Amazon wants to be more in-tune with your emotions

Amazon is reportedly working on new technology which will be able to detect users’ emotional state by analysing their vocal patterns.

According to Bloomberg, the tech giant is working in collaboration with Lab126 to create a wearable device, which would be paired with a smartphone, to perceive emotions of the user. With eyes on 2017 patent that uses vocal pattern analysis to determine someone’s emotional state, the insight could be used through various health and wellbeing products, or even in the online advertising world.

This is perhaps one of the trickiest aspects of hyper-targeted advertising or personalisation. Context is king when it comes to serving people relevant adverts or products, though this not only depends on browsing history or financial circumstance, but also the emotional state of that individual at that time.

For example, an individual might have searching for new trainers or workout gear over the last few weeks, but if they are feeling frustrated, presenting an expensive gym membership at that point is unlikely to be the most profitable exercise.

Right now, this technology is nothing more than an idea, while the reports have not been confirmed by Amazon. It might prove to be too much of a complex equation to solve, but it will certainly be of interest to the thousands of brands around the world who are constantly searching for new ways to engage consumers, forcing an extra couple of quid out of the constrained wallets.

This also might prove to be one step too far for the consumer. To get this concept off the ground, buy-in would have to gained from the mass market. Consumers are already being asked to reveal a lot of data in exchange for ‘free’ services, but emotional wellbeing might be the breaking point. This is incredibly personal information therefore the value exchange would have to be very tempting.

The concept itself sounds very futuristic, which to some is daunting. The pace which the technology world is moving forward is staggering at times, though we are not entirely convinced there would be buy-in from consumers. It sounds like an interesting idea, but it might be too much too soon.

Amazon’s vigilante division Ring moves into crime reporting

Internet retail giant Amazon is making a big push into the neighbourhood watch world and now it even wants to report on local crime itself.

This is what is indicated by a recent Amazon job listing, which is looking for a News Managing Editor, who ‘will work on an exciting new opportunity within Ring to manage a team of news editors who deliver breaking crime news alerts to our neighbors.’ Ring, which makes connected doorbells with mounted video cameras, was acquired by Amazon for around a billion bucks last year.

Why would a smart doorbell outfit want to get into crime reporting? Good question, the answer for which seems to be found in the Neighbors by Ring app. This app essentially creates a local social network through which virtual curtain-twitchers can share footage of an undesirable types they’ve spotted lurking around their property through their sentient doorbells.

The idea is clearly an attempt to bring the concept of neighbourhood watch into the connected era, which is fine on the surface. After all, who wouldn’t want to know if there are dodgy people in their area? But as we’ve seen with regular social media, this does have the potential to create a self-reinforcing loop, with almost anything being potentially identifiable as a threat. And then there are the privacy and legal implications of sharing an image taken of someone without their permission and flagging them as a likely criminal.

Rather than seeking to minimise the possibility of this app whipping paranoid communities into a fervour of vigilantism, Amazon seems to think even more crime reporting is needed and is prepared to invest in it, hence this appointment. According to the job spec this person needs to have ‘a knack for engaging storytelling that packs a punch’.

The Neighbors by Ring app page paints a picture of a network of parochial snitches with the cops on speed dial, an Orwellian dynamic that’s sure to end well. The underlying strategic aim for Amazon seems to be to create as big an installed base of Ring doorbells as possible to drive demand for its nascent in-home delivery service. But it may inadvertently end up driving demand for handguns, snarling guard-dogs and panic rooms in the process.

 

Europe approves new internet rules designed to rein in Amazon and co

As part of the overall Digital Single Market programme, the European Parliament has voted to approve new regulations claiming to protect European businesses and consumers when using online platforms to trade.

The “Regulation on platform-to-business trading practices” has been almost two years in the making since the publication of a document titled “Online Platforms and the Digital Single Market: Opportunities and Challenges for Europe” by the European Commission in May 2016.

The EU executives were understandably happy with the passing of the new rules. “We are delighted by the overwhelming support to the new rules on online platforms’ trading practices among the members of the European Parliament. As the first-ever regulation in the world that addresses the challenges of business relations within the online platform economy, it is an important milestone of the Digital Single Market and lays the ground for future developments. Not only will it improve trust, predictability and legal certainty, it will also offer new and accessible options for redress and resolution of disputes between businesses and platforms,” said the official statement, jointly signed off by Andrus Ansip, the Commission’s Vice-President for the Digital Single Market, Elżbieta Bieńkowska, Commissioner for Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs, and Mariya Gabriel, Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society.

What drove the Commission to undertake such an initiative two years ago was the understanding that there is a lack of a redress mechanism when the European SMEs encounter problems when trading on the global platforms (companies singled out include Booking.com, Facebook, eBay, and Amazon), for example, “delisting without statement of reasons or sudden changes of Terms and Conditions”. The Commission has also assessed the effectiveness of legislative vs. non-legislative measures, but believed an EU-wide legislation is necessary.

The Regulation is aimed to achieve three main objectives as are outlined in the Impact Assessment Summary published a year ago:

  1. To ensure a fair, transparent and predictable treatment of business users by online platforms
  2. To provide business users with more effective options for redress when they face problems
  3. To create a predictable and innovation-friendly regulatory environment for online platforms within the EU

Although it has been approved by the European Parliament, the regulation still needs to be formally passed by the Council of the European Union, which represents the governments of the member states and can be roughly seen as another “chamber” of the union’s legislature. There is no definite timeline on when the Council will make the decision. However, by the reading of the press statement where the Commissioners thanked the member states “for their great efforts to reach a good compromise in a very short period of time. This is yet another positive development ahead of the upcoming European elections,” the Council may not be able to vote on it before the European Parliamentary election in May. After the final approval, the regulation will enter into force 12 months after it is published in the Official Journal.

This is the latest internet-related legislation the EU has made recently. On 15 April the Council passed the updated Copyright Directive “fit for the digital age”, which has proved controversial.  There are also legislation and regulation updates in member states. France has started levying 3% income tax on digital companies with sales in excess of €25 million in France and €750 million globally, without waiting for an EU-wide tax regime as part of the Digital Single Market. The UK, still an EU member state at the time of writing, has not only considered setting up a new regulator to oversee the digital world and started the consultation process of a “code of practice for online services” to protect children, but will also formally introduce the “porn block” on 15 July, which has been called “One of the Worst Ideas Ever” by some critics.

Turns out real people sometimes hear what you say to smart speakers

The revelation that Amazon employs people to listen to voice recordings captured from its Echo devices has apparently surprised some people.

The scoop comes courtesy of Bloomberg and seems to have caught the public imagination, as it has been featured prominently by mainstream publications such as the Guardian and BBC News. Apparently Amazon employs thousands of people globally to help improve the voice recognition and general helpfulness of its smart speakers. That means they have to listen to real exchanges sometimes.

That’s it. Nothing more to see here folks. One extra bit of spice was added by the detail that sometimes workers use internal chatrooms to share funny audio files such as people singing in the shower. On a more serious note some of them reckon they’ve heard crimes being committed but were told it’s not their job to interfere.

Amazon sent Bloomberg a fairly generic response amounting to a justification of the necessity of human involvement in the AI and voice recognition process but stressing that nothing’s more important to it than privacy.

Bloomberg’s main issue seems to be that Amazon doesn’t make it explicit enough that another person may be able to listen into your private stuff through an Echo device. Surely anyone who knowingly installs and turns on a devices that is explicitly designed to listen to your voice at all times must be at least dimly aware that there may be someone else on the other end of the line, but even if they’re not it’s not obvious how explicit Amazon needs to be.

An underlying fact of life in the artificial intelligence era is that the development of AI relies on the input of as much ‘real life’ stuff as possible/ Only be experiencing loads of real interactions and scenarios can a machine learn to mimic them and participate in them. In case there is any remaining doubt, if you introduce a device into your house that is designed to listen at all times, that’s exactly what it will do.

Amazon gets into the satellite connectivity game

All the cool kids have low-orbit nanosatellites these days and Amazon is not about to miss out on the latest connectivity fad.

The news comes courtesy of some pro sniffing about from Geek Wire, which spotted a bunch of new filings made with the International Telecommunications Union last month via the FCC by a company called Kuiper Systems. The dogged hack followed his hunch and got in touch with Amazon to see if it was involved and got the following response.

“Project Kuiper is a new initiative to launch a constellation of low Earth orbit satellites that will provide low-latency, high-speed broadband connectivity to unserved and underserved communities around the world. This is a long-term project that envisions serving tens of millions of people who lack basic access to broadband internet. We look forward to partnering on this initiative with companies that share this common vision.”

It seems to be very early days for this project, but if Amazon’s behind it you can be sure it will be well funded. Furthermore Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has always had a thing for space and has his very own rocket company called Blue Origin. It’s too early to say whether Bezos will get Blue origin to launch the Amazon satellites but you’d presumably get short odds on it.

As we recently found out from talking to nanosatellite startup UbiquitiLink, low-orbit satellites are handy because they don’t suffer from the kind of latency issues regular geostationary ones do. However you need a lot more of them to achieve the same area of coverage, hence the whole nanosatellite thing.

Loads of other companies seem to be thinking this is a promising business to get into, mainly to provide connectivity to remote areas but, if you’ll excuse the pun, the sky’s the limit. It’s not immediately obvious what the return on investment is on lobbing a bunch of satellites into space to help people who live in the middle of nowhere get online, but they’ve presumably given it some thought and reckon the sums add up.

Facial recognition is being used in China’s monitoring network

A publicly accessible database managed by a surveillance contractor showed China has used a full suite of AI tools to monitor its Uyghur population in the far west of the country.

Victor Gevers, a cyber security expert and a researcher at the non-profit GDI Foundation, found that a database managed by SenseNets, a Chinese surveillance company, and housed in China Unicom cloud platform, has stored large quantities of tracking data of the residents in the Xinjiang autonomous region in west China. The majority of monitored are the Uyghur ethnic group. The data covered a total number of nearly 2.6 million people (2,565,724 to be precise), including personal information like their ID card details (issue & expire dates, sex, ethnic group, home address, birthday, photo) as well employer details, and the locations they have been tracked (using facial recognition) in the last 24 hours, during which time a total of 6,680,348 records were registered, according to Gevers.

Neither the scope nor the level of detail of the monitoring should be a surprise, given the measures used by China in that part of the country over the last two years. If there is anything embarrassing for the Chinese authorities and their contractors in this story, it will be the total failure of data security: the database was not protected at all. By the time Gevers notified the administrators at SenseNets, it had been accessible to anyone for at least half a year, according to the access log. The database has since been secured, opened, and secured again. Gevers also found out that the database was built on a pirate edition of Windows Server 2012. Police stations, hotels, and other service and business establishments are also found to have connected to the database.

This is a classic example of human errors defeating security systems. Not too long ago, Jeff Bezos of Amazon sent intimate pictures to his female companion, which ended up in the wrong hands. This led to the BBC’s quip that Bezos was the weak link in cybersecurity for the world’s leading cloud service provider.

Like other technologies, facial recognition can be used by overbearing governments for monitoring purposes, breaking all privacy protection. But it can also do tremendous good. EU citizens travelling between the UK and the Schengen Area have long got used to having their passports read by a machine then their faces matched by a camera. The AI technologies behind the experience have vastly simplified and expediated the immigration process. But, sometimes, for some reason, the machine may fail to recognise a face. In that case, there is always an immigration officer at the desk to do manual check.

Facial recognition, coupled with other technologies, for example blockchain, can also improve the efficiency in industries like cross-border logistics. The long border between Sweden and Norway is largely open despite that a passenger or cargo vehicle travelling from one country to another would be technically moving between inside the EU (Sweden) and outside of it (Norway). According to an article in The Economist, the frictionless transit needs digitalisation of documentation (of goods as well as on people), facial recognition (of drivers), sensors on the border (to read code on the driver’s mobile phone), and automatic number-plate recognition (of the vehicles).

In cases like these, facial recognition, and AI in general, should be lauded. What the world should be on alert to is how the data is being used and who has access to it.

 

Big Apple says no to Amazon

The PR bout between Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Democratic Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been settled, with the internet giant cancelling plans to open a New York office.

HQ2, as it had come to be known, was supposed to be Amazon’s attempt to expand its corporate footprint, opening a new, secondary, headquarters outside of Seattle. After a year-long search, the decision was made to split duties between Virginia and New York, with each eventually playing home to 25,000 employees promised Amazon. It seemed like an attractive proposition, but political and residential opposition killed the idea.

“After much thought and deliberation, we’ve decided not to move forward with our plans to build a headquarters for Amazon in Long Island City, Queens,” the company said in a statement. “For Amazon, the commitment to build a new headquarters requires positive, collaborative relationships with state and local elected officials who will be supportive over the long-term.

“While polls show that 70% of New Yorkers support our plans and investment, a number of state and local politicians have made it clear that they oppose our presence and will not work with us to build the type of relationships that are required to go forward with the project we and many others envisioned in Long Island City.”

Amazon has been on a year-long road trip to figure out which city would effectively bribe it the most to become the home of the next corporate headquarters. The ‘bribe’ would come in the form of tax incentives and relief for investing in a region, and while this might have looked like a coup for New York and the district of Queens, there has been political opposition.

Ocasio-Cortez was the spearhead, objecting to the billions of dollars’ worth of benefit the internet giant would realise, all at the expense of the tax payer. Opponents to the development also questioned how much of a benefit Amazon would be to the city, as many locals would not be qualified for the newly created positions.

Although there are arguments on both sides of the equation, you have to wonder whether this is a short-sighted move from a politically naive representative. Firstly, New York has not shown itself to be particularly welcoming to technology, the fastest growing segment of the global economy. And secondly, just because people are not qualified for these roles today, doesn’t mean the generations of tomorrow won’t be qualified.

Starting with the first point, many cities across the US are attempting to make their own region appear more attractive to technology companies. This is always for the same reason; politicians and bureaucrats recognise the growth potential of the technology industry and the greater impact this can have on the city. In taking such a strong and aggressive stance against Bezos, New York has given itself a slight technophobe image.

Of course, what is worth noting is the city should not be taken advantage of. This is what many feel Amazon has done, using the immense promise of jobs, investment and prosperity to bleed the city dry. Whether you look at the tax incentives as a pragmatic move or abuse of the system depends on your political swing, but there are fair arguments on both side of the equation.

The second point of opposition is down to the jobs which will be created. Many have suggested these would not be suitable for the local population of Queens, instead outsiders would stream into the area, potentially bringing with them higher house prices and pretentious coffee shops. There is certainly some validity to this position, though you have to wonder whether this is short-sighted.

The first generation might not be the most qualified, but in bringing a new type of job to the area, future generations have another target to aim for. Companies like Amazon also like to run initiatives like coding clubs in local schools, offering young students an opportunity to learn a future-proofed skill which might not be available to them otherwise. There is also secondary employment brought to the district because of the presence of Amazon.

Amazon is also a leader is the quickly prospering field of artificial intelligence. Although engineering and innovation for AI would almost certainly be based in Silicon Valley, the presence of such a massive office in New York would allow the city to create a hub of excellence for AI. Considering the role this emerging segment will play in the future, this is potentially a massive missed opportunity.

There are arguments on both sides of the equation, but we believe this is a short-sighted campaign of opposition. More effort should have been made to renegotiate the terms, as much more is lost than gained with New York snubbing Amazon.

Mesh wifi goes mainstream as Amazon acquires Eero

Amazon’s push into the connected home took another step with the acquisition of mesh wifi specialist Eero.

Mesh wifi has been put forward as the next generation of wifi router technology, which uses multiple nodes to not only resolve coverage issues but also create an electronic map of the home such that your interaction with the network can have a positional element. Qualcomm has been bigging up mesh for a while and Samsung has gone big on it in the US, where it seems to have the greatest consumer adoption.

Eero seems to be one of the more established players over there, so its acquisition by Amazon has raised some eyebrows. It’s perceived as a clever move by Amazon to augment its connected home drive that is focused around its Alexa smart speaker devices. On the flip side there is some disquiet at the prospect of a popular independent tech brand being hoovered up by one of the giants.

“We are incredibly impressed with the Eero team and how quickly they invented a wifi solution that makes connected devices just work,” said Dave Limp, SVP of Amazon Devices and Services. “We have a shared vision that the smart home experience can get even easier, and we’re committed to continue innovating on behalf of customers.”

“From the beginning, Eero’s mission has been to make the technology in homes just work,” echoed Nick Weaver, CEO of Eero. “We started with wifi because it’s the foundation of the modern home. Every customer deserves reliable and secure wifi in every room. By joining the Amazon family, we’re excited to learn from and work closely with a team that is defining the future of the home, accelerate our mission, and bring eero systems to more customers around the globe.”

Coincidentally another major mesh specialist – Plume – has just announced a partnership with UK ISP TalkTalk, to launch some kind of invitation-only early access to its technology. “Since launching Plume in the US, we’ve received a tremendous amount of interest from the UK,” said Sri Nathan, Head of Business Development at Plume. “We are thrilled to deliver a new level of personalisation, connectivity, and security in the home to TalkTalk subscribers.”

The migration of mesh technology into the mainstream is likely to prompt a fresh round of hand-wringing about data privacy. Amazon is already installing listening devices into people’s homes, now it will be offering a wifi system that knows where you are all the time. People are going to get freaked out by the prospect of a tech giant having access to so much personal information, so Amazon has created a fresh PR challenge with this move.

Amazon made obscene amounts of money in 2018

Internet giant Amazon made $232.9 billion last year, which was up 31% from the previous year.

The increase was almost exactly the same percentage at the previous year, indicating Amazon’s impressive growth is showing no sign of slowing. Its Q4 revenue growth was a mere 20% to $72.4 billion, but net income was up 58% to $3 billion, which helped amazon reach $10.1 billion net income for the full year, more than triple what it managed in 2017.

By far the main reason Amazon is suddenly so much more profitable is AWS – its cloud services division. Considering its origins as a way to monetize surplus datacentre capacity, it’s especially impressive that this division raked in $25.6 billion last year, yielding an operating income of $7.3 billion. For some reason CEO Jeff Bezos chose to bang on about Amazon’s voice UI platform Alexa instead in his earnings comments.

“Alexa was very busy during her holiday season,” he said. “Echo Dot was the best-selling item across all products on Amazon globally, and customers purchased millions more devices from the Echo family compared to last year. The number of research scientists working on Alexa has more than doubled in the past year, and the results of the team’s hard work are clear.

“In 2018, we improved Alexa’s ability to understand requests and answer questions by more than 20% through advances in machine learning, we added billions of facts making Alexa more knowledgeable than ever, developers doubled the number of Alexa skills to over 80,000, and customers spoke to Alexa tens of billions more times in 2018 compared to 2017. We’re energized by and grateful for the response, and you can count on us to keep working hard to bring even more invention to customers.”

Great, thanks for that Jeff. One other business segment that’s worth noting is appropriately enough, ‘other’. This covers advertising – in this case premium positioning on the Amazon site, especially for Prime subscribers of which there are over 100 million – and it doubled its revenue in the quarter. Thankless investors still drove Amazon’s share price down by 5%, ironically enough, after it announced it expects to increase its investment spend this year.