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March 26, 2019
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The damage of defaults

in AirPods/algorithmic accountability/algorithmic bias/Apple/Apple earbuds/apple inc/Artificial Intelligence/Bluetooth/Delhi/Diversity/Gadgets/headphones/hearables/India/iphone accessories/mobile computing/Politics/siri/smartphone/TC by

Apple popped out a new pair of AirPods this week. The design looks exactly like the old pair of AirPods. Which means I’m never going to use them because Apple’s bulbous earbuds don’t fit my ears. Think square peg, round hole.

The only way I could rock AirPods would be to walk around with hands clamped to the sides of my head to stop them from falling out. Which might make a nice cut in a glossy Apple ad for the gizmo — suggesting a feeling of closeness to the music, such that you can’t help but cup; a suggestive visual metaphor for the aural intimacy Apple surely wants its technology to communicate.

But the reality of trying to use earbuds that don’t fit is not that at all. It’s just shit. They fall out at the slightest movement so you either sit and never turn your head or, yes, hold them in with your hands. Oh hai, hands-not-so-free-pods!

The obvious point here is that one size does not fit all — howsoever much Apple’s Jony Ive and his softly spoken design team believe they have devised a universal earbud that pops snugly in every ear and just works. Sorry, nope!

A proportion of iOS users — perhaps other petite women like me, or indeed men with less capacious ear holes — are simply being removed from Apple’s sales equation where earbuds are concerned. Apple is pretending we don’t exist.

Sure we can just buy another brand of more appropriately sized earbuds. The in-ear, noise-canceling kind are my preference. Apple does not make ‘InPods’. But that’s not a huge deal. Well, not yet.

It’s true, the consumer tech giant did also delete the headphone jack from iPhones. Thereby depreciating my existing pair of wired in-ear headphones (if I ever upgrade to a 3.5mm-jack-less iPhone). But I could just shell out for Bluetooth wireless in-ear buds that fit my shell-like ears and carry on as normal.

Universal in-ear headphones have existed for years, of course. A delightful design concept. You get a selection of different sized rubber caps shipped with the product and choose the size that best fits.

Unfortunately Apple isn’t in the ‘InPods’ business though. Possibly for aesthetic reasons. Most likely because — and there’s more than a little irony here — an in-ear design wouldn’t be naturally roomy enough to fit all the stuff Siri needs to, y’know, fake intelligence.

Which means people like me with small ears are being passed over in favor of Apple’s voice assistant. So that’s AI: 1, non-‘standard’-sized human: 0. Which also, unsurprisingly, feels like shit.

I say ‘yet’ because if voice computing does become the next major computing interaction paradigm, as some believe — given how Internet connectivity is set to get baked into everything (and sticking screens everywhere would be a visual and usability nightmare; albeit microphones everywhere is a privacy nightmare… ) — then the minority of humans with petite earholes will be at a disadvantage vs those who can just pop in their smart, sensor-packed earbud and get on with telling their Internet-enabled surroundings to do their bidding.

Will parents of future generations of designer babies select for adequately capacious earholes so their child can pop an AI in? Let’s hope not.

We’re also not at the voice computing singularity yet. Outside the usual tech bubbles it remains a bit of a novel gimmick. Amazon has drummed up some interest with in-home smart speakers housing its own voice AI Alexa (a brand choice that has, incidentally, caused a verbal headache for actual humans called Alexa). Though its Echo smart speakers appear to mostly get used as expensive weather checkers and egg timers. Or else for playing music — a function that a standard speaker or smartphone will happily perform.

Certainly a voice AI is not something you need with you 24/7 yet. Prodding at a touchscreen remains the standard way of tapping into the power and convenience of mobile computing for the majority of consumers in developed markets.

The thing is, though, it still grates to be ignored. To be told — even indirectly — by one of the world’s wealthiest consumer technology companies that it doesn’t believe your ears exist.

Or, well, that it’s weighed up the sales calculations and decided it’s okay to drop a petite-holed minority on the cutting room floor. So that’s ‘ear meet AirPod’. Not ‘AirPod meet ear’ then.

But the underlying issue is much bigger than Apple’s (in my case) oversized earbuds. Its latest shiny set of AirPods are just an ill-fitting reminder of how many technology defaults simply don’t ‘fit’ the world as claimed.

Because if cash-rich Apple’s okay with promoting a universal default (that isn’t), think of all the less well resourced technology firms chasing scale for other single-sized, ill-fitting solutions. And all the problems flowing from attempts to mash ill-mapped technology onto society at large.

When it comes to wrong-sized physical kit I’ve had similar issues with standard office computing equipment and furniture. Products that seems — surprise, surprise! — to have been default designed with a 6ft strapping guy in mind. Keyboards so long they end up gifting the smaller user RSI. Office chairs that deliver chronic back-pain as a service. Chunky mice that quickly wrack the hand with pain. (Apple is a historical offender there too I’m afraid.)

The fixes for such ergonomic design failures is simply not to use the kit. To find a better-sized (often DIY) alternative that does ‘fit’.

But a DIY fix may not be an option when discrepancy is embedded at the software level — and where a system is being applied to you, rather than you the human wanting to augment yourself with a bit of tech, such as a pair of smart earbuds.

With software, embedded flaws and system design failures may also be harder to spot because it’s not necessarily immediately obvious there’s a problem. Oftentimes algorithmic bias isn’t visible until damage has been done.

And there’s no shortage of stories already about how software defaults configured for a biased median have ended up causing real-world harm. (See for example: ProPublica’s analysis of the COMPAS recidividism tool — software it found incorrectly judging black defendants more likely to offend than white. So software amplifying existing racial prejudice.)

Of course AI makes this problem so much worse.

Which is why the emphasis must be on catching bias in the datasets — before there is a chance for prejudice or bias to be ‘systematized’ and get baked into algorithms that can do damage at scale.

The algorithms must also be explainable. And outcomes auditable. Transparency as disinfectant; not secret blackboxes stuffed with unknowable code.

Doing all this requires huge up-front thought and effort on system design, and an even bigger change of attitude. It also needs massive, massive attention to diversity. An industry-wide championing of humanity’s multifaceted and multi-sized reality — and to making sure that’s reflected in both data and design choices (and therefore the teams doing the design and dev work).

You could say what’s needed is a recognition there’s never, ever a one-sized-fits all plug.

Indeed, that all algorithmic ‘solutions’ are abstractions that make compromises on accuracy and utility. And that those trade-offs can become viciously cutting knives that exclude, deny, disadvantage, delete and damage people at scale.

Expensive earbuds that won’t stay put is just a handy visual metaphor.

And while discussion about the risks and challenges of algorithmic bias has stepped up in recent years, as AI technologies have proliferated — with mainstream tech conferences actively debating how to “democratize AI” and bake diversity and ethics into system design via a development focus on principles like transparency, explainability, accountability and fairness — the industry has not even begun to fix its diversity problem.

It’s barely moved the needle on diversity. And its products continue to reflect that fundamental flaw.

Many — if not most — of the tech industry’s problems can be traced back to the fact that inadequately diverse teams are chasing scale while lacking the perspective to realize their system design is repurposing human harm as a de facto performance measure. (Although ‘lack of perspective’ is the charitable interpretation in certain cases; moral vacuum may be closer to the mark.)

As WWW creator, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, has pointed out, system design is now society design. That means engineers, coders, AI technologists are all working at the frontline of ethics. The design choices they make have the potential to impact, influence and shape the lives of millions and even billions of people.

And when you’re designing society a median mindset and limited perspective cannot ever be an acceptable foundation. It’s also a recipe for product failure down the line.

The current backlash against big tech shows that the stakes and the damage are very real when poorly designed technologies get dumped thoughtlessly on people.

Life is messy and complex. People won’t fit a platform that oversimplifies and overlooks. And if your excuse for scaling harm is ‘we just didn’t think of that’ you’ve failed at your job and should really be headed out the door.

Because the consequences for being excluded by flawed system design are also scaling and stepping up as platforms proliferate and more life-impacting decisions get automated. Harm is being squared. Even as the underlying industry drum hasn’t skipped a beat in its prediction that everything will be digitized.

Which means that horribly biased parole systems are just the tip of the ethical iceberg. Think of healthcare, social welfare, law enforcement, education, recruitment, transportation, construction, urban environments, farming, the military, the list of what will be digitized — and of manual or human overseen processes that will get systematized and automated — goes on.

Software — runs the industry mantra — is eating the world. That means badly designed technology products will harm more and more people.

But responsibility for sociotechnical misfit can’t just be scaled away as so much ‘collateral damage’.

So while an ‘elite’ design team led by a famous white guy might be able to craft a pleasingly curved earbud, such an approach cannot and does not automagically translate into AirPods with perfect, universal fit.

It’s someone’s standard. It’s certainly not mine.

We can posit that a more diverse Apple design team might have been able to rethink the AirPod design so as not to exclude those with smaller ears. Or make a case to convince the powers that be in Cupertino to add another size choice. We can but speculate.

What’s clear is the future of technology design can’t be so stubborn.

It must be radically inclusive and incredibly sensitive. Human-centric. Not locked to damaging defaults in its haste to impose a limited set of ideas.

Above all, it needs a listening ear on the world.

Indifference to difference and a blindspot for diversity will find no future here.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Eargo raises $52M for virtually invisible, rechargeable hearing aids

in Australia/Bluetooth/chief executive officer/Delhi/eargo/Health/hearing/hearing aid/hearing loss/India/insurance/maveron/Medicare/nea/Politics/Startups/Venture Capital by

Eargo wants to become the ultimate consumer hearing brand.

The company’s small and virtually invisible direct-to-consumer hearing aids, which come in an AirPods-style chargeable case, are designed to help destigmatize hearing loss. One month after revealing its newest product — the Eargo Neo ($2,550), which can be customized remotely via the case’s Bluetooth connectivity — the startup has closed a $52 million Series D, bringing its total raised to date to $135 million.

The latest round of capital comes from new investor Future Fund (Australia’s sovereign wealth fund) and existing investors NEA, the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation, Nan Fung Life Sciences and Maveron. 

Headquartered in San Jose, Eargo, which counts 20,000 users, will use the cash to continuing crafting and innovating new products targeting baby boomers. The newly-launched Eargo Neo is the business’s third line of high-tech hearing aids. The first, Eargo Plus ($1,450), was released in 2017 and the Eargo Max ($2,510) was launched the following year.

“We can see that the product is really making a difference for users,” Eargo chief executive officer Christian Gormsen told TechCrunch. “We have the opportunity to really create a leading brand in the consumer hearing health space.”

Roughly 48 million Americans, or 20 percent of the population, suffer from hearing loss but, aside from some Medicare Advantage programs, insurance companies provide no reimbursement for hearing aids. Despite high price tags — this is expensive tech — Eargo’s priority is still to make its hearing aids as accessible as possible and to send a message that there’s nothing wrong with admitting to hearing loss.

“Getting a hearing aid feels like admitting a defeat like there’s something wrong with you but that’s not true, hearing loss is natural and happens,” Gormsen said. “The number one challenge for the entire industry is awareness. There is so little knowledge about hearing loss out there; it’s such a stigmatized category and how do you change that? The current channel doesn’t do anything to address it, the only way you can address it is through education and communication.”

“I think we’ve come far, but we are looking at 48 million Americans and we are still barely scratching the surface.”

 

News Source = techcrunch.com

Everything you need to know about GM’s new electric bikes

in bicycles/Bluetooth/Delhi/electric bicycles/General-Motors/India/Politics/TC/Transportation by

General Motors announced last year it was getting into the electric bike business. But besides a crowdsourcing name competition and a few teasers, details were scant.

Now, GM has given this new brand a name — ARĪV — as well as names for its two electric bikes, and some information about its go-to-market plan. The name ARĪV was selected as part of a global crowdsourcing campaign announced in November 2018.

The bikes

GM is bringing two new electric “connected” bikes to market this year — one folding and one compact — as it makes a broader push into electrification and experiments with how to diversify its business of making and selling vehicles.

The compact electric bike is called Meld and the folding one is called Merge.

GM says it brought “automotive-grade capabilities” to its bikes. The company’s experience with EV motor software and controls greatly influenced the proprietary GM motor that was built for the electric bikes, GM said.

The motor enables speeds up to 25 kph with four levels of pedal-assisted power. The battery allows users to travel 64 km, about 40 miles, on a single charge. The battery charges in about 3.5 hours.

Both bikes, which were engineered and designed in GM facilities in Michigan and Oshawa, Ontario, come standard with safety components such as integrated, rechargeable front and rear LED safety lights and oversized brake rotors to increase stopping power.

Where to find and buy them

GM plans to launch first in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands because of “popularity of lithium-ion battery-powered ebikes in those markets.” GM has opened up a website www.BikeExchange.com where customers can pre-order.

The Meld will be cheaper than the Merge, and prices depend on the country.

In Belgium and the Netherlands, the ARĪV Meld is €2.800, or about $3,100, and the Merge is €3.400 ($3,800). In Germany, the ARĪV Meld is €2.750 and the Merge is €3.350.

ARĪV e-bikes are scheduled to begin shipping to customers in the second quarter of 2019.

The connected bits

GM calls these connected bikes and that can mean a lot of different things. In this case, it means the bikes can connect with an app via Bluetooth.

The app gives riders all kinds of metrics such as speed, distance, remaining battery level, motor assist level and distance traveled. The company plans to add more features, including a mode that will use a proprietary algorithm to help riders arrive at their destination sweat-free.

These bikes also come with what it calls a “Quad Lock mount,” a system to securely attach a smartphone to the bike. An integrated USB port allows riders to maintain their phone’s charge while on the go.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Google cans the Chromecast Audio

in Bluetooth/chromecast/Chromecast Audio/Delhi/dongle/Google/Google Cast/google home/India/Politics/Speaker/TC/Technology by

The Chromecast Audio is no more. Google has decided to stop manufacturing the audio dongle that allowed you to add any ‘dumb’ speaker to your Google Cast setup. If you still want one, you’ll have to hurry — and to entice you to buy a discontinued product, Google is now selling its remaining inventory for $15 instead of $35.

“Our product portfolio continues to evolve, and now we have a variety of products for users to enjoy audio,” Google told us  in a statement. “We have therefore stopped manufacturing our Chromecast Audio products. We will continue to offer assistance for Chromecast Audio devices, so users can continue to enjoy their music, podcasts and more.”

While the Chromecast turned out to be a major hit for Google, the Chromecast Audio was always more of a niche product.

Google is clearly more interested in getting people to buy its Google Home products and Assistant- or Cast-enabled speakers from its partners. It’s also worth noting that all Google Home devices can connect to Bluetooth enabled speakers, though plenty of people surely have a nice speaker setup at home that doesn’t have built-in Bluetooth support. “Bluetooth adapters suck,” Google told us at the time, though at this point, it seems a Bluetooth adapter may just be the way to go.

The Chromecast Audio first launched back in 2015, in conjunction with the second-generation Chromecast. Over the years, the Chromecast Audio received numerous updates that enabled features like multi-room support. Google says it’ll continue to support Chromcast Audio users for the time being, so if you have already invested in this ecosystem, you should be set for a few more years.

 

News Source = techcrunch.com

These baby concrete speakers aren’t as heavy as they look

in Bluetooth/bluetooth speaker/CES 2019/concrete/Delhi/design/Gadgets/Hardware/India/Politics by

To paraphrase P. T. Barnum, “there’s a Bluetooth speaker born every minute.” At no time of year is that more true than at CES in Las Vegas, where they are bountiful beyond belief. But very few — nay, only one that I found — are made of concrete. And it’s French!

The speakers immediately attracted my attention because of their simplicity and of course material. I’m generally repelled, like water, from the plastic and silicone that most speakers are made out of these days. If it’s going to be visible in my house, shouldn’t it be wood or ceramic or steel? (That’s why I like Joey Roth’s stuff so much).

And why not concrete? It’s hard-wearing, cool-looking, tactile — and like ceramic actually has good qualities as far as using it for audio purposes. So the honest folks at Le Pavé Parisien tell me.

The speaker itself is single-channel, meaning it will mix down your music to mono (like many such speakers), but you can easily daisy chain a couple together for stereo or wire a bunch for a concrete wall of sound like they had on display.

I won’t speculate on the audio quality (it was extremely loud in the hall) but they’re marketing it as a high-end device, so it’s probably not bad. 60-20,000 Hz means you’ll miss out on the low end somewhat, but that’s kind of expected with small speakers.

One of the company’s engineers, Aurelien Bertini, explained that concrete is actually also more eco-friendly, since it can be recycled by being pounded into dust and recast. Sounds labor-intensive, but that’s how recycling is.

Bertini noted that concrete also can easily be customized — laser etched, dyed, etc. The magnetic grilles on the front are easily swapped out as well. They’re really not as heavy as they look, either: about 3 pounds. It’s mostly air in there.

More importantly, the device is designed to be repaired; you pop the grille off and there are only four screws holding the guts in; take it out, replace a piece, fit something back in place that fell off, that sort of thing.

You’ll want to repair yours, too, since Le Pavé Parisien is currently selling for $400, rather higher than the average Bluetooth speaker. If you simply must have them, they’re on sale now (following a successful recent crowdfunding campaign) and expected to ship next month.

News Source = techcrunch.com

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