Start Up: Google I/O top lines, mobile gaming takes over, encrypted Twitter DMs?, iMac timing, and more


Got a ton of email? Google will write the replies for you. Photo by Robert Couse-Baker on Flickr.

A selection of 13 links for you. Unlucky for unlucky people. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Twitter has an unlaunched ‘Secret’ encrypted messages feature • TechCrunch

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Buried inside Twitter’s Android app is a “Secret conversation” option that if launched would allow users to send encrypted direct messages. The feature could make Twitter a better home for sensitive communications that often end up on encrypted messaging apps like Signal, Telegram or WhatsApp.

The encrypted DMs option was first spotted inside the Twitter for Android application package (APK) by Jane Manchun Wong. APKs often contain code for unlaunched features that companies are quietly testing or will soon make available. A Twitter spokesperson declined to comment on the record. It’s unclear how long it might be before Twitter officially launches the feature, but at least we know it’s been built.

The appearance of encrypted DMs comes 18 months after whistleblower Edward Snowden asked Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey for the feature, which Dorsey said was “reasonable and something we’ll think about.”

Twitter has gone from “thinking about” the feature to prototyping it.

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Coming late to the game. Will it be end-to-end like iMessage? Will it be decryptable on the server?
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Just in time • Asymco

Horace Dediu:

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To me the incredible aspect of the iMac’s entry is its uncanny timing. It came not only just in time to save Apple but exactly half-way between the first two ages of computing. In the following graph showing “share of computing” you can see it as launching precisely at “peak Windows”.

In retrospect you have to wonder if Apple, with the iMac, was lucky to survive into this next era or if that era would have ever happened without the iMac. It’s a question of causality which quickly devolves into an un-winnable argument about stochastic vs. deterministic existence.

Regardless, the result was felt more than seen. The computing industry was pivoting. The results are seen also in the graphs above. The iMac came right in the middle of the “desert” of platform choice of the late 1990s. By the 2000s mobile platforms detonated on the scene. The iPod was Apple’s first entry, in 2001, but it was not a computer. It was an appliance. A stepping stone at a time when the early platform contenders Nokia, Palm, Microsoft and BlackBerry surged before realizing that they did not have sound foundations upon which to build ecosystems. Their advances could not be consolidated.

The spoils went to the later entries of iOS and Android. The resulting disruption was shocking and disorienting. Not only did the old order get up-ended but the magnitude of the new was 100x the old. The iMac enabled at least a trillion dollars of value to be created and made Apple the biggest company in the world.

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But, as he asks, what is the “new iMac” to arrive now that the mobile world dominates?
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Self-driving cars are here • Medium

Andrew Ng of Drive.ai, which is introducing self-driving cars in Frisco, Texas in July:

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It is every self-driving company’s responsibility to ensure safety. We believe the self-driving car industry should adopt these practices:

• Self-driving cars should be made visually distinctive, so that people can quickly recognize them. Even with great AI technology, it is safer if everyone recognizes our cars. After examining multiple designs, we found that a bright orange design is clearly recognizable to pedestrians and drivers.

We deliberately prioritized recognizability over beauty, since it is recognizability that enhances safety.

• While a human driver would make eye contact with a pedestrian to let them know it is safe to cross, a driverless car cannot communicate the same way. Thus, a self-driving car must have other ways to communicate with people around it. Drive.ai is using exterior panels to do this.

• Self-driving car companies should engage with local government to provide practical education programs. Just as school buses, delivery trucks, and emergency vehicles behave differently from regular cars, so too are self-driving cars a different class of vehicle with their own behaviors. It has unique strengths (such as no distracted driving) and limitations (such as inability to make eye contact or understand hand gestures). It’s important to increase the public’s awareness of self-driving through media, unique signage, and dedicated pickup and dropoff zones. We also ask members of the local community to be lawful in their use of public roads and to be considerate of self-driving cars so that we can improve transportation together.

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OK, but what about people who seem like plastic bags?
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Google I/O 2018: The 11 most important announcements • BGR

Zach Epstein:

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The annual Google I/O developer conference is Google’s biggest event of the year by far. Unlike Apple, where the biggest event each year is the company’s late-summer iPhone unveiling, Google is a software company first and foremost. At Google I/O each year, Google takes us on a journey through the company’s efforts to push the boundaries of consumer technology. Google isn’t a completely open book, of course, and there are plenty of secret projects being worked on behind closed doors. But the company is always quite open about its core focuses, and Google I/O 2018 was a showcase of all the key areas of concentration at Google.

Artificial intelligence was obviously among the stars of the show at Google I/O 2018, and Google Assistant will play an even more central role in Google’s ecosystem than it already has over the past few years. We also got our first glimpse at the newly updated version of Android P, which is available to developers (and anyone else who wants to install it on his or her Pixel phone) beginning today. The company covered all that and more during its 90-minute Google I/O 2018 keynote presentation, and we’ve rounded up all of the most important announcements right here in this recap.

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Or if you don’t want to read it, a couple of highlights…
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Gmail’s new “smart compose” feature will help you write emails faster • Ars Technica

Valentina Palladino:

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At today’s I/O keynote, Google announced a new Gmail feature dubbed “smart compose.” This AI-based system will let Gmail users write messages faster by suggesting phrases to them as they type out emails.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai presented a short demo of the new feature, showing how the AI suggests words and phrases and even completes sentences as you type out messages in a new email window. Smart compose will suggest options for what you may want to say next based on what you’ve already typed. If it works as well as it did in the demo, smart compose should help Gmail users write emails faster and more efficiently.

We’ve seen features similar to “smart compose” in other contexts, like smartphone messaging apps. However, those apps typically stop at suggesting words and short phrases—Google’s new AI feature for Gmail goes even further to suggest full sentences. “Smart compose” will be rolling out to Gmail users this month.

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Making the calls, writing the emails, editing the photos, controlling the apps.. Google seems keen on taking tasks away. What you think of that possibly depends on your age (or your email volume).
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Google Maps is getting the coolest new feature since turn-by-turn directions • BGR

Chris Mills:

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Google is adding some massive new features to Google Maps, the biggest being the addition of augmented reality directions to help with walking directions. If you’re trying to follow a set of directions, you can now hold your phone up, and Google Maps will match the view from your camera to the saved Street View imagery of the world. Street View can label things in the real world using your camera, and show you an overlay to let you know which way to go.

The company didn’t say when the augmented reality features will come to the Google Maps app, but it did hint that it might even include a cute robotic fox to act as your virtual guide.

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I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve emerged from an underground station (US readers: subway station) and tried to work out which direction I’m facing, compared to where the map is directing me.

Betting on Apple having something like this in the works for WWDC?
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Google Assistant will call businesses for you to set up appointments • Android Police

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Google Assistant is pretty great already, but there are some things you need an actual human for. Not every business has an online booking system, so in some cases, you have to talk to an actual person to make a reservation (the horror!). Google’s solution for this is ‘Duplex,’ which will allow Assistant to actually call a business for you to set up an appointment or reservation.

Once the feature goes live, you’ll be able to ask Assistant to book something for you. For example, you can say “Make me a haircut appointment on Tuesday morning anytime between 10 and 12.” After that, Assistant will call the business and interact with the person on the other site of the call to book the appointment. The person on the other side of the call will probably think Assistant is a person, especially since it uses “hmm” and “um” between words.

The on-stage demo was nothing short of incredible, but we’ll have to wait and see how well it works in real-world testing.

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Google blogpost with more detail. What happens when you get machines to answer the phones too (as often happens)? They’re going to be messing with each other for ages.
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HTC reports earnings for 1Q18 • Digitimes

Steve Shen:

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HTC has reported net profits of NT$21.1bn (US$707.69m) or NT$25.7 per share for the first quarter of 2018, ending its 11 consecutive quarterly losses.

The earnings were mainly contributed by non-operating income of NT$31.6bn from the sale of its ODM business unit to Google, which offset its operating losses of NT$5.2bn and other expenses in the quarter.

Gross margin remained negative at -3.1% in the first quarter, but was a significant improvement from -30.8% of a quarter earlier.

However, the company’s smartphone business has remained in the doldrums, seeing its monthly revenues drop to an over 14-year low of NT$2.099bn in April. And year-to-date, the company had combined revenues of NT$10.89bn, down 43.4% from a year earlier.

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So its underlying business remains as unprofitable as it has been for the past three years, while the company shrinks. That Google bonus can only keep it going for so long.
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Mobile gaming cements its dominance, takes majority of worldwide sales • Ars Technica

Kyle Orland:

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Just over two years ago, we looked back at analyst reports for the 2015 gaming market and highlighted the surprising finding that the PC was actually the world’s most important gaming platform from a raw revenue perspective. But we warned that continued double-digit growth in the mobile market meant the PC’s market dominance wouldn’t last forever.

Fast-forward to the forecast for the 2018 global game market, and things could scarcely look more different. Newzoo’s 2018 Global Games Market Forecast now predicts that mobile games will make up a slim majority (51%) of all worldwide gaming revenue this year (including smartphones and tablets, but not dedicated gaming handhelds). That’s up from 34% in 2015 and just 18% in 2012. Console and PC games will split the remainder of the pie relatively evenly in 2018, at 25% and 24% of worldwide spending, respectively.

The growth of the mobile market doesn’t show any signs of stopping, either: by 2021, Newzoo estimates that 59% of all gaming spending will go to mobile platforms, with console and PC games dividing up the scraps.

If you had to sum up that change in one word, it could easily be “Asia,” which now represents 52% of the global games market (when paired with Oceania). China alone is now responsible for 28% of all gaming spending in the world, up from 24% in 2015. Mobile gaming is overrepresented in the world’s biggest gaming market, responsible for 61% of all Chinese gaming revenue and poised to grow to 70% by 2021.

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AI generates new Doom levels for humans to play • MIT Technology Review

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[Edoardo Giacomello and colleagues at the Politecnico di Milano in Italy] say it is indeed possible to create compelling Doom levels in this automated way, and that the technique has significant potential to change the way game content is created.

The team’s approach is relatively straightforward. They begin with 1,000 Doom levels taken from a repository called the Video Game Level Corpus, which includes all the official levels from Doom and Doom 2 as well as more than 9,000 levels created by the gaming community.

The team then processed each level to generate a set of images that represent its most important features, such as the walkable area, walls, floor height, objects, and so on. They also created a vector that captured important features of the level in numerical form, such as the size, area, and perimeter of rooms, the number of rooms, and so on.

Then they used a deep-learning technique called a generative adversarial network to study the data and learn how to generate new levels.

The results show just how powerful this technique is. After some 36,000 iterations, the deep-learning networks were able to produce levels of good quality. “Our results show that generative adversarial networks can capture intrinsic structure of DOOM levels and appears to be a promising approach to level generation in first person shooter games,” say Giacomello and co.

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Makes sense; much cheaper and it seems like a crazy thing to spend time getting humans to design something when they aren’t needed. Though you could imagine that the AI might come up with an impossible level, which would only be discovered on trying to play it.
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Facebook announces a ban of all Eighth referendum ads from foreign sources • The Irish Journal

Cormac Fitzgerald:

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Social media giant Facebook has announced that it is banning all ads on its platform related to the upcoming referendum if they are from advertisers based outside of Ireland.

Facebook said that it will not allow any ads coming from foreign sources which are deemed to be “attempting to influence the outcome of the vote on May 25″. It said that this would relate to paid of advertisements on its platform.

“We do not intend to block campaigns and advocacy organisations in Ireland from using service providers outside of Ireland,” the company said in a statement on its website.

The ban from Facebook comes following concerns that unknown actors from outside of the state could buy ads to influence Irish voters ahead of the historic referendum.

On 25 May the Irish public will vote on whether to repeal of retain the Eighth Amendment of the constitution – which grants the equal right to life to the mother and the unborn child.

Transparency campaigners and advocates have been voicing concerns over a number of difficult to trace advertisements related to the referendum that have been appearing on Facebook and other platforms in recent weeks.

Online advertising is not regulated for under Ireland’s electoral laws. Currently, there are no laws or regulations governing social media advertisements or targeting of voters by overseas organisations in relation to the upcoming referendum.

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About time; the arguments over the Eighth Amendment (a “Yes” vote would legalise abortion in the Irish Republic up to a foetal age of 12 weeks) have been goign on for months, and there has been a lot of foreign money buying ads on Facebook – from America, pushing the “No” side.
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Yes, it’s bad. Robocalls, and their scams, are surging • The New York Times

Tara Siegel Bernard:

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In an age when cellphones have become extensions of our bodies, robocallers now follow people wherever they go, disrupting business meetings, church services and bedtime stories with their children.

Though automated calls have long plagued consumers, the volume has skyrocketed in recent years, reaching an estimated 3.4 billion in April, according to YouMail, which collects and analyzes calls through its robocall blocking service. That’s an increase of almost 900 million a month compared with a year ago.

Federal lawmakers have noticed the surge. Both the House and Senate held hearings on the issue within the last two weeks, and each chamber has either passed or introduced legislation aimed at curbing abuses. Federal regulators have also noticed, issuing new rules in November that give phone companies the authority to block certain robocalls.

Law enforcement authorities have noticed, too. Just the other week, the New York State attorney general, Eric T. Schneiderman, warned consumers about a scheme targeting people with Chinese last names, in which the caller purports to be from the Chinese Consulate and demands money. Since December, the New York Police Department said, 21 Chinese immigrants had lost a total of $2.5m.

Despite these efforts, robocalls are a thorny problem to solve. Calls can travel through various carriers and a maze of networks, making it hard to pinpoint their origins, enabling the callers to evade rules. Regulators are working with the telecommunications industry to find ways to authenticate calls, which would help unmask the callers.

In the meantime, the deceptive measures have become more sophisticated. In one tactic, known as “neighborhood spoofing,” robocallers use local numbers in the hope that recipients will be more likely to pick up.

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Why would you have a landline phone at all in the US?
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Who controls glibc? • LWN

Jonathan Corbet:

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Toward the end of April, Raymond Nicholson posted a patch to the glibc manual removing a joke that he didn’t think was useful to readers. The joke played on the documentation for abort() to make a statement about US government policy on providing information about abortions. As Nicholson noted: “The joke does not provide any useful information about the abort() function so removing it will not hinder use of glibc”. On April 30, Zack Weinberg applied the patch to the glibc repository.

Richard Stallman, who added the joke sometime in the 1990s, asked that it not be removed. The resulting discussion touched on a number of issues. Carlos O’Donell, who has been trying hard to resolve the issue with some degree of consensus, suggested that the joke could hurt people who have had bad experiences associated with abortion. He proposed a couple of possible alternatives, including avoiding jokes entirely or discussing such issues in a different forum. Stallman, however, replied that “a GNU manual, like a course in history, is not meant to be a ‘safe space'”. He suggested the possibility of adding a trigger warning about functions that create child processes, since childbirth is “far more traumatic than having an abortion”

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There’s insensitivity, and then there’s Richard Stallman. This seems to be one of those “nobody’s laughing – THAT’S WHY IT’S FUNNY” jokes.
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4 thoughts on “Start Up: Google I/O top lines, mobile gaming takes over, encrypted Twitter DMs?, iMac timing, and more

  1. “I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve emerged from an underground station (US readers: subway station) and tried to work out which direction I’m facing,”

    Hey, most midrange+ phones have a compass ! Pre-smartphones, I used to carry a small compass when in unknown cities.

  2. re: whether we’ll like /use Google new fancy features… I’d say it’ll mostly depend on how good a job they do.

    I’ve been surprised by the Photo app. It started proactively (w/o my asking, nor with my permission really) doing stuff like “remembering days” a few years on, beautifying photos, building a day’s story… To my surprise, I’m liking it and using it. It doesn’t require any work from me, I am not being overwhelmed by notifications (a handful a week if that), and the stuff Photo does is rather good: nice albums, relevant flashbacks, mostly successful beautifying.

    I contrast that to Inbox, which I never got into because it would have required me to change apps, ditch the IMAP mail storage I’ve adhered to for decades and for reasons (cross-platform, lets me switch providers and apps very easily), and change workflow/habits. Sure, that puts me in the old fart category. But while new stuff (FB, Instagram,….) can succeed independently of the oldies, changes to existing stuff need buy-in from the existing user base.

    Hopefully Google gets that.

    I’ve got a couple broader concerns:
    1- how will this work offline ? I’m still offline daily, at times for hours. Will the AI bug out, interfere, or just gracefully shut up ?
    2- fancy features are nice, but what about the basic ? I’m hearing they’re doing away with Android 3 main buttons. Who ever said “I want my UI to be more hidden” ??? Don’t those guys ever have to handle.. average… users ?

  3. “Why would you have a landline phone at all in the US?” Cellular coverage is terrible even in major cities but especially outside them. e-911 is spottily implemented as well. For some it is still the best choice for communicating.

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