to go public — but months into that gig, Bates' venture backers sold it to Microsoft instead. After a stint at Microsoft, where some eyed Bates for the CEO job that went to Satya Nadella, he took over GoPro. There, he got cut in a round of layoffs as the camera company struggled. He joined Social Capital, which helped fund Slack and Box, for a gig that lasted a year before tech investor Chamath Palihapitiya blew up the venture capital firm he started.

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Joe Williams

Joe Williams is a senior reporter at Protocol covering enterprise software, including industry giants like Salesforce, Microsoft, IBM and Oracle. He previously covered emerging technology for Business Insider. Joe can be reached at JWilliams@Protocol.com. To share information confidentially, he can also be contacted on a non-work device via Signal (+1-309-265-6120) or JPW53189@protonmail.com.

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