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Future Tense Newsletter: When Alexa Can't Hear You

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While voice-enabled assistants like Siri and Alexa have made the lives of millions of Americans a little easier, the software systems they run on are not great at accommodating a particular group of users: those with speech disabilities and impairments. This means that the "7.5 million people" who "have trouble using their voice" and the "more than 3 million people" who stutter in the U.S. are largely being left out of the voice-assistant revolution. This lack of accessibility becomes even more glaring when you consider that many individuals with speech disabilities also have limited mobility and motor skills, meaning they might benefit more from such digital assistants. Moira Corcoran reports on the smaller tech companies and startups that have started to work on software that's more inclusive of all speech, and what larger firms like Amazon and Microsoft have to say about making more individualized and accessible technologies. Elsewhere on Slate, we've been focusing on the politics of social media.


When Can the Government Shoot Down Civilian Drones?

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The Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act of 2018 is not the most exciting-sounding piece of legislation in the world. The 1,200-page bill, which funds the FAA through 2023 and covers everything from airplane seat size to airport noise, was signed by President Donald Trump on Oct. 5 with little fanfare--even less than it might have ordinarily received, thanks to the drama of Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation. But it could have used the scrutiny: Embedded within it are provisions that give the government new authority to take down civilian drones. The omnibus legislation included the Preventing Emerging Threats Act of 2018, which authorizes the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security to "take actions" to "mitigate a credible threat (as defined by the Secretary or the Attorney General, in consultation with the Secretary of Transportation) that an unmanned aircraft system or unmanned aircraft poses to the safety or security of a covered facility or asset." This "mitigation"--which wouldn't require a warrant, or judicial review or oversight--could include physically disabling the drone, taking it over, intercepting its communications, and seizing the drone itself.


Is the Future of Smartphones a Walkie-Talkie That Talks Back?

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Artificial intelligence is creeping into our smartphones in small, subtle ways. Google's Pixel 3, announced Tuesday, can answer robocalls on your behalf thanks to Google's Duplex technology and Google Assistant. Meanwhile, Android P, the latest operating system for Google's phones, can learn from how you interact with phone alerts to suggest stopping notifications for particular apps, reducing the amount of unnecessary intrusions your phone makes into your daily life. But there's another new phone in the pipeline that takes these kinds of developments further.


Amazon Owes Wikipedia Big-Time

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When you ask Amazon's Alexa, "What is Wikipedia?" Alexa took this line directly from Wikipedia's entry on Wikipedia, as it does with many of its answers. Perhaps what it should have said was this: "Wikipedia is the source from which I take much of my information, without credit, contribution, or compensation." Amazon recently donated $1 million to the Wikimedia Endowment, a fund that keeps Wikipedia running, as "part of Amazon's and CEO Jeff Bezos' growing work in philanthropy," according to CNET. It's being framed as a "gift," one that--as Amazon puts it--recognizes their shared vision to "make it easier to share knowledge globally."


Is Privacy a Right?

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On this week's If Then, Will Oremus and April Glaser discuss the latest data spill in Silicon Valley. And it's time to talk gadgets again. This week Facebook announced its second foray into the hardware space with the Portal and Portal Plus--essentially a smart display for making video calls, equipped with an A.I. camera and Amazon Alexa. Meanwhile, Google launched a new smart display called the Google Home Hub, a new tablet that shares a name with the hosts' employer, and a new phone that's interesting for both its camera and the A.I. built in.


Future Tense Newsletter: Everything Is Compromised

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While your iPhone or Amazon Echo may or may not actually be compromised (both the U.S. government and the companies alleged to have been targeted have vehemently denied the story, which was first reported by Bloomberg), the possibility of such foreign intrusion into our internet of things devices would have massive implications for our national security and technology sectors. Elsewhere on Slate, we've been covering other stories about data security. Sharon Bradford Franklin wrote about a newly proposed law in Australia that could give U.S. law enforcement backdoor access to encrypted data and communications. Josephine Wolff argued that Google actually did a good job disclosing and handling a data vulnerability it found in Google Plus. And Chris Iovenko described how renewed fears over election hacking ahead of the 2018 midterms has experts advocating for a return to paper ballots.


Amazon Created a Hiring Tool Using AI. It Immediately Started Discriminating Against Women.

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Thanks to Amazon, the world has a nifty new cautionary tale about the perils of teaching computers to make human decisions. According to a Reuters report published Wednesday, the tech giant decided last year to abandon an "experimental hiring tool" that used artificial intelligence to rate job candidates, in part because it discriminated against women. Recruiters reportedly looked at the recommendations the program spat out while searching for talent, "but never relied solely on those rankings." The misadventure began in 2014, when a group of Amazon engineers in Scotland set out to mechanize the company's head-hunting process, by creating a program that would scour the Internet for worthwhile job candidates (and presumably save Amazon's HR staff some soul crushing hours clicking around LinkedIn). "Everyone wanted this holy grail," a source told Reuters.


Where Does Facebook's Portal Lead?

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Less than two weeks after Facebook shared that it had suffered the biggest hack in its history, the social network seems to be betting that many of its users might not care. On Monday, the company announced Portal, a voice-enabled video chat screen that's designed to sit on a tabletop and (if you buy the pricier version) pivot in place to follow users as they move around the room. The device relies on Amazon's Alexa for executing tasks like telling you the weather or playing music, while the video chat function uses Facebook's own chat app, Messenger, through which it connects with other Facebook Messenger users. Portal--which comes in 10- and 15-inch versions that will sell for $199 and $349, respectively--represents Facebook's first stab at manufacturing and selling hardware that the company designed fully in-house. But this "smart display" is a cousin to the smart speaker, a category that has already inspired worries that it could potentially trample on users' privacy.


Google's New Pixel 3 Phone Can Fight Robocalls With Roboreplies

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Google is giving phone users the option to spam their spammers. The new Pixel 3 smartphone, which the company unveiled on Tuesday, features a virtual assistant that can help screen out robocalls by responding to the automated calls with its own automated messages. With the tap of a button, users will be able to send suspicious incoming calls to the assistant, which will tell the caller, "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." Based on this response, the user can either accept the call, send a preset text, or report it as spam.


The Way We Use Smart Speakers Continues to Evolve

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The smart speaker space continues to grow. The number of major players is expanding. In the past few weeks alone, we saw new products from Amazon, LG, and Google. The number of devices in people's homes is rapidly increasing as well. Data released last month by Adobe suggests about 32 percent of U.S. households now own a smart speaker, up 14 percent from January.