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January 18, 2019
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Wrest control from a snooping smart speaker with this teachable “parasite”

in Advertising Tech/Alexa/Artificial Intelligence/connected devices/Delhi/Europe/Gadgets/GitHub/Google/google home/Hardware/Home Automation/India/Internet of Things/IoT/neural network/Politics/privacy/Security/smart assistant/smart speaker/Speaker by

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

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

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

Lenovo’s new bluetooth travel speaker is 🔥🔥🔥

in CES 2019/Delhi/Hardware/India/lenovo/Politics/Speaker by

It’s hard to get excited about bluetooth speakers. Believe me, I’ve tried. But damn if this isn’t a nice one. As someone who spent a good part of the last year traveling, I’ve been using the Harman/Kardon Traveler a bit, to make hotel rooms slightly more bearable.

The Lenovo 700 Ultraportable Bluetooth Speaker might end up finding its way into my bag, though. This thing is slick — and super thin at 11 millimeters. It’s got five buttons on the front for manual control and can take calls, which makes it a solid addition for business travelers.

It’s splash-proof, so you can stick it near the sink while you brush your teeth in the morning, and the battery should get up to eight hours on a charge. Unlike the Harman, though, it doesn’t double as a phone charger.

The speaker arrives in April priced at $150. Which is, admittedly, pricey as far as portable bluetooth speakers go.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Google’s smart home sell looks cluttered and incoherent

in Amazon/Artificial Intelligence/ChromeOS/Delhi/Facebook/Gadgets/Google/Google Hardware Event 2018/Hardware/Home Automation/India/Internet of Things/Made by Google/PIXEL/pixel 3/Politics/smart home/smart speaker/smartphone/smartphones/Speaker/tablet computer/Technology by

If any aliens or technology ingenues were trying to understand what on earth a ‘smart home’ is yesterday, via Google’s latest own-brand hardware launch event, they’d have come away with a pretty confused and incoherent picture.

The company’s presenters attempted to sketch a vision of gadget-enabled domestic bliss but the effect was rather closer to described clutter-bordering-on-chaos, with existing connected devices being blamed (by Google) for causing homeowners’ device usability and control headaches — which thus necessitated another new type of ‘hub’ device which was now being unveiled, slated and priced to fix problems of the smart home’s own making.

Meet the ‘Made by Google’ Home Hub.

Buy into the smart home, the smart consumer might think, and you’re going to be stuck shelling out again and again — just to keep on top of managing an ever-expanding gaggle of high maintenance devices.

Which does sound quite a lot like throwing good money after bad. Unless you’re a true believer in the concept of gadget-enabled push-button convenience — and the perpetually dangled claim that smart home nirvana really is just around the corner. One additional device at a time. Er, and thanks to AI!

Yesterday, at Google’s event, there didn’t seem to be any danger of nirvana though.

Not unless paying $150 for a small screen lodged inside a speaker is your idea of heaven. (i.e. after you’ve shelled out for all the other connected devices that will form the spokes chained to this control screen.)

A small tablet that, let us be clear, is defined by its limitations: No standard web browser, no camera… No, it’s not supposed to be an entertainment device in its own right.

It’s literally just supposed to sit there and be a visual control panel — with the usual also-accessible-on-any-connected-device type of content like traffic, weather and recipes. So $150 for a remote control doesn’t sound quite so cheap now does it?

The hub doubling as a digital photo frame when not in active use — which Google made much of — isn’t some kind of ‘magic pixie’ sales dust either. Call it screensaver 2.0.

A fridge also does much the same with a few magnets and bits of paper. Just add your own imagination.

During the presentation, Google made a point of stressing that the ‘evolving’ smart home it was showing wasn’t just about iterating on the hardware front — claiming its Google’s AI software is hard at work in the background, hand-in-glove with all these devices, to really ‘drive the vision forward’.

But if the best example it can find to talk up is AI auto-picking which photos to display on a digital photo frame — at the same time as asking consumers to shell out $150 for a discrete control hub to manually manage all this IoT — that seems, well, underwhelming to say the least. If not downright contradictory.

Google also made a point of referencing concerns it said it’s heard from a large majority of users that they’re feeling overwhelmed by too much technology, saying: “We want to make sure you’re in control of your digital well-being.”

Yet it said this at an event where it literally unboxed yet another clutch of connected, demanding, function-duplicating devices — that are also still, let’s be clear, just as hungry for your data — including the aforementioned tablet-faced speaker (which Google somehow tried to claim would help people “disconnect” from all their smart home tech — so, basically, ‘buy this device so you can use devices less’… ); a ChromeOS tablet that transforms into a laptop via a snap-on keyboard; and 2x versions of its new high end smartphone, the Pixel 3.

There was even a wireless charging Pixel Stand that props the phone up in a hub-style control position. (Oh and it didn’t even have time to mention it but there’s also a Disney co-branded Mickey Mouse-eared speaker for kids, presumably).

What’s the average consumer supposed to make of all this incestuously overlapping, wallet-nagging hardware?!

Smartphones at least have clarity of purpose — by being efficiently multi-purposed.

Increasingly powerful all-in-ones that let you do more with less and don’t even require you to buy a new one every year vs the smart home’s increasingly high maintenance and expensive (in money and attention terms) sprawl, duplication and clutter. And that’s without even considering the security risks and privacy nightmare.

The two technology concepts really couldn’t be further apart.

If you value both your time and your money the smartphone is the one — the only one — to buy into.

Whereas the smart home clearly needs A LOT of finessing — if it’s to ever live up to the hyped claims of ‘seamless convenience’.

Or, well, a total rebranding.

The ‘creatively chaotic & experimental gadget lovers’ home would be a more honest and realistic sell for now — and the foreseeable future.

Instead Google made a pitch for what it dubbed the “thoughtful home”. Even as it pushed a button to pull up a motorised pedestal on which stood clustered another bunch of charge-requiring electronics that no one really needs — in the hopes that consumers will nonetheless spend their time and money assimilating redundant devices into busy domestic routines. Or else find storage space in already overflowing drawers.

The various iterations of ‘smart’ in-home devices in the market illustrate exactly how experimental the entire  concept remains.

Just this week, Facebook waded in with a swivelling tablet stuck on a smart speaker topped with a camera which, frankly speaking, looks like something you’d find in a prison warden’s office.

Google, meanwhile, has housed speakers in all sorts of physical forms, quite a few of which resemble restroom scent dispensers.

And Amazon now has so many Echo devices it’s almost impossible to keep up. It’s as if the ecommerce giant is just dropping stones down a well to see if it can make a splash.

During the smart home bits of Google’s own-brand hardware pitch, the company’s parade of presenters often sounded like they were going through robotic motions, failing to muster anything more than baseline enthusiasm.

And failing to dispel a strengthening sense that the smart home is almost pure marketing, and that sticking update-requiring, wired in and/or wireless devices with often variously overlapping purposes all over the domestic place is the very last way to help technology-saturated consumers achieve anything close to ‘disconnected well-being’.

Incremental convenience might be possible, perhaps — depending on which and how few smart home devices you buy; for what specific purpose/s; and then likely only sporadically, until the next problematic update topples the careful interplay of kit and utility. But the idea that the smart home equals thoughtful domestic bliss for families seems farcical.

All this updatable hardware inevitably injects new responsibilities and complexities into home life, with the conjoined power to shift family dynamics and relationships — based on things like who has access to and control over devices (and any content generated); whose jobs it is to fix things and any problems caused when stuff inevitably goes wrong (e.g. a device breakdown OR a AI-generated event like the ‘wrong’ photo being auto-displayed… ); and who will step up to own and resolve any disputes that arise as a result of all the Internet connected bits being increasingly intertwined in people’s lives, willingly or otherwise.

Hey Google, is there an AI to manage all that yet?

News Source = techcrunch.com

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