Google just one-upped Apple in a significant way by addressing a problem that’s plaguing U.S. cellphone owners: spam calls. The company’s new Pixel 3 flagship Android smartphone is first to introduce a new call screening feature that leverages the built-in Google Assistant. The screening service transcribes the caller’s request in real-time, allowing you to decide whether or not to pick up, and gives you a way to respond.
Despite the numerous leaks about Google’s new hardware, Call Screen and the launch of Duplex for restaurant reservations were big surprises coming from Google’s hardware event yesterday.
Arguably, they’re even more important developments than fancy new camera features – even if Group Selfie and Top Shot are cool additions to Google’s new phone.
Apple has nothing like this call screening feature, only third-party call blocking apps – which are also available on Android, of course.
Siri today simply isn’t capable of answering phones on your behalf, politely asking the caller what they want, and transcribing their response instantly. It needs to catch up, and fast.
Half of calls will be spam in 2019
Call Screen, based on Google’s Duplex technology, is a big step for our smart devices. One where we’re not just querying our Assistant for help with various tasks, or to learn the day’s news and weather, but one where the phone’s assistant is helping with real-world problems.
In addition to calling restaurants to inquire about tables, Assistant will now help save us from the increasing barrage of spam calls.
This is a massive problem that every smartphone owner can relate to, and one the larger mobile industry has so far failed to solve.
Nearly half of all cellphone calls next year will be from scammers. And their tactics have gotten much worse in recent months.
They now often trick people by claiming to be the IRS, a bank, government representatives, and more. They pretend you’re in some sort of legal trouble. They say someone has stolen your bank card. They claim you owe taxes. Plus, they often use phone number spoofing tricks to make their calls appear local in order to get recipients to pick up.
The national Do-Not-Call registry hasn’t solved the problem. And despite large FCC fines, the epidemic continues.
A.I. handles the spammers
In light of an industry solution, Google has turned to A.I.
The system has been designed to sound more natural, stepping in to do the sort of tasks we don’t want to – like calling for bookings, or screening our calls by first asking “who is this, please?”
With Call Screen, as Google explained yesterday, Pixel device owners will be able to tap a button when a call comes in to send it to the new service. Google Assistant will answer the call for you, saying: “Hi, the person you’re calling is using a screening service from Google, and will get a copy of this conversation. Go ahead and say your name and why you’re calling.”
The caller’s response is then transcribed in real-time on your screen.
These transcripts aren’t currently being saved, but Google says they could be stored in your Call History in the future.
To handle the caller, you can tap a variety of buttons to continue or end the conversation. Based on the demo and support documentation, these include things like: “Who is this?,” “I’ll call you back,” “Tell me more,” “I can’t understand,” or “Is it urgent?”
You can also use the Assistant to say things like, “Please remove the number from your contact list. Thanks and goodbye,” the demo showed, after the recipient hit the “Report as spam” button.
While Google’s own Google Voice technology has been able to screen incoming calls, this involved little more than asking for the caller’s name. Call Screen is next-level stuff, to put it mildly.
And it’s all taking place on the device, using A.I. – it doesn’t need to use your Wi-Fi connection or your mobile data, Google says.
As Call Screen is adopted at scale, Google will have effectively built out its own database of scammers. It could then feasibly block spam calls or telemarketers on your behalf as an OS-level feature at some point in the future.
“You’ll never have to talk to another telemarketer,” said Google PM Liza Ma at the event yesterday, followed by cheers and applause – one of the few times the audience even clapped during this otherwise low-key press conference.
Google has the better A.I. Phone
The news of Call Screen, and of Duplex more broadly, is another shot fired across Apple’s bow.
Smartphone hardware is basically good enough, and has been for some time. Apple and Google’s modern smartphones take great photos, too. New developments on the camera front matter more to photography enthusiasts than to the average user. The phones are fine. The cameras are fine. So what else can the phones do?
The next battle for smartphones is going to be about A.I. technology.
Apple is aware that’s the case.
In June, the company introduced what we called its “A.I. phone” – an iPhone infused with Siri smarts to personalize the device and better assist. It allows users to create A.I.-powered workflows to automate tasks, to speak with Siri more naturally with commands they invent, and to allow apps to make suggestions instead sending interruptive notifications.
But much of Siri’s capabilities still involve manual tweaking on users’ parts.
You record custom Siri voice commands to control apps (and then have to remember what your Siri catch phrase is in order to use them). Workflows have to be pinned together in a separate Siri Shortcuts app that’s over the heads of anyone but power users.
These are great features for iPhone owners, to be sure, but they’re not exactly automating A.I. technology in a seamless way. They’re Apple’s first steps towards making A.I. a bigger part of what it means to use an iPhone.
Call Screen, meanwhile, is a use case for A.I. that doesn’t require a ton of user education or manual labor. Even if you didn’t know it existed, pushing a “screen call” button when the phone rings is fairly straightforward stuff.
And it’s not just going to be just a Pixel 3 feature.
Said Google, Pixel 3 owners in the U.S. are just getting it first. It will also roll out to older Pixel devices next month (in English). Presumably, however, it will come to Android itself in time, when these early tests wrap.
After all, if the mobile OS battle is going to be over A.I. going forward, there’s no reason to keep A.I. advancements tied to only Google’s own hardware devices.
Google consolidates its Chrome and Android password managers – TechCrunch
Google today announced an update to its password manager that will finally introduce a consistent look-and-feel across the service’s Chrome and Android implementations. Users will soon see a new unified user experience that will automatically group multiple passwords for the same sites or apps together, as well as a new shortcut on the Android home screen to get access to these passwords.
In addition to this, Google is also now adding a new password-related feature to Chrome on iOS, which can now generate strong passwords for you (once you set Chrome as an autofill provider).
Meanwhile, on Android, Google’s password check can now also flag weak and re-used passwords and help you to automatically change them, while Chrome users across platforms will now see compromised password warnings.
With this release today, Google will now also finally let you manually add passwords to its passwords manager (“due to popular demand,” Google says) and the company is bringing Touch-to-Login to Chrome on Android to log you in to supported sites with a single tap.
TaskHuman lands $20M to expand its virtual coaching platform – TechCrunch
TaskHuman, a professional development platform focused on coaching, today announced that it raised $20 million in Series B funding led by Madrona with participation from Impact Venture Capital, RingCentral Ventures, Sure Ventures, USVP, Gaingels, PeopleTech Angels, Propel(x) and Zoom Ventures. The latest infusion brings the company’s total raised to $35 million, which CEO Ravi Swaminathan said is being put toward product development, marketing and sales efforts.
Swaminathan and Daniel Mazzella co-founded TaskHuman in 2017, with the goal of connecting users with specialists on topics related to their personal and professional lives. Swaminathan was previously a program and logistics manager at Dell and VP of software solutions at SanDisk, while Mazzella was a system admin at Stamps.com. The two met at Wizr, a startup developing AI systems to analyze security camera footage.
“When it comes to learning and personal development, no amount of generic articles or watching pre-recorded videos [can replace] a real person with experience in a given area. Creating TaskHuman was our response to solve this challenge,” Swaminathan told TechCrunch in an email Q&A. “We started by offering foundational needs, including health and wellness, physical fitness, mental, spiritual, emotional wellbeing, and more. Since then, we’ve continued to expand and support the entire needs of an individual for personal and professional growth, like financial wellbeing, sales and leadership coaching, pet training, travel planning, and more.”
TaskHuman users connect with experts over live video chats. The company claims to have a network of over 1,000 “coaches” across nearly 50 countries, each specializing in distinctive areas. An AI-powered search feature lets users search for topics and coaches in natural language (e.g., “I want to lose weight”), while a recommendation engine attempts to personalize the browsing experience by suggesting, for example, similar coaches based on past sessions.
“TaskHuman has a direct relationship with each coach, and we pay them according to the terms of our relationship for their coaching contributions. They are all contractors globally,” Swaminathan said, when asked about the coaching payment structure.
Users can buy access to the TaskHuman network with “TaskHuman minutes,” which can be applied to a chat session with any specialist or topic, Swaminathan says. Alternatively, companies can subscribe to TaskHuman to offer unlimited access to their employees as well as in-app content and group sessions.
Swaminathan makes the case that the enterprise in particular stands to benefit from TaskHuman’s platform. It’s true that corporate training programs tend to be a mixed bag, with only 25% of respondents to a McKinsey survey saying that their company’s training improved their job performance. According to another survey, 75% of managers were dissatisfied with their company’s learning and development function in 2019.
“At the board and C-suite level, many companies view insufficient attention to employee well-being as a threat to productivity and, conversely, a strong commitment to each worker’s physical, mental, and spiritual prosperity as a competitive advantage for recruiting and retaining talent in a time of labor shortages and the ‘Great Resignation,’” Swaminathan said. “From case studies, we have found return on investment in four main areas: preventing burnout, reducing employee attrition, improving employee engagement and recruitment, and reducing medical cost claims.”
Competition in the crowded e-learning field spans BetterUp, CoachHub and Torch. Swaminathan argues that his company’s offering is broader in scope, however, and offers superior access to specialists because it doesn’t require scheduling sessions in advance.
“We have found that the pandemic really allowed people to go beyond their comfort zones and embrace video technologies like TaskHuman, Zoom, RingCentral, and others,” Swaminathan said. “We feel a need to accelerate our mission during these difficult times to help people in both their personal and professional lives, and we feel an urgency to combat the current mental health crisis and Great Resignation culture by fulfilling the dire craving for 1:1, personalized engagement for personal and professional growth.”
Certainly, TaskHuman has benefited from the pandemic, which spurred coaches of all types to move online. According to a 2021 survey by the International Coaching Federation, 83% of coaches increased their use of audio-video platforms for coaching during the health crisis while 82% saw a decrease for in-person sessions.
TaskHuman says that its customers include Zoom, Dr. Scholl’s, RingCentral and public and government institutions like Purdue University, Oakland Housing Authority and Job Corps centers run by the U.S. Department of Labor. While Swaminathan declined to disclose financials, he said that annual recurring revenue has grown by more than 5 times year over year.
“Our company is laser-focused on global expansion and scaling its network of coaches,” Swaminathan said. “We will be continually adding to the set of human experience and expertise that are available on the platform and expanding support for providers in even more languages and countries around the world.”
European Union keeps mobile roaming fees at bay for another decade – TechCrunch
Five years ago, the European Union passed rules which largely ended mobile roaming fees for citizens traveling with their devices across borders within the bloc. Today lawmakers are reupping the regulation that lets EU citizens “roam like at home” for a full decade, meaning European consumers can keep avoiding most extra fees when travelling within another of the 27 EU Member States (or the EEA) until at least 2032.
The updated regulation also brings some new additions — including a focus on quality of service, with a requirement that consumers have access to the same services abroad in the EU as at home when the same networks and technologies are available on the network in the visited Member State.
This means, for example, that a roaming customer who can use 5G services at home should also have 5G roaming services — where they are available — in the visited Member State.
The quality of service provision does not mean a guarantee of getting the same mobile network speed when roaming, since network speeds can vary, but the Commission says the new rules “aim to ensure that when similar quality or speeds are available in the visited network, the domestic operator should ensure the same quality of the roaming service”.
Operators are also required to inform their customers of the quality of services they can expect while roaming by stating this in the roaming contract and publishing information on their website.
The Commission argues that quality of service will be increasingly important as 5G rollouts expand and mobile network technology continues to evolve (its PR includes the phrase “future 6G” — alongside talk of the EU “investing in developing and using innovative digital solutions”).
“As concerns 5G services, it will become more and more important for consumers travelling abroad to know if they could be affected by limitations in available network quality when using certain applications and services,” it suggests. “The new roaming rules aim to enable innovation and business development, ensuring the widest use of innovative services and minimising the risk that citizens would not be able to use certain applications requiring the latest network technology, such as 5G, when crossing internal EU borders.”
The EU’s executive also frames the updated roaming regulation as a boon to digital innovation by reducing the risk of usage disruption since consumers can continuously use their apps and services as they travel across borders in the EU.
The Commission’s PR makes no mention of contrasting recent developments in the UK — which ceased to be an EU Member on January 31 2020, following the 2016 ‘Brexit’ referendum vote to leave the bloc — and where, since the EU roaming regulation ceased to apply, most of the big carriers have quietly announced they will be reintroducing roaming charges for their UK subscribers travelling in the EU.
But UK mobile users are unlikely to have missed the fact that Brexit has meant a return of roaming fees when they want to travel in Europe.
Some Brits may therefore detect a faint trace of trolling in this statement from Thierry Breton, the EU’s commissioner for the internal market, commenting on the extension of fee-free roaming inside the EU, who said: “Remember when we had to switch off mobile data when travelling in Europe — to avoid ending up with a massive roaming bill? Well this is history. And we intend to keep it this way for at least the next 10 years. Better speed, more transparency: We keep improving EU citizens’ lives.”
Another focus for the EU’s updated regulation is around increasing transparency about the types of services that can still bring additional costs when roaming, such as calling customer service numbers, helpdesks or insurance companies — to help travellers in the bloc avoid related ‘bill shocks’.
The Commission says consumers who are roaming should receive an SMS about “potential increased charges” from using such services.
“The SMS should include a link to a dedicated webpage providing additional information on the types of services and, if available, about the relevant phone numbering ranges,” it notes, suggesting operators may also include information about the types of services that may be subject to higher charges in roaming in their contracts with the consumers.
The updated rules are also intended to improve information provision about and access to emergency communications across the EU — such as via the single European emergency number, 112.
“Dialing the emergency numbers and transmitting information on the location of the caller while roaming should be seamless and for free. Likewise, citizens who cannot place a call to 112 should be able to access emergency services free of charge through alternative means when roaming, for example through real time text or a smartphone application,” says the Commission.
“The new roaming rules also reinforce access to emergency services, through calls and alternative means of communications in case of cross border use. It will also ensure that the transmission of caller location will be seamless and free of charge while using roaming services.”
The EU is continuing to regulate wholesale caps — controlling the maximum prices a visited operator may charge for the use of its network by another operator in order to provide roaming services — with the Commission describing this as “an essential element for the sustainability of ‘roam like at home’ for operators”. Its review of the roaming market concluded that wholesale caps should be further reduced.
“The co-legislators agreed on a gradual reduction of the wholesale caps from 2022 onwards,” it notes. “These caps reflect decreasing operators’ wholesale costs of providing roaming services, provide sufficient investment incentives and maximise sustainability for EU operators.”
The Commission expects these wholesale cost reductions to lead to benefits for consumers — such as more generous data allowances while roaming and less likelihood of consumers having to pay surcharges for data usage that exceeds contract allowances.
Operators will still be able to apply a ‘fair use’ policy — meaning that if a person moves to live in another EU country it will be better for them to move to a local contract, as permanent roaming is no longer considered ‘fair use’.
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