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Facebook has acquired Servicefriend, which builds ‘hybrid’ chatbots, for Calibra customer service – TechCrunch

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As Facebook prepares to launch its new cryptocurrency Libra in 2020, it’s putting the pieces in place to help it run. In one of the latest developments, it has acquired Servicefriend, a startup that built bots — chat clients for messaging apps based on artificial intelligence — to help customer service teams, TechCrunch has confirmed.

The news was first reported in Israel, where Servicefriend is based, after one of its investors, Roberto Singler, alerted local publication The Marker about the deal. We reached out to Ido Arad, one of the co-founders of the company, who referred our questions to a team at Facebook. Facebook then confirmed the acquisition with an Apple-like non-specific statement:

“We acquire smaller tech companies from time to time. We don’t always discuss our plans,” a Facebook spokesperson said.

Several people, including Arad, his co-founder Shahar Ben Ami, and at least one other indicate that they now work at Facebook within the Calibra digital wallet group on their LinkedIn profiles. Their jobs at the social network started this month, meaning this acquisition closed in recent weeks. (Several others indicate that they are still at Servicefriend, meaning they too may have likely made the move as well.)

Although Facebook isn’t specifying what they will be working on, the most obvious area will be in building a bot — or more likely, a network of bots — for the customer service layer for the Calibra digital wallet that Facebook is developing.

Facebook’s plan is to build a range of financial services for people to use Calibra to pay out and receive Libra — for example, to send money to contacts, pay bills, top up their phones, buy things and more.

It remains to be seen just how much people will trust Facebook as a provider of all these. So that is where having “human” and accessible customer service experience will be essential.

“We are here for you,” Calibra notes on its welcome page, where it promises 24-7 support in WhatsApp and Messenger for its users.

Servicefriend has worked on Facebook’s platform in the past: specifically it built “hybrid” bots for Messenger for companies to use to complement teams of humans, to better scale their services on messaging platforms. In one Messenger bot that Servicefriend built for Globe Telecom in the Philippines, it noted that the hybrid bot was able to bring the “agent hours” down to under 20 hours for each 1,000 customer interactions.

Bots have been a relatively problematic area for Facebook. The company launched a personal assistant called M in 2015, and then bots that let users talk to businesses in 2016 on Messenger, with quite some fanfare, although the reality was that nothing really worked as well as promised, and in some cases worked significantly worse than whatever services they aimed to replace.

While AI-based assistants such as Alexa have become synonymous with how a computer can carry on a conversation and provide information to humans, the consensus around bots these days is that the most workable way forward is to build services that complement, rather than completely replace, teams.

For Facebook, getting its customer service on Calibra right can help it build and expand its credibility (note: another area where Servicefriend has build services is in using customer service as a marketing channel). Getting it wrong could mean issues not just with customers, but with partners and possibly regulators.



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Ring Car Cam leaks: This could be Amazon’s Alexa dash-cam

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Details and what appears to be an image of Ring’s upcoming Car Cam have leaked, with the connected dash cam expected to add security both when the vehicle is parked and while it’s on the move. The newest addition to Ring’s line-up was actually announced in September 2020 as part of Amazon’s big device launch, though at the time no pictures of the Car Cam hardware itself were shared.

Still, Ring’s description painted a fairly comprehensive picture of what it was intended to do. As well as tracking bumps and attempted break-ins, and notifying owners via the Ring smartphone app, it can also be used to record journeys and summon emergency services in the case of an accident being detected.

If you’re being pulled over by the police, meanwhile, saying “Alexa, I’m being pulled over” will automatically begin video and audio recording. At the same time as that’s being uploaded to the cloud, the system will send a notification to pre-selected family members to let them know the stop has taken place. Ring said there would be a physical privacy shutter, too, and a choice of WiFi or LTE connectivity. The whole thing would be $199.99, though cellular plans would be on top of that.

Since then, we’ve not heard anything more about the new dash camera. A leak on The Tape Drive, though, has revealed what it could look like, and it’s certainly an unusual design.

The camera assembly looks to be mounted on some sort of bracket, either to be positioned above the dashboard or potentially hung from above the rearview mirror. There’s presumably a fish-eye camera on both sides – only visible from one side in the render – to capture footage both inside and outside of the car.

As for functionality, ZatzNotFunny spotted a seemingly prematurely-published Ring Car Cam information document on the company’s support site. It reconfirms some of the details which Ring told us late last year, but also adds a few extra tidbits.

For example, the camera will connect via the vehicle’s data port, not just hook up to a USB or 12V outlet for power. “Ring Car Cam easily installs directly to the OBD-II port in your vehicle, located behind your steering wheel in most cars,” Ring explains. “It securely attaches to the windshield and dashboard of the car, and the cable can be neatly tucked away and out of sight.”

It’s unclear what extra data Ring might be gathering by using that approach. The OBD-II port typically grants access to various driving metrics, and though originally intended as a way for vehicle technicians to diagnose faults and issues in increasingly computerized models, has also gained traction as a way for third-party devices to tap that same stream of information. Amazon had also announced Ring Car Alarm, a cellularly-connected dongle that plugs into the ODB-II port.

The Ring Car Cam itself won’t require a subscription, though you won’t get all of the features in that case. “You can access video stored locally on the device via the Ring app when the car is within range of wifi,” the company explains. “With an optional Ring connectivity plan, you can access video from anywhere via LTE as well as advanced features like Emergency Crash Assist.”

The connectivity plan for Ring Car Cam will also unlock features like real-time tracking, to help locate a stolen vehicle.

What remains to be seen is how Ring Car Cam will fit into Ring’s existing sharing policies with police departments. The Amazon-owned company has found itself mired in controversy in recent years, after inking deals with law enforcement that saw many requests for footage from connected security cameras and video doorbells. Ring had been accused of fueling privacy infringement and supporting racial profiling.

Earlier this month, the company announced a new policy around sharing with public safety and law enforcement agencies. Moving forward, such agencies will ahem to request information or video from communities through a publicly-viewable category on Ring’s Neighbors app. This new section, “Request for Assistance,” will allow communities to see just what sort of data is being shared, Ring says.

“All Request for Assistance posts will be publicly viewable in the Neighbors feed, and logged on the agency’s public profile,” Ring explains. “This way, anyone interested in knowing more about how their police agency is using Request for Assistance posts can simply visit the agency’s profile and see the post history.”

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YouTube on iOS PiP makes it much easier to watch videos while multitasking

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YouTube is now rolling out the ability for all users to watch videos with picture-in-picture mode, which reduces the video players to a small floating screen on one’s phone or tablet. This feature won’t be limited to only premium customers as some had previously speculated, though those premium customers will get access to the PiP support first.

Android users have had access to YouTube’s picture-in-picture mode for a while; it has become increasingly useful as devices get larger, higher-resolution displays, leaving ample room for using more than one app at a time. With PiP, someone can watch a video in a small corner of their device’s display while doing something else, such as browsing social media, messaging, or playing games.

There have been concerns over recent months that YouTube wouldn’t only make its picture-in-picture mode available to paying Premium subscribers on iOS, but that’s not the case, according to confirmation given to MacRumors.

The feature is now rolling out to all iOS users in the United States, with Premium customers getting it first followed by free users ‘soon.’ Some iOS users have already had access to the YouTube picture-in-picture feature, though its availability has been touch and go with it working only sometimes.

The official support will eliminate the need to deal with difficult workarounds and buggy Safari streaming, though you may need to remain patient if you’re not a Premium user. The feature will be most useful on larger iPhone models where there’s enough screen space to watch a video in the mini player and engage in a second activity.

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Researchers say they’ve found the ideal strategy to pay off student loans

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When many people near college graduation, they begin to contemplate how they’ll deal with the student loans they’ve racked up over the past few years. The burden — which grows more substantial with every generation — can result in stress and, if not managed properly, may throw one’s life plans off track for several years. Mathematicians with the University of Colorado at Boulder may have a solution, explaining that they developed a mathematical model to explore the ideal repayment strategy.

Generally speaking, college graduates get a brief grace period after graduation during which time they aren’t required to make payments on their loans. Two different options are available once payments start: an income-based repayment strategy that involves paying a certain amount monthly based on one’s salary or simply throwing as much money at the loan as possible to pay it off in a shorter period of time.

In many cases, graduates are often advised to pay the loans off as quickly as possible if the funding amount is on the smaller side. On the flip side, graduates are typically told to take the income-based repayment option if they’ve taken out a substantial amount of funds in the form of student loans. The new study suggests a hybrid approach may be more ideal.

The mathematical model takes into account things like compounding interest rates, the income tax that may need to be paid, and more. The findings indicate that some graduates may benefit from a hybrid-style repayment approach that involves paying off as much as possible for the first several years, then switching over to an income-based repayment plan for the remainder of the balance.

The team of researchers hasn’t made their work available as a calculator for the public, but they do plan to improve it and potentially make it available to existing repayment calculators that may integrate the model. The ideal repayment method will ultimately depend on personal factors that must be accounted for, including things like anticipated salary and more.

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