Alexa is reported down across Europe

Alexa is reported down across Europe
Reports are coming in that Amazon’s Alexa service is down in parts of UK, Spain, Germany and Austria. According to Down Detector and Twitter, the problem started surfacing around 8am local time and still continues. Interestingly, some users are reporting the issue is isolated to Echo Dot 2 models and while other Echo devices are still working. Sometimes. Other reports say everything is down. When users try to talk to their Echo devices, Alexa will report an error with connectivity and spin a red ring around the top.
Because of this outage, users will have to use wall switches to turn on lights, press buttons to make coffee and look outside to assess the weather. Sucks. I know.
As Engadget points out in their coverage, the outage could stem from Amazon Web Service issues at the company’s Ireland facility. Amazon is now reporting that those issues have been resolved so there’s a chance Alexa will be coming back online shortly.

Source: Gadgets – techcrunch

Committed to privacy, Snips founder wants to take on Alexa and Google, with blockchain

Committed to privacy, Snips founder wants to take on Alexa and Google, with blockchain
Earlier this year we saw the headlines of how the users of popular voice assistants like Alexa and Siri and continue to face issues when their private data is compromised, or even sent to random people. In May it was reported that Amazon’s Alexa recorded a private conversation and sent it to a random contact. Amazon insists its Echo devices aren’t always recording, but it did confirm the audio was sent.
The story could be a harbinger of things to come when voice becomes more and more ubiquitous. After all, Amazon announced the launch of Alexa for Hospitality, its Alexa system for hotels, in June. News stories like this simply reinforce the idea that voice control is seeping into our daily lives.
The French startup Snips thinks it might have an answer to the issue of security and data privacy. Its built its software to run 100% on-device, independently from the cloud. As a result, user data is processed on the device itself, acting as a potentially stronger guarantor of privacy. Unlike centralized assistants like Alexa and Google, Snips knows nothing about its users.
Its approach is convincing investors. To date, Snips has raised €22 million in funding from investors like Korelya Capital, MAIF Avenir, BPI France and Eniac Ventures. Created in 2013 by 3 PhDs, and now employing more than 60 people in Paris and New York, Snips offers its voice assistant technology as a white-labelled solution for enterprise device manufacturers.
It’s tested its theories about voice by releasing the result of a consumer poll. The survey of 410 people found that 66% of respondents said they would be apprehensive of using a voice assistant in a hotel room, because of concerns over privacy, 90% said they would like to control the ways corporations use their data, even if it meant sacrificing convenience.
“Сonsumers are increasingly aware of the privacy concerns with voice assistants that rely on cloud storage — and that these concerns will actually impact their usage,” says Dr Rand Hindi, co-founder and CEO at Snips. “However, emerging technologies like blockchain are helping us to create safer and fairer alternatives for voice assistants.”
Indeed, blockchain is very much part of Snip’s future. As Hindi told TechCrunch in May, the company will release a new set of consumer devices independent of its enterprise business. The idea is to create a consumer business that will prompt further enterprise development. At the same time, they will issue a cryptographic token via an ICO to incentivize developers to improve the Snips platform, as an alternative to using data from consumers. The theory goes that this will put it at odds with the approach used by Google and Amazon, who are constantly criticised for invading our private lives merely to improve their platforms.
As a result Hindi believes that as voice-controlled devices become an increasingly common sight in public spaces, there could be a significant shift in public opinion about how their privacy is being protected.
In an interview conducted last month with TechCrunch, Hindi told me the company’s plans for its new consumer product are well advanced, and will be designed from the beginning to be improved over time using a combination of decentralized machine learning and cryptography.
By using blockchain technology to share data, they will be able to train the network “without ever anybody sending unencrypted data anywhere,” he told me.
And ‘training the network” is where it gets interesting. By issuing a cryptographic token for developers to use, Hindi says they will incentivize devs to work on their platform and process data in a decentralized fashion. They are starting from a good place. He claims they already have 14,000 developers on the platform who will be further incentivized by a token economy.
“Otherwise people have no incentive to process that data in a decentralized fashion, right?” he says.
“We got into blockchain because we’re trying to find a way to get people to participate in decentralized machine learning. We’ve been wanting to get into consumer [devices] for a couple of years but didn’t really figure out the end goal because we had always had this missing element which was: how do you keep making it better over time.”
“This is the main argument for Google and Amazon to pretend that you need to send your data to them, to make the service better. If we can fix this [by using blockchain] then we can offer a real alternative to Alexa that guarantees Privacy by Design,” he says.
“We now have over 14000 developers building for us and that’s really completely organic growth, zero marketing, purely word of mouth, which is really nice because it shows that there’s a very big demand for decentralized voice assistance, effectively.”
It could be a high-risk strategy. Launching a voice-controlled device is one thing. Layering it with applications produced by developed supposedly incentivized by tokens, especially when crypto prices have crashed, is quite another.
It does definitely feel like a moonshot idea, however, and we’ll really only know if Snips can live up to such lofty ideals after the launch.

Source: Gadgets – techcrunch

Security researchers found a way to hack into the Amazon Echo

Security researchers found a way to hack into the Amazon Echo
Hackers at DefCon have exposed new security concerns around smart speakers. Tencent’s Wu HuiYu and Qian Wenxiang spoke at the security conference with a presentation called Breaking Smart Speakers: We are Listening to You, explaining how they hacked into an Amazon Echo speaker and turned it into a spy bug.
The hack involved a modified Amazon Echo, which had parts swapped out, including some that had been soldered on. The modified Echo was then used to hack into other, non-modified Echos by connecting both the hackers’ Echo and a regular Echo to the same LAN.
This allowed the hackers to turn their own, modified Echo into a listening bug, relaying audio from the other Echo speakers without those speakers indicating that they were transmitting.
This method was very difficult to execute, but represents an early step in exploiting Amazon’s increasingly popular smart speaker.
The researchers notified Amazon of the exploit before the presentation, and Amazon has already pushed a patch, according to Wired.
Still, the presentation demonstrates how one Echo, with malicious firmware, could potentially alter a group of speakers when connected to the same network, posing concerns with the idea of Echos in hotels.
Wired explained how the networking feature of the Echo allowed for the hack:
If they can then get that doctored Echo onto the same Wi-Fi network as a target device, the hackers can take advantage of a software component of Amazon’s speakers, known as Whole Home Audio Daemon, that the devices use to communicate with other Echoes in the same network. That daemon contained a vulnerability that the hackers found they could exploit via their hacked Echo to gain full control over the target speaker, including the ability to make the Echo play any sound they chose, or more worryingly, silently record and transmit audio to a faraway spy.
An Amazon spokesperson told Wired that “customers do not need to take any action as their devices have been automatically updated with security fixes,” adding that “this issue would have required a malicious actor to have physical access to a device and the ability to modify the device hardware.”
To be clear, the actor would only need physical access to their own Echo to execute the hack.
While Amazon has dismissed concerns that its voice activated devices are monitoring you, hackers at this year’s DefCon proved that they can.

Source: Gadgets – techcrunch

Surprise, no one buys things via Alexa

Surprise, no one buys things via Alexa
Some numbers published in a report from The Information reveal that very few owners of Alexa-powered devices use them for shopping. Of about 50 million Alexa users, only about 100,000 reportedly bought something via voice interface more than once. It’s not exactly surprising, but it may still harm the narrative of conversational commerce that Amazon and others are trying to advance.
The Amazon Echo and its brethren are mostly used for the expected everyday purposes of listening to music, asking what the weather will be like tomorrow and setting timers. All of these things are obviously things that phones do as well, but there’s something to be said for having a stationary hub for the more domestic tasks.
But part of the expectation of seeding the home with these devices has been that users would also make purchases using them: “Alexa, order more Oreos,” or “Alexa, buy a pair of Bose noise-cancelling headphones.” This always seemed rather odd, as people tend to want to look at items before buying them, to check reviews, to shop around for better prices and so on. Who would just buy something by telling their Echo that they want to?

Amazon opens up in-skill purchases to all Alexa developers

Hardly anyone, it seems. That said, it would be a bit disingenuous to pretend that conversational commerce is anything other than one point in a litany of proposed uses for the likes of Alexa, running the gamut of credibility.
As a hub for increasingly common smart home devices, Alexa is a great choice and a common one. And although groceries and impulse purchases may not be something people do via voice, an Echo is a great seller of subscriptions like Spotify and Audible, not to mention future possibilities from queries like “Alexa, call me a plumber.” And of course there’s the whole behind-the-scenes industry of ads, promotions and clever use of voice data.
Why would anyone use these devices to shop? It’s like using a laptop as a hammer. Possible, but not recommended. The other stat The Information mentions is that a million people have tried buying stuff but only 100,000 continued. It may be that this side of e-commerce is merely not “mature,” that catch-all term that could mean so many things. But it may also just be that it’s not something people want to do.

Source: Gadgets – techcrunch

When in Rome is the first Alexa-powered board game

When in Rome is the first Alexa-powered board game
Years ago, in the heyday of home video, I played a board games that used VHS tapes and electronic parts to help spur the action along. From Candy Land VCR to Captain Power, game makers were doing the best they could with a new technology. Now, thanks to Alexa, they can try something even cooler — board games that talk back.
The first company to try this is Sensible Object. Their new game, When in Rome, is a family board game that pits two teams against each other in a race to travel the world. The game itself consists of a board and a few colored pieces; the real magic comes from Alexa. You start the game by enabling the When in Rome skill, then you start the game. Alexa then prompts you with questions as you tool around the board.
The rules are simple because Alexa does most of the work. The game describes how to set up the board and gets you started, then you just trigger it with your voice as you play.
The company’s first game, Beasts of Balance, was another clever hybrid of AR and real-life board-game action. Both games are a bit gimmicky and a bit high-tech — you won’t be able to play these in a cozy beach house without internet, for example — but it’s a fun departure from the norm.
Like the VCR games of yore, When in Rome depends on a new technology to find a new way to have fun. It’s a clever addition to the standard board-game fare and our family had a good time playing it. While it’s not as timeless as a bit of Connect 4 or Risk, it’s a great addition to the board-games shelf and a cool use of voice technology in gaming.

Source: Gadgets – techcrunch

Digging deeper into smart speakers reveals two clear paths

Digging deeper into smart speakers reveals two clear paths
In a truly fascinating exploration into two smart speakers – the Sonos One and the Amazon Echo – BoltVC’s Ben Einstein has found some interesting differences in the way a traditional speaker company and an infrastructure juggernaut look at their flagship devices.
The post is well worth a full read but the gist is this: Sonos, a very traditional speaker company, has produced a good speaker and modified its current hardware to support smart home features like Alexa and Google Assistant. The Sonos One, notes Einstein, is a speaker first and smart hardware second.
“Digging a bit deeper, we see traditional design and manufacturing processes for pretty much everything. As an example, the speaker grill is a flat sheet of steel that’s stamped, rolled into a rounded square, welded, seams ground smooth, and then powder coated black. While the part does look nice, there’s no innovation going on here,” he writes.
The Amazon Echo, on the other hand, looks like what would happen if an engineer was given an unlimited budget and told to build something that people could talk to. The design decisions are odd and intriguing and it is ultimately less a speaker than a home conversation machine. Plus it is very expensive to make.
Pulling off the sleek speaker grille, there’s a shocking secret here: this is an extruded plastic tube with a secondary rotational drilling operation. In my many years of tearing apart consumer electronics products, I’ve never seen a high-volume plastic part with this kind of process. After some quick math on the production timelines, my guess is there’s a multi-headed drill and a rotational axis to create all those holes. CNC drilling each hole individually would take an extremely long time. If anyone has more insight into how a part like this is made, I’d love to see it! Bottom line: this is another surprisingly expensive part.

Sonos, which has been making a form of smart speaker for 15 years, is a CE company with cachet. Amazon, on the other hand, sees its devices as a way into living rooms and a delivery system for sales and is fine with licensing its tech before making its own. Therefore to compare the two is a bit disingenuous. Einstein’s thesis that Sonos’ trajectory is troubled by the fact that it depends on linear and closed manufacturing techniques while Amazon spares no expense to make its products is true. But Sonos makes speakers that work together amazingly well. They’ve done this for a decade and a half. If you compare their products – and I have – with competing smart speakers an non-audiophile “dumb” speakers you will find their UI, UX, and sound quality surpass most comers.
Amazon makes things to communicate with Amazon. This is a big difference.
Where Einstein is correct, however, is in his belief that Sonos is at a definite disadvantage. Sonos chases smart technology while Amazon and Google (and Apple, if their HomePod is any indication) lead. That said, there is some value to having a fully-connected set of speakers with add-on smart features vs. having to build an entire ecosystem of speaker products that can take on every aspect of the home theatre.
On the flip side Amazon, Apple, and Google are chasing audio quality while Sonos leads. While we can say that in the future we’ll all be fine with tinny round speakers bleating out Spotify in various corners of our room, there is something to be said for a good set of woofers. Whether this nostalgic love of good sound survives this generation’s tendency to watch and listen to low resolution media is anyone’s bet, but that’s Amazon’s bet to lose.
Ultimately Sonos is strong and fascinating company. An upstart that survived the great CE destruction wrought by Kickstarter and Amazon, it produces some of the best mid-range speakers I’ve used. Amazon makes a nice – almost alien – product, but given that it can be easily copied and stuffed into a hockey puck that probably costs less than the entire bill of materials for the Amazon Echo it’s clear that Amazon’s goal isn’t to make speakers.
Whether the coming Sonos IPO will be successful depends partially on Amazon and Google playing ball with the speaker maker. The rest depends on the quality of product and the dedication of Sonos users. This good will isn’t as valuable as a signed contract with major infrastructure players but Sonos’ good will is far more than Amazon and Google have with their popular but potentially intrusive product lines. Sonos lives in the home while Google and Amazon want to invade it. That is where Sonos wins.

Source: Gadgets – techcrunch

This family’s Echo sent a private conversation to a random contact

This family’s Echo sent a private conversation to a random contact
A Portland family tells KIRO news that their Echo recorded and then sent a private conversation to someone on its list of contacts without telling them. Amazon called it an “extremely rare occurrence.” (And provided a more detailed explanation, below.)
Portlander Danielle said that she got a call from one of her husband’s employees one day telling her to “unplug your Alexa devices right now,” and suggesting she’d been hacked. He said that he had received recordings of the couple talking about hardwood floors, which Danielle confirmed.
Amazon, when she eventually got hold of the company, had an engineer check the logs, and he apparently discovered what they said was true. In a statement, Amazon said, “We investigated what happened and determined this was an extremely rare occurrence. We are taking steps to avoid this from happening in the future.”

Can your smart home be used against you in court?

What could have happened? It seems likely that the Echo’s voice recognition service misheard something, interpreting it as instructions to record the conversation like a note or message. And then it apparently also misheard them say to send the recording to this particular person. And it did all this without saying anything back.
The house reportedly had multiple Alexa devices, so it’s also possible that the system decided to ask for confirmation on the wrong device — saying “All right, I’ve sent that to Steve” on the living room Echo because the users’ voices carried from the kitchen. Or something.
Naturally no one expects to have their conversations sent out to an acquaintance, but it must also be admitted that the Echo is, fundamentally, a device that listens to every conversation you have and constantly sends that data to places on the internet. It also remembers more stuff now. If something does go wrong, “sending your conversation somewhere it isn’t supposed to go” seems a pretty reasonable way for it to happen.
Update: I asked Amazon for more details on what happened, and after this article was published it issued the following explanation, which more or less confirms how I suspected this went down:
Echo woke up due to a word in background conversation sounding like “Alexa.” Then, the subsequent conversation was heard as a “send message” request. At which point, Alexa said out loud “To whom?” At which point, the background conversation was interpreted as a name in the customers contact list. Alexa then asked out loud, “[contact name], right?” Alexa then interpreted background conversation as “right”. As unlikely as this string of events is, we are evaluating options to make this case even less likely.

Source: Gadgets – techcrunch

Alexa gets smarter about calendar appointments

Alexa gets smarter about calendar appointments
As digital assistants improve, we’re learning new things to expect from them, but the tasks that a real-life assistant may have handled before can still be a bit of a challenge to home assistants.
Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant is gaining functionality to help it get smarter about working with your calendar. The new abilities will let users move appointments around and schedule meetings based on other people’s availability.
If you’ve been shared on someone’s calendar availability, Alexa will be able to suggest times that work for both of you. Just say, “Alexa schedule a meeting with [name]” and Amazon’s assistant will search through your schedule for a good time, suggesting up to two time slots that could work.
On a more basic feature level, Alexa won’t make you cancel appointments and reschedule them if a meeting time changes. You’ll be able to just ask Alexa to move an existing meeting, something that should have probably been supported from the beginning, but hey, better late than never.
Both of these features are available to U.S. users today.

Source: Gadgets – techcrunch

Suki raises $20M to create a voice assistant for doctors

Suki raises M to create a voice assistant for doctors

When trying to figure out what to do after an extensive career at Google, Motorola, and Flipkart, Punit Soni decided to spend a lot of time sitting in doctors’ offices to figure out what to do next.

It was there that Soni said he figured out one of the most annoying pain points for doctors in any office: writing down notes and documentation. That’s why he decided to start Suki — previously Robin AI — to create a way for doctors to simply start talking aloud to take notes when working with patients, rather than having to put everything into a medical record system, or even writing those notes down by hand. That seemed like the lowest hanging fruit, offering an opportunity to make it easier for doctors that see dozens of patients to make their lives significantly easier, he said.

“We decided we had found a powerful constituency who were burning out because of just documentation,” Soni said. “They have underlying EMR systems that are much older in design. The solution aligns with the commoditization of voice and machine learning. If you put it all together, if we can build a system for doctors and allow doctors to use it in a relatively easy way, they’ll use it to document all the interactions they do with patients. If you have access to all data right from a horse’s mouth, you can use that to solve all the other problems on the health stack.”

The company said it has raised a $15 million funding round led by Venrock, with First Round, Social+Capital, Nat Turner of Flatiron Health, Marc Benioff, and other individual Googlers and angels. Venrock also previously led a $5 million seed financing round, bringing the company’s total funding to around $20 million. It’s also changing its name from Robin AI to Suki, though the reason is actually a pretty simple one: “Suki” is a better wake word for a voice assistant than “Robin” because odds are there’s someone named Robin in the office.

The challenge for a company like Suki is not actually the voice recognition part. Indeed, that’s why Soni said they are actually starting a company like this today: voice recognition is commoditized. Trying to start a company like Suki four years ago would have meant having to build that kind of technology from scratch, but thanks to incredible advances in machine learning over just the past few years, startups can quickly move on to the core business problems they hope to solve rather than focusing on early technical challenges.

Instead, Suki’s problem is one of understanding language. It has to ingest everything that a doctor is saying, parse it, and figure out what goes where in a patient’s documentation. That problem is even more complex because each doctor has a different way of documenting their work with a patient, meaning it has to take extra care in building a system that can scale to any number of doctors. As with any company, the more data it collects over time, the better those results get — and the more defensible the business becomes, because it can be the best product.

“Whether you bring up the iOS app or want to bring it in a website, doctors have it in the exam room,” Soni said. “You can say, ‘Suki, make sure you document this, prescribe this drug, and make sure this person comes back to me for a follow-up visit.’ It takes all that, it captures it into a clinically comprehensive note and then pushes it to the underlying electronic medical record. [Those EMRs] are the system of record, it is not our job to day-one replace these guys. Our job is to make sure doctors and the burnout they are having is relieved.”

Given that voice recognition is commoditized, there will likely be others looking to build a scribe for doctors as well. There are startups like Saykara looking to do something similar, and in these situations it often seems like the companies that are able to capture the most data first are able to become the market leaders. And there’s also a chance that a larger company — like Amazon, which has made its interest in healthcare already known — may step in with its comprehensive understanding of language and find its way into the doctors’ office. Over time, Soni hopes that as it gets more and more data, Suki can become more intelligent and more than just a simple transcription service.

“You can see this arc where you’re going from an Alexa, to a smarter form of a digital assistant, to a device that’s a little bit like a chief resident of a doctor,” Soni said. “You’ll be able to say things like, ‘Suki, pay attention,’ and all it needs to do is listen to your conversation with the patient. I’m, not building a medical transcription company. I’m basically trying to build a digital assistant for doctors.”

Source: Mobile – Techcruch

Amazon’s new ‘Alexa Blueprints’ let anyone create custom Alexa skills and responses

Amazon’s new ‘Alexa Blueprints’ let anyone create custom Alexa skills and responses
Amazon this morning is introducing “Alexa Blueprints,” a new way for any Alexa owner to create their own customized Alexa skills or responses, without needing to know how to code. The idea is to allow Alexa owners to create their own voice apps, like a trivia game or bedtime stories, or teach Alexa to respond to questions with answers they design – like “Who’s the best mom in the world?,” for example.
You could also create a skill that includes helpful information for the babysitter, which could be triggered by the command, “Alexa, open My Sitter,” Amazon suggests.
“Alexa Skill Blueprints is an entirely new way for you to teach Alexa personalized skills just for you and your family,” explained Steve Rabuchin, Vice President, Amazon Alexa, in a statement about the launch. “You don’t need experience building skills or coding to get started—my family created our own jokes skill in a matter of minutes, and it’s been a blast to interact with Alexa in a totally new and personal way.”

To build your own skill or custom Alexa response, users will visit the website blueprints.amazon.com and select a template.
At launch, there are over 20 templates across categories like Fun & Games, At Home, Storyteller, and Learning & Knowledge.
The templates are designed so you can just fill in the bits and pieces that make them personalized to your needs. You won’t need to go through a series of complicated steps, and no technical knowledge is required. The templates are even pre-filled and work as is, if you just want to try them out before making your own.

After you’ve filled in your own content, you name it and publish with a click. This makes the skill or response available to all Alexa-enabled devices associated with your own Amazon account. But it’s not available to the public or the Alexa Skills Store.
Families with Echo devices, in particular, seem to be a heavy focus for Alexa Blueprints. Kids have readily taken to Alexa, and today there are nearly 500 public Alexa skills built for kids alone. Families also often have private jokes and bedtime rituals where Alexa could come in – offering to “tell a Dad joke” or “start Anna’s story,” for instance. Plus, Alexa is designed as a home companion – controlling smart devices, playing music, setting timers, and offering information like news and weather, among other things.

But families aren’t the only ones would could take advantage of Alexa Blueprints. College students could use the flash cards custom skill when studying, while a group of friends or roommates could design their own trivia games. And Airbnb owners could set up a skill for their houseguests.
After you’ve created the custom skill, it will be available in the Skills You’ve Made webpage on the Blueprints site. You’ll also be able to enable, disable and delete your skills.
The feature could give Amazon an edge in selling its Echo speakers to consumers, as it’s now the only platform offering this level of customization – Apple’s HomePod is really designed for music lovers, and doesn’t support third-party apps. Google Home also doesn’t offer this type of customization.
All three are competing to be the voice assistant people use in their home, but Alexa so far is leading by a wide margin – it still has roughly 70 percent of the smart speaker market.
Alexa Blueprints are available today in the U.S. only.
The full list of Alexa Blueprints available at launch is below:
At Home

Custom Q&A: Customize responses to your questions
Houseguest: Make your guests feel at home with quick access to important info
Babysitter: Help your sitter find things, remember steps and get important info
Pet Sitter: Help your pet sitter care for your favorite animal

Fun & Games

Family Jokes: Create a list of your favorite jokes for when you need a laugh
Trivia: Create your own multiple choice trivia game on any topic
Inspirations: Curate a list of your favorite inspirational quotes
Family Trivia: Play together and brush up on family history
Bachelorette Party: Play to find out how well the bride’s friends know her
Birthday Trivia: Play to see who knows the birthday girl or boy best
Burns: Roast your friends and family with lighthearted burns
Compliments: Flatter your favorites with a list of custom compliments
Double Trouble: Find out which couple knows each other best with this customizable game
First Letter: Play a game of categories starting with a certain letter

Storyteller

Adventure: Write an adventure story where your child is the hero
Fairy Tale: Customize an interactive prince and princess-themed tale
Sci-Fi: Create an interactive story with a far-out theme
Fable: Create a short narrative with a moral of the story

Learning & Knowledge

Flash Cards: Study, test yourself, and master any subject by voice
Facts: Keep a list of facts on your favorite topic, all in one place
Quiz: Challenge yourself and others with a customizable quiz

Source: Gadgets – techcrunch