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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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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.
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 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.
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'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.
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 …
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.
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.
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.
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.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.
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.