Tag Archives: Amazon

Voice-Based Assistants Are Beginning to See More Uses Outside of the Smart Home

What They Said

With the increasing availability and competition between voice-controlled smart home assistants ([see the October 18, 2016 LRSJ] client registration required), Lux recently interviewed Dawn Brun, Senior Manager of Public Relations from Amazon, about its Alexa platform and its future direction. Dawn said that Alexa, like many other voice-based assistants, relies on four key components to drive its conversational interface – Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR), Natural Language Understanding (NLU), Dialogue Management, and Text to Speech (TTS):

  • The first step to answering correctly is speech recognition – hearing correctly. ASR is how we “hear” the user’s speech and convert it to text that we can then process. This is the challenge we had to overcome for Amazon Echo and Alexa – how do you get the machine to understand you from a distance, (i.e. in the far-field environment)?
  • Second, we need to make sure we understand the user correctly. NLU helps us parse the user’s request into their true intent. This enables us to find the meaning behind the speech. NLU is a particularly interesting problem, as we want to clearly understand what you are saying. A human-being is very good at disambiguating multiple responses, but with a voice interface you want to try to make the one, right choice from the very beginning for them.
  • Third, we need to decide how to respond to the user and take an action to address the request. We call this dialogue management. There’s also a personalization element here. We need to give the user the right response based on past behavior and preferences. So when a user asks to skip a song, we have to quickly deliver a new song that they will like.
  • Finally, TTS – we convert text back to speech to respond to the customer’s request. And of course, the TTS needs to be very natural.

When asked about the initial vision for Alexa’s implementation and its vision going forward, Dawn said, “We wanted to create a computer in the cloud that’s controlled entirely by your voice – you could ask it things, ask it to do things for you, find things for you, and it’s easy to converse with in a natural way. We’re always inventing and looking at ways to make customers’ lives easier. We believe voice is the most natural user interface and can really improve the way people interact with technology.”

Asking how Alexa compared to other voice-based assistants, such as Google Now, Microsoft’s Cortana, Apple’s Siri, or Facebook M, Dawn said, “Alexa is different than a voice assistant on a phone or tablet, which is designed to accompany a screen. Alexa was designed with the assumption that the user is not looking at a screen; therefore, the interactions become very different than with other voice assistants. Alexa isn’t a search engine giving you a list of choices on a screen; she’s making a decision on the best choice and delivering that back to the customer. We also leverage AWS, which is a huge advantage – things like huge processing power, Lambda, IoT.”

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Amazon Go Seeks to Break Big-Box Retailers With a Smaller, Smarter Store

Amazon recently announced Amazon Go, aiming to transform the ages-old brick-and-mortar retail experience. The official news broke via multiple channels, including a well-produced YouTube video showing shoppers entering a stylish grocery store. Central to the concept is the absence of any physical checkout system; shoppers check in upon arrival, and browse as they normally would. Amazon says it uses a combination of computer vision, machine learning, and artificial intelligence (AI) to track users and items throughout the store. When a shopper picks a product, this array of in-store sensors and back-end analytics automatically tabulate the final bill (deducting it from their Amazon account, of course), allowing shoppers to be on their way − “Just walk out technology.” According to initial reports, Amazon has actually built a 1,800 ft2 test site in one of its Seattle buildings. While today it is only open to Amazon employees, it says it may allow the public to shop in “early 2017.” To put the store’s scope in perspective, it is the size of a modest home, whereas most of the U.S.’s 38,000 supermarkets are 50,000 ft2 or more – more than 25 times the size of Amazon’s store. Continue reading

The Downfall of Google Robotics

Last week, Bloomberg Business released a story claiming that Alphabet – parent company to Google – would be selling Boston Dynamics, the robotics company that worked primarily on military applications until Google acquired it in 2013.

Boston Dynamics is best known for its incredible, and sometimes creepy, quadrupedal and bipedal robots, which are capable of incredible feats, such as walking on ice, reacting to repeated abuse, and operating in extremely challenging environments. In February of this year, Boston Dynamics released a video of its most impressive robot to date – Atlas, which showcased incredible agility and reaction time for a humanoid robot. Atlas wowed the robotics world with the Boston Dynamics’ innovations in terms of how the system reacted to shock (being repeatedly attacked with a hockey stick) and its stabilization and control capabilities.

Despite the acclaim and progress of Boston Dynamics, Alphabet has apparently opted to distance itself from robotic innovation and sell off the company. Continue reading

Google and Facebook’s Drone Strategies, from Buzz to Breakthroughs: The Sky’s the Limit

The technology world is abuzz with the recent announcement that Google is buying Titan Aerospace, a maker of high-altitude unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that Facebook had only recently been considering (it bought Ascenta for $20 million instead). Ostensibly, both companies are looking at UAVs (also referred to as “drones”) as an opportunity to deliver Internet access to the roughly five billion people who lack reliable land-based access today. But that goal still leaves many people wondering about the business rationale – how will billing work, who will pay to advertise to the unconnected masses, and what are those technology giants really up to anyway?

To understand why content providers are spending billions on drones, you have to think about their long-term strategy. Recently, there was a huge defeat for Google and other content providers in a ruling about what’s called “Net Neutrality.” It basically says that landline and mobile carriers like AT&T and Verizon can start charging more for people to access certain sites, even though they swear the action will not be anticompetitive. So, for example, you might have to pay the carrier extra to see YouTube (which Google owns) or Instagram (which Facebook owns) or Netflix or Amazon Prime movies. In fact, just in February Netflix struck a deal to pay Comcast, which supposedly is already showing faster access times, but has not stopped the partners from bickering over unfair competition and exertion of power. Also, AT&T has a $500 million plan to crush Netflix and Hulu, so the competitive backstabbing has already begun.

Where do drones disrupt this strategy? Most obviously, having their own networks would allow Facebook and Google to bypass the domination of wireless and wireline carriers (like AT&T and Verizon in the U.S.) whose business practices – e.g. knocking down Net Neutrality – are geared towards throttling content providers like Facebook, Google, and their partners and subsidiaries like YouTube. Need more bandwidth? New neighborhood being built? Blackout? Natural catastrophe? Launch more drones – and expand service in hours, not years. Drones serving network connectivity allow Google, Facebook, and Amazon to bypass the toll lanes – and, incidentally, make instantly obsolete the landline infrastructure that their enemies Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon have spent decades and tens to hundreds of billions of dollars building out. Connectivity in emerging markets is a feint – look for delivering content in the developed world to be the first battle, and call these Machiavellian strategies the “Game of Drones.”

Could this really happen? Both drone technology and wireless connectivity technology are relatively mature and work well. Both are still improving every year of course, and it is possible to deliver some connectivity via drones today. However, more innovation is needed for them to be commercially viable, and future incremental development will be about integrating and improving parts, so more people can have more bandwidth with greater reliability and lower cost. For example, the engineers might integrate the broadband transceiver antenna with the drone’s wings (as Stratasys and Optomec have tried — client registration required) which could eliminate the cost and weight of a separate antenna, while allowing the antenna to also be very large and more effective. Drones’ needs could drive development of battery chemistries that outperform lithium-ion (client registration required), like lithium-sulfur (client registration required) from companies like Oxis Energy (client registration required). High-performance composites and lightweight, lower-power electronics technologies like conductive polymers (client registration required) will also be key.

What’s next? One of the most obvious additional uses would be to attach cameras, and use them for monitoring things like traffic, agriculture, and parks, even finding empty parking spaces – things that an AT&T repair van can never do. Maybe the drones become telemedicine’s robotic first responders (client registration required), sending imagery of accidents as they happen, and swooping down to help doctors reach injured victims within seconds, not minutes. While these examples may seem far-fetched, it’s really very hard to say exactly what they will be used for, only because our own imaginations are very limited.

Within the autonomous airspace space, there’s much more flying around than just glider-style UAVs. For example, Google’s “Project Loon” has similar stated goals of delivering internet access. The new investment in Titan does not necessarily mean Google is leaving lighter-than-air technologies; it’s just that Google has already invested in that technology and is now looking at other aircraft platforms for doing similar things in different environments. Investments in small satellites from companies like SkyBox and PlanetLabs are also taking off. And of course, there are Amazon’s delivery drones – rotary-wing UAVs more like helicopters: speed and navigation in small spaces are important, and they need to carry the weight of packages, so they need to be small and powerful.

Each of these technologies has spin-off effects – both threats and opportunities – for companies in adjacent spaces, such as materials or onboard power. Only batteries or liquid fuels are dense enough energy sources for rotary-wing aircraft, while Google’s Titan and Loon aircraft are more like glider planes or blimps: big, light, and slow, just staying in roughly the same place for hours, days, or even years. Solar energy needs a large area for collecting solar energy, so big glider and blimp drones can use solar. Technology providers in these areas stand to gain if more companies deploy their own UAV fleets.

So, UAVs are an important strategic technology for both companies, even if the money-making part of the business is far off. Yes, someday you might have a Google drone as your ISP, but that’s not the primary business case behind these investments today. Google and Facebook need to make investments in these airborne platforms for the same reasons that countries did 100 years ago – to defend their territory, metaphorically speaking. For example, Nokia should have done a better job launching smartphones before Apple and Google, and Kodak should have launched digital cameras before all the consumer electronics companies did. If Google and Facebook (and Amazon, and others…) don’t have drone technology in five to 10 years, they may be as bankrupt as Nokia and Kodak (ironically, Nokia launched mobile phone cameras, which accelerated Kodak’s bankruptcy). Instead, it may be today’s mobile phone and cable television providers who go the way of the landline.

Looking beyond the land of information technology, these examples are powerful illustrations of the fact that we seldom actually know what any new technology is really going to be used for. Even today, we dismiss mobile phone cameras, Facebook, and Twitter as frivolous social tools, but where would Tunisia and Egypt be today without them? Local Motors (client registration required) is just making one-off dune buggies – until GE sees that their microfactories are the future of manufacturing appliances, too. Crowdfunding is just a bunch of kids selling geegaws – until products like the Pebble smartphone beat the Samsung Gear (client registration required), start challenging the now-retreating Nike Fuelband, and even attack the smart home market. Google and Facebook might be saying today that they intend to bring connectivity to new places, even if in reality nobody at all can really say what they’ll do in 2018. While they probably have secret plans, those plans are almost certainly wrong – but better than no plan at all. Companies that plan to survive beyond a few quarterly earnings calls have to make sure they are well positioned to catch whatever falls from new technology’s blue skies.

Foxxconn and Google Are Not-So-Quietly Working on Robotics

The Taiwanese contract manufacturer, Foxconn is reported to be working with Google on robotics. Andy Rubin, who ran Android for Google up until December 2013, has a new role as its robotics chief, and recently met with Foxconn Chairman Terry Gou in Taipei to discuss new robotics technologies. It is reported that Rubin asked Gou to help integrate one of the robotics companies that Google purchased in the past year. Google has had a tremendous string of acquisitions in the robotics space (listed below) that has fueled speculation as to what the company plans to do with its robotics technologies.

December 2013:

  • Schaft Inc., a humanoid robots company, which recently won a DARPA disaster relief challenge
  • Industrial Perception, computer vision systems and robot arms for loading and unloading trucks
  • Redwood Robotics, a robotic arms company, spun out of Meka Robotics and Willow Garage
  • Meka Robotics, a humanoid robotics company
  • Holomni, an omnidirectional robotic wheels company
  • Bot & Dolly, a robotic camera company used to film the movie, Gravity
  • Boston Dynamics, a military and industrial robot company that makes the world’s fastest robot, the Cheetah

January 2014:

  • DeepMind Technologies, an artificial intelligence company

In an interview with the New York Times, Rubin said that Google will seek to sell products sooner rather than later, but that it is unclear if the effort will be a new product group inside Google or through a subsidiary. He added, that robotics is a green field opportunity with a clearer near term product than Google’s autonomous vehicles research. “We’re building hardware, we’re building software. We’re building systems, so one team will be able to understand the whole stack,” he said. While Google’s exact manufacturing and hardware ambitions remain unclear, it is likely that Google software will be a key component of its robotics platform.

It’s clear that capabilities of autonomous systems and robotics have been demonstrated in the laboratory and in early products, but remain to be commercially established. The company believes it can be a galvanizing force in establishing a viable commercial robotics industry outside of process automation. While Google has been grabbing headlines through its ambitious robotics initiatives, it is not the only tech-company looking towards robotics. Amazon acquired Kiva Systems in 2011, which has automated much of its warehouse processing, and is even considering drone package delivery as reported in a recent “60 Minutes” piece. Additionally, home product suppliers like Dyson are investing in robotics technologies to integrate into household services. While a Jetson’s-like future may not be on the immediate horizon, it is clear that Google means business. Companies actively monitoring robotic materials, supplies, and autonomous systems technologies should act to establish a product and partnership strategy, or risk getting left behind.

Samsung, Apple, Nokia, HP, and Now Blackberry: A Month of Meh for Innovation and Investors

Technology company buyouts are usually triumphant moments of validation, but this week’s announcement that Blackberry is considering a $4.7 billion offer actually shows how far the company has fallen. It’s hard to recall the time when then-candidate Barack Obama’s avid Blackberry use was a sign of his hipness, and this week’s news heralds not the company’s bright future, but its imminent demise.

But it’s not just Blackberry. Like the maker of the ur-smartphone, several other big bearers of the innovation flag have announced “good” news this September that actually feels bad, and the world’s innovation enthusiasts and investors are feeling droopy. What’s weighing us down?

  • Samsung’s sluggish smart watch. As we noted previously, Samsung’s highly-anticipated “Gear” smart watch came out expensive ($300) and weak (315 mAh battery), with at best 25 hours of battery life, less than a full day with normal use – maybe it keeps bankers’ hours. Geek blogs Mashable and Engadget found it “not as fast as we’d expected” and “noticeably sluggish”, and Forbes said the device “offers little upside” for the company stock. Others opined that the locked, expensive device was unworthy of a leading global devicemaker, when crowdfunded upstarts were already making open, cheaper devices like the Pebble and Omate TrueSmart.
  • Apple’s boring iPhones. Rather than offering more value for less money, Apple simply degraded its flagship product, poorly. A cheap plastic case is meant to lower costs and appeal to emerging market consumers, but Wall Street thinks it’s still too expensive and hammered the stock 4%. The improvements Apple did offer – new colors and fingerprint-based security – were decorative touches that didn’t significantly improve function or user experience and even caused privacy fretting. Influential technology site CNET groaned that “we live in boring times,” and The Guardian asked if Apple has “given up on innovation”.
  • Nokia’s final, fatal fail. After a protracted bout of declining market share (from 35% in 2003 to 14% today), revenue, and profit, the 150-year old company sold its mobile phone business to Microsoft (another company struggling to self-reinvent). Ironically, Nokia did invent the first smartphone (Nokia Communicator) but lost the market battle by stubbornly sticking to its lame Symbian OS as a defense against Microsoft’s equally lame Windows Mobile, distracting both companies from the threat of Apple’s iOS and Google-backed Android (which now have about 20% and 70% smartphone market share, respectively).
  • Hewlett-Packard’s drop from the Dow. The original garage startup, 75-year-old legend HP sat at the pinnacle of hardware innovation as recently as 2010. But after four CEOs and losing some $68 billion in value since then, its stock has fallen so far that it was just dropped from the Dow Jones Industrial Average. The company was so busy selling PCs and printers that it failed to notice that no one was buying them – HP’s growing market share literally blinded it to the fact that competitors exiting, not consumers entering, was driving its success. Arguably, HP’s decline actually began when it sold off its innovation engine, Agilent. Without a culture and pipeline of R&D, a company that had survived massive shifts, like that from desktop calculators to desktop computers – both of which HP invented – has nothing to replace a declining line for the first time ever. Meanwhile, Agilent is doing so well it will soon be able to buy its old parent.

What do these failures have in common? Certainly not a lack of resources; each of the companies has been the top of its field immediately prior to its fall (Apple’s iPhone launch was a commercial recordbreaker, and Samsung’s profit is up too, even as mobile revenue shrinks). Not a lack of technology – each has been early to market with the next-generation technology. It’s a lack of foresight, desire, curiosity, courage, passion, mojo… Leading firms turn to failures when they focus too much on staying atop the current wave and stop worrying about winning the next one – making products that make a big difference makes all the difference. And. Everybody. Knows. This.

Ironically, pleasing the near-term focus of greedy, twitchy institutional investors is often the excuse claimed by CEOs who put quarterly profit ahead of planning for decade-long growth. But as the examples above show, investors scorn small, short-term thinking, too. To get their innovation groove back, these tech stalwarts need to put their sights back out to the horizon with insanely great, mind-blowing products like:

September should have been a banner month, not a bummer month (and there were a few glimmers of recklessly bold vision, like Google aiming to solve Death and rapper Kanye announcing his foray into architecture). If these giants were startups, they could have breakthrough strategies in place by September’s end. Given their girth, they can show customers and investors that they are serious about innovation by getting going now. “Seizing the Innovation Initiative” is the theme of the next Lux Executive Summit, so we look to see bold thinkers from Apple, Samsung, Nokia, and HP – or any company looking to avoid their mistakes – there if they haven’t shaped up by next spring.