Start Up: the smart speaker bubble, iPads up!, hacking Alexa, more iPhone leaks, Facebook’s non-bots, and more


LEGO’s augmented reality with boxes is just a start – and Apple’s hoping to capitalise. Photo by antjeverena on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. So there you are. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Tim Cook: augmented reality will make iPhone ‘even more essential’ • CNBC

Josh Lipton and Todd Haselton:

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Speaking with CNBC after Apple’s earnings report on Tuesday, Apple CEO Tim Cook said that augmented reality is going to make smartphones even more important to users.

“The smart phone is becoming even more important to people because it’s going across so much of your life and you can tell by some of the things we did at WWDC that that will only continue,” Cook told CNBC’s Josh Lipton. “And with things like AR… I think it becomes even more essential than it currently is. I know it’s hard to believe, but I think that’s the case.”

Apple introduced ARKit during WWDC in June, which allows developers to create augmented reality apps. Millions iPhones already on the market will be able to take advantage of the new apps, which will allow users to peer through their iPhones into a world overlaid with new information and objects.

Imagine, for example, seeing a restaurant’s menu while standing outside on the street, or overlaying dinosaurs in the living room for your kids to interact with.

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That’s insufficiently imaginative. Imagine measuring a room by pointing your phone at its corners; seeing exactly what a piece of furniture from a catalogue will look like in that exact room; seeing the ratings for wines on the shelf; hearing an extract from a CD based on its cover; price comparison in public spaces; figuring out tips. (Take a look at the tweets of Luke Wroblewski for more.)

Basically, journalists are both too imaginative and insufficiently imaginative about the potential here.
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Apple’s Q3 FY17 financial results • Six Colors

Jason Snell:

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Apple announced its third-quarter financial results for fiscal 2017 today. In the most recent quarter, the company earned $45.4bn in revenue, up from $42.4bn in the year-ago quarter.

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The most surprising – to most people – element was iPad sales, which grew by 2% in revenue and 15% in units year-on-year, implying that the newly cheaper pricing for the 9.7in basic iPad (now cheaper than the iPad mini) is driving sales. Here are the graphs; plenty more where these came from.


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Hack that turns Amazon Echo into a spying device can’t be fixed by software patch • Motherboard

Louise Matsakis:

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The Amazon Echo can be turned into a spying tool by exploiting a physical security vulnerability, according to Mark Barnes, a researcher at cybersecurity firm MWR InfoSecurity. His research shows how it’s possible to hack the 2015 and 2016 models of the smart speaker to listen in on users without any indication that they’ve been compromised.

The issue is unfixable via a software update, meaning millions of Echos sold in 2015 and 2016 will likely have this vulnerability through the end of their use.

Barnes executed the attack by removing the bottom of the smart speaker and exposing 18 “debug” pads, which he used to boot directly into the firmware with an external SD card. Once the hack is complete, the rubber base can be reattached, leaving behind no evidence of tampering.

With the malware installed, Barnes could remotely monitor the Echo’s “always listening” microphone, which is constantly paying attention for a “wake word.” (The most popular of these is “Alexa.”) Barnes took advantage of the same audio file that the device creates to wait for those keywords.

“I’m listening to that same file. I’m effectively listening the same way that processor is listening for a keyword,” he told me in a phone interview.

It’s important to note that Amazon Echo speakers come with a mute button, which turns off the microphone completely. Hitting the button would prevent hackers from being able to listen in on a compromised Echo. It would also prevent the normal use of the device until it is unmuted.

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Only affects 2015 and 2016 Echo. So hey, Amazon recommends buying a new one!
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SEC asks Twitter why it doesn’t disclose daily user number • Bloomberg

Sarah Frier:

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The Securities and Exchange Commission has asked Twitter Inc. a question that many investors also have: why not disclose your number of daily active users?

Twitter reports the number of monthly active users, which stood at 328 million for two quarters. The company tells investors to focus instead on the percentage growth of people who use it daily, which has increased more than 10% in each of the last three quarters. But Twitter doesn’t say what that percentage represents.

In a May 10 letter, the SEC asked for Twitter to explain that choice, and “tell us how the percentage change information provides an investor with a clear understanding of user engagement on your platform.”

In the company’s lengthy response, it argued that showing growth was more important than showing the number. In fact, Twitter said, showing the number of DAUs would invite unfair comparison to Facebook, which calculates its number including people who use its separate Facebook messaging application. “Investors would not be able to compare performance between the Company and this other company,” San Francisco-based Twitter wrote. Facebook has six times the number of monthly users as Twitter.

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Yeah, just trying to slide around that one.
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New iPhone leaks show tap to wake, attention detection, and virtual home button • The Verge

Thuy Ong:

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A potential “attention detection” feature is also mentioned in the [HomePod firmware] code, with some speculating that may mean the phone will remain silent for notifications if it knows you’re looking at the screen already. Facial references such as “mouthstretch,” “mouthsmile,” and “mouthdimple” were also found, which are most likely a nod to Apple’s rumored facial recognition feature that can even detect faces in the dark using infrared.

A “tap to wake” feature has also been discovered, and should be similar to the Windows Phone function that allows users to double-tap the screen to wake the phone.

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

The home button looks to be gone in favor of a virtual one, but some held out hope that though Troughton-Smith didn’t find evidence of an ultrasound Touch ID, a fingerprint sensor under the display was still a possibility. Troughton-Smith shot that down too, tweeting, “I mentioned ultrasound, yes, but I searched for much, much more. There is no evidence whatsoever of any new kind of Touch ID.” The virtual home button is called the “home indicator,” and will most likely be hidden in certain contexts such as when watching a video.

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Matt Birchler looked back at the leaks last year, and found that by this time of the year pretty much everything about the new phones had leaked, one way or another. Apple is helping along by releasing this firmware, of course. What I don’t get is why Apple released HomePod firmware.
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Amazon suspends sales of Blu phones due to privacy concerns • CNET

Alfred Ng:

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The online retailing giant told CNET that it was suspending sales of phones from Blu, known for making ultra-cheap Android handsets, due to a “potential security issue.”

The move comes after security firm Kryptowire demonstrated last week how software in Blu’s phones collected data and sent it to servers in China without alerting people. Blu defended the software, created by a Chinese company called Shanghai Adups Technology, and denied any wrongdoing. A company spokeswoman said at the time it “has several policies in place which take customer privacy and security seriously.” She added there had been no breaches. 

Blu said it was in a process of review to reinstate the phones at Amazon. 

The issue of privacy and how data is collected is a hot topic thanks to a year’s worth of reports about Russian hacking and its intrusion into the 2016 presidential race, as well as news in the last few months about ransomware attacks that hijack people’s computers, to be unlocked (if you’re lucky) for a fee.

Amazon, for one, wasn’t taking any chances. 

“Because security and privacy of our customers is of the utmost importance, all BLU phone models have been made unavailable for purchase on Amazon.com until the issue is resolved,” Amazon said in a statement.

Amazon directed customers to contact Blu’s customer support. 

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Do people know that their data is going to end up on Google or Amazon servers? I wonder. This seems more like an OMG CHINA reaction – though I think I would have the same reaction, to be honest.
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No, Facebook did not panic and shut down an AI program that was getting dangerously smart • Gizmodo

Tom McKay:

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In recent weeks, a story about experimental Facebook machine learning research has been circulating with increasingly panicky, Skynet-esque headlines.

“Facebook engineers panic, pull plug on AI after bots develop their own language,” one site wrote. “Facebook shuts down down AI after it invents its own creepy language,” another added. “Did we humans just create Frankenstein?” asked yet another. One British tabloid quoted a robotics professor saying the incident showed “the dangers of deferring to artificial intelligence” and “could be lethal” if similar tech was injected into military robots.

References to the coming robot revolution, killer droids, malicious AIs and human extermination abounded, some more or less serious than others. Continually quoted was this passage, in which two Facebook chat bots had learned to talk to each other in what is admittedly a pretty creepy way.

Bob: I can i i everything else

Alice: balls have zero to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to

Bob: you i everything else

Alice: balls have a ball to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to me

The reality is somewhat more prosaic. A few weeks ago, FastCo Design did report on a Facebook effort to develop a “generative adversarial network” for the purpose of developing negotiation software… The bots were never doing anything more nefarious than discussing with each other how to split an array of given items (represented in the user interface as innocuous objects like books, hats, and balls) into a mutually agreeable split.

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Ho hum.
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Google says AI better than humans at scrubbing extremist YouTube content • The Guardian

Samuel Gibbs:

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The company is using machine learning along with human reviewers as part of a mutli-pronged approach to tackle the spread of extremist and controversial videos across YouTube, which also includes tougher standards for videos and the recruitment of more experts to flag content in need of review.

A month after announcing the changes, and following UK home secretary Amber Rudd’s repeated calls for US technology firms to do more to tackle the rise of extremist content, Google’s YouTube has said that its machine learning systems have already made great leaps in tackling the problem.

A YouTube spokesperson said: “While these tools aren’t perfect, and aren’t right for every setting, in many cases our systems have proven more accurate than humans at flagging videos that need to be removed.

“Our initial use of machine learning has more than doubled both the number of videos we’ve removed for violent extremism, as well as the rate at which we’ve taken this kind of content down. Over 75% of the videos we’ve removed for violent extremism over the past month were taken down before receiving a single human flag.”

One of the problems YouTube has in policing its site for illicit content is that users upload 400 hours of content every minute, making filtering out extremist content in real time an enormous challenge that only an algorithmic approach is likely to manage, the company says.

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Machines beat humans at yet another strategy game.
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Talking speakers just arrived—and there’s already a bubble • WSJ

Li Yuan:

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Within a day of Apple announcing its voice-activated HomePod speaker in June, Song Shaopeng, founder of smart-speaker technology startup Sugr Electronics Corp., fielded calls from three electronics manufacturers with the same request. All wanted his help to make HomePod-like products…

…An added inducement to jump in [to the smart speaker space] is that Amazon’s, Google’s and Apple’s smart speakers don’t offer voice interfaces in Chinese—and those are hard to build…

Smart speakers aren’t just hardware. They require complex software to recognize and execute voice commands and provide content ranging from weather forecasts, traffic reports, music, news, books and services from shopping to payment. The speakers are supposed to interact with users and learn their preferences over time.

That means heavy research and development.

“It’s like when you were trying to build a smartphone in 2007 only to find that you had to build the Android operating system and the mobile apps running on the phone too. It’s not something for small startups,” says Mr. Song, the Sugr founder.

Ximalaya’s owner, Shanghai Zendai Ximalaya Network Technology Co., partnered with the new AI subsidiary of app developer Cheetah Mobile Inc., which hired more than 200 engineers to work on the smart speaker.

“It was a lot of work,” says Mr. Li, the vice president. He says they used over 80,000 different voices to ensure the speaker understands when people call its name “Xiaoya.” When they changed the cover fabric for the speaker, the voice recognition rate fell from 90% to 10%. They then spent a month rewriting the algorithm.

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1) it’s only when Apple gets into it that Chinese companies feel it’s validated
2) these versions will be the worst of all worlds – won’t have the Apple sound quality (reported to be very high) but won’t have Alexa’s combination of voice recognition quality and home ordering, nor Google’s voice recognition quality and, um, Google content.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

2 thoughts on “Start Up: the smart speaker bubble, iPads up!, hacking Alexa, more iPhone leaks, Facebook’s non-bots, and more

  1. re: AR, I might be wrong but to me AR is specifically when you overlay info (text maybe, but mostly 3D objects) to the real-world view. Of your examples, very few are about this, mostly it’s pictures analysis and doesn’t require AR at all ?
    Also, how’s that supposed to work on the street ? Are we walking with a Gear VR stuck to our faces now ?

  2. re Amazon hack… once you’ve got physical access to the home, sticking a microphone somewhere is dead easy. Hacking the loudspeaker to do it seems unduly complicated.

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