Power

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.

Get what matters in tech, in your inbox every morning. Sign up for Source Code.

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.
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.

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).

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.

Keep Reading Show less
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.

Keep Reading Show less
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.”

Keep Reading Show less
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.

Keep Reading Show less
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.

Latest Stories
Bulletins