NEW YORK -- This year you can purchase a bit more of the sci-fi future. Hoverboards aren't quite what the name implies, but there's bona fide virtual reality, a droid you should be looking for and a basketball that improves your free throw, all one shopping-click away. These tech gadgets make the pocket-sized computer that talks to you and dials your friends seem quaint. But don't worry, there are plenty of smartphones on sale, too. Sphero's new $150 BB-8 droid is expected to be one of the hottest Star Wars gifts this holiday season.
Google wants to do more than just organize the world's information. It wants to infuse itself into our lives and replace several of our daily tasks robotically. That, clearly, is the goal, as outlined this week. Forget about those shiny new Pixel phones, tablets and speakers that Google announced this week at a splashy event in New York. Or a new talking video speaker that takes on Amazon's Echo Show with a focus on Google visuals like mapping, calendar, and, of course, all that YouTube content.
But a startup from San Francisco called BabelOn is working on a particularly unique offshoot of this technology. In a nutshell, BabelOn wants to make it a trivial matter to translate your own voice into another language, even if you don't speak that language yourself. The company says its combo of software and custom-built hardware can analyze what makes up your voice and then use that to recreate speech that sounds just like you, in a language of your choosing. Initially, the company wants to use its technology for things like improving dubbed films or localizing video games, but eventually it wants to be able to translate your speech in real time, say while you're on a Skype call. Microsoft has done this for a while, translating Skype voice calls on the fly, but BabelOn promises that its translations will sound like you, not an anonymous Siri- or Cortana-like digital voice.
Onstage at the launch of Amazon's Alexa Prize, a multimillion-dollar competition to build AI that can chat like a human, the winners of last year's challenge delivered a friendly warning to 2018's hopefuls: your bot will mess up, it will say something offensive, and it will be taken offline. Elizabeth Clark, a member of last year's champion Sounding Board team from the University of Washington, was onstage with her fellow researchers to share what they'd learned from their experience. What stuck out, she said, were the bloopers. "One thing that came up a lot around the holidays was that a lot of people wanted to talk to our bot about Santa," said Clark. "Unfortunately, the content we had about Santa Claus looked like this: 'You know what I realized the other day? Santa Claus is the most elaborate lie ever told.'" The bot chose this line because it had been taught using jokes from Reddit, explained Clark, and while it might be diverting for adults, "as you can imagine, a lot of people who want to talk about Santa Claus … are children." And telling someone's curious three-year-old that Santa is a lie, right before Christmas?