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March 21, 2019
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Speaker

Over a quarter of U.S. adults now own a smart speaker, typically an Amazon Echo

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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 towards 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.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Helen Yiang and Andy Wheeler will be speaking at TC Sessions: Robotics + AI April 18 at UC Berkeley

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We’re just under two months out from this year’s TC Sessions: Robotics + AI event, and we’ve still got a lot left to announce. As noted, we’ll have Anca Dragan, Marc Raibert, Alexei Efros, Hany Farid, Melonee Wise, Peter Barrett, Rana el Kaliouby, Arnaud Thiercelin and Laura Major at the April event, and today we’ve got a pair of names to add to the ever-growing speaker list.

Today we’re excited to announce to additions to our VC panel, who will be discussing the wild world of robotics investments.

Founding and Managing Partner of FoundersX Ventures, Helen Liang will be joining us at the event to discuss the 20 early stage robotics and AI startups she has invested in. Liang brings a decade of product development to her work at her early-stage capital fund and also serves as Founding President at Tech for Good.

Andy Wheeler is a founding partner at GV (formerly Google Ventures), focusing on bringing early-stage tech to market. He is a co-founder of Ember Corporation and a veteran of MIT Media Lab. His list of early investments include Carbon, Farmer’s Business Network, Abundant Robotics and Orbital Insight.

Early bird tickets are now on sale – book your $249 ticket today and save $100 before prices go up. Students, did you know that you can save $45 with a heavily-discounted student ticket? Book your student ticket here.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Wrest control from a snooping smart speaker with this teachable “parasite”

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What do you get when you put one Internet connected device on top of another? A little more control than you otherwise would in the case of Alias the “teachable ‘parasite’” — an IoT project smart speaker topper made by two designers, Bjørn Karmann and Tore Knudsen.

The Raspberry Pi-powered, fungus-inspired blob’s mission is to whisper sweet nonsense into Alexa’s (or Google Home’s) always-on ear so it can’t accidentally snoop on your home.

Project Alias from Bjørn Karmann on Vimeo.

Alias will only stop feeding noise into its host’s speakers when it hears its own wake command — which can be whatever you like.

The middleman IoT device has its own local neural network, allowing its owner to christen it with a name (or sound) of their choosing via a training interface in a companion app.

The open source TensorFlow library was used for building the name training component.

So instead of having to say “Alexa” or “Ok Google” to talk to a commercial smart speaker — and thus being stuck parroting a big tech brand name in your own home, not to mention being saddled with a device that’s always vulnerable to vocal pranks (and worse: accidental wiretapping) — you get to control what the wake word is, thereby taking back a modicum of control over a natively privacy-hostile technology.

This means you could rename Alexa “Bezosallseeingeye”, or refer to your Google Home as “Carelesswhispers”. Whatever floats your boat.

Once Alias hears its custom wake command it will stop feeding noise into the host speaker — enabling the underlying smart assistant to hear and respond to commands as normal.

“We looked at how cordyceps fungus and viruses can appropriate and control insects to fulfill their own agendas and were inspired to create our own parasite for smart home systems,” explain Karmann and Knudsen in a write up of the project. “Therefore we started Project Alias to demonstrate how maker-culture can be used to redefine our relationship with smart home technologies, by delegating more power from the designers to the end users of the products.”

Alias offers a glimpse of a richly creative custom future for IoT, as the means of producing custom but still powerful connected technology products becomes more affordable and accessible.

And so also perhaps a partial answer to IoT’s privacy problem, for those who don’t want to abstain entirely. (Albeit, on the security front, more custom and controllable IoT does increase the hackable surface area — so that’s another element to bear in mind; more custom controls for greater privacy does not necessarily mesh with robust device security.)

If you’re hankering after your own Alexa disrupting blob-topper, the pair have uploaded a build guide to Instructables and put the source code on GitHub. So fill yer boots.

Project Alias is of course not a solution to the underlying tracking problem of smart assistants — which harvest insights gleaned from voice commands to further flesh out interest profiles of users, including for ad targeting purposes.

That would require either proper privacy regulation or, er, a new kind of software virus that infiltrates the host system and prevents it from accessing user data. And unlike this creative physical IoT add-on that kind of tech would not be at all legal.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Google cans the Chromecast Audio

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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

Facebook and PayPal pull pages of far right British activist filmed intimidating public figures

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Facebook has confirmed it has removed the pages and profiles of a far right political activist in the UK after concerns were raised in parliament about aggressive intimidation of politicians and journalists trying to go about their business in and around Westminster.

PayPal has also closed an account that was being used to solicit donations for “political activism”.

The intimidation is being conducted by a small group of extreme Brexit supporters who have — ironically enough — lifted the ‘yellow vest’ dress code from French anti-government protestors, and are also making use of mainstream social media and crowdfunding platforms to fund and amplify attacks on public figures in an attempt to squash debate and drive an extreme ‘no deal’ Brexit. (Context: The clock is ticking down to March 29; the date when the UK is due to leave the European Union, with or without a withdrawal deal.)

In incidents widely shared on social media this week, individuals from the group were filmed live streaming harassment of Remain supporting Conservative MP Anna Soubry who was mobbed and shouted at as she walked down the street to return to parliament after being interviewed live on TV in front of the Palace of Westminster where the group heckled her with repeat chants of “nazi”.

Members of the same group were also filmed with fisted smartphones, chasing and hurling abuse at left-wing commentator Owen Jones as he walked down a London street.

In another video one of the individuals leading the verbal attacks, who has been identified in the press and online as a man called James Goddard, can be seen swearing viciously at Met Police officers and threatening to bring “war”.

The speaker of the House of Commons said today that he had written to the head of the Met Police to urge action against the “aggressive, threatening and intimidating behaviour towards MPs and journalists” around Westminster.

The Guardian reports that at least 115 MPs have written to police requesting extra protection.

Contacted today about Goddard’s presence on its platform, Facebook later confirmed to us that it had pulled the plug. “We have removed James Goddard’s Facebook Pages and Groups for violating our policies on hate speech,” a spokesperson told us. “We will not tolerate hate speech on Facebook which creates an environment of intimidation and which may provoke real-world violence.”

Earlier today one of his pages was still live on Facebook, and in a post from December 14 Goddard can be seen soliciting donations via PayPal so he can continue “confronting” people.

We also asked PayPal about Goddard’s use of its tools, pointing to the company’s terms of use which prohibit the use of the platform for promoting “hate, violence, racial and other forms of intolerance that is discriminatory”.

PayPal declined to comment on “any specific customer’s account”, citing its privacy policy but a spokesperson told us: “We do review accounts that have been flagged to us for possible breaches of our policies, and we will take action if appropriate.”

A few hours later PayPal also appeared to have pulled the plug on Goddard’s account.

A Patreon page he had seemingly been using to solicit donations for “political content, activism” is also now listed as ‘under review’ at the time of writing.

But Goddard remains on Twitter, where he is (currently) complaining about being de-platformed by Facebook and PayPal to his ~4k followers, and calling other people “fascists”.

How should mainstream tech platforms respond to people who use their tools for targeted harassment? If you read companies’ terms and conditions most prohibit abusive and intimidating conduct. Though in practice plenty flows until flagged and reviewed. (And even then takedowns frequently fail to follow.)

For all the claims from platforms that they’re getting better about enforcing their claimed community standards there are countless of examples of continued and very abject failure.

Facebook’s 2.2BN+ users especially make for an awful lot of content to wrangle. But none of these platforms is renowned for being proactive about weeding out violent types of speech they claim to forbid. And when intimidation is dressed up as political speech, and public figures are involved, they appear especially paralyzed.

Social media-savvy Far Right groups grokked this loophole long ago (see: Gamergate for a rough start date); and are continuing to exploit default inaction to get on with the violent business of megaphoning hate in the meanwhile.

You could say platforms are being gamed but the money they make off of accelerated outrage makes them rather more complicit in the problem.

The irony is it’s free speech that suffers in such a thuggish and febrile atmosphere. Yet platforms remain complicit in its undoing; doing nothing to stop hate mongers turning hugely powerful high tech soapboxes into abuse funnels.

They do this by choosing to allow groups with fascist ideologies to operate freely until enough reports are filed and/or high level political attention frowns down on particular individuals that they’ll step in and act.

Facebook’s community standards claim it aims to prevent “real-world harm”. But with such a narrow prescription it’s failing spectacularly to prevent deliberate, malicious and co-ordinated harassment campaigns that are designed to sew social division and upend constructive conversation, replacing the hard won social convention of robust political debate with mindless jeering and threats. This is not progress.

There’s nothing healthy for society or speech if mainstream platforms sit on their hands while abusive users bludgeon, bully and bend public debate into a peculiarly intolerant shape.

But we’re still waiting for the tech giants to have that revelation. And in the meanwhile they’re happy to let you watch a live streamed glimpse of mob rule.

News Source = techcrunch.com

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