The DJI Spark is fun, but not the mainstream drone we were promised

Our Spark is returning to DJI a bit worse for wear. As a rule, we try to send products back to companies in the same state they arrived, but that’s a hazard of real-world testing a product with four spinning blades: sometimes things end up covered in dirt and grass and the sacrificial blood of one poor TC staff member.

The Spark is, at once, an impressive feat of engineering and a reminder that drones are a ways from being true mainstream devices. It’s DJI’s smallest and cheapest drone by far, and the company also has tossed in some neat gesture control tricks that make you feel like Luke Skywalker for the 16 minutes it’s in the air. But there are still a lot of kinks to work out.

The gesture control is tough to learn, for one thing. And drones in general have a fair bit of regulation to contend with. Also, even with safety controls in place, some blood may still be shed, as our video producer Veanne learned when she sacrificed her Memorial Day weekend and a small bit of her middle finger to take the Spark for a spin.

That came from a mishap attempting to grab the drone after a flight. There was also a Charlie Brown-style incident that ended with the Spark caught in a tree (though, to our credit, we managed to avoid birdhouses altogether this time out). All of that despite the fact that Veanne is a seasoned videographer with some drone-flying experience.

Even so, the Spark is a good candidate for those who have been eyeing a drone, but don’t have the funds or technical skill to pilot a high-end rig. DJI knows how to build a solid quadcopter, and the Spark mostly fits that bill. But any suggestion that we’re getting to a point where drones are as easy to operate as, say, an iPhone is woefully overstated.

Courting Spark

It’s pretty safe to say we were in awe when the Spark debuted recently. It had been about half a year since the Mavic Pro first started shipping, and here was DJI introducing something even smaller. The demo went off without a hitch and people started tossing around terms like “game changer” to describe the new product.

And it really is an impressive little device. The Spark weighs a full pound less than the Mavic and is roughly half its size. You really can hold it in the palm of your hand.Though unlike the earlier model, the new drone has fixed arms, so it’s roughly the same size as the Mavic is when its arms are folded into its body.

The smaller size comes with some compromises, however. The camera and the gimbal have been downgraded. Among other things, you can’t shoot 4K video with the drone. Though, given the consumer audience the company is targeting, that’s probably not that big of a loss for most.

Battery life is really the biggest downside on that front. The company rates it at 16 minutes. That’s a bit more than half what the Mavic can do on a charge. The batteries are, thankfully, swappable, and a USB port on the Spark lets you charge the battery by plugging a cable directly into the drone. Though, as we learned the hard way: If you do end up buying the Spark, definitely add a second battery ($49) to your shopping cart — you’re going to need it.

Gonna fly now

Here’s our intrepid producer, Veanne: “Sixteen minutes of flight time seems like ample time to fly the drone, but not so much when you’re still trying to figure it out.” I think “ample” may be a strong word here, depending on what you plan to do with the drone — and that estimate is toward the higher end of what you’ll get in real-world usage — but you get the point. There’s a learning curve that takes more than 16 minutes to get a handle on.

There’s a lot happening under the hood, and the fact that DJI was able to build a device that can move based on arm swings and take pictures when a user makes a frame with their fingers is impressive. That the company packed those features into a $499 drone makes it even more so. But like our birdhouse run-in with the Mavic last year, we ran into some issues keeping the drone out of trouble.

There’s a noticeable delay between making a palm gesture and the corresponding drone movement. And in a few cases, the Spark seemed to behave erratically based on a simple gesture. In one instance, the drone’s camera seemed to lose track of the pilot and could only be righted by taking control with the app.

For the most part, the drone’s obstacle avoidance works as advertised, with the drone stopping and hovering in place before colliding with an object. For the most part.

“On the second day of testing in the park, Spark was halfway flying backwards in Quickshot mode when it encountered some trees,” says Veanne. “The logical thing to do, at least I thought at the time, was to press the ‘Return to Home’ button. Problem was, Spark will ascend before it descends. In this case, it ascended right into the trees and then crashed into the ground, now missing a propeller guard.”

So, that’s how we lost a propeller guard and gained an extra coat of dirt. As for the blood, that part came thanks to a botched landing.

A Spark in the hand

The coolest thing about the Spark being palm-sized is that you can use said palms as launch and landing pads. Neat, right?

There are, naturally, some safety features on board. DJI lists a dozen in all, designed to help users avoid the spinning blades of doom, including one that shuts the propellers off when it detects that an object is getting too close. But poor Veanne still managed to get caught in the crossfire when attempting to pull off one of the built-in features.

Veanne again: “I was told that if you grab Spark by the bottom and flip it 90 degrees [during DJI’s demo], its propellers would stop spinning. Just as I reached up to grab the drone, it spun out of control and my fingers got caught in the propellers.”

Ouch.

Red tape

Some other takeaways from a few days’ worth of testing in New York City:

  • Flying is hard in the big city, for myriad reasons. And it seems to be something of a legal gray era. Or, rather, it’s a bit of a mixed bag as to whether authorities will hassle you for doing so. Either way, it’s best to avoid crowds at all costs.
  • The app has a built-in warning feature that lets you know when you’re in a no-fly zone. And from the looks of things, that applies to basically all of Brooklyn.
  • The drone needs a lot of space, particularly for modes like Quickshot, which creates a 10-second video designed for sharing on social.
  • It’s small, but it’s loud. It’s got that lawnmower-style buzz that Veanne helpfully compares to “killer bees.” If you’re flying it around people trying to enjoy a quiet picnic in the park, prepare to be that asshole.

A gateway drone

Truly mastering the drone takes more than a couple of days of testing, of course. But that brings into sharp relief the fact that the Spark isn’t really the beginner’s product it might have seemed at first. The simple fact of the matter, though, is that such a device doesn’t really exist yet. The promise of pulling out a drone for a quick selfie is still years out.

The Spark does feel like a step closer, however — $499 is an easier pill to swallow for those who have been eyeing drone ownership for a while. And the device’s slew of different tricks will keep owners entertained once they’ve got a handle on the control system. Thankfully, there’s a pretty robust warranty system in place, as you work through the process.

And, of course, be careful where you grab. On that note, a parting message from Veanne, “Dear DJI, I will be returning the Spark covered in dirt and grass and minus a propeller guard. I apologize, but we did wipe off the blood beforehand.”

Andy Rubin’s Essential is looking into smart glasses with built-in camera

Essential, the new hardware outfit from Android co-founder Andy Rubin, may branch out from phones and smart home accessories into Google Glass-like smart frames. An old patent filing, dug up by the folks at Patently Apple and granted prior to its big phone reveal this week, show a concept device shaped like a standard pair of eyeglasses, but with camera and display hardware built in.

Much like Snapchat’s Spectacles, this theoretical Essential device would be used to capture eye-level photo and video with a built-in camera. However it would go further, more in the vein of Google’s ill-fated Glass headset, by adding digital information and images to real life scenes with some type of augmented reality tech. The filing describes the device working with prescription lenses, photo sensitive lenses, and standard sunglass lenses. There is also talk of a “dual-mode display,” which would present visual overlays and use an inward facing camera to perform eye tracking.

Photo: Patently Apple

The patent also describes AR use cases like real-time price matching of products in a store. “Based on the environment that the user sees, and based on the direction of the user’s gaze, the processor can display an image to augment the environment around the user,” the filing reads. “For example, if the user is looking at a barcode of an item, the processor can display cheaper purchasing options of the same item.”

This is of course not a real product, at least not yet. Though from what we’ve seen from Essential, which starts shipping its new Essential Phone later this month or early July, it’s clear the company has serious hardware ambitions to take on the biggest players in the tech industry. We don’t know quite yet whether the Essential Phone can keep pace with the iPhone or its fellow top-tier Android competitors, nor do we know if the company’s Essential Home will be a viable smart speaker compared with offerings from Google and Amazon. But if Essential can arrive early to the smart glasses market, it could just gain an early edge in a sector not yet dominated by a big Silicon Valley player.

Salesforce Offers Alternative to Old-School Partner Portals

Salesforce on Wednesday announced the Sales Cloud Lightning Partner Relationship Management app as a replacement for partner portals and electronic data interchanges that lack modern features such as built-in mobile, social analytics and AI capabilities.

The PRM app has an interactive Guided Setup Wizard that lets channel managers configure, customize and deploy the app in days. It manages lead distribution, deal registration and marketing development funds, and it automatically assigns partners into meaningful tiers for targeted promotions and customized content. It also has AppExchange Components such as Xactly and NetExam.

Among Sales Cloud Lightning PRM’s Features:

  • Lightning CMS Connect, which lets channel managers drag and drop existing website content, graphics and videos to keep branded partner experiences up to date;
  • Einstein Content Recommendations, which use machine learning to recommend files such as logo graphics, product placement instructions, and pricing documentation for a new product; and
  • Channel Marketing Automation, which lets companies build, track and analyze email campaigns using the Salesforce Marketing Cloud, to deliver 1:1 customer journeys on any device.

“Sales Cloud PRM is all about making your partners an extended part of your sales team and giving them the tools and information needed to accelerate deals,” said Greg Gsell, senior director of Salesforce sales cloud product marketing.

It’s “a turnkey app … built entirely on the Salesforce Intelligent Customer Success Platform, which includes Service Cloud,” he told CRM Buyer. Service Cloud “helps companies globally … deliver intelligent, conversational customer service.”

Partners account for one third of the average company’s revenue, and more than two-thirds of revenues for companies in high-tech, manufacturing and telecom, Salesforce has found.

Salesforce’s Rationale

“PRM is not new,” noted Rebecca Wettemann, VP of Nucleus Research.

“What’s new is Salesforce’s approach, which brings a modern UI and AI capabilities to PRM,” she told CRM Buyer.

The app “gives customers the advantages of Salesforce’s workflow automation and other tools for partner management, not just community collaboration,” Wettemann said.

It will improve partner stickiness for users, because “in a cloud world, partners can switch alliances more easily and quickly,” she pointed out. “Providing them with modern tools and more ready access to support will make switching less attractive.”

Partner relationship management “used to just be lead distribution, but now companies must deeply engage with partners to drive channel success,” noted Gsell. “You need PRM blended with CRM to deliver a great experience.”

Manufacturing companies are placing increasing emphasis on customer relationships, customer service, and new technologies such as AI, because technology makes it easier for customers to switch, said Salesforce.

Einstein “can help partners with content recommendations, and I can see it progressing to suggest optimum product and solution bundles,” observed Cindy Zhou, principal analyst at Constellation Research.

Target Market

The PRM app “is for any company or industry … looking to increase partner engagement and deal velocity within their channel sales organizations,” Gsell said.

Manufacturing, high-tech and telecoms “have the highest amount of revenue coming from indirect channels such as resellers, distributors and partners,” Constellation’s Zhou told CRM Buyer.

The PRM app “simplifies the setup process and minimizes the need for IT support for companies to help their partners get up and running fast,” she said.

Accessing the latest information on products or solutions, marketing materials and sales team training via mobile devices is becoming increasingly critical, Zhou noted, and the PRM app’s one-stop-shop solution “can lead to increased sales and faster deal cycles.”

The app’s strengths are mobile engagement for partners, a clean UI, and integration with CMS, learning management systems and compensation, Zhou said.

However, at US$25 per member per month, “it could be challenging for companies with broad networks of partners, resellers, distributors and dealers to enable,” she cautioned.

Other companies, such as Microsoft Dynamics, SugarCRM and Zoho, have partner enablement portals that “are due for a refresh,” Zhou pointed out. “There will be more announcements to come.”


Richard Adhikari has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2008. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, mobile technologies, CRM, databases, software development, mainframe and mid-range computing, and application development. He has written and edited for numerous publications, including Information Week and Computerworld. He is the author of two books on client/server technology.
Email Richard.

Mark Zuckerberg says Trump’s climate move ‘puts our children’s future at risk’

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg joined the chorus of tech leaders who have denounced Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement on climate change. 

“Withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement is bad for the environment, bad for the economy, and it puts our children’s future at risk,” Zuckerberg said on Facebook Thursday. 

Tesla founder Elon Musk and Google CEO Sundar Pichai also criticized Trump for exiting the agreement, a non-binding accord that only two countries have not joined: Syria and Nicaragua, the latter because it didn’t go far enough in battling climate change. 

“Stopping climate change is something we can only do as a global community, and we have to act together before it’s too late,” Zuckerberg said, after claiming that every new data center Facebook will build will be powered by 100-percent renewable energy. 

While Zuckerberg certainly has the power to take on Trump over climate change as a CEO, he could do more as president. Zuck 2020? He certainly has his supporters

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BitKey Unlocks Mysteries of the Bitcoin Universe

BitKey Unlocks Mysteries of the Bitcoin Universe

BitKey is a Debian-based live distribution with specialist utilities for performing highly secure air-gapped bitcoin transactions.

This specialty distro is not for everyday computing needs, but if you are obsessed with the use of bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies, this distro might be just what you need.

I am a high-tech sort of guy with a keen interest in diving through Linux distros both simple and complex. I’m on the lookout for new twists to old desktop environments and unique use case distros. Technologies and software solutions that make my computing life more secure and more functional are always the anticipated outcome.

However, cryptocurrencies clearly are my match. I have no interest nor need to delve into the shady world of bitcoins and other cryptocurrencies, but I am also a pragmatist. I fully recognize that ransomeware and other needs for private communications might be lurking just around the corner.

So, when I stumbled on BitKey, my interest was piqued. As I checked into the process of acquiring cryptocurrencies, I quickly discovered that learning how to use bitcoins and such would require a deeper dive than I cared to make.


BitKey desktop

The BitKey desktop looks much
like any number of lightweight Linux offerings — but BitKey is not a
typical Linux distro.


That is when I discovered BitKey 14.2.0, released last month by U.S. software developers Liraz Siri and Alon Swartz at TurnKey Linux.

Key to Bitcoin Banking

The BitKey distro is almost an anomaly in the world of Linux distros. The developers aptly describe it as “a Swiss-army knife” for bitcoin users and fans.

BitKey has tools to ease the worries of the truly paranoid among bitcoin users. Its chief attribute is providing you with a range of useful utilities to perform highly secure air-gapped Bitcoin transactions.


BitKey specialist
utilities

BitKey has preinstalled
specialist utilities to perform highly secure air-gapped bitcoin
transactions.


The air gap concept is essential to safe transactions involving cryptocurrencies. The goal is to have an impenetrable wall and undiscoverable transaction trail.

Air-gapping is a network security tactic that uses multiple computers to create a secure computer network that is physically isolated from unsecured networks. BitKey makes it easy to safely store your bitcoin wallet’s private keys live on an air-gapped location. The “key” is to maintain no physical connection to the Internet.

Path to BitKey

TurnKey Linux is a Debian-based virtual appliance library. It integrates some of the best open source software into ready-to-use solutions.

These virtual appliances are optimized for easy use. They deploy quickly on bare metal, virtual machines, and in the cloud. Each is available as a CD image or virtual machine image.

BitKey became a side project using TurnKey’s open source build infrastructure.

That is the family background to the birth of the first BitKey distro version. It resulted from the developer’s efforts to use the TurnKey development tools to create a self-contained read-only CD/USB stick that contained everything to perform highly secure air-gapped bitcoin transactions.

You’ll find a complete explanation of the theory and practice behind using BitKey on the TurnKey website.

Getting Started

First, you must extract the ISO file from a tarball envelope. Then burn the ISO image to a CD.

That creates a standard live CD image to run the BitKey distro. To get the most functionality, add a USB drive when loading from the CD to create persistent memory for your access to several of the tools in BitKey.

A better option is to install the ISO image to a USB drive. See the website for full details.

BitKey in Action

The BitKey desktop looks much like any number of lightweight Linux offerings. It’s almost a minimalist view. The background image is a black and gray textured slate with shades of blue and white swirls.

The bottom of the screen displays a dock bar that contains the specialized cryptocurrency tools and exit icon.


BitKey system
tools dock bar

BitKey has the bare bones
minimum of system tools, which launch from the dock bar.


BitKey is not a typical Linux distro. It has no menu button and no system settings. There is no repository or package management application, because you can not add or remove programs.

Other than the specialized tools, this distro has the bare bones minimum system tools that launch from the dock bar. These are a terminal, a file manager, a GVIM text editor and a Chromium browser that is locked in Incognito mode.

Using BitKey

The startup screen gives you a choice of booting into one of the three available modes. Cold-offline is for creating a wallet and signing transactions. Cold-online is for watching the wallet and preparing transactions. The third choice is Hot-online.

Hot-online is for standard use. It is limited to browsing, but it is less secure because the private keys are known to the computer that is connected to the Internet.

Once you select the boot mode, the desktop loads with a pop-up window giving you three steps to get started. First, remove the BitKey boot device. Two, insert your USB drive for data storage. Three, click the Electrum icon to create or build your cold-online wallet.

From there, you launch the desired specialty tools for your intended cryptocurrency engagements. One highly special tool generates “brainwallets” for the most paranoid of bitcoin users.

BitKey uses the Metacity desktop. Metacity was the default window manager in the GNOME 2 desktop environment, but GNOME 3 replaced it with the Mutter window manager.

Bottom Line

BitKey as a Linux distro is very simple and straightforward to use. The difficulty rests in being unfamiliar with the cryptocurrency universe. The procedures for each of the specialty applications might well be uncharted areas if you hare not already well-schooled about bitcoin mania.

If that is your situation, BitKey and the supporting documentation the developers provide could be a handy way to introduce yourself to this strange and confusing world.

This updated build ads a new paper wallet generator as well as printer and scanner support (via CUPS and SANE). The included Chromium browser also has been updated.

Want to Suggest a Review?

Is there a Linux software application or distro you’d like to suggest for review? Something you love or would like to get to know?

Please email your ideas to me, and I’ll consider them for a future Linux Picks and Pans column.

And use the Reader Comments feature below to provide your input!


Jack M. Germain has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2003. His main areas of focus are enterprise IT, Linux and open source technologies. He has written numerous reviews of Linux distros and other open source software.
Email Jack.

Nuance’s Nina assistant asks a human for help when it can’t answer a question

Why it matters to you

The next time you dial customer support, you might get Nuance’s Nina assistant — and that is a good thing.

You might know Nuance, the natural voice and AI lab headquartered on the outskirts of Boston, from its popular Dragon NautrallySpeaking transcription software for PC. But what you might not know is that the firm’s conversational AI, which powers the customer service platforms of 6,500 companies around the globe, handles billions of transactions every year. And it is now capable of more.

On Thursday, Nuance launched a new version of Nina, its AI-powered, cross-platform assistant melding of machine smarts and human intelligence. From a customer perspective, it is just like any other AI-powered voice assistant — Nina can respond to questions (think the status of a pizza order, for example) and walk you through a conscripted list of choices. But unlike Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, and Microsoft’s Cortana, Nina is sharp enough to know when it can’t answer a question — and to throw it to a human specialist who can.

“The advantage of AI is, they’re always available,” Robert Weiderman, Nuance’s executive vice president and general manager, told Digital Trends. “Unlike a human, they never have a bad night — you can self-service 24/7.”

Amazon Echo deal

Here’s how it works: Nuance’s data engineers use Nina Coach, an automated learning tool, to train it on a business’ ins and outs. Once it has gotten a handle on the basics, it goes to work, fielding between 80 to 90 percent of customer calls, SMS messages, and texts from chat platforms like Facebook Messenger.

“General-purpose assistants like Alexa and Siri know a little about a lot,” Weiderman said. “Nina can go deep.”

When Nina is unsure about a question, it will consult help — human help. In those rare cases, Nuance’s AI tries to match customers to reps with relevant expertise. Then, it provides those reps with a transcript and history of the conversation, and a list of likely answers in order of confidence. The call center staffer’s choice is recorded, analyzed, and folded back into what Weiderman calls the “semantic brain” — Nina’s collective intelligence.

“It’s just like people,” Weiderman said. “Kids learn to have conversations, go to high school and college, get a doctorate, and become an expert in something. Nina’s the same way — it has a learning loop will eventually create 100 percent confident answers.”

Weiderman sees it as a way to free up hands in customer support centers, and to help businesses prioritize the most important — and difficult — requests without impacting other customers’ experience. With Nuance’s infrastructure up and running, call center agents can service three to six customers at a time, Weiderman said.

“You can turn on support for messaging, but you can’t control the volume that’s going to come at you,” he said. “The days when company’s could control how consumers spoke with them is going away. First the web came along, and you could call or go to the website. And now there’s chat apps like Facebook Messenger, Line, and Kik, and Internet of Things devices like Amazon’s Echo.”

“Nina’s able to support a growing number of channels, including voice, mobile and Internet of Things devices like Alexa,” he said.

Human-augmented intelligence is just the tip of Nina’s iceberg. Nuance also announced asynchronous messaging, which lets customers start a conversation with a business’s assistant on one platform and pick it up later, on another. You can text a credit card company about an erroneous charge via Facebook Messenger, for example, and get status updates via SMS every hour until the problem is resolved.

Nina’s also gaining the ability to transition customers to digital channels. If you call a company’s support center and Nuance’s automated system can’t find the answer to your question, you’ll get two options: Wait for a human agent, or continue the conversation on a digital channel like Facebook Messenger.

“We don’t expect text message conversations to be instantaneous,” Weiderman said. “And when you’re dealing with something like an insurance claim, it can take days of back and forth to get the paperwork in order.”

Nuance rolled out the new Nina features to ICBC Bank, one of the largest in China, in 2012. More than a billion users interact with its support via messaging app WeChat, Weiderman said, accounting for 85 percent of all customer service requests.

“We’re adding cognitive, data-driven machine learning to our products,” Weiderman said. “We’re the only vendor combining the tooling, intelligence, and analytics of natural language processing and cognitive technologies […] to deliver automated and assisted solutions targeted to enterprise needs.

Google plans to clean up the web with Chrome ad blocker next year

Google will introduce an ad blocker to Chrome early next year and is telling publishers to get ready.

The warning is meant to let websites assess their ads and strip any particularly disruptive ones from their pages. That’s because Chrome’s ad blocker won’t block all ads from the web. Instead, it’ll only block ads on pages that are determined to have too many annoying or intrusive advertisements, like videos that autoplay with sound or interstitials that take up the entire screen.

Sridhar Ramaswamy, the executive in charge of Google’s ads, writes in a blog post that even ads “owned or served by Google” will be blocked on pages that don’t meet Chrome’s guidelines.

Instead of an ad “blocker,” Google is referring to the feature as an ad “filter,” according to The Wall Street Journal, since it will still allow ads to be displayed on pages that meet the right requirements. The blocker will work on both desktop and mobile.

Google is providing a tool that publishers can run to find out if their sites’ ads are in violation and will be blocked in Chrome. Unacceptable ads are being determined by a group called the Coalition for Better Ads, which includes Google, Facebook, News Corp, and The Washington Post as members.

Google shows publishers which of their ads are considered disruptive.
Image: Google

The feature is certain to be controversial. On one hand, there are huge benefits for both consumers and publishers. But on the other, it gives Google immense power over what the web looks like, partly in the name of protecting its own revenue.

First, the benefits: bad ads slow down the web, make the web hard and annoying to browse, and have ultimately driven consumers to install ad blockers that remove all advertisements no matter what. A world where that continues and most users block all ads looks almost apocalyptic for publishers, since nearly all of your favorite websites rely on ads to stay afloat. (The Verge, as you have likely noticed, included.)

By implementing a limited blocking tool, Google can limit the spread of wholesale ad blocking, which ultimately benefits everyone. Users get a better web experience. And publishers get to continue using the ad model that’s served the web well for decades — though they may lose some valuable ad units in the process.

There’s also a good argument to be made that stripping out irritating ads is no different than blocking pop ups, which web browsers have done for years, as a way to improve the experience for consumers.

But there are drawbacks to building an ad blocker into Chrome: most notably, the amount of power it gives Google. Ultimately, it means Google gets to decide what qualifies as an acceptable ad (though it’s basing this on standards set collectively by the Coalition for Better Ads). That’s a good thing if you trust Google to remain benign and act in everyone’s interests. But keep in mind that Google is, at its core, an ad company. Nearly 89 percent of its revenue comes from displaying ads.

The Chrome ad blocker doesn’t just help publishers, it also helps Google maintain its dominance. And it advantages Google’s own ad units, which, it’s safe to say, will not be in violation of the bad ad rules.

This leaves publishers with fewer options to monetize their sites. And given that Chrome represents more than half of all web browsing on desktop and mobile, publishers will be hard pressed not to comply.

Google will also include an option for visitors to pay websites that they’re blocking ads on, through a program it’s calling Funding Choices. Publishers will have to enable support for this feature individually. But Google already tested a similar feature for more than two years, and it never really caught on. So it’s hard to imagine publishers seeing what’s essentially a voluntary tipping model as a viable alternative to ads.

Ramaswamy says that the goal of Chrome’s ad blocker is to make online ads better. “We believe these changes will ensure all content creators, big and small, can continue to have a sustainable way to fund their work with online advertising,” he writes.

And what Ramaswamy says is probably true: Chrome’s ad blocker likely will clean up the web and result in a better browsing experience. It just does that by giving a single advertising juggernaut a whole lot of say over what’s good and bad.

The ZTE Nubia Z17 is the first phone that supports Quick Charge 4+

The ZTE Nubia Z17 may be the most powerful phone to come out of China yet. The phone — which is being touted by human statue and face of ZTE, Cristiano Ronaldo, in press images — is packed with high-end parts, including a ridiculous 8GB of RAM:

  • 5.5-inch 1080p display
  • Snapdragon 835 processor
  • 8GB of RAM, 128GB of storage
  • Dual rear cameras (23MP +12MP), 16MP front camera
  • Android 7.1.1 Nougat, 3,200mAh battery, Quick Charge 4+

The Z17 is only the second phone to come with 8GB of RAM, and the first to support Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 4+, which will recharge the battery to 50 percent in 25 minutes. It’s also only the second Chinese phone to utilize the Snapdragon 835 after Xiaomi’s Mi 6.

It’s also water resistant, supports Dolby Atmos, comes with an IR blaster, and will be available in five colors: blue, black, gold, red, and black and gold. The Z17, which is currently only available in China, will start at CNY2,799 ($411) for a 6GB +64GB or storage version, and top out at CNY3,999 ($583) for the 8GB +128GB of storage option.

Silicon Valley comes out strong against Trump’s decision to abandon Paris agreement

Google CEO Sundar Pichai, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella all said today that they remain committed to the environment and clean energy initiatives in the face of Trump’s decision to withdrawn the US from the Paris climate coalition.

Though many voices around the world, including politicians and representatives from numerous corporations and countries, have expressed extreme concern over Trump’s decision, Pichai, Nadella, and Zuckerberg are three of the most powerful figures in the tech. Their opinions on political matters carry immense weight in the industry, suggesting many other members in Silicon Valley and beyond will speak up on behalf of the tech sector. Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk also confirmed today on Twitter that he would be stepping down from Trump’s economic advisory councils over the decision.

“Withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement is bad for the environment, bad for the economy, and it puts our children’s future at risk,” Zuckerberg wrote on his personal Facebook page. “For our part, we’ve committed that every new data center we build will be powered by 100 percent renewable energy. Stopping climate change is something we can only do as a global community, and we have to act together before it’s too late.”

Shortly after 5PM ET, Pichai tweeted, “Disappointed with today’s decision. Google will keep working hard for a cleaner, more prosperous future for all.” Slightly early in the afternoon, Nadella and Brad Smith, the company’s chief legal officer, both tweeted messages reiterating Microsoft’s commitment to reducing carbon emissions and preventing the devastating effects of climate change. “We believe climate change is an urgent issue that demands global action. We remain committed to doing our part,” Nadella wrote.

Smith, who is known for penning lengthy and thorough blog posts on controversial political topics on behalf of Microsoft, also directed readers to a LinkedIn post that better explained the company’s reasoning for denouncing the withdrawal.

“We are disappointed with today’s decision by the White House to withdraw the United States from the landmark, globally supported Paris Agreement on climate change,” Smith writes. “We believe that continued U.S. participation benefits U.S. businesses and the economy in important and multiple ways. A global framework strengthens competitiveness for American businesses. It creates new markets for innovative clean technologies, from green power to smart grids to cloud-enabled solutions. And by strengthening global action over time, the Agreement reduces future climate damage to people and organizations around the world.”

Though Musk and the others remain the most prominent tech industry leaders to have personally voiced concern on the subject, other tech companies have been issuing statements denouncing Trump’s decision as well. Both Amazon and HP issued statements saying they will continue to support the agreement and to take actions to reduce emissions and mitigate the effects of climate change. “Climate change is one of the most significant and urgent issues facing business and society today,” wrote HP in its statement. “The science is clear, the impacts are serious and the need to act is essential.”

Prior to Trump’s press conference today, tech leaders across the industry attempted to sway the president from following through on the withdrawal. Among those were Apple CEO Tim Cook, who called the White House on Tuesday to reportedly ask Trump to reconsider. A number of other companies signed a letter that was published today as a full-page ad in both The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times expressing the same concern.

According to Axios, Cook sent an email to to Apple employees today confirming his attempt on Tuesday to convince Trump to remain part of the accord. “Climate change is real and we all share a responsibility to fight it. I want to reassure you that today’s developments will have no impact on Apple’s efforts to protect the environment,” Cook wrote in the email. “Our mission has always been to leave the world better than we found it. We will never waver, because we know that future generations depend on us.”

Many corporate leaders like Cook tried, and apparently failed, to appeal to Trump’s nationalistic tendencies. They do so by trying to reiterate the damage the withdrawal could do to America’s business interests, as well as its ability to compete on the global stage with the nearly 200 other members of the Paris climate deal. Despite those efforts, Trump is now following through with his promise to try and renegotiate the agreement, a task some EU countries have already said is virtually impossible.

Update 5:50PM ET, 6/1: Added statement from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Update 8:11PM ET, 6/1: Added excerpt from email Apple CEO Tim Cook sent to company employees today.

Voiceitt lets people with speech impairments use voice-controlled technology


Voice-controlled technology like Amazon Echo, Siri or hands-free features in Google Maps are things we’re starting to take for granted. But as Mary Meeker’s 2017 Internet Trends Report noted, voice controls are changing computer-human interfaces, and industries, broadly. Speech recognition or voice controls are being added to medical devices and business applications, even vehicles and industrial robotics.

But there’s a problem — voice systems have been built for standard speech today. That leaves out millions of people who live with speech impairments, or who just have a strong accent. Now, a Tel Aviv-based startup called Voiceitt has raised $2 million in seed funding to translate into clear words speech that’s not easily intelligible.

The startup, which was co-founded by CEO Danny Weissberg and CTO Stas Tiomkin, is a graduate of the DreamIt Health accelerator. Investors in Voiceitt’s seed round include Amit Technion, Dreamit Ventures, Quake Capital, Buffalo Angels, 1,000 Angels and other angels.

Here’s how Voiceitt works: Users fire up the company’s app and it asks them to compose then read short, useful sentences out loud, like “I’m thirsty,” or “Turn off the lights.” The software records and begins to learn the speaker’s particular pronunciation. A caregiver can type phrases into the app if the user is not able to do so independently.

After a brief training period, the Voiceitt app can turn the user’s statements into normalized speech, which it outputs in the form of audio or text messages, instantly. Voice-controlled apps and devices can easily understand the newly generated audio or written messages. But Voiceitt also can be used to help people with speech impediments communicate face to face with other people.

A woman with a speech impairment uses Voiceitt to “translate” her words into a clear message.

Dreamit’s Karen Griffith Gryga said investors view Voiceitt as a technology that’s starting with “the thin edge of the wedge,” in the market for assistive tech. But it could be expanded to help people with strong accents use whatever voice-enabled technology Seattle or Silicon Valley comes up with next.

Weissberg explained that he came up with the idea for Voiceitt after his grandmother suffered from speech impairments following a stroke. The CEO said, “I realized how we take for granted the way we communicate by speaking. Losing this is really terrible, one of the hardest aspects of stroke recovery. So I didn’t say, right away, let’s start a company. But I began to talk with speech therapists and occupational therapists, and to learn everything I can about the problem and whether there was a market in need, there.”

An early version of Voiceitt will be available next year, but the app is in beta tests now. The company’s pilot customers are hospitals and schools, and people there who have speech differences because of a health condition, like those with cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, Parkinson’s or who are recovering from a traumatic brain injury or stroke.

Long-term, Weissberg said, “This could really be an accessibility extension to speech recognition for anyone, Google, Amazon, Apple, IBM or Microsoft. We’d love to function like a major OEM and work with all the major platforms.”

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