Assistant

Week-in-Review: Alexa’s indefinite memory and NASA’s otherworldly plans for GPS

Posted by | 4th of July, AI assistant, alex wong, Amazon, Andrew Kortina, Android, andy rubin, appeals court, Apple, apple inc, artificial intelligence, Assistant, China, enterprise software, Getty-Images, gps, here, iPhone, machine learning, Online Music Stores, operating systems, Sam Lessin, social media, Speech Recognition, TC, Tim Cook, Twitter, United States, Venmo, voice assistant | No Comments

Hello, weekenders. This is Week-in-Review, where I give a heavy amount of analysis and/or rambling thoughts on one story while scouring the rest of the hundreds of stories that emerged on TechCrunch this week to surface my favorites for your reading pleasure.

Last week, I talked about the cult of Ive and the degradation of Apple design. On Sunday night, The Wall Street Journal published a report on how Ive had been moving away from the company, to the dismay of many on the design team. Tim Cook didn’t like the report very much. Our EIC gave a little breakdown on the whole saga in a nice piece.

Apple sans Ive


Amazon Buys Whole Foods For Over 13 Billion

The big story

This week was a tad restrained in its eventfulness; seems like the newsmakers went on 4th of July vacations a little early. Amazon made a bit of news this week when the company confirmed that Alexa request logs are kept indefinitely.

Last week, an Amazon public policy exec answered some questions about Alexa in a letter sent to U.S. Senator Coons. His office published the letter on its site a few days ago and most of the details aren’t all that surprising, but the first answer really sets the tone for how Amazon sees Alexa activity:

Q: How long does Amazon store the transcripts of user voice recordings?

A: We retain customers’ voice recordings and transcripts until the customer chooses to delete them.

What’s interesting about this isn’t that we’re only now getting this level of straightforward dialogue from Amazon on how long data is kept if not specifically deleted, but it makes one wonder why it is useful or feasible for them to keep it indefinitely. (This assumes that they actually are keeping it indefinitely; it seems likely that most of it isn’t, and that by saying this they’re protecting themselves legally, but I’m just going off the letter.)

After several years of “Hey Alexa,” the company doesn’t seem all that close to figuring out what it is.

Alexa seems to be a shit solution for commerce, so why does Amazon have 10,000 people working on it, according to a report this week in The Information? All signs are pointing to the voice assistant experiment being a short-term failure in terms of the short-term ambitions, though AI advances will push the utility.

Training data is a big deal across AI teams looking to educate models on data sets of relevant information. The company seems to say as much. “Our speech recognition and natural language understanding systems use machine learning to adapt to customers’ speech patterns and vocabulary, informed by the way customers use Alexa in the real world. To work well, machine learning systems need to be trained using real world data.”

The company says it doesn’t anonymize any of this data because it has to stay associated with a user’s account in order for them to delete it. I’d feel a lot better if Amazon just effectively anonymized the data in the first place and used on-device processing the build a profile on my voice. What I’m more afraid of is Amazon having such a detailed voiceprint of everyone who has ever used an Alexa device.

If effortless voice-based e-commerce isn’t really the product anymore, what is? The answer is always us, but I don’t like the idea of indefinitely leaving Amazon with my data until they figure out the answer.

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lucas@techcrunch.com

On to the rest of the week’s news.

Trends of the week

Here are a few big news items from big companies, with green links to all the sweet, sweet added context:

  • NASA’s GPS moonshot
    The U.S. government really did us a solid inventing GPS, but NASA has some bigger ideas on the table for the positioning platform, namely, taking it to the Moon. It might be a little complicated, but, unsurprisingly, scientists have some ideas here. Read more.
  • Apple has your eyes
    Most of the iOS beta updates are bug fixes, but the latest change to iOS 13 brought a very strange surprise: changing the way the eyes of users on iPhone XS or XS Max look to people on the other end of the call. Instead of appearing that you’re looking below the camera, some software wizardry will now make it look like you’re staring directly at the camera. Apple hasn’t detailed how this works, but here’s what we do know
  • Trump is having a Twitter party
    Donald Trump’s administration declared a couple of months ago that it was launching an exploratory survey to try to gain a sense of conservative voices that had been silenced on social media. Now @realdonaldtrump is having a get-together and inviting his friends to chat about the issue. It’s a real who’s who; check out some of the people attending here.
Amazon CEO And Blue Origin Founder Jeff Bezos Speaks At Air Force Association Air, Space And Cyber Conference

(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

GAFA Gaffes

How did the top tech companies screw up this week? This clearly needs its own section, in order of badness:

  1. Amazon is responsible for what it sells:
    [Appeals court rules Amazon can be held liable for third-party products]
  2. Android co-creator gets additional allegations filed:
    [Newly unsealed court documents reveal additional allegations against Andy Rubin]

Extra Crunch

Our premium subscription service had another week of interesting deep dives. TechCrunch reporter Kate Clark did a great interview with the ex-Facebook, ex-Venmo founding team behind Fin and how they’re thinking about the consumerization of the enterprise.

Sam Lessin and Andrew Kortina on their voice assistant’s workplace pivot

“…The thing is, developing an AI assistant capable of booking flights, arranging trips, teaching users how to play poker, identifying places to purchase specific items for a birthday party and answering wide-ranging zany questions like “can you look up a place where I can milk a goat?” requires a whole lot more human power than one might think. Capital-intensive and hard-to-scale, an app for “instantly offloading” chores wasn’t the best business. Neither Lessin nor Kortina will admit to failure, but Fin‘s excursion into B2B enterprise software eight months ago suggests the assistant technology wasn’t a billion-dollar idea.…”

Here are some of our other top reads this week for premium subscribers. This week, we talked a bit about asking for money and the future of China’s favorite tech platform:

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Google Assistant comes to Waze navigation app

Posted by | Android, Android Auto, Apps, Assistant, automotive, computing, Google, Google-Maps, Lyft, smartphones, Software, TC, Transportation, Uber, United States, waze | No Comments

Ever since Google acquired Waze back in 2013, features from each have been slowly making their way back and forth between it and Google Maps — and today Waze gets a big upgrade with Google Assistant integration, which means you can use the smart voice companion within the app.

Google Assistant in Waze will provide access to your usual Assistant features, like playback of music and podcasts, but it’ll also offer access to many Waze-specific abilities, including letting you ask it to report traffic conditions, or specifying that you want to avoid tolls when routing to your destination.

Google has done a good job of rolling out support for Assistant in its own Android Auto in-car software, and even brought it to Google Maps on Apple’s competing CarPlay system earlier this year. The benefits of having Assistant work natively within Waze are many, but the number one might be its potential to reduce distractions while on the road.

Waze remains a top choice among drivers, and anecdotally most Uber and Lyft drivers I encounter still swear by its supremacy over the competition, including Google’s other own-branded Maps solution.

Google Assistant will be available via a rollout starting today in the U.S., in English only to start and on Android smartphones. Expect that availability to expand over time.

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Google and Qualcomm launch a dev kit for building Assistant-enabled headphones

Posted by | Android, Assistant, Bluetooth, computing, Developer, Google, hardware, headphones, Headset, jaybird, Qualcomm, TC, technology | No Comments

Qualcomm today announced that it has partnered with Google to create a reference design and development kit for building Assistant-enabled Bluetooth headphones. Traditionally, building these headphones wasn’t exactly straightforward and involved building a lot of the hardware and software stack, something top-tier manufacturers could afford to do, but that kept second- or third-tier headphone developers from adding voice assistant capabilities to their devices.

“As wireless Bluetooth devices like headphones and earbuds become more popular, we need to make it easier to have the same great Assistant experience across many headsets,” Google’s Tomer Amarilio writes in today’s announcement.

The aptly named “Qualcomm Smart Headset Development Kit” is powered by a Qualcomm QCC5100-series Bluetooth audio chip and provides a full reference board for developing new headsets and interacting with the Assistant. What’s interesting — and somewhat unusual for Qualcomm — is that the company also built its own Bluetooth earbuds as a full reference design. These feature the ability to hold down a button to start an Assistant session, for example, as well as volume buttons. They are definitely not stylish headphones you’d want to use on your commute, given that they are bulky enough to feature a USB port. But they are meant to provide manufacturers with a design they can then use to build their own devices.

In addition to making it easier for developers to integrate the Assistant, the reference design also supports Google’s Fast Pair technology that makes connecting a new headset easier.

“Demand for voice control and assistance on-the-go is rapidly gaining traction across the consumer landscape,” said Chris Havell, senior director, product marketing, voice and music at Qualcomm. “Combined with our Smart Headset Platform, this reference design offers flexibility for manufacturers wanting to deliver highly differentiated user experiences that take advantage of the power and popularity of Google cloud-based services.”

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Google launches new Assistant developer tools

Posted by | Android, artificial intelligence, Assistant, Banking, belkin wemo, Developer, Finance, Google, Google Assistant, Google Cast, google home, Google I/O 2019, lifx, Nike, Philips, smart devices, smart home devices, tp-link, wemo | No Comments

At its I/O conference, Google today announced a slew of new tools for developers who want to build experiences for the company’s Assistant platform. These range from the ability to build games for smart displays, like the Google Home Hub and the launch of App Actions for taking users from an Assistant answer to their native apps, to a new Local Home SDK that allows developers to run their smart home code locally on Google Home Speakers and Nest Displays.

This Local Home SDK may actually be the most important announcement in this list, given that it turns these devices into a real hardware hub for these smart home devices and provides local compute capacity without the round-trip to the cloud. The first set of partners include Philips, Wemo, TP-Link and LIFX, but the SDK will become available to all developers next month.

In addition, this SDK will make it easier for new users to set up their smart devices in the Google Home app. Google tested this feature with GE last October and is now ready to roll it out to additional partners.

For developers who want to take people from the Assistant to the right spot inside of their native apps, Google announced a preview of App Actions last year. Health and fitness, finance, banking, ridesharing and food ordering apps can now make use of these built-in intents. “If I wanted to track my run with Nike Run Club, I could just say ‘Hey Google, start my run in Nike Run Club’ and the app will automatically start tracking my run,” Google explains in today’s announcement.

For how-to sites, Google also announced extended markup support that allows them to prepare their content for inclusion in Google Assistant answers on smart displays and in Google Search using standard schema.org markup.

You can read more about the new ability to write games for smart displays here, but this is clearly just a first step and Google plans to open up the platform to more third-party experiences over time.

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What to expect from Google I/O 2019

Posted by | Android, Apps, Assistant, Chrome, Cloud, events, Google, Google I/O 2019, hardware, home | No Comments

Developer season has begun! Next week, Google will be putting on a big party at the pointy outdoor amphitheater in Mountain View. It’s shaping up to be a biggie, too, if this week’s Google earnings call was any indication. Sundar Pichai teased out a number of upcoming offerings from the company that we can expect to see on full display at the show.

From the looks of it, there’s going to be a LOT of news coming hot and heavy out of the South Bay, from new Android and Assistant features, to some rare hardware debuts. Here’s a quick rundown of what we’re expecting from the big show.

More Q

Quiche? Quindim? I had to look up the latter — it’s a “popular Brazilian baked dessert, made chiefly from sugar, egg yolks, and ground coconut” according to Wikipedia. Basically Brazilian custard.

We’re probably not getting a name either way at the event, of course. We will, however, get our best look yet and Pie’s successor. As ever, the latest version of Android will take center stage at I/O. With an expected arrival date of this summer, we’ve already seen some key pieces of Android 10 courtesy of a couple of betas.

So far, the keys are improvements to privacy/permissions and multi-tasking through Bubbles. Expect a lot more here. Rumors include pressure-sensitive touch features and across the board dark mode.

Unfolding foldables

It’s admittedly been a tough couple of weeks for the ascendant form factor, thanks almost exclusively to malfunctioning Galaxy Fold units. On this week’s call, however, the company reiterated that it’s still bullish on the tech. And it kind of has to be. Google’s devoted a lot of mindshare to making Android more foldable friendly, in hopes of jumpstarting a stagnant smartphone industry.

And while the Fold has been put on hiatus, we do expect a release date soon, along with Huawei’s Mate X and upcoming models from Motorola, Xiaomi, TCL and more. Expect to see the form factor positioned as the future of Android interaction.

The budget Pixel

Like other developer-focused shows, I/O isn’t really much of a consumer hardware event. That’s likely to change this year, however. In an earnings call this week, Sundar Pichai all but confirmed the long-rumored arrival of the Pixel 3a. Initially floated as the Pixel Lite, the budget take on the company’s flagship is designed to curb stagnate smartphone sales by offering some flagship features at a lower price point.

Rumors so far have the product somewhere in the neighborhood of $500 and include, among other things, the return of the headphone jack — an acknowledgment that Bluetooth headphones are still cost prohibitive. Equally interesting, this would make a push to roughly a six-month release cycle for Pixel products, assuming the 4 arrives around an October time frame.

Google’s made it clear that the Pixel line is about more than just showing off the latest version of Android, and a massive investment in HTC’s hardware team that includes a new Taipei campus certainly demonstrates that it’s not screwing around here.

Gaming

Stadia had its moment at GDC back in March. The company is harnessing its live-streaming technology to finally help gamers realize the promise of going hardware agnostic. Stadia was far and away the buzziest announcement out of the gaming show, but Google held back a lot of details, only to have Apple reveal its own gaming strategy a couple of weeks later.

Pichai talked up the service during Alphabet’s earnings call, seemingly priming the pump for some stage time at I/O next week.

Smart Home

Google Hardware Event 2018

Growing its smartphone business has been a struggle, but Google’s been firing on all cylinders on the home front. Assistant is a stronger offering than Alexa, and hardware like the Home Mini and Hub have been selling briskly. We’ll undoubtedly see a lot more tricks out of Assistant this time around, including a bit of focus on AI and Machine Learning smarts.

In addition to a new Pixel, we may also be getting a smart home piece of hardware from Google in the form of the Nest Hub Max. As the name implies, the device is a bigger take on the smart screen — 10 inches, according to rumors — with a focus on serving as a centralized smart home panel. The device will no doubt be primed to work well with other Google Home and Nest offerings, at a higher price point than Hub.

Etc.

Expect more on the ARCore front at the show. The oft-neglected Wear OS, which just got a nice update this week, could get some love as well. Ditto for Android Automotive. ChromeOS will be getting some face time, as well, though I’d be surprised to see much in the way of hardware from any of the above.

Whatever comes, we’ll be on-site at Mountain View next week, bringing it to you live.

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Google’s Wear OS gets tiles

Posted by | Android, Assistant, computing, Gadgets, Google, hardware, operating systems, smartphones, smartwatches, Swipe, TC, wear os, Wearables | No Comments

Google announced an interesting new Wear OS feature today that makes a number of highly used features more easily available. Google calls this feature ’tiles’ and it makes information, like the local weather forecast, headlines, your next calendar event, goals and your heart rate, as well as tools, like the Wear OS built-in timer, available with just a few swipes to the left.

In the most recent version of Wear OS, tiles also existed in some form, but the only available tile was Google Fit, which opened with a single swipe. Now, you’ll be able to swipe further and bring up these new tiles, too.

There is a default order to these tiles, but you’ll be able to customize them, too. All you have to do is touch and hold a given tile and then drag it to the left or right. Over time, Google will also add more tiles to this list.

The new tiles will start rolling out to all Wear OS smartwatches over the course of the next few months. Some features may not be available on all devices, though (if your watch doesn’t have a heart-rate monitor, you obviously won’t see that tile, for example).

Overall, this looks like a smart update to the Wear OS platform, which now features four clearly delineated quadrants. Swiping down brings up settings, swiping up brings up your notifications, swiping right brings up the Google Assistant and swiping left shows tiles. Using the left swipe only for Google Fit always felt oddly limited, but with this update, that decision makes more sense.

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The Google Assistant can now tell you a story on your phone

Posted by | Android, Assistant, Australia, Canada, computing, Disney, Google, india, operating systems, TC, United Kingdom, United States | No Comments

For the last year or so, you could ask the Google Assistant on your Google Home device to read your kids a story. Today, just in time for National Tell a Story Day, Google is bringing this feature to Android and iOS phones, too. It’ll be available in English in the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia and India.

When you asked the Assistant on your phone to tell you a story before, you’d get a short inspirational quote or maybe a bad joke. Having two different experiences for the same command never really made much sense, so it’s good to see Google consolidate this.

The available stories range from tales about Blaze and the Monster Machines to more classic bedtime stories like “Sleeping Beauty” and “Little Red Riding Hood.”

That’s in addition to other story features like “read along,” which automatically plays sound effects as you read from a number of Disney Little Golden Books. That’s obviously the cooler feature overall, but the selection of supported books remains limited. For longer stories, there’s obviously audiobook support.

Or you could just sit down with your kids and read them a book. That’s also an option.

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The Google Assistant on Android gets more visual responses

Posted by | Android, artificial intelligence, Assistant, Google, Google Assistant, google now, google search, Mobile, TC | No Comments

About half a year ago, Google gave the Assistant on phones a major visual refresh. Today, the company is following up with a couple of small but welcome tweaks that’ll see the Assistant on Android provide more and better visual responses that are more aligned with what users already expect to see from other Google services.

That means when you ask for events now, for example, the response will look exactly like what you’d see if you tried the same query from your mobile browser. Until now, Google showed a somewhat pared-down version in the Assistant.

Also — and this is going to be a bit of a controversial change — when the Assistant decides that the best answer is simply a list of websites (or when it falls back to those results because it simply doesn’t have any other answer), the Assistant used to show you a couple of boxes in a vertical layout that were not exactly user-friendly. Now, the Assistant will simply show the standard Google Search layout.

Seems like a good idea, so why would that be controversial? Together with the search results, Google will also show its usual Search ads. This marks the first time that Google is showing ads in the Assistant experience. To be fair, the Assistant will only show these kinds of results for a very small number of queries, but users will likely worry that Google will bring more ads to the rest of the Assistant.

Google tells me that advertisers can’t target their ads to Assistant users and won’t get any additional information about them.

The Assistant will now also show built-in mortgage calculators, color pickers, a tip calculator and a bubble level when you ask for those. Also, when you ask for a stock quote, you’ll now see a full interactive graph, not just the current price of the quote.

These new features are rolling out to Android phones in the U.S. now. As usual, it may take a bit before you see them pop up on your own phone.

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Media fragmentation is annoying consumers

Posted by | Advertising Tech, Amazon, Assistant, augmented reality, cloud storage, deloitte, digital media, Entertainment, esports, executive, Gaming, Google, internet television, Media, Multimedia, Music, new media, Podcasts, San Francisco, Streaming Media, streaming music, streaming video, TC, television, United States, user generated content, video games, Virtual reality | No Comments

Deloitte’s Technology, Media and Telecommunications division published its 13th-annual Digital Media Trends survey, focused on identifying changes in the ways US consumers engage with various types of media.

Led by an independent research firm, the survey had roughly 2,000 consumer respondents across demographics – with the report categorizing respondents based on age (Gen-Z: ages 14-21, Millenials: 22-35, Gen-X: 36-52, Boomers: 53-71, and Matures: 72+).

While already accompanied by a succinct 13-page executive summary, the report can largely be summarized in just a couple of sentences: more people are using streaming or alternative media services than ever before, largely due to more user freedom and customization, though the growing quantity and fragmentation of platforms are becoming more frustrating for users to manage.

The survey results directionally echo already well-discussed dynamics, which we’ve previously dug into such as here, here and here. Instead, the most poignant aspects of the report were not the answers or conclusions themselves, but the immense level of support many of them received.

 

Somewhat interesting:

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Over a quarter of US adults now own a smart speaker, typically an Amazon Echo

Posted by | Amazon, Amazon Echo, apple inc, artificial intelligence, Assistant, Gadgets, Google, Google Assistant, HomePod, smart speaker, smart speakers, smartphone, smartphones, Sonos, Speaker, TC, United States, virtual assistant, voice assistant, voice computing | No Comments

U.S. smart speaker owners grew 40 percent over 2018 to now reach 66.4 million — or 26.2 percent of the U.S. adult population — according to a new report from Voicebot.ai and Voicify released this week, which detailed adoption patterns and device market share. The report also reconfirmed Amazon Echo’s lead, noting the Alexa-powered smart speaker grew to a 61 percent market share by the end of last year — well above Google Home’s 24 percent share.

These findings fall roughly in line with other analysts’ reports on smart speaker market share in the U.S. However, because of varying methodology, they don’t all come back with the exact same numbers.

For example, in December 2018, eMarketer reported the Echo had accounted for nearly 67 percent of all U.S. smart speaker sales in 2018. Meanwhile, CIRP last month put Echo further ahead, with a 70 percent share of the installed base in the U.S.

Though the percentages differ, the overall trend is that Amazon Echo remains the smart speaker to beat.

While on the face of things this appears to be great news for Amazon, Voicebot’s report did note that Google Home has been closing the gap with Echo in recent months.

Amazon Echo’s share dropped nearly 11 percent over 2018, while Google Home made up for just over half that decline with a 5.5 percent gain, and “other” devices making up the rest. This latter category, which includes devices like Apple’s HomePod and Sonos One, grew last year to now account for 15 percent of the market.

That said, the Sonos One has Alexa built-in, so it may not be as bad for Amazon as the numbers alone seem to indicate. After all, Amazon is selling its Echo devices at cost or even a loss to snag more market share. The real value over time will be in controlling the ecosystem.

The growth in smart speakers is part of a larger trend toward voice computing and smart voice assistants — like Siri, Bixby and Google Assistant — which are often accessed on smartphones.

A related report from Juniper Research last month estimated there will be 8 billion digital voice assistants in use by 2023, up from the 2.5 billion in use at the end of 2018. This is due to the increased use of smartphone assistants as well as the smart speaker trend, the firm said.

Voicebot’s report also saw how being able to access voice assistance on multiple platforms was helping to boost usage numbers.

It found that smart speaker owners used their smartphone’s voice assistant more than those who didn’t have a smart speaker in their home. It seems consumers get used to being able to access their voice assistants across platforms — now that Siri has made the jump to speakers and Alexa to phones, for instance.

The full report is available on Voicebot.ai’s website here.

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