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Archivo del Autor: Belen De Leon

Alexa will soon gain a memory, converse more naturally, and automatically launch skills

Alexa will soon be able to recall information you’ve directed her to remember, as well as have more natural conversations that don’t require every command to begin with “Alexa.” She’ll also be able to launch skills in response to questions you ask, without explicit instructions to do so. The features are the first of what Amazon says are many launches this year that will make its virtual assistant more personalized, smarter, and more engaging.

The news was announced this morning in a keynote presentation from the head of the Alexa Brain group, Ruhi Sarikaya, speaking at the World Wide Web Conference in Lyon, France.

He explained that the Alexa Brain initiative is focused on improving Alexa’s ability to track context and memory within and across dialog sessions, as well as make it easier for users to discover and interact with Alexa’s now over 40,000 third-party skills.

With the memory update, arriving soon to U.S. users, Alexa will be able to remember any information you ask her to, and retrieve it later.

For example, you might direct Alexa to remember an important day by saying something like, “Alexa, remember that Sean’s birthday is June 20th.” Alexa will then reply, “Okay, I’ll remember that Sean’s birthday is June 20th.” This effectively turns Alexa into a way to offload information you’d otherwise have to store in your own brain, and is reminiscent of earlier bots, like Wonder, which were designed to remember anything you told it, for later retrieval over SMS or messaging platforms.

Memory, of course, has also been one of Google Assistant’s more useful features – so it was time for Alexa to catch up on this front.

In addition, Alexa will soon be able to have more natural conversations with users, thanks to something called “context carryover.” This means that Alexa will be able to understand follow-up questions and respond appropriately, even though you haven’t addressed her as “Alexa.”

For instance, you could ask “Alexa, how is the weather in Seattle?” and then ask, “What about this weekend?” after Alexa responds.

You can even change the subject, saying “Alexa, how’s the weather in Portland?,” then “How long does it take to get there?”

The feature, says Sarikaya, takes advantage of deep learning models applied to the spoken language understanding pipeline, in order to have conversations that carry customers’ intent and entities within and across domains – like it did between weather and traffic, in the example above. It will also require the customer to enable Follow Up mode, which allows Alexa to continue a conversation even when the wake word isn’t said a second time.

Natural conversations are also coming “soon” to Alexa device owners in the U.S., U.K. and Germany.

A third advance arriving in the near future focuses on Alexa’s skills. These are the third-party voice apps that aim to help you do more with Alexa – like checking your credit card account information, playing news radio, ordering an Uber, playing a game, and more. There are so many out there, it’s becoming harder to surface them just by digging around in the Alexa Skills Store.

In the weeks ahead, U.S. users will be able to launch skills using natural phrases, instead of explicit commands like “Alexa, open [skill name]” or “…enable [skill name].”

Amazon has been working to make Alexa’s skills easier to use for years. In 2016, Echo was updated to allow users to enable new Alexa skills by voice, and last year, Alexa began suggesting skills in response to certain questions in limited scenarios. With the new feature, now in beta testing, Alexa will instead locate and launch skills for you.

Sarikaya gives an example of this from the current beta test, noting that he asked Alexa “how do I remove an oil stain from my shirt?”

Alexa responded by saying “Here is Tide Stain Remover,” which is the name of Procter & Gamble’s skill that walks you through stain removal for over 200 specific stain types – including oil.

Before, it was hard to imagine why anyone would seek out and enable a Tide skill on their own, but having it in Alexa’s repertoire now begins to make more sense.

This could also potentially present Amazon with an advertising model, similar to Google’s keyword bidding system. If someone asks for information that could be answered by a skill touting a particular product or brand, Amazon could eventually have advertisers compete to be the skill recommended first. (Perhaps the others could be called up with a follow-up request, “any other ideas?”)

Amazon isn’t giving an exact launch date for any of these three new features, only that they’re coming soon.

But despite the new launches, Sarikaya notes there’s still a lot of work left ahead.

“We have many challenges still to address, such as how to scale these new experiences across languages and different devices, how to scale skill arbitration across the tens of thousands of Alexa skills, and how to measure experience quality,” he says. “Additionally, there are component-level technology challenges that span automatic speech recognition, spoken language understanding, dialog management, natural language generation, text-to-speech synthesis, and personalization,” he says.

“Skills arbitration, context carryover and the memory feature are early instances of a class of work Amazon scientists and engineers are doing to make engaging with Alexa more friction-free,” Sarikaya continues. “We’re on a multi-year journey to fundamentally change human-computer interaction, and as we like to say at Amazon, it’s still Day 1.”

Source: TechCrunch

Ominous Views of Japan's New Concrete Seawalls

Can these 41-foot-high walls protect the country from another tsunami?
Source: Wired

Cashback app Dosh raises $44M on a $240M valuation from PayPal and more

In an era where we can buy whatever we want from wherever we want nearly in the blink of an eye, loyalty, rewards and membership programs have become a major lever in capturing repeat consumer spend — Amazon Prime perhaps being one of the most successful examples. Now, a company that has built up shopping frequency across multiple retailers by rewarding buyers with cashback is announcing a big round of funding to expand its business

Dosh, a startup and app of the same name that lets you get cash back when you shop at selected retailers with a linked card, has raised $44 million in a Series B round of funding from investors that include PayPal and Goodwater Capital. The company has paid out $25 million to some 3 million uses since being founded in 2016.

It claims to be the largest card-linked cash-back app and network in the U.S. with Sam’s Club, Forever 21, Cost Plus World Market, Target, Mattress Firm, Papa John’s, U.S. Polo Assn., Chili’s, and Payless ShoeSource among the retailers integrated with it.

No valuation is being disclosed but we understand from a source close to the company that it is $240 million.

The funding brings the total raised by Dosh, based out of Austin, to $56 million. Other investors in the company have included Next Coast Ventures, Chetrit Ventures and Extol Capital.

There are dozens of services on the market today that let users get cash back when they make purchases. They include genre-specific apps like Mogl for restaurants, shopping portal Spring, numerous credit cards, and even PayPal itself. CEO and founder Ryan Wuerch says that Dosh is different from the rest because of its implementation of AI and algorithms that respond to your shopping behavior to steer your activity.

“Dosh uses behavioral stimuli to directly connect merchants and consumers with predicted results,” he said in an interview. “Dosh subscribers automatically get cash without having to change their behaviors or actions. Dosh technology drives incremental transactions, triggering an immediate cash incentive to the consumer and creating positive associations with merchants and brands.”

He says that Dosh makes its own Dosh (which in the UK is slang for “money”) by taking a percentage on transactions, although he wouldn’t specify the number.

PayPal exists as one of the options for getting your cash back — others include your bank account and donating to charity — but Wuerch says that PayPal is solely a financial investor in the startup.

The company today operates only in the US and that is the plan for the next three years, with its target being to have 1 million merchants on the platform by that time. The sweetener is that it’s helping to lift purchasing, even among the biggest of its partners, and pointedly those who have been finding it a challenge to do battle with Prime, which Amazon uses to create loyalty for itself rather than a plethora of retailers.

“Dosh subscribers become sustained, repeat customers faster,” said James Lerner, Senior Product Marketing Director, Walmart Global eCommerce/Samsclub.com, in a statement.. “Those customers are visiting 29% more often, and spending 60% more per visit after 60 days when compared to non-Dosh subscribers.”


Source: TechCrunch

Snapchat launches Spectacles V2, camera glasses you’ll actually wear

Photos, not just video. No yellow ring alerting people to the camera. Underwater-capable. Classier colors with lighter lenses. Prescription options. Faster syncing. And a much smaller charging case. Snapchat fixed the biggest pain points of its Spectacles camera sunglasses with V2, which launch today for $150. The company only sold 220,000 pairs of V1, with their limited functionality, tricky exports, and goofy style. But V2 is stylish, convenient, and useful enough to keep handy. They’re not revolutionary. They’re a wearable camera for everybody. 

You can check out our snazzy hands-on demo video below.

The new Spectacles go one sale today in the US, Canada, UK, and France, then in 13 more European countries on May 3rd. They’re only available on Snap’s app and site — no Amazon, pop-up stores or vending SnapBots. And V1 owners will get a firmware update that lets them take photos.

After two days of use, I think Spectacles v2 cross the threshold from clumsy novelty to creative tool accessible to the mainstream. And amidst user growth struggles, that’s what Snap needs right now. 

V1 Was To Get People Comfortable

What it doesn’t need is a privacy scandal, and that risk is the tradeoff Snap is making with its more discrete Spectacles design. They still display a little circle of white lights while recording, but without the permanent yellow ring on the corner you otherwise might not notice there’s a camera lens there. That could make people a little nervous and creeped out.

But the company’s VP of hardware Mark Randall tells me he thinks the true purpose of V1 was to get people comfortable wearing and being recorded by a face computer. It certainly wasn’t a consumer success, with less than half of owners using them after the first month. He said he feels pretty good about shipping 220,000 pairs. Yet Snapchat was roundly mocked for taking a $40 million write-off after making hundreds of thousands too many. Randall attributes that to having fragmented sales channels, which Snap is fixing by only selling V2 itself.

Snap did learn that users wanted to take photos, get them in less flashy coral colors, bring Spectacles to the beach, pair them quicker with better resolution exports, and hear less wind noise when moving. And most importantly, they wanted something they didn’t feel weird wearing. So his team essentially scrapped the yellow warning ring, style, architecture, chipset, and electronics to build a better V2 from the ground up. The result rises high above its predecessor.

What’s Special About Spectacles V2

As soon as you slide them out of their tennis ball tube package, you’ll notice a higher build quality in Spectacles V2. The yellow case is about 1/3 smaller, so you could squeeze it in some pants pockets or easily throw it in a jacket or purse. The old version you basically required a backpack. The charging port has also been moved to the side so it doesn’t fall out so easily. Even with the better hardware, Spectacles are still supposed to get a week of normal use on a charge, plus carry four extra charges in the case.

The Spectacles themselves feel sleeker and less like chunky plastic. They come in onyx black, ruby red, and sapphire blue and you can choose between a more mirrored or natural lens color too. Users in the US can order them with prescription lenses through a partnership with Lensabl. Those colors are a lot more mature than the childish coral pink and teal of V1. More transparent lenses make them easier to use in lower light, so you won’t be restricted to just the sunniest days. I could even get by inside to some degree, whereas I was bumping into things indoors with V1.

The box holding the hardware on the hinges is now much smaller, making them lighter overall. It’s easy to long-press for a photo or tap for 10-second video, with extra taps extending the clip up to 30 seconds. Either fires up the light ring to let people know you’re recording, but this is much more subtle than the permanent yellow ring that was there as well on V1.

Snap Inc actually reduced the field of vision for Spectacles from 115 to 105 degrees to cut off some of the fish-eye warping that happened to the edges of clips shot on V1. Videos now record in 1216 x 1216 pixels, while photos are 1642 x 1642.

Syncing to your phone now just requires Bluetooth and a seven-second press of the shutter button, rather than a shoddy QR code scan. Exports always happens in HD now, and transfers go four times quicker than the old process that required you to sync standard definition (low quality) versions of videos first, then pick your favorites, then download them in HD. Randall says that led lots of people to accidentally or impatiently settle for SD content, which made Spectacles’ capture resolution seem much lower than its potential.

Annoyingly, you can only sync your Spectacles to Snapchat Memories first before exporting videos individually or as one big Story to your camera roll. That makes it a pain to share them elsewhere.

But what really matters is the how the incremental improvements all add up to something much more liveable.

Snapchat may have finally found a way to make Spectacles carryable and wearable enough that people use them as their default sunglasses. That could lead to way more content being produced from Spectacles, which in turn could make Snapchat more interesting at a time when it’s desperate to differentiate from Instagram.


Source: TechCrunch

Snapchat Spectacles (2018): Hands On, Price, Release Date

The social network Snap, Inc has refreshed its Spectacles wearable camera. They’re improved—and more expensive.
Source: Wired

Watch live: Facebook exec faces Cambridge Analytica inquiry – CNET

Mark Zuckerberg declined to appear before a British government inquiry in which Facebook was branded a “morality-free zone”.
Source: CNET

Report: Chinese smartphone shipments drop 21% to reach lowest level since 2013

Analysts have long-warned of a growth crunch in China’s smartphone space, and it’s looking like that’s very much the case right now.

China’s smartphone growth has been the feel-good story for domestic OEMs who have clocked impressive figures as the billion-plus population has rushed online via mobile devices. However, the market reached saturation point in 2017 — when sales stopped growing for the first time — and the first quarter of this year is already showing savage results.

In a report released today, Canalys claimed that shipments across the industry fell by 21 percent year-on-year in Q1.

The total number of mobile devices shipped in China dropped below the 100 million market in a quarter for the first time since late 2013, the firm added.

“Eight of the top 10 smartphone vendors were hit by annual declines, with Gionee, Meizu and Samsung shrinking to less than half of their respective Q1 2017 numbers,” the report read.


Of the field, only Xiaomi the firm tipped for an IPO at a $100 billion valuation — was able to post positive momentum as its numbers grew by 37 percent to reach 12 million. That was enough to see it overtake Apple into fourth place, but Xiaomi numbers are still heavily reliant on its $150 Redmi range, which isn’t as lucrative as its higher-end products.

Huawei, Oppo and Vivo led the market. Somewhat incredibly, those three firms plus Xiaomi now account for a very dominant 73 percent of all shipments, which Canalys believes is bad for consumers and smartphone aficionados in China.

“The level of competition has forced every vendor to imitate the others’ product portfolios and go-to-market strategies,” analyst Mo Jia said in a statement. “While Huawei, Oppo, Vivo and Xiaomi must contend with a shrinking Chinese market, they can take comfort from the fact that it will continue to consolidate, and that their size will help them last longer than other smaller players.”

There might be a bright spark coming soon. Canalys anticipates growth in the second quarter as Oppo, Vivo and Huawei trot out new flagship devices. But China’s once-booming industry is now having to contend with the same issue as the U.S.: consumers don’t upgrade their phone as frequently as carriers would like.

Source: TechCrunch

IFTTT raises $24M led by Salesforce to expand its platform to ‘connect everything’

IFTTT, a startup that was an early mover in API integrations by creating a platform for people to write easy scripts to connect different apps to each other (the name stands for “if this, then that”), is announcing another $24 million in funding to take its business deeper into areas like enterprise and IoT services.

This funding comes on the back of what CEO Linden Tibbets described in an interview as the company’s strongest-ever year in terms of revenue and growth (without disclosing any actual numbers; IFTTT has never been very transparent on this front, frustratingly).

IFTTT today has 14 million registered consumers (although it will not say how many are active), 75 million Applets since launch, and more than 5,000 active developers building services and more than 140,000 building Applets on the IFTTT Platform. Products from Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Twitter, BMW, Samsung, IBM, MyQ, and Verizon are among those touched by IFTTT scripts.

The round is notable for a couple of reasons. It’s the first funding announced by IFTTT in four years, a relatively large gap in the startup world. and it’s the first time that IFTTT has had strategic investors. The Series C was led by Salesforce, with participation also from IBM and the Chamberlain Group (best known for a variety of brands of automatic entry gates and garage door openers) — who all have services and Applets available on the platform — along with Fenox Venture Capital.

“They see IFTTT as an important business, ecosystem and partner in the industry,” said Tibbets of the strategics in this round. 

“IFTTT is at the forefront of establishing a more connected ecosystem for devices and services. It’s a prime example of the amazing innovation and commitment to customer success that we look for in our portfolio companies,” said John Somorjai, EVP of Corporate Development and Salesforce Ventures, Salesforce, in a statement.

(IFTTT’s longish list of previous investors have included Andreessen Horowitz, Betaworks, Greylock, NEA, Norwest, SV Angels and more.) The company has raised $63 million to date.

No valuation disclosed in this round, but for some context, IFTTT’s post-money valuation in August 2014 was around $210 million, according to PitchBook.

In 2010, IFTTT was one of the first startups to realise the opportunity in our fragmented tech world of linking up disparate apps — and later other services and devices — via their APIs, but a lot has evolved in the last eight years.

Companies like Google, Amazon and Apple have doubled down on their own interconnected platform plays, which include connected home products and both enterprise and consumer hubs that control different apps and services.

Meanwhile, on the enterprise IT end of the scale, you have services like Slack that have become funnels for calling in data from dozens of apps; and a number of companies that are also building bridges to connect up disparate apps and IoT services for businesses.

(Notably, new investor Salesforce acquired MuleSoft earlier this year for $6.5 billion, and invests in Workato, respectively already covering its bases in enterprise IoT and IT integrations and business intelligence integrations.)

Despite all the competition, IFTTT has grown as a long-tail play, by focusing on specific actions between apps and devices, some of which are created by users of its platform and some by the companies themselves, and often are not provided elsewhere either because companies have yet to integrate directly, or the action is perhaps too specific. (Example: this Applet lets you add any item on your Alexa to-do list to Facebook Messenger, by way of an IFTTT bot.)

“Building your own API platform and developer ecosystem is incredibly hard and expensive,” Tibbets said. “Business are forced to focus on just a small handful of integrations and platforms.”

This, plus the added benefit of getting exposure by being on a platform where many other services are being used, were two of the reasons why it’s picked up strategic investors.

“IBM and IFTTT are working together to realize the potential of today’s connected world. By bringing together IBM’s Watson IoT Platform and Watson Assistant Solutions with consumer- facing services, we can help clients to create powerful and open solutions for their users that work with everything in the Internet of Things,” said Bret Greenstein, VP, Watson Internet of Things, IBM, in a statement. “Our work together is an important step to enable true interoperability between devices as IoT becomes pervasive across business and society alike.”

The company has essentially thrived on the double tensions of ongoing fragmentation in the tech world (which is a good thing: we don’t want one company to control everything), and people’s desire to simplify their busy lives and wanting to use the technology they own to do that.

“Every single business, product and organization is becoming a service,” Tibbets said. “Getting all of these services to work together is a massive problem, opportunity and market. IFTTT is focused on defining and improving the relationship between businesses, their customers and the expanding universe of services that those end customers use.

Interestingly, we’ve had dozens of tips over the years about IFTTT, claiming potential sales of the company to the likes of Microsoft, Amazon and others. We were never able to get any corroboration for them from IFTTT or other sources — and whether or not they were completely accurate, an exit obviously never came to pass.

I resurfaced the rumors to see if I could get anywhere on them now, with a funding round off the ground, but got deflected once again. “We are focused on cementing IFTTT’s position as the leading, neutral platform for a more connected and compatible world,” Tibbets responded. “There is huge opportunity ahead for IFTTT and we’re excited to pursue it with all of our investors, users, customers and team.”


Source: TechCrunch

If this, then cash? IFTTT announces $24 million in new funds – CNET

The free online automation service is getting a fresh injection of capital, and plans on using the money to expand its platform and to “hire top talent.”
Source: CNET

Nintendo’s annual profit rockets by 500% after selling 15M Switch consoles

Nintendo has announced impressive financial results thanks to strong sales its Switch console, and a new CEO for its business.

Operating profit rose by a huge 505 percent to reach 178 billion yen ($1.6 billion) over the last financial year. Revenue was also up by an impressive 116 percent to hit 1.06 trillion yen ($9.7 billion) over the period as Nintendo sold 15 million Switch units, vastly out-performing the initial target of 10 million set last year. (The firm later updated its forecast to match the 15 million.)

On the games front, Super Mario Odyssey was the biggest seller at 10 million copies, followed by Mario Kart 8 Deluxe (nine million) and Splatoon 2 (six million.) The firm also revealed that it sold over five million of the SNES Classic Edition product, too.

Going forward, Nintendo is aiming to grow Switch sales to 20 million over the next year. Aside from continued games, it is banking on reaching new segments through Labo, its carboard-based product that literally brings games to life. The firm is already forecasting annual revenue of 1.2 trillion yen with an operating profit of 225 billion yen.

That period will see the firm helmed by Shuntaro Furukawa, an existing board member, who is stepping up into the president and CEO role to replace incumbent Tatsumi Kimishima. Kimishima, who is 68, stepped into the breach following the death of Satoru Iwata in 2015. Furukawa is far younger at 46. He joined the company in 1994, has worked in global marketing and was a board member with Pokemon Co.

Source: TechCrunch