Everything Amazon’s Alexa learned to do in 2017

Amazon’s Alexa is leading the AI assistant pack. Echo devices are dominating smart speaker sales, and that was before Amazon brought the devices to more than 80 nations around the world. To defend its crown, Amazon moved fast this year to outpace competitors like Google Assistant and Microsoft’s Cortana. Apple’s delayed HomePod is due out next year, while Samsung and Facebook are also reportedly planning to debut smart speakers. It can be challenging to keep up with all the features Alexa has added to stay ahead of some of the largest tech companies on the planet, so here’s a rundown of everything Alexa learned to do this year. Continue reading “Everything Amazon’s Alexa learned to do in 2017”

Amazon Alexa skills to accept payments

Developers and businesses making skills for Amazon’s Alexa will soon be able to accept Amazon Pay and make purchases directly within voice apps from the Alexa Skills Store. The news was announced today during the Alexa State of the Union at AWS re:Invent in Las Vegas. Other Alexa news shared today includes plans to bring Alexa to Australia and New Zealand in early 2018 and adding $100 million to the Alexa Fund for international investment. Continue reading “Amazon Alexa skills to accept payments”

Amazon unveils DeepLens, a $249 camera for deep learning


Amazon Web Services today unveiled DeepLens, a wireless video camera made for the quick deployment of deep learning. The camera will cost $249 and is scheduled to ship for customers in the United States in April 2018.

DeepLens comes pre-loaded with AWS Greengrass for local computation and can operate with SageMaker, a new service to simplify the deployment of AI models, as well as popular open source AI services such as TensorFlow from Google and Caffe2 from Facebook, according to an AWS blog. Continue reading “Amazon unveils DeepLens, a $249 camera for deep learning”

Academics search for meaning in images of Mark Zuckerberg


The first edition of essays to examine ways Mark Zuckerberg has been depicted in mass media is now available. Released online today, the California Review of Images and Mark Zuckerberg contains a collection of writing dedicated to analysis of depictions of Facebook’s CEO either by news media, Facebook, or Zuckerberg himself at various stages in his life in the public eye.

Essays included in the first edition include “Neocolonial Intimacies,” a look back at an awkward hug between Zuckerberg and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi; and “Mark Zuckerberg’s Significant Insignificance,” a breakdown of Zuckerberg’s early Facebook profile photo. There’s also an essay that dives into this cringe-inducing, sweaty 2010 interview with Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg.

Authors whose work was included in the publication were paid a $300 stipend. A symposium for further examination of essays in the first edition of California Review of Images and Mark Zuckerberg may be held in San Francisco in early 2018, creator and editor Tim Hwang told VentureBeat in a phone interview.

Hwang made the publication in his free time, but his day job is director of the Ethics and Governance of AI Initiative, a $27 million venture to support research and projects that propel AI for the public good. From 2015 to 2017, Hwang served as AI and ML lead for Google’s public policy team.

Since Hwang floated the idea of the publication in a Medium post in late summer, much of the news surrounding Facebook has dealt with Russia meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

“We’re coming at this at kind of a strange time,” Hwang said. “We’ve had a call for more people who want to write articles, so we might very well do a Volume Two.”

As one of the best known people alive today, other examinations of Zuckerberg imagery could explore hacker-punk Zuckerberg, a deeper dive into his 50-state U.S. tour that convinced many he may run for president, or Zuckerberg in augmented reality, like his recent virtual tour of hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico that raised some eyebrows.

PressCoin is a cryptocurrency for investigative journalists and their readers

A coalition of news organizations and journalists in various parts of the world have banded together to create a cryptocurrency to sustain funding for investigative journalism. Called PressCoin, the digital currency was made to get rid of the advertising revenue model, decentralize funding sources, and upend corporate media monopolies with collaborative content made to strengthen civic participation around the world. A 28-day initial coin offering (ICO) is scheduled to begin November 22, with one PressCoin for sale at the value of $1.

“If PressCoin succeeds, I’m going to delete my Patreon account. Kind of a different ball game,” Nafeez Ahmed told VentureBeat in a Skype interview. Continue reading “PressCoin is a cryptocurrency for investigative journalists and their readers”

Google gives developers more tools to make better voice apps


Google Assistant received some major upgrades in recent days, and today Google Assistant product manager Brad Abrams announced a series of changes to help developers make voice apps that interact with Google’s AI assistant, including ways to give them more expressive voices and send push notifications, as well as new subcategories for the Assistant’s App Directory.

One of the coolest new features coming to Google Assistant is something called Implicit Discovery. Instead of saying “OK Google, talk to Ray’s Auto Shop app” and then asking to schedule an appointment, Implicit Discovery will let you say “Book an appointment to fix my car” then offer an app recommendation. The same should apply if you say “I need to book a flight” to summon something like the Kayak app or say “I need a ride” to interact with Uber or Lyft.

Implicit Discovery may seem simple, but it’s going after one of the biggest challenges for AI assistants, which is: Without a visual interface, how does a user figure out how to get things done or remember the names of favorite or useful apps? Implicit Discovery seems to be an effort to tackle this. It’s also a feature already available in Amazon’s Alexa.

Another feature added today to improve discovery of third-party apps is subcategories in the App Directory, so instead of just being listed in the Food and Drink category, apps can be slated into subcategories like “Order Food” and “View a Menu.”

The App Directory was first introduced at the I/O developer conference this spring.

Other changes on the way for the App Directory include badges to indicate if a voice app is family friendly and support for third-party apps in languages beyond English. Until today, Google’s voice apps were only available for English speakers in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and Australia. Voice apps will soon be available in Portuguese in Brazil, English in India, and Spanish in the U.S., Mexico, and Spain.

Google announced today that developers in the United Kingdom can begin to make apps that can carry out transactions, a feature that until now was exclusive to the U.S. The Google Payment API expanded to include Google Assistant users in the U.S. in May.

A series of new APIs has also been rolled out, including one that gives apps the ability to send push notifications, first over the phone and in the future with voice or auditory sounds through a Google Home smart speaker. Alexa notifications first launched in September.

An API to link an account to an app for personalized results, and another that gives developers the ability to transfer a conversation from a smart speaker to a smartphone also launched today.

Beyond push notifications, voice apps can now deliver daily updates or notifications about certain kinds of content.

The Actions on Google platform for the creation of voice apps by third-party developers first became available roughly a year ago, in December 2016. Since then, hundreds of voice apps have been made available to do a range of things, from playing ambient sounds like crashing waves to offering local deals for a pizza from Domino’s.

It’s been a pretty busy week for Google’s intelligent assistant. On Monday, Google announced that Home speakers can now be used as an intercom system. The Google Broadcast feature, first announced at the Made by Google hardware event last month, allows you to deliver a message through all your Google Home devices. The app also gained the ability to deliver music and movie recommendations from streaming services and control sound by adjusting things like bass and treble, a clear plus for prospective owners of Google Home Max, which is scheduled to hit store shelves next month.

Taken together, the announcements made today will give voice apps the ability to be a much more vocal, vital part of the Google Assistant experience, and continue to evolve the ecosystem surrounding Google’s AI assistant.

This time last year, Google Assistant was only available in the Allo chat app. Today you can speak to Google in Android TVs, three Google Home smart speakers, Android smartphones, the Pixel Chromebook, and Pixel Buds, the first headphones made by Google that began to roll out last week. Support for Google Assistant in tablets using Android is also reportedly on the way.

Facebook Messenger brings live chat and bots to websites


Facebook Messenger now has a plugin that lets visitors to a website engage in live chat with a human or bot without leaving that website. Called Customer Chat, the plugin is one in a series of major changes announced today as part of the release of version 2.2 of the Messenger Platform. The announcement was made by Messenger head of product Stan Chudnovsky on stage at Web Summit in Lisbon, Portugal. Continue reading “Facebook Messenger brings live chat and bots to websites”

Facebook Messenger will soon let all businesses send sponsored messages

Facebook today announced that sponsored messages are being rolled out to more businesses. The Messenger ads were initially made available to a small number of businesses but will become available to all businesses in the coming months, the company said in a blog post.

Unlike other Messenger ads, sponsored messages that pop up on your Messenger home screen will not be marked as such. In fact, they look like all other conversations on Facebook Messenger.

As previously defined rules for advertising and marketing on Facebook Messenger state, promotional messages like the kind being rolled out now may only be sent once in a 24-hour period, and they can only be sent to a person who previously chatted with that business’ Facebook Messenger bot or account.

During the company’s third quarter earnings report on Wednesday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told investors that more than 20 million businesses use Facebook monthly to communicate with customers.

Advertisers interested in sending sponsored messages must create a Custom Audience, which can be used for retargeting ads at people who have done things like clicked a Messenger bot call to action or deleted a Messenger bot, or simply to target new Messenger bot users.

Advertising and business services through Facebook’s messaging apps have grown steadily in the second half of 2017 following questions about monetization this summer. In July, while onstage at MobileBeat, Facebook Messenger head of product Stan Chudnovsky announced the company will gradually bring ads to the Messenger home screen worldwide. In recent weeks, Facebook opened the Messenger objective for ad campaigns.

At the same time, verified WhatsApp business accounts and a paid WhatsApp customer service app have also opened up.

In August 2016, after initial restrictions on promotional material, Facebook Messenger opened to promotional and marketing material. Ads that appear in the Facebook News Feed and lead to a chat experience with a human or automated bot on Messenger have been available since the launch of Messenger Platform 1.3 in November 2016. Since then, those same ads have expanded to Instagram.

Both WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger garner more than 1 billion monthly active users around the world. They compete in the same space to connect businesses with customers as other chat apps with hundreds of millions of users, such as Skype, Apple’s iMessage, and Twitter.

Silicon Valley may have just began to come around to this form of conversational commerce, but it’s been a big part of business in Asia for a while now.

WeChat and Line have offered advertising in one form or another since 2014 and 2015, respectively.

Advertising has become the highest grossing sector of Line Corp, the company behind the Line app. According to earnings announced in late October, 47 percent of the $371 million in Line revenue in the past quarter came from advertising, up 40 percent compared to the same quarter last year.

Coming soon: Amazon Echo push notifications


Amazon Alexa-enabled device like the Echo will soon be able to deliver news, weather, or health-related alerts with notifications from their Echo smart speaker.

The move would make Alexa the first among companies like Google and Microsoft whose third-party voice apps can proactively send notifications.

Announced in a blog post this morning, Washington Post, Life 360, Just Eat, and AccuWeather will be among the first four skills with the ability to share alerts.

Users will be required to opt in to receive alerts.

“When available, users will be able to opt-in to notifications per skill using the Amazon Alexa App and will be alerted when there’s new information to retrieve by a chime and a pulsing green light on their Amazon Echo, Echo Dot, or Echo Show device,” said head Alexa evangelist David Isbitski in a blog post today. “When users enable notifications on a skill like The Washington Post, the skill will send status updates to the device. Users can simply ask, ‘Alexa, what did I miss?’ or ‘Alexa, what are my notifications?’”

The ability to make phone calls and proactively send push notifications were among predictions about intelligent assistants in 2017 made by VoiceLabs CEO Alex Marchick in the 2017 Voice Report. The ability to make phone calls and send messages with an Alexa-enabled device was made available last week.

In an interview earlier this year, Marchick told VentureBeat he believes the ability to send push notifications and connect with friends will be critical to creating the killer app for Alexa.

Another prediction from Marchick: These notifications should be limited to three or four a day, but unfortunately for users, just like mobile, voice app notifications will get out of hand.

“First there’s going to be the capability of a push notification, and it will probably be abused, and then it will get cracked down on, and then they’ll realize that you’ve got to do this intelligently,” he said.

Amazon has not shared an expected release date for Alexa skill notifications.

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