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Apple acquires talking Barbie voicetech startup PullString – TechCrunch

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Apple has just bought up the talent it needs to make talking toys a part of Siri, HomePod, and its voice strategy. Apple has acquired PullString, also known as ToyTalk, according to Axios’ Dan Primack and Ina Fried. TechCrunch has received confirmation of the acquistion from sources with knowledge of the deal. The startup makes voice experience design tools, artificial intelligence to power those experiences, and toys like talking Barbie and Thomas The Tank Engine toys in partnership with Mattel. Founded in 2011 by former Pixar executives, PullString went on to raise $44 million.

Apple’s Siri is seen as lagging far behind Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant, not only in voice recognition and utility, but also in terms of developer ecosystem. Google and Amazon has built platforms to distribute Skills from tons of voice app makers, including storytelling, quizzes, and other games for kids. If Apple wants to take a real shot at becoming the center of your connected living room with Siri and HomePod, it will need to play nice with the children who spend their time there. Buying PullString could jumpstart Apple’s in-house catalog of speech-activated toys for kids as well as beef up its tools for voice developers.

PullString did catch some flack for being a “child surveillance device” back in 2015, but countered by detailing the security built intoHello Barbie product and saying it’d never been hacked to steal childrens’ voice recordings or other sensitive info. Privacy norms have changed since with so many people readily buying always-listening Echos and Google Homes.

In 2016 it rebranded as PullString with a focus on developers tools that allow for visually mapping out conversations and publishing finished products to the Google and Amazon platforms. Given SiriKit’s complexity and lack of features, PullString’s Converse platform could pave the way for a lot more developers to jump into building voice products for Apple’s devices.

We’ve reached out to Apple and PullString for more details about whether PullString and ToyTalk’s products will remain available.

The startup raised its cash from investors including Khosla Ventures, CRV, Greylock, First Round, and True Ventures, with a Series D in 2016 as its last raise that PitchBook says valued the startup at $160 million. While the voicetech space has since exploded, it can still be difficult for voice experience developers to earn money without accompanying physical products, and many enterprises still aren’t sure what to build with tools like those offered by PullString. That might have led the startup to see a brighter future with Apple, strengthening one of the most ubiquitous though also most detested voice assistants.

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Amazon’s Echo Show 15 smart display becomes a portable Fire TV

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Enlarge / Fire TV on the Amazon Echo Show 15.

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Amazon’s Echo Show 15 versatile smart display now has a more mainstream purpose: streaming TV and movies. Amazon pushed a free software update today that grants the Echo Show 15 with Fire TV capabilities, and newly purchased devices will be able to stream content from the likes of Disney+, Peacock, and other Fire TV apps.

Amazon initially announced plans to Fire TV-ify the Echo Show 15 in September. At the time, it said 70 percent of people who used the 15.6-inch smart display in the prior month did so to watch videos.

Upon release, the Echo Show 15 supported Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, and Hulu; (though you could only summon them by asking Alexa). But today’s news puts those apps under one umbrella while adding additional streaming services, including HBO Max and Discovery+ (soon to merge into Max?) and Paramount+.

The update also lets you use Alexa to play content across streaming services by voice, and Amazon is even pushing a bundle of the Echo Show 15 and its Alexa Voice Remote (3rd Gen) to coincide with the new feature.

Amazon hasn't said whether or not it will bring Fire TV to its other, smaller Echo Show devices.
Enlarge / Amazon hasn’t said whether or not it will bring Fire TV to its other, smaller Echo Show devices.

Scharon Harding

The introduction of Fire TV brings a newfound purpose to the Echo Show 15. The device could already do more than any of Amazon’s other Echo products, yet, as a smart display, it’s faced obstacles as an emerging technology since many people struggle to find a purpose for it.

As we said in our Echo Show 15 review, one of the displays’ best features is that its large size beats its competition and boosts experiences like photo viewing. Naturally, watching TV and movies is another place where having those extra inches could help.

While I struggled to navigate the Echo Show 15’s interface to understand all the things I could do with it—despite the product constantly suggesting new features to try—the value of watching TV no needs no explanation here. The Echo Show 15 Fire TV isn’t going to replace the big-screen TV in the living room, but it can now serve as a portable smart TV that you can place or mount in any room much more easily.

The Echo Show 15’s new feature comes as Amazon’s Alexa struggles to find financial success and is reportedly said to lose $10 billion this year. On the other hand, Amazon reportedly sold more than 150 million Fire TV devices as of January and can use the service to make money in good old-fashioned ways, like through ads and pushing other subscription services.

The Echo Show 15 doubling as a Fire TV is another example of how companies are still exploring how to sell smart displays to consumers. Earlier this year, Meta gave its connected video conferencing display an additional, more common functionality when it updated the Portal to serve as a wireless monitor.

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Apple adds end-to-end encryption to iCloud device backups and more

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End-to-end encryption is coming to most of iCloud with a new optional feature called Advanced Data Protection, according to Apple’s announcement on Wednesday.

Previously, 14 data categories within iCloud were protected. This new feature brings that count to 23, including photos, notes, voice memos, reminders, Safari bookmarks, and iCloud backups of the contents of your devices. Not everything is encrypted in this way, though. Critically, calendar and mail are untouched here. Apple says they are not covered “because of the need to interoperate with the global email, contacts, and calendar systems.”

US-based participants in the Apple Beta Software Program can start using Advanced Data Protection today, and it will roll out to more Americans by year’s end. If you’re outside the US, you’ll have to wait until sometime in 2023, Apple says.

Advanced Data Protection is the big news for most people, but Apple announced two other features related to privacy and security on iCloud. First, iCloud users may now use hardware security keys like YubiKeys. Both NFC keys and plug-in keys are supported.

Second, there’s iMessage Contact Key Verification, which can alert “users who face extraordinary digital threats,” like journalists, if state-sponsored actors are hijacking or spying on their conversations, in some cases.

In tandem with today’s announcements, Apple confirmed something most of us already figured: It is no longer working on a controversial system that was intended to identify child sexual-abuse material on users’ iPhones—the company changed course after a public privacy and security backlash.

Listing image by Samuel Axon

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San Francisco decides killer police robots aren’t such a great idea

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Enlarge / The social media flyer for the “no killer robots” rally.

The robot police dystopia will have to wait. Last week the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to authorize the San Francisco Police Department to add lethal robots to its arsenal. The plan wasn’t yet “robots with guns” (though some police bomb disposal robots fire shotgun shells already, and some are also used by the military as gun platforms) but to arm the bomb disposal robots with bombs, allowing them to drive up to suspects and detonate. Once the public got wind of this, the protests started, and after an 8–3 vote authorizing the robots last week, now the SF Board of Supervisors has unanimously voted to (at least temporarily) ban lethal robots.

Shortly after the initial news broke, a “No Killer Robots” campaign started with the involvement of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the ACLU, and other civil rights groups. Forty-four community groups signed a letter in opposition to the policy, saying, “There is no basis to believe that robots toting explosives might be an exception to police overuse of deadly force. Using robots that are designed to disarm bombs to instead deliver them is a perfect example of this pattern of escalation, and of the militarization of the police force that concerns so many across the city.”

On December 5, over 100 protesters showed up to SF City Hall, carrying signs with phrases like, “We’ve all seen that movie… No Killer Robots.”

Among the protesters was Dean Preston, one of the SF supervisors who originally voted against the policy. Preston claims that the SFPD may have violated the law by not publicly publishing the robot policy 30 days before it goes up for a vote. In a letter to San Francisco Mayor London Breed and Police Chief William Scott, Preston cites California Gov Code 7071(b), which requires departments seeking approval for military equipment to “make those documents available on the law enforcement agency’s Internet website at least 30 days prior to any public hearing concerning the military equipment at issue.” Preston later adds: “I want to emphasize that this is not just a technicality. A primary purpose of [this law], written by our City Attorney when he was in the Assembly, is to ensure transparency and give the public an opportunity to weigh in on these policies.”

As the San Francisco Chronicle reports, the use of lethal robots has been banned “for now.” The issue will go back to committee for further discussion, and it could vote on the policy again in the future.

In a press release after the reversal, Preston says: “The people of San Francisco have spoken loud and clear: There is no place for killer police robots in our city.”

The statement ends with: “I am calling on my colleagues to take heed of the powerful backlash and make sure this harmful policy is never approved—not today, not tomorrow, not ever.”

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