Alexa

Committed to privacy, Snips founder wants to take on Alexa and Google, with blockchain

Posted by | Alexa, Amazon, blockchain, cryptocurrency, Developer, Europe, Gadgets, Google, siri, Snips, Startups, TC | No Comments

Earlier this year we saw the headlines of how the users of popular voice assistants like Alexa and Siri and continue to face issues when their private data is compromised, or even sent to random people. In May it was reported that Amazon’s Alexa recorded a private conversation and sent it to a random contact. Amazon insists its Echo devices aren’t always recording, but it did confirm the audio was sent.

The story could be a harbinger of things to come when voice becomes more and more ubiquitous. After all, Amazon announced the launch of Alexa for Hospitality, its Alexa system for hotels, in June. News stories like this simply reinforce the idea that voice control is seeping into our daily lives.

The French startup Snips thinks it might have an answer to the issue of security and data privacy. Its built its software to run 100% on-device, independently from the cloud. As a result, user data is processed on the device itself, acting as a potentially stronger guarantor of privacy. Unlike centralized assistants like Alexa and Google, Snips knows nothing about its users.

Its approach is convincing investors. To date, Snips has raised €22 million in funding from investors like Korelya Capital, MAIF Avenir, BPI France and Eniac Ventures. Created in 2013 by 3 PhDs, and now employing more than 60 people in Paris and New York, Snips offers its voice assistant technology as a white-labelled solution for enterprise device manufacturers.

It’s tested its theories about voice by releasing the result of a consumer poll. The survey of 410 people found that 66% of respondents said they would be apprehensive of using a voice assistant in a hotel room, because of concerns over privacy, 90% said they would like to control the ways corporations use their data, even if it meant sacrificing convenience.

“Сonsumers are increasingly aware of the privacy concerns with voice assistants that rely on cloud storage — and that these concerns will actually impact their usage,” says Dr Rand Hindi, co-founder and CEO at Snips. “However, emerging technologies like blockchain are helping us to create safer and fairer alternatives for voice assistants.”

Indeed, blockchain is very much part of Snip’s future. As Hindi told TechCrunch in May, the company will release a new set of consumer devices independent of its enterprise business. The idea is to create a consumer business that will prompt further enterprise development. At the same time, they will issue a cryptographic token via an ICO to incentivize developers to improve the Snips platform, as an alternative to using data from consumers. The theory goes that this will put it at odds with the approach used by Google and Amazon, who are constantly criticised for invading our private lives merely to improve their platforms.

As a result Hindi believes that as voice-controlled devices become an increasingly common sight in public spaces, there could be a significant shift in public opinion about how their privacy is being protected.

In an interview conducted last month with TechCrunch, Hindi told me the company’s plans for its new consumer product are well advanced, and will be designed from the beginning to be improved over time using a combination of decentralized machine learning and cryptography.

By using blockchain technology to share data, they will be able to train the network “without ever anybody sending unencrypted data anywhere,” he told me.

And ‘training the network” is where it gets interesting. By issuing a cryptographic token for developers to use, Hindi says they will incentivize devs to work on their platform and process data in a decentralized fashion. They are starting from a good place. He claims they already have 14,000 developers on the platform who will be further incentivized by a token economy.

“Otherwise people have no incentive to process that data in a decentralized fashion, right?” he says.

“We got into blockchain because we’re trying to find a way to get people to participate in decentralized machine learning. We’ve been wanting to get into consumer [devices] for a couple of years but didn’t really figure out the end goal because we had always had this missing element which was: how do you keep making it better over time.”

“This is the main argument for Google and Amazon to pretend that you need to send your data to them, to make the service better. If we can fix this [by using blockchain] then we can offer a real alternative to Alexa that guarantees Privacy by Design,” he says.

“We now have over 14000 developers building for us and that’s really completely organic growth, zero marketing, purely word of mouth, which is really nice because it shows that there’s a very big demand for decentralized voice assistance, effectively.”

It could be a high-risk strategy. Launching a voice-controlled device is one thing. Layering it with applications produced by developed supposedly incentivized by tokens, especially when crypto prices have crashed, is quite another.

It does definitely feel like a moonshot idea, however, and we’ll really only know if Snips can live up to such lofty ideals after the launch.

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You can now use Alexa and Cortana to control your Xbox

Posted by | Alexa, console, Cortana, Gaming, Microsoft, TC, voice, voice assistant, xbox | No Comments

You can now control the Xbox from Alexa and Cortana. Microsoft announced his morning it’s introducing a new way to interact with Xbox One using voice commands, by way of an Xbox Skill that works with both Alexa and Cortana, across platforms. The skill will allow users to launch games, adjust the volume, start and stop their broadcasts to Mixer, capture screenshots and more.

For example, players will be able to say to their Echo speaker, “Alexa, start Rocket League,” and the console would power on, sign them in, and launch the game.

To use the new feature with Alexa, players will first have to sign in with their Amazon account then link their Microsoft account to the skill. With Cortana, users will instead have to first sign into the Xbox they want to control, then sign in with their Microsoft account to link the skill on their Windows 10 PC.

They could then say something like “Hey Cortana, tell Xbox to open Netflix.”

 

Microsoft says the skill will work across a range of voice-powered devices, including Windows 10 PC, Amazon Echo devices, Harman Kardon Invoke, Sonos One, or the Cortana and Alexa apps for iOS and Android.

A full list of its commands will be posted to the Xbox Insiders Reddit. 

The Xbox Skill, at launch, will be rolling out gradually to U.S. Xbox Insider rings (Alpha Skip Ahead, Alpha, Beta) as the company takes in feedback from its early adopters. To see if you have the option available, you’ll need to look in Settings –> Devices on your console to see if the “Digital Assistant” setting is visible.

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Security researchers found a way to hack into the Amazon Echo

Posted by | Alexa, Amazon, Amazon Echo, Gadgets, privacy, Security, TC | No Comments

Hackers at DefCon have exposed new security concerns around smart speakers. Tencent’s Wu HuiYu and Qian Wenxiang spoke at the security conference with a presentation called Breaking Smart Speakers: We are Listening to You, explaining how they hacked into an Amazon Echo speaker and turned it into a spy bug.

The hack involved a modified Amazon Echo, which had parts swapped out, including some that had been soldered on. The modified Echo was then used to hack into other, non-modified Echos by connecting both the hackers’ Echo and a regular Echo to the same LAN.

This allowed the hackers to turn their own, modified Echo into a listening bug, relaying audio from the other Echo speakers without those speakers indicating that they were transmitting.

This method was very difficult to execute, but represents an early step in exploiting Amazon’s increasingly popular smart speaker.

The researchers notified Amazon of the exploit before the presentation, and Amazon has already pushed a patch, according to Wired.

Still, the presentation demonstrates how one Echo, with malicious firmware, could potentially alter a group of speakers when connected to the same network, posing concerns with the idea of Echos in hotels.

Wired explained how the networking feature of the Echo allowed for the hack:

If they can then get that doctored Echo onto the same Wi-Fi network as a target device, the hackers can take advantage of a software component of Amazon’s speakers, known as Whole Home Audio Daemon, that the devices use to communicate with other Echoes in the same network. That daemon contained a vulnerability that the hackers found they could exploit via their hacked Echo to gain full control over the target speaker, including the ability to make the Echo play any sound they chose, or more worryingly, silently record and transmit audio to a faraway spy.

An Amazon spokesperson told Wired that “customers do not need to take any action as their devices have been automatically updated with security fixes,” adding that “this issue would have required a malicious actor to have physical access to a device and the ability to modify the device hardware.”

To be clear, the actor would only need physical access to their own Echo to execute the hack.

While Amazon has dismissed concerns that its voice activated devices are monitoring you, hackers at this year’s DefCon proved that they can.

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Surprise, no one buys things via Alexa

Posted by | Alexa, Amazon, eCommerce, Gadgets, hardware | No Comments

Some numbers published in a report from The Information reveal that very few owners of Alexa-powered devices use them for shopping. Of about 50 million Alexa users, only about 100,000 reportedly bought something via voice interface more than once. It’s not exactly surprising, but it may still harm the narrative of conversational commerce that Amazon and others are trying to advance.

The Amazon Echo and its brethren are mostly used for the expected everyday purposes of listening to music, asking what the weather will be like tomorrow and setting timers. All of these things are obviously things that phones do as well, but there’s something to be said for having a stationary hub for the more domestic tasks.

But part of the expectation of seeding the home with these devices has been that users would also make purchases using them: “Alexa, order more Oreos,” or “Alexa, buy a pair of Bose noise-cancelling headphones.” This always seemed rather odd, as people tend to want to look at items before buying them, to check reviews, to shop around for better prices and so on. Who would just buy something by telling their Echo that they want to?

Hardly anyone, it seems. That said, it would be a bit disingenuous to pretend that conversational commerce is anything other than one point in a litany of proposed uses for the likes of Alexa, running the gamut of credibility.

As a hub for increasingly common smart home devices, Alexa is a great choice and a common one. And although groceries and impulse purchases may not be something people do via voice, an Echo is a great seller of subscriptions like Spotify and Audible, not to mention future possibilities from queries like “Alexa, call me a plumber.” And of course there’s the whole behind-the-scenes industry of ads, promotions and clever use of voice data.

Why would anyone use these devices to shop? It’s like using a laptop as a hammer. Possible, but not recommended. The other stat The Information mentions is that a million people have tried buying stuff but only 100,000 continued. It may be that this side of e-commerce is merely not “mature,” that catch-all term that could mean so many things. But it may also just be that it’s not something people want to do.

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When in Rome is the first Alexa-powered board game

Posted by | Alexa, Amazon, arkansas, Gadgets, Rome, TC, voice technology | No Comments

Years ago, in the heyday of home video, I played a board games that used VHS tapes and electronic parts to help spur the action along. From Candy Land VCR to Captain Power, game makers were doing the best they could with a new technology. Now, thanks to Alexa, they can try something even cooler — board games that talk back.

The first company to try this is Sensible Object. Their new game, When in Rome, is a family board game that pits two teams against each other in a race to travel the world. The game itself consists of a board and a few colored pieces; the real magic comes from Alexa. You start the game by enabling the When in Rome skill, then you start the game. Alexa then prompts you with questions as you tool around the board.

The rules are simple because Alexa does most of the work. The game describes how to set up the board and gets you started, then you just trigger it with your voice as you play.

The company’s first game, Beasts of Balance, was another clever hybrid of AR and real-life board-game action. Both games are a bit gimmicky and a bit high-tech — you won’t be able to play these in a cozy beach house without internet, for example — but it’s a fun departure from the norm.

Like the VCR games of yore, When in Rome depends on a new technology to find a new way to have fun. It’s a clever addition to the standard board-game fare and our family had a good time playing it. While it’s not as timeless as a bit of Connect 4 or Risk, it’s a great addition to the board-games shelf and a cool use of voice technology in gaming.

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Digging deeper into smart speakers reveals two clear paths

Posted by | Alexa, Amazon, amazon alexa, Amazon Echo, Apple, artificial intelligence, Assistant, Ben Einstein, computing, echo, Gadgets, Google, Google Assistant, ring, smart speaker, smart speakers, Sonos, sonos one, Speaker, Spotify, steel, TC, technology | No Comments

In a truly fascinating exploration into two smart speakers – the Sonos One and the Amazon Echo – BoltVC’s Ben Einstein has found some interesting differences in the way a traditional speaker company and an infrastructure juggernaut look at their flagship devices.

The post is well worth a full read but the gist is this: Sonos, a very traditional speaker company, has produced a good speaker and modified its current hardware to support smart home features like Alexa and Google Assistant. The Sonos One, notes Einstein, is a speaker first and smart hardware second.

“Digging a bit deeper, we see traditional design and manufacturing processes for pretty much everything. As an example, the speaker grill is a flat sheet of steel that’s stamped, rolled into a rounded square, welded, seams ground smooth, and then powder coated black. While the part does look nice, there’s no innovation going on here,” he writes.

The Amazon Echo, on the other hand, looks like what would happen if an engineer was given an unlimited budget and told to build something that people could talk to. The design decisions are odd and intriguing and it is ultimately less a speaker than a home conversation machine. Plus it is very expensive to make.

Pulling off the sleek speaker grille, there’s a shocking secret here: this is an extruded plastic tube with a secondary rotational drilling operation. In my many years of tearing apart consumer electronics products, I’ve never seen a high-volume plastic part with this kind of process. After some quick math on the production timelines, my guess is there’s a multi-headed drill and a rotational axis to create all those holes. CNC drilling each hole individually would take an extremely long time. If anyone has more insight into how a part like this is made, I’d love to see it! Bottom line: this is another surprisingly expensive part.

Sonos, which has been making a form of smart speaker for 15 years, is a CE company with cachet. Amazon, on the other hand, sees its devices as a way into living rooms and a delivery system for sales and is fine with licensing its tech before making its own. Therefore to compare the two is a bit disingenuous. Einstein’s thesis that Sonos’ trajectory is troubled by the fact that it depends on linear and closed manufacturing techniques while Amazon spares no expense to make its products is true. But Sonos makes speakers that work together amazingly well. They’ve done this for a decade and a half. If you compare their products – and I have – with competing smart speakers an non-audiophile “dumb” speakers you will find their UI, UX, and sound quality surpass most comers.

Amazon makes things to communicate with Amazon. This is a big difference.

Where Einstein is correct, however, is in his belief that Sonos is at a definite disadvantage. Sonos chases smart technology while Amazon and Google (and Apple, if their HomePod is any indication) lead. That said, there is some value to having a fully-connected set of speakers with add-on smart features vs. having to build an entire ecosystem of speaker products that can take on every aspect of the home theatre.

On the flip side Amazon, Apple, and Google are chasing audio quality while Sonos leads. While we can say that in the future we’ll all be fine with tinny round speakers bleating out Spotify in various corners of our room, there is something to be said for a good set of woofers. Whether this nostalgic love of good sound survives this generation’s tendency to watch and listen to low resolution media is anyone’s bet, but that’s Amazon’s bet to lose.

Ultimately Sonos is strong and fascinating company. An upstart that survived the great CE destruction wrought by Kickstarter and Amazon, it produces some of the best mid-range speakers I’ve used. Amazon makes a nice – almost alien – product, but given that it can be easily copied and stuffed into a hockey puck that probably costs less than the entire bill of materials for the Amazon Echo it’s clear that Amazon’s goal isn’t to make speakers.

Whether the coming Sonos IPO will be successful depends partially on Amazon and Google playing ball with the speaker maker. The rest depends on the quality of product and the dedication of Sonos users. This good will isn’t as valuable as a signed contract with major infrastructure players but Sonos’ good will is far more than Amazon and Google have with their popular but potentially intrusive product lines. Sonos lives in the home while Google and Amazon want to invade it. That is where Sonos wins.

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Motiv’s neat little fitness ring gets Android and Alexa support

Posted by | Alexa, Amazon, Android, hardware, Health, motiv, Wearables | No Comments

I was pleasantly surprised by Motiv . Sure, my expectations were low for a fitness tracking ring, but pleasantly surprised is pleasantly surprised is still pleasantly surprised. The $200 Fitbit alternative gets a couple of key software upgrades this week, including, most notably, the addition of Android compatibility, along with some Alexa integration.

Initially launched as iOS-only, the Ring is taking baby steps toward working with the world’s most popular mobile operating system. It’s launching first as part of an open beta with, “a more comprehensive feature set” coming by middle of the year. But adventurous users can download the app from the Google Play Store right now.

The fitness tracking ring now works with Alexa, as well. Users can ask Amazon’s smart assistant to sync data and check their heart rate. More metrics are on the way by year’s end, in an attempt to save having to look at a phone screen every time, I suppose. After all, Motiv doesn’t seem likely to cram a tiny screen into the ring any time soon.

Speaking of Amazon, the Ring is now on sale through the online retail giant. Motiv will also be selling the ring at b8ta stores, for those who went to see it in person before dropping $200.

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Alexa’s new ‘Brief Mode’ replaces verbal confirmations with chimes

Posted by | Alexa, echo, Gadgets | No Comments

Amazon confirmed it’s rolling out an optional “Brief Mode” that lets Alexa users configure their Echo devices to use chimes and sounds for confirmations, instead of having Alexa respond with her voice. For example, if you ask Alexa to turn on your lights today, she will respond “okay” as she does so. But with Brief Mode enabled, Alexa will instead emit a small chime as she performs the task.

The mode would be beneficial to someone who appreciates being able to control their smart home via voice, but doesn’t necessarily need to have Alexa verbally confirming that she took action with each command. This is especially helpful for those who have voice-enabled a range of smart home accessories, and have gotten a little tired of hearing Alexa answer back.

The addition of Brief Mode comes at a time when voice assistants are finding their way into ever more smart home devices, beyond the doorbells, camera, lightbulbs, thermostats, and others we’ve grown used to. At CES 2018 this January, for example, Alexa was found in a number of new devices, like smart faucets, light switches, car dashboard cameras, projectors, and several more home appliances like dishwashers, washers, dryers, and fridges.

The launch of Brief Mode was first spotted by users on Reddit (via AFTVNews), with many saying they had received the option just a few days ago. Others in the thread noted they had it as well, but then it went away – something that seems to indicate a test on Amazon’s part, or perhaps bugs with a phased rollout. In some cases, users also noticed a new toggle switch in the Alexa app, which allows you to turn Brief Mode on or off.

The explanation provided here doesn’t seem like Brief Mode would be limited to smart home commands, but anytime when Alexa could play a sound instead of a verbal confirmation. It also seems like it may cut down on Alexa’s overall chattiness in other ways, though we haven’t yet noticed any changes on other fronts.

I received the option to enable Brief Mode yesterday. When giving Alexa a command to turn off the bedroom light, she responded by explaining what Brief Mode does and giving me the option to enable it. (I said yes.)

Now when Alexa is commanded to do things with smart home devices, she just chimes.

We asked Amazon yesterday to confirm if Brief Mode is rolling out to all users, and it confirmed today that is the case.

“We’re always looking for ways to make Alexa even more useful for customers, and the new Brief Mode setting is another example of that,” a spokesperson said.

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Sonos One’s Alexa support comes to Canada

Posted by | Alexa, Amazon, amazon alexa, Amazon Echo, artificial intelligence, california, economy, Gadgets, hardware, smart speakers, Sonos, TC | No Comments

 Sonos One users in Canada can now join their peers south of the border in yelling requests at their connected speakers – a free update issued today enables Amazon Alexa on the Sonos One. The One launched with Alexa support in the U.S., but while the speaker has been available to Canadian buyers since late last year, Alexa voice commands are new with the update. That means Canadians will… Read More

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