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Naomi Klein: How big tech plans to profit from the pandemic | News



For a few fleeting moments during the New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s daily coronavirus briefing on Wednesday 6 May, the sombre grimace that has filled our screens for weeks was briefly replaced by something resembling a smile.

“We are ready, we’re all-in,” the governor gushed. “We are New Yorkers, so we’re aggressive about it, we’re ambitious about it … We realise that change is not only imminent, but it can actually be a friend if done the right way.”

The inspiration for these uncharacteristically good vibes was a video visit from the former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who joined the governor’s briefing to announce that he will be heading up a panel to reimagine New York state’s post-Covid reality, with an emphasis on permanently integrating technology into every aspect of civic life.

“The first priorities of what we’re trying to do,” Schmidt said, “are focused on telehealth, remote learning, and broadband … We need to look for solutions that can be presented now, and accelerated, and use technology to make things better.” Lest there be any doubt that the former Google chair’s goals were purely benevolent, his video background featured a framed pair of golden angel wings.

Just one day earlier, Cuomo had announced a similar partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to develop “a smarter education system”. Calling Gates a “visionary”, Cuomo said the pandemic has created “a moment in history when we can actually incorporate and advance [Gates’s] ideas … all these buildings, all these physical classrooms – why, with all the technology you have?” he asked, apparently rhetorically.

It has taken some time to gel, but something resembling a coherent pandemic shock doctrine is beginning to emerge. Call it the Screen New Deal. Far more hi-tech than anything we have seen during previous disasters, the future that is being rushed into being as the bodies still pile up treats our past weeks of physical isolation not as a painful necessity to save lives, but as a living laboratory for a permanent – and highly profitable – no-touch future.

Anuja Sonalker, the CEO of Steer Tech, a Maryland-based company selling self-parking technology, recently summed up the new virus-personalised pitch. “There has been a distinct warming up to humanless, contactless technology,” she said. “Humans are biohazards, machines are not.”

It’s a future in which our homes are never again exclusively personal spaces, but are also, via high-speed digital connectivity, our schools, our doctor’s offices, our gyms, and, if determined by the state, our jails. Of course, for many of us, those same homes were already turning into our never-off workplaces and our primary entertainment venues before the pandemic, and surveillance incarceration “in the community” was already booming. But in the future that is hastily being constructed, all of these trends are poised for a warp-speed acceleration.

This is a future in which, for the privileged, almost everything is home delivered, either virtually via streaming and cloud technology, or physically via driverless vehicle or drone, then screen “shared” on a mediated platform. It’s a future that employs far fewer teachers, doctors and drivers. It accepts no cash or credit cards (under guise of virus control), and has skeletal mass transit and far less live art. It’s a future that claims to be run on “artificial intelligence”, but is actually held together by tens of millions of anonymous workers tucked away in warehouses, data centres, content-moderation mills, electronic sweatshops, lithium mines, industrial farms, meat-processing plants and prisons, where they are left unprotected from disease and hyper-exploitation. It’s a future in which our every move, our every word, our every relationship is trackable, traceable and data-mineable by unprecedented collaborations between government and tech giants.

Eric Schmidt, via video call, joins the media briefing given by the New York governor Andrew Cuomo on 6 May 2020.

Eric Schmidt, via video call, joins the media briefing given by the New York governor Andrew Cuomo on 6 May 2020. Photograph: Lev Radin/Pacific Press/Rex/Shutterstock

If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because, pre-Covid, this precise app-driven, gig-fuelled future was being sold to us in the name of friction-free convenience and personalisation. But many of us had concerns. About the security, quality and inequity of telehealth and online classrooms. About driverless cars mowing down pedestrians and drones smashing packages (and people). About location tracking and cash-free commerce obliterating our privacy and entrenching racial and gender discrimination. About unscrupulous social media platforms poisoning our information ecology and our kids’ mental health. About “smart cities” filled with sensors supplanting local government. About the good jobs these technologies wiped out. About the bad jobs they mass produced.

And most of all, we had concerns about the democracy-threatening wealth and power accumulated by a handful of tech companies that are masters of abdication – eschewing all responsibility for the wreckage left behind in the fields they now dominate, whether media, retail or transportation.

That was the ancient past, also known as February. Today, a great many of those well-founded concerns are being swept away by a tidal wave of panic, and this warmed-over dystopia is going through a rush-job rebranding. Now, against a harrowing backdrop of mass death, it is being sold to us on the dubious promise that these technologies are the only possible way to pandemic-proof our lives, the indispensable keys to keeping ourselves and our loved ones safe.

Thanks to Cuomo and his various billionaire partnerships (including one with Michael Bloomberg for testing and tracing), New York state is being positioned as the gleaming showroom for this grim future – but the ambitions reach far beyond the borders of any one state or country.

And at the dead centre of it all is Eric Schmidt.

Well before Americans understood the threat of Covid-19, Schmidt had been on an aggressive lobbying and public-relations campaign, pushing precisely the Black Mirror vision of society that Cuomo has just empowered him to build. At the heart of this vision is seamless integration of government with a handful of Silicon Valley giants – with public schools, hospitals, doctor’s offices, police and military all outsourcing (at a high cost) many of their core functions to private tech companies.

It’s a vision Schmidt has been advancing in his roles as chair of the Defense Innovation Board, which advises the US Department of Defense on increased use of artificial intelligence in the military, and as chair of the powerful National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, or NSCAI, which advises Congress on “advances in artificial intelligence, related machine learning developments and associated technologies”, with the goal of addressing “the national and economic security needs of the United States, including economic risk”. Both boards are crowded with powerful Silicon Valley CEOs and top executives from companies including Oracle, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook and of course, Schmidt’s former colleagues at Google.

As chair, Schmidt – who still holds more than $5.3bn in shares of Alphabet (Google’s parent company), as well as large investments in other tech firms – has essentially been running a Washington-based shakedown on behalf of Silicon Valley. The main purpose of the two boards is to call for exponential increases in government spending on research into artificial intelligence and on tech-enabling infrastructure such as 5G – investments that would directly benefit the companies in which Schmidt and other members of these boards have extensive holdings.

First in closed-door presentations to lawmakers, and later in public-facing opinion articles and interviews, the thrust of Schmidt’s argument has been that since the Chinese government is willing to spend limitless public money building the infrastructure of high-tech surveillance, while allowing Chinese tech companies such as Alibaba, Baidu and Huawei to pocket the profits from commercial applications, the US’s dominant position in the global economy is on the precipice of collapsing.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (Epic) recently got access, through a freedom of information (FOI) request, to a presentation made by Schmidt’s NSCAI in May 2019. Its slides make a series of alarmist claims about how China’s relatively lax regulatory infrastructure and its bottomless appetite for surveillance are causing it to pull ahead of the US in a number of fields, including “AI for medical diagnosis”, autonomous vehicles, digital infrastructure, “smart cities”, ride-sharing and cashless commerce.

The reasons given for China’s competitive edge are myriad, ranging from the sheer volume of consumers who shop online; “the lack of legacy banking systems in China”, which has allowed it to leapfrog over cash and credit cards and unleash “a huge e-commerce and digital services market” using digital payments; and a severe doctor shortage, which has led the government to work closely with tech companies such as Tencent to use AI for “predictive” medicine. The slides note that in China, tech companies “have the authority to quickly clear regulatory barriers, while American initiatives are mired in HIPPA compliance and FDA approval”.

A slide from the Chinese Tech Landscape Overview (NSCAI presentation) discussing surveillance.

A slide from the Chinese Tech Landscape Overview (NSCAI presentation) discussing surveillance. Photograph: NSCAI

More than any other factor, however, the NSCAI points to China’s willingness to embrace public-private partnerships in mass surveillance and data collection as a reason for its competitive edge. The presentation touts China’s “Explicit government support and involvement eg facial recognition deployment”. It argues that “surveillance is one of the ‘first-and-best customers’ for Al” and further, that “mass surveillance is a killer application for deep learning”.

A slide titled “State Datasets: Surveillance = Smart Cities” notes that China, along with Google’s main Chinese competitor, Alibaba, are racing ahead.

A slide from the Chinese Tech Landscape Overview (NSCAI presentation) discussing surveillance.

A slide from the Chinese Tech Landscape Overview (NSCAI presentation) discussing surveillance. Photograph: NSCAI

This is notable because Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has been pushing this precise vision through its Sidewalk Labs division, choosing a large portion of Toronto’s waterfront as its “smart city” prototype. But the Toronto project was just shut down after two years of ceaseless controversy relating to the enormous amounts of personal data that Alphabet would collect, a lack of privacy protections, and questionable benefits for the city as a whole.

Five months after this presentation, in November, NSCAI issued an interim report to Congress further raising the alarm about the need for the US to match China’s adaptation of these controversial technologies. “We are in a strategic competition,” states the report, obtained via FOI by Epic. “AI will be at the centre. The future of our national security and economy are at stake.”

Sidewalk Labs, an Alphabet affiliate, planned to build a neighbourhood ‘from the internet up’ on Toronto’s lakefront. But the project has been shut down after two years of controversy

Sidewalk Labs, an Alphabet affiliate, planned to build a neighbourhood ‘from the internet up’ on Toronto’s lakefront. But the project has been shut down after two years of controversy Photograph: AFP via Getty

By late February, Schmidt was taking his campaign to the public, perhaps understanding that the budget increases his board was calling for could not be approved without a great deal more buy-in. In a New York Times article headlined “I used to Run Google. Silicon Valley Could Lose to China”, Schmidt called for “unprecedented partnerships between government and industry” and, once again sounding the yellow peril alarm, wrote:

“AI will open new frontiers in everything from biotechnology to banking, and it is also a defense department priority … If current trends continue, China’s overall investments in research and development are expected to surpass those of the United States within 10 years, around the same time its economy is projected to become larger than ours.

Unless these trends change, in the 2030s we will be competing with a country that has a bigger economy, more research and development investments, better research, wider deployment of new technologies and stronger computing infrastructure … Ultimately, the Chinese are competing to become the world’s leading innovators, and the United States is not playing to win.”

The only solution, for Schmidt, was a gush of public money. Praising the White House for requesting a doubling of research funding in AI and quantum information science, he wrote: “We should plan to double funding in those fields again as we build institutional capacity in labs and research centres … At the same time, Congress should meet the president’s request for the highest level of defence R & D funding in over 70 years, and the defense department should capitalise on that resource surge to build breakthrough capabilities in AI, quantum, hypersonics and other priority technology areas.”

That was exactly two weeks before the coronavirus outbreak was declared a pandemic, and there was no mention that a goal of this vast, hi-tech expansion was to protect American health. Only that it was necessary to avoid being outcompeted by China. But, of course, that would soon change.

In the two months since, Schmidt has put these pre-existing demands – for massive public expenditures on high-tech research and infrastructure, for a slew of “public-private partnerships” in AI, and for the loosening of myriad privacy and safety protections – through an aggressive rebranding exercise. Now all of these measures (and more) are being sold to the public as our only possible hope of protecting ourselves from a novel virus that will be with us for years to come.

And the tech companies to which Schmidt has deep ties, and which populate the influential advisory boards he chairs, have all repositioned themselves as benevolent protectors of public health and munificent champions of “everyday hero” essential workers (many of whom, like delivery drivers, would lose their jobs if these companies get their way). Less than two weeks into New York state’s lockdown, Schmidt wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal that both set the new tone and made clear that Silicon Valley had every intention of leveraging the crisis for a permanent transformation.

“Like other Americans, technologists are trying to do their part to support the front-line pandemic response …

But every American should be asking where we want the nation to be when the Covid-19 pandemic is over. How could the emerging technologies being deployed in the current crisis propel us into a better future? … Companies like Amazon know how to supply and distribute efficiently. They will need to provide services and advice to government officials who lack the computing systems and expertise.

We should also accelerate the trend toward remote learning, which is being tested today as never before. Online, there is no requirement of proximity, which allows students to get instruction from the best teachers, no matter what school district they reside in …

The need for fast, large-scale experimentation will also accelerate the biotech revolution … Finally, the country is long overdue for a real digital infrastructure … If we are to build a future economy and education system based on tele-everything, we need a fully connected population and ultrafast infrastructure. The government must make a massive investment – perhaps as part of a stimulus package – to convert the nation’s digital infrastructure to cloud-based platforms and link them with a 5G network.”

Indeed, Schmidt has been relentless in pursuing this vision. Two weeks after that article appeared, he described the ad-hoc home schooling programming that teachers and families across the country had been forced to cobble together during this public health emergency as “a massive experiment in remote learning”.

The goal of this experiment, he said, was “trying to find out: how do kids learn remotely? And with that data we should be able to build better remote and distance learning tools which, when combined with the teacher … will help kids learn better.” During this same video call, hosted by the Economic Club of New York, Schmidt also called for more telehealth, more 5G, more digital commerce and the rest of the preexisting wish list. All in the name of fighting the virus.

His most telling comment, however, was this: “The benefit of these corporations, which we love to malign, in terms of the ability to communicate, the ability to deal with health, the ability to get information, is profound. Think about what your life would be like in America without Amazon.” He added that people should “be a little bit grateful that these companies got the capital, did the investment, built the tools that we’re using now, and have really helped us out”.

Schmidt’s words are a reminder that until very recently, public pushback against these companies was surging. Presidential candidates were openly discussing breaking up big tech. Amazon was forced to pull its plans for a New York headquarters because of fierce local opposition. Google’s Sidewalk Labs project was in perennial crisis, and Google workers were refusing to build surveillance tech with military applications.

In short, democracy – inconvenient public engagement in the designing of critical institutions and public spaces – was turning out to be the single greatest obstacle to the vision Schmidt was advancing, first from his perch at the top of Google and Alphabet, and then as chair of two powerful boards advising US Congress and the Department of Defense. As the NSCAI documents reveal, this inconvenient exercise of power by members of the public and by tech workers inside these mega-firms has, from the perspective of men such as Schmidt and the Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, maddeningly slowed down the AI arms race, keeping fleets of potentially deadly driverless cars and trucks off the roads, protecting private health records from becoming a weapon used by employers against workers, preventing urban spaces from being blanketing with facial recognition software, and much more.

Now, in the midst of the carnage of this ongoing pandemic, and the fear and uncertainty about the future it has brought, these companies clearly see their moment to sweep out all that democratic engagement. To have the same kind of power as their Chinese competitors, who have the luxury of functioning without being hampered by intrusions of either labour or civil rights.

Schoolchildren walking below surveillance cameras in Akto in China’s Xinjiang region.

Schoolchildren walking below surveillance cameras in Akto in China’s Xinjiang region. Photograph: Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images

All of this is moving very fast. The Australian government has contracted with Amazon to store the data for its controversial coronavirus tracking app. The Canadian government has contracted with Amazon to deliver medical equipment, raising questions about why it bypassed the public postal service. And in just a few short days in early May, Alphabet has spun up a new Sidewalk Labs initiative to remake urban infrastructure with $400m in seed capital. Josh Marcuse, the executive director of the Defense Innovation Board chaired by Schmidt, announced that he was leaving that job to work full-time at Google as head of strategy and innovation for global public sector, meaning that he will be helping Google to cash in on some of the many opportunities he and Schmidt have been busily creating with their lobbying.

To be clear, technology is most certainly a key part of how we must protect public health in the coming months and years. The question is: will that technology be subject to the disciplines of democracy and public oversight, or will it be rolled out in state-of-exception frenzy, without asking critical questions that will shape our lives for decades to come? Questions such as these, for instance: if we are indeed seeing how critical digital connectivity is in times of crisis, should these networks, and our data, really be in the hands of private players such as Google, Amazon and Apple? If public funds are paying for so much of it, should the public also own and control it? If the internet is essential for so much in our lives, as it clearly is, should it be treated as a nonprofit public utility?

And while there is no doubt that the ability to teleconference has been a lifeline in this period of lockdown, there are serious debates to be had about whether our more lasting protections are distinctly more human. Take education. Schmidt is right that overcrowded classrooms present a health risk, at least until we have a vaccine. So how about hiring double the number of teachers and cutting class size in half? How about making sure that every school has a nurse?

That would create much-needed jobs in a depression-level unemployment crisis, and give everyone in the learning environment more elbow room. If buildings are too crowded, how about dividing the day into shifts, and having more outdoor education, drawing on the plentiful research that shows that time in nature enhances children’s capacity to learn?

Introducing those kinds of changes would be hard, to be sure. But they are not nearly as risky as giving up on the tried-and-true technology of trained humans teaching younger humans face-to-face, in groups where they learn to socialise with one another to boot.

Upon learning of New York state’s new partnership with the Gates Foundation, Andy Pallotta, the president of the New York State United Teachers union, was quick to react: “If we want to reimagine education, let’s start with addressing the need for social workers, mental health counsellors, school nurses, enriching arts courses, advanced courses and smaller class sizes in school districts across the state,” he said. A coalition of parents’ groups also pointed out that if they had indeed been living an “experiment in remote learning” (as Schmidt put it), then the results were deeply worrying: “Since the schools were shut down in mid-March, our understanding of the profound deficiencies of screen-based instruction has only grown.”

In addition to the obvious class and race biases against children who lack internet access and home computers (problems that tech companies are eager to be paid to solve with massive tech buys), there are big questions about whether remote teaching can serve many kids with disabilities, as required by law. And there is no technological solution to the problem of learning in a home environment that is overcrowded and/or abusive.

The issue is not whether schools must change in the face of a highly contagious virus for which we have neither cure nor inoculation. Like every institution where humans gather in groups, they will change. The trouble, as always in these moments of collective shock, is the absence of public debate about what those changes should look like, and who they should benefit – private tech companies or students?

The same questions need to be asked about health. Avoiding doctor’s offices and hospitals during a pandemic makes good sense. But telehealth misses a huge amount. So we need to have an evidence-based debate about the pros and cons of spending scarce public resources on telehealth – rather than on more trained nurses, equipped with all the necessary protective equipment, who are able to make house calls to diagnose and treat patients in their homes. And, perhaps most urgently, we need to get the balance right between virus tracking apps, which, with the proper privacy protections, have a role to play, and the calls for a “community health corps” that would put millions of Americans to work, not only doing contact-tracing, but making sure that everyone has the material resources and support they need to quarantine safely.

A teacher in Maryland, US, handing out computers to students for remote learning.

A teacher in Maryland, US, handing out computers to students for remote learning. Photograph: Win McNamee/Getty Images

In each case, we face real and hard choices between investing in humans and investing in technology. Because the brutal truth is that, as it stands, we are very unlikely to do both. The refusal to transfer anything like the needed resources to states and cities in successive federal bailouts means that the coronavirus health crisis is now slamming headlong into a manufactured austerity crisis. Public schools, universities, hospitals and transit are facing existential questions about their futures. If tech companies win their ferocious lobbying campaign for remote learning, telehealth, 5G and driverless vehicles – their Screen New Deal – there simply won’t be any money left over for urgent public priorities, never mind the Green New Deal that our planet urgently needs. On the contrary: the price tag for all the shiny gadgets will be mass teacher layoffs and hospital closures.

Tech provides us with powerful tools, but not every solution is technological. And the trouble with outsourcing key decisions about how to “reimagine” our states and cities to men such as Bill Gates and Schmidt is that they have spent their lives demonstrating the belief that there is no problem that technology cannot fix.

For them, and many others in Silicon Valley, the pandemic is a golden opportunity to receive not just the gratitude, but the deference and power that they feel has been unjustly denied. And Andrew Cuomo, by putting the former Google chair in charge of the body that will shape the state’s reopening, appears to have just given him something close to free rein.

Republished with permission from The Intercept. Sign up for The Intercept’s Newsletter here.

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Tesla Autopilot ‘Distant Second’ Consumer Reports




More bad news for Tesla Autopilot system after Consumer Reports testing found it is ‘distant second’ to similar system from GM

American testing organisation Consumer Reports has delivered another knock for the Telsa Autopilot driver assistance system.

Consumer Reports evaluated 17 vehicles equipped with active driving assistance systems and it concluded that Tesla Autopilot (in a Tesla Model Y) finished “a distant second” to a Cadillac CT6 equipped with Super Cruise.

It comes after Tesla Autopilot was recently found to have been surpassed by rival driver systems from the likes of Mercedes, BMW, and Audi in research by European New Car Assessment Program (NCAP).

Distant second

“Even after two years, Cadillac’s Super Cruise remained our top-rated system because, when turned on, it uses direct driver monitoring to warn drivers that appear to have stopped paying attention to the road,” stated CR on Wednesday.

“General Motors told CR that Super Cruise will be on 22 GM vehicles by 2023,” it added. “Of the other systems we tested, we saw minor improvements in lane keeping performance for the Tesla and Volvo.”

“Systems that didn’t give clear warnings to the driver to pay attention, such as Volvo’s, or that failed to keep the vehicle within its lane, even on fairly straight roads, such as systems from Buick, Mazda, and Land Rover, didn’t fare well in our overall scoring,” CR stated.

“Even with new systems from many different automakers, Super Cruise still comes out on top due to the infrared camera ensuring the driver’s eyes are looking toward the roadway,” said Kelly Funkhouser, CR’s head of connected and automated vehicle testing.

The CR test found that the Cadillac scored 69 points out of a possible 100, while the Tesla scored 57.

The issue of driver assistance systems has been growing in importance after a number of fatal accidents in recent years.

Matters are also not helped with cases such as when a Canadian man in September was charged by Alberta police after he and his passenger slept in fully reclined seats (see above picture) whilst their Tesla drove along a highway in autonomous mode at speeds of more than 140kph (86mph).

Safety issues

It should be noted that Tesla’s Autopilot has also previously been criticised by the US National Transportation Safety Board for allowing drivers to turn their attention from the road.

American safety regulators have investigated 15 crashes since 2016 involving Tesla vehicles equipped with Autopilot.

In March last year, a US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report concluded that a fatal Tesla crash in March found that Autopilot was engaged for 10 seconds before the crash.

The roof of the Tesla Model X was sheared off and its 50-year-old driver was killed when the vehicle drove under the trailer of a semi truck that was crossing its path in March 2019.

Are we ready for ready for driverless transport?

That March incident had similarities to a May 2016 crash in which a Model S also drove under the trailer of a semi truck crossing its path. That crash found that autopilot had failed to detect the white trailer against a bright sky.

Autonomous driving

Yet despite these concerns, the battle over driver assistance systems and autonomous driving is heating up.

In July this year, Elon Musk said that Tesla is “very close” to achieving level 5 autonomous driving technology.

For those that don’t know, level 5 is the holy grail of autonomous driving technology, as level 5 vehicles will not require human intervention, and need for a human drivers is eliminated.

Indeed, it is said that level 5 cars won’t even have steering wheels or acceleration/braking pedals.

These cars will be free from geofencing, and will be able to drive anywhere, and do anything that normal car with a human driver can do.

Tesla cars currently operate at a level-two Autopilot, which requires the driver to remain alert and ready to act, with hands on the wheel.

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How Voice Control is Coming to Your Enterprise




According to research from, over 20% of UK households now have a smart speaker. Germany has 11% smart speaker penetration. Households in Ireland are nearing 10% while France trails at 7.4%. These figures contrast with Loup Ventures’ estimate that between 28% – 33% of US households have a device today. Voice control at work also looks set to massively expand over the next few years.

In Western Europe for IDC, Antonio Arantes, a senior research analyst for Smart Home devices, said last year: “Google had a stellar quarter and was the clear winner in the first quarter, reaching an important milestone in Europe. Google continues to expand to new countries and support new native languages at a faster pace than Amazon.

“This is also contributing to strengthening its position in voice assistant platforms. Google Assistant was present in 49.2% of all smart speakers sold in Europe in the first quarter of 2019. Meanwhile, Amazon faced supply issues, with the Amazon Echo Dot being out of stock in some countries for several weeks, leaving space for Google Home products to grow.”

Smart speaker household penetration by EU country.
Smart speaker household penetration by EU country. [Source:]

The familiarity that the general public now has with voice assistants in their homes – and more importantly – on their smartphones, is a solid foundation onto which voice can enter the workplace.

Businesses are also increasing understanding of how conversational interfaces can deliver a new communications channel to their customers. Research from Capgemini concluded: “Our research found that over three-quarters of organizations (76%) have realized measurable benefits from voice and chat assistants. In addition, on average, 58% said that benefits met or exceeded expectations.”

“Conversational interfaces have helped organizations make more efficient use of human team members and generate efficiencies. ‘The time to resolve a query or give a response back has reduced drastically because it is automated at first level,’ says a senior executive from one of India’s large private sector banks. “And, with the increase in our customer base, there is obviously an increase in the number of queries we receive. However, we didn’t have to scale up our teams.’”

There is little doubt the use of voice assistants will grow exponentially over the next few years. Interestingly, whether voice will also become an essential business communications services that can enhance team collaboration and literally bring a new voice to how companies approach their communications tools on-site and, of course, for their remote teams.

James Poulter, CEO and Co-Founder of Vixen Labs.
James Poulter, CEO and Co-Founder of Vixen Labs.

Speaking to Silicon UK, James Poulter, CEO and Co-Founder of Vixen Labs – a leading strategy consultancy and app development studio for voice assistants and conversational AI, said: “We are seeing an increasing interest in deploying voice assistants and voice control into offices and workspaces in response to COVID-19. In particular, in clinical settings where the likes of apps like UMA is being used to detect occupancy of rooms and spaces and using voice and chatbots to book meeting rooms and desks.”

Voice control in the office

Voice assistants are just one manifestation of the revolution taking place in the office. Gartner predicts that, by 2023, 25% of employee interactions with applications will be via voice, up from under 3 percent in 2019. Although most chatbots and VAs are still text-based, AI-enabled speech-to-text and text-to-speech hosted services are improving rapidly. As a result, the deployment of voice-based solutions will grow. The interface to interact with their assistant is likely to be voice. Already SAP’s CoPilot allows voice interactions within their applications.

“We believe that the popularity of connected speakers in the home, such as the Amazon Echo, Apple HomePod, and Google Home, will increase pressure on businesses to enable similar devices in the workplace,” said Van Baker, vice president at Gartner. “While there are limitations on the actions that VPAs can perform, employees will readily expand the actions allowed as capabilities improve.”

Two years ago, Apple began working with Salesforce to integrate Siri into their services. “If you look at enterprise in general, voice has not been used as much as in consumer,” Apple CEO Tim Cook told Reuters in an interview. “We’re going to be able to provide the sales rep instant access to things using your voice instead of clicks and going through different apps. We’re changing the way people work, and that’s always been at the heart of what Apple is about – changing things for the better.” We have yet to see any announcement, but the tools are available with the SiriKit SDKs available today.

In the Microsoft camp, the company continues to expand the capabilities of Office 365. The Seattle giant, of course, does not have smart speaker hardware of its own. The Cortana skills kit for enterprise [] has been available since last year, but we await any dedicated applications businesses can buy off-the-shelf.

A spokesperson from Aculab commented: “Convincing the business’s customers that the system will work for them and is managed in an ethical manner. Here “ethical” means not just keeping voice recordings private, but also not exploiting knowledge gained from them. Customers need to be assured that information given to a business that uses Google Duplex (for example) will not be logged by Google or used to influence options they are presented with for future purchases through Google Shopping. Even if stored data is anonymized, it can still be used for profiling and other purposes that may be deemed unethical by society at large. Even worse, given sufficient contextual information, it is possible to de-anonymize most such data.”

Give your business a voice

Businesses are already exploring how advanced AI, coupled with voice assistants on mobile devices, could be used in an office environment. The commercial real estate business JLL has created JiLL. Users can use voice or text to converse with the app and simplify time-consuming daily tasks such as setting up meetings, locating colleagues, looking up lunch menus or shuttle schedules, filing service requests, or finding a desk or conference room.

Built on Google Cloud, JiLL is the first product launched by JLL Labs, JLL’s in-house, a global network of software engineers and product experts developing innovative and commercially strategic proptech products.

“Consumers feel empowered in centrally managing their digital experiences at home and on the go. However, at work, simple tasks are siloed and can be frustrating,” said Vinay Goel, Chief Digital Product Officer, JLL. “JILL leverages JLL’s vast datasets about buildings, user interactions and transactions with physical spaces to provide a personalized and intelligent conversational interface that matches employees’ consumer experiences. Over time, we expect JILL to become an essential platform for hundreds of skills that help employees improve their daily productivity.”

At the end of last year, Google also announced their partnership with Suki, an AI-powered, voice-enabled digital assistant that lifts the administrative burden from doctors. Suki provides assistive, invisible support, and gets smarter with use, learning the doctor’s preferences to quickly and accurately complete administrative tasks, from clinical notes to retrieving patient lab results.

“Google’s AI and cloud offerings are already advancing innovative, new clinical solutions across the health care system,” said Punit Soni, founder, and CEO of Suki. “As a partner of Google Cloud, we hope to provide even greater value to enterprise health systems by improving clinical workflows, relieving physician burnout, and, most importantly, help more doctors in more specialties remain focused on delivering high-quality car.”

One of the most powerful aspects of voice communications is its ability to personalize these conversations. Businesses understand that personalizing how their customers interact with their website delivers a commercial advantage. Today, using audio can make even close connections with consumers, as they are already showing they value the audio channels businesses are developing.

Capgemini also commented in their report: “Consumers are becoming increasingly comfortable engaging with conversational assistants. Simultaneously, they are also developing clear expectations on where they want the bot to come in when they want the human to come in, and for what sort of queries. When they are used in the appropriate situation, voice and chat assistants have significant potential to transform the customer experience landscape.

“However, our research shows that many organizations do not have a mature approach to these technologies, lacking both customer centricity and organizational capabilities when it comes to deployment. As a result, they are missing the opportunity to build deeper, more valuable relationships with customers.”

More than half of global consumers say yes to personalization.
More than half of global consumers say yes to personalization. [Source: Capgemini]

Vixen Labs’ James Poulter explained: “The key to getting voice into your business strategy is to see it as an eco-system. While many of us are using our smart speakers more than ever, we use our voices on our mobile phones, in our cars, and on our headphones to get things done. We see voice as being a complement to existing digital channels, rather than trying to replace it. There are many small tasks, routines, and habits we can help our customers using their voice that they wouldn’t download an app or visit a website for. As more of us are searching for information with our voices, we need to make sure our businesses have optimized content to be the right answers for our customer’s needs.”

Voice control will become increasingly commonplace as businesses embrace how digital assistants can improve their workforces’ efficiency. The issue of noise in an office environment will need to be resolved. However, all enterprises now use a voice component to expand the collaboration tools, which should be part of how companies construct their new support mechanism as they navigate the post-COVID-19 business landscape.

Silicon in Focus

Cathal McGloin, CEO of conversational AI platform company, ServisBOT.

Cathal McGloin, CEO of conversational AI platform company, ServisBOT.
Cathal McGloin, CEO of conversational AI platform company, ServisBOT.

What is the current state of voice control/assistants in business settings?

“Spiceworks surveyed 500 North American businesses that use voice control and found that 46% use voice to text dictation, 24% use voice to manage calendars, 26% use voice controls within team collaboration, 14% use voice controls within customer service, and 13% use voice control for IT helpdesk tasks.

“In healthcare settings, voice-activated bots such as Aiva and are being used by clinical staff to manage appointments and reminders for outpatients. There are also some interesting uses of voice assistants within HR, including handling holiday requests, ordering office inventory, or scheduling conference rooms.

“As businesses add conversational capabilities to their mobile apps, via both voice and messaging, they can engage with customers using a digital assistant in a more convenient channel than traditional phone, email or live chat channels. Banking customers can already use voice biometrics to be authenticated to request the status of their account within their mobile banking app and use digital assistants to access their customer details. Bank of America is using Erica within its mobile app, for example.”

What are the key challenges when implementing voice control/assistants at work?

“Typically, office spaces are busy and noisy, making it difficult for a voice-activated device to differentiate the user’s voice from background noise so that they can understand requests. Spiceworks found that 23% of businesses found that voice assistants could not distinguish the user’s voice. As a result, voice control tends to be confined to quieter areas such as meeting rooms, the helpdesk, or delivery vans.

“Other use cases include inventory management in the supply room, such as asking a digital assistant to re-order printer paper. Unless the AI has been trained using highly diverse data samples, voice assistants will struggle to understand regional accents, leading to potential frustration for some users.”

How has COVID-19 impacted the use of voice control systems for businesses?

“In March, China Daily reported that a voice-controlled elevator system had been installed in Haidian hospital in Beijing so that employees and visitors can control the lift without touching any buttons. The system recognizes Mandarin and eight local dialects.

“Amazon’s Alexa for Business enables voice-activated control of AV conferencing systems and services, which offers hygiene benefits in the post-COVID-19 workplace by reducing the need for devices to be touched by multiple employees. Voice control offers obvious benefits as a contactless interface that helps reduce cross-contamination in communal areas and can play an important role in allaying employees’ fears about contracting Coronavirus as they return to their workplaces.”

Are voice assistants meeting the security and privacy concerns businesses will have to contend with to make widespread use of this technology?

“The best use cases for voice interfaces are those that do not risk capturing sensitive company data. Whatever the application of voice technology, security and privacy will be the IT department’s top concerns.

“Some applications have already been implemented by businesses, such as using voice to search for specific information in a report or file. When blended with biometrics, this offers interesting access control benefits and could also be used to support more diversity in the workplace, with information being filtered based on user permissions and presented in a format that is most appropriate to that employee’s needs.”

What does the future of voice in business look like?

“We see the future being a blend of the voice and text channels. Rather than looking at voice-only use cases for a business, there are broader opportunities to take a voice interaction and shift it to a messaging or text channel where appropriate. This blended approach helps overcome some of the barriers that businesses have around privacy and expand how technology can effectively engage with employees and customers.

“With continuing advancements in speech recognition, authentication, and AI, the technology will become better and more suitable to a broader range and more complex use cases. There is still plenty of room for improvement in this area.

“Voice control is set to expand in terms of the number of languages that can be handled. This will allow global brands to communicate with international employees and customers in a consistent and efficient manner. Verbal communication has many nuances and can be highly complex. Advances in machine learning will continue to improve how devices can understand, not just words, but also the emotions that are expressed, which could lead to innovative use cases in HR, healthcare and marketing.”

Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko from Pexels.

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Tech chief executives to defend key law in front of US Senate panel – Latest News




The chief executives of Twitter Inc , Facebook and Alphabet Inc will tell U.S. lawmakers at a hearing that a federal law protecting internet companies is crucial to free expression on the internet, according to written testimonies from the companies seen by Reuters.

Section 230, a provision of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, shields technology companies from liability for user-generated content and allows them to remove lawful but objectionable posts. It has come under heavy criticism from Republican President Donald Trump and both Democratic and Republican lawmakers who have been concerned about Big Tech‘s content-moderation decisions.

Twitter Chief Executive Jack Dorsey will tell the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday that eroding the foundation of Section 230 “could collapse how we communicate on the Internet, leaving only a small number of giant and well-funded technology companies.”

Dorsey urged “thoughtfulness and restraint when it comes to broad regulatory solutions to address content moderation issues and warned that “sweeping regulations can further entrench companies that have large market shares.”

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg said, “Section 230 made it possible for every major internet service to be built” but added he believes “Congress should update the law to make sure it’s working as intended. We support the ideas around transparency and industry collaboration that are being discussed in some of the current bipartisan proposals.”

Zuckerberg also said without the law, tech companies could face liability for doing even basic moderation, such as removing hate speech and harassment.

Alphabet-owned Google‘s Sundar Pichai said the company approached its work without political bias and was able to offer the information it does because of existing legal frameworks such as Section 230.

“I would urge the committee to be very thoughtful about any changes to Section 230 and to be very aware of the consequences those changes might have on businesses and consumers,” Pichai’s written testimony says.

In addition to discussions on reforming the law, the hearing will bring up issues about consumer privacy and media consolidation.

Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai, who said this month he would pursue a rulemaking to clarify the meaning of Section 230, declined to say Tuesday when he might proceed.

“We are not talking about imposing regulations on social media companies,” Pai said. “We are talking about interpreting an immunity provision.”

Pai also said he did not feel pressure from the White House to act.

On Tuesday, Senator Maria Cantwell, the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce panel, released a report on how big tech platforms have decimated the local news industry, including newspapers and broadcasters.

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