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Microsoft voice data collection will be optional with one catch

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After becoming a mostly touch-based society thanks to smartphones and tablets, tech giants are trying to turn us back towards using our literal voices to drive our interactions with technology. AI assistants, smart speakers, and speech recognition have become staples of many products and services but, unlike touch, voice data also carries more privacy implications. After being criticized and scrutinized over such privacy invasions like its peers, Microsoft is now announcing a bigger change to its voice data collection practices that it says gives users more control.

The scandal over voice clips privacy exploded in 2019 when Amazon was revealed to be exposing audio clips recorded by Alexa to third-parties, mostly contractors, without users knowing about it. It wasn’t the only one though and, soon enough, Google and Microsoft were also dragged into the spotlight. Microsoft since then promised to change the way it handles speech data and its latest announcement makes what is perhaps the biggest change.

According to Redmond, users will soon have to opt into voice data collection which will then be used for the usual improvement of services. This implies that the default will be to disable data collection, at least once the update to apps and services have been rolled out. Microsoft says that users who do opt out of it will still be able to use those Microsoft products as normal.

There is, however, one catch to that change. It also says that Microsoft may still continue to collect information related to voice activity even if it doesn’t collect the voice clip itself. That includes, for example, the translations or transcripts that are produced when users interact with its speech recognition AI. Either way, Microsoft also promises that they will be scrubbed of any personally identifiable information before they are processed.

The company stopped storing voice clips back in October and this update is pretty much its announcement that it will resume the process but is making it optional. It says that users who opt into the collection could have their audio clips retained on servers for up to two years. However, Microsoft makes the rather confusing qualification that data could be retained far beyond that if the audio clip is sampled for transcription by employees or contractors.

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Google just added an insanely useful desktop search shortcut

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Google has quietly rolled out a new search shortcut for desktop users that is deceptively useful during the workday. As of now, users can press a single key on Google’s search results page to pull back open the search field, updating the search term without ever lifting a hand to use the mouse or trackpad.

The new feature was ‘announced’ by a small message box desktop users see in the bottom corner of their search results page, as first spied by 9to5Google; it reads, ‘Press / to jump to the search box.’

When you press the ‘/’ button, your cursor moves to the text field at the end of your search query, enabling you to quickly remove and add terms or scroll down through the suggested search queries. The shortcut key only works when you’re on the search results page, not the home page.

This is ultimately a very small change, but one that proves insanely useful when you’re often using Google for work or school. The amount of time saved by avoiding the mouse entirely adds up over time, not to mention getting you to the search results you want faster.

It’s unclear whether the feature is now available for all Google Search users on desktop or if it is rolling out more slowly. Our own test of the new shortcut found that it worked, though we never saw the shortcut notification on the search results page.

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Amazon may start asking even more of its delivery drivers

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Amazon is reportedly set to trial a new home assembly service for larger items, where delivery drivers would also put together furniture, appliances, or other larger items. The move, which is said to be planned for just a handful of markets as the online retail behemoth gauges popularity and feasibility, could make home shopping even easier, though there are concerns that delivery drivers themselves may face impractical expectations.

Online shopping has surged during the pandemic, and Amazon has seen a considerable share of that extra business. Its subscription plan Amazon Prime, for example, surged by 50 million members in the space of a year, bringing the total to 200 million.

The retailer’s ambitions, however, go beyond dropping items off at the doorstep. While you can currently schedule the delivery of a particularly large item, and even have it left in a specific room, Amazon is said to be preparing an even more hands-on service. The assembly option would see the delivery person actually put the item together in the home, Bloomberg reports.

According to people familiar with the plans, they say, Amazon is looking to trial the premium service in Virginia and two other unnamed markets. Unlike Amazon Home Services – which offers recommended local contractors booked through Amazon’s system – assembly and installation of the purchases would be handled by the company’s own delivery staff.

Still, there’d be a limit to what could be offered. Amazon Home Services, for example, includes options for tasks like installing electric car chargers, something which would be beyond the remit of a delivery driver. Instead, it’s suggested, Amazon sees it more around doing basics like putting together sofas and living room furniture, or installing a straightforward appliance like a washing machine or dishwasher.

Amazon has declined to comment on the leak, but according to Bloomberg there’s some consternation among the company’s delivery drivers about just what might be expected of them. The retailer has already faced criticism about working conditions for delivery staff, with accusations of grueling workloads that leave them little time for bathroom breaks. Among the concerns were just how long Amazon managers might allot for assembly and installation, and the safety of spending extended periods inside customers’ homes during the pandemic which has helped make online shopping so popular.

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Dogecoin goes up and Robinhood goes down

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Some things in life you can count on, and it seems like Robinhood crashing just when the finance market is getting interesting is one of them. The popular finance service – which has seen particular success with first-time and novice investors – has been suffering several periods of downtime during volatility in crypto trading, particularly Elon Musk’s favored Dogecoin.

The cryptocurrency has certainly had a bizarre week – and, for that matter, an equally bizarre few months. Initially begun as a joke, the so-called “meme currency” gained traction when Tesla founder Elon Musk began pumping it on his Twitter account.

This past week, meanwhile, DOGE has surged in price. Although individual coins are still worth just a handful of cents, their value has shot up by almost 200-percent. Combined with the ease of entry, it’s left some holders with a huge return on their initial purchases, which were often made when Dogecoin was only a cent or two.

Problem is, you only see those returns when you sell, and that’s been tricky if you opted to purchase via Robinhood. The service has been encountering periods of downtime which just so happened to coincide with some of DOGE’s peaks over the past day or two.

“We’re experiencing intermittent issues with crypto trading due to heightened volumes,” Robinhood has warned on its support site at several points over the past 24 hours. “Because of this, some crypto trades may not execute right now.”

Within the past hour, Robinhood said that it had restored crypto trading “for most customers.” As for those who aren’t in that group, there’s only an apology to tide them over. “To anyone still affected, we’re sorry for the interruption,” the company added. “We’re working to restore service for everyone as soon as possible.

It’s not the first time Robinhood has left investors floundering. During the GameStop stock surge earlier this year, users suddenly found that they were unable to buy the volatile $GME stock. The limits were subsequently extended to other shares, including AMC. Robinhood defended its decision with an explanation of the mechanisms behind trading, but not before the moves caught the attention of lawmakers who have called for an investigation into whether it acted appropriately.

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