All posts in “Mashtalk”

There is no more gun emoji. Is that a good thing?

Emoji have conquered the world, no doubt, but what happens after the conquest?

The answer: Things change. Emoji are constantly evolving, not only with new symbols that arrive on our smartphone keyboards year after year, but also the symbols themselves. A couple of years ago, your standard emoji keyboard usually had a gun on it, but today that symbol has been almost universally replaced with a water pistol.

The gun’s transformation may be the most dramatic of changes, but emoji are changing in subtler ways, too. Apple recently announced a new set of emoji coming in iOS 12, and it includes a eye-like symbol, the nazar amulet, that’s very popular in Turkey and other parts of the world, but not the U.S. With the emoji keyboard now pretty much filled out with “universal” symbols, expect more niche or regional characters to appear.

There’s also the question: what to do about unpopular emoji? Some emoji, like “crying with tears of joy,” are everywhere, but others don’t get as much day-to-day use. Case in point: the aerial tram emoji is apparently the least-popular emoji in use, according to Emojitracker.

Image: Messenger, Apple, Google, EmojiOne, HTC

Should there be an effort to boost unpopular emoji, and what responsibilities do the main shapers of emoji — Apple and Samsung, mostly — have here? And just who gave them so much influence over our new visual language anyway?

To help guide us through the ever-evolving world of emoji, we turned to Jeremy Burge, the founder of Emojipedia and creator of World Emoji Day, which took place earlier this week on July 17. Burge sat down with MashTalk host Pete Pachal to talk about the new emoji coming this fall, review the  Emojiland musical on Broadway (it’s good!), and revealed his true thoughts about Apple’s Memoji avatars.

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Where online ‘spiritual gurus’ go wrong

We all know YouTube. YouTube is the biggest video platform on the planet, with about 400 hours of video uploaded to the service every second.

But YouTube, of all the current content “platforms,” is arguably the most fragmented. There’s no newsfeed, so there’s no central place where everyone — or seemingly everyone — is gathering. As a result, communities form on their own, typically around channels or personalities, and they tend to be pretty insular.

One of these communities formed around someone named Teal Swan. Swan is what you might call a “spiritual healer” or at least someone who believes herself to be that. But it turns out she has some very controversial thoughts on many topics, including suicide, and a lot of people think her teachings are potentially damaging — and may have contributed to the suicide of someone who followed her closely.

That’s exactly what Jennings Brown, a senior reporter at Gizmodo, investigated in The Gateway, a six-part podcast that explores the world of Swan, and how self-described “gurus” can use today’s digital tools and platforms to reach massive audiences, and sometimes vulnerable people. Brown came on Mashable’s MashTalk podcast to talk about his investigation and what he learned.

What are the responsibilities of the platforms here? What about communities and individuals? And is there something mainstream services can glean about how these personalities cultivate loyal audiences? And how can we help the vulnerable navigate an at-times unforgiving digital culture?

We take on those tough questions and more. But if you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741.

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Cortana’s big challenge: Catching up to Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant

When Google wowed the tech world with its demo of Duplex — the tech that allows its digital Assistant make phone calls to perform mundane tasks like booking haircuts or making restaurant reservations — Microsoft’s Cortana chief was impressed, but not worried.

“The technologist in me had no choice but to feel impressed,” Javier Soltero, Microsoft corporate vice president of Cortana, told me in a far-ranging discussion about voice technology for Mashable’s MashTalk podcast. “The idea that a computer can generate a voice with the right processes, right inflection, all of the right things to mimic humans, is amazing to see in practice, but not entirely surprising.”

But Soltero didn’t immediately think, “We need to do something similar with Cortana so we can catch up to what they’re doing.” In fact, the Google Duplex demo emphasized just how different the two companies’ approaches to voice technology are.

Whereas Google is clearly putting consumer-friendly features that automate mundane tasks front and center, Microsoft is looking to make Cortana into a more symbiotic tool — something that works in conjunction with a human, not necessarily in the person’s stead. Think that scene in the first Iron Man movie, where Tony Stark has a continuous conversation with his digital assistant, JARVIS, as he designs the second generation of his armor.

“It was clear that that was not where we were headed,” Soltero said of Duplex. “We are interested in not that level of having the computer do stuff for you. We’re more trying to enable you to do more things yourself.”

Cortana by way of Outlook

Soltero became master of Cortana in March 2018 after playing a big role in Microsoft’s Outlook and Office apps. He first came to the company by way of Acompli, a well-regarded email app that Microsoft acquired in 2014.

After successfully turning Outlook into one of the best email apps on mobile, he’s now putting his expertise to work to push forward Microsoft’s voice assistant. And it definitely needs a push — the mindshare in the voice-assistant space is dominated by Amazon, Google, and, to a lesser extent, Apple. Even Samsung seems to have gotten more buzz.

It’s not like Cortana has been stagnant. It’s made progress by migrating from phones to PCs (although, considering the fate of Windows Phone/Mobile, it was more like abandoning ship), and the first Cortana-enabled smart speakers, starting with the Harman Kardon Invoke, arrived on the market last year. 

Still, the Invoke isn’t a Microsoft product. Given the ever-expanding number of competing products powered by Alexa or Google Assistant, everybody’s wondering when Microsoft will flex its growing hardware muscles (its line of Surface tablets and laptops has been a solid success for the company) to build its own smart speaker.

“We have lots and lots of ambitious plans that I can’t discuss, but you will be learning more as the course of the year plays out,” Soltero said. “And as you’ve probably seen, we’re working closely with Amazon to integrate Cortana into the Alexa and Echo experience as well as having Alexa integrate into Cortana. It’s ultimately less about the device and more about where the effect of the assistant is felt.”

The Tao of Cortana

Although everything is in the “early days” in tech, when it comes to voice assistants, it’s not just a line. In this case, science fiction has set the standard for what constitutes success in the field — an interactive, almost telepathic computer that we can talk to just like we would a human. Star Trek, Her, and other movies have all shown the dream, but it’s still a long way off.

Getting there will mean taking many, many baby steps, but Microsoft thinks it’s on the right path after its acquisition of Semantic Machines. Besides technology, Semantic brings a keen philosophy to voice interactions — there should be no “dead ends.” Which is to say, when you make a query to one of these assistants, and it can’t complete the query for whatever reason, it shouldn’t just give up and tell you it doesn’t understand. Instead, it’ll keep asking follow-up questions until it gets you to what you want, and if it still can’t do that, it provides an opportunity to teach the AI what the right answer is.

The semantic machines team is hard at work with the Cortana folks to bring those capabilities into Cortana. I’m still, along with my team, really focused on this problem… how do we go from, ‘Hey, Alexa, turn on the lights,’ to what is a much more complicated and natural-sounding articulation.”

Getting to those natural interactions, tailored to each user, will clearly be a long process, with many steps, but Soltero is clear what he thinks is the next one.

“The wake word is the first thing to go.”

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Why the gig economy was doomed from the start

For a while there, it seemed like “Uber for X” was the only pitch that mattered.

To many, the rapid rise of Uber wasn’t just a major tech success story — it signaled a wholesale change that was coming to how people thought of work. Traditional jobs, the thinking went, would soon become less and less common, with predictable, inefficient employment getting replaced by the flexibility of independent contract work. The “gig economy” was underway, and it was unstoppable.

Except that it stopped. In her new book, Gigged, reporter Sarah Kessler chronicles the ascent and decline of the gig economy, starting in the early 2010s, when it seemed every service — from grocery shopping to cleaning offices — could be “app-ified” to be done by easily scalable contract work, to the death of many of those services a few years later, when their models proved unsustainable.

Kessler, a former Mashable startups reporter, visited the MashTalk podcast to talk about the gig economy, and its failure.

Gigs that don’t translate

One of the main problems, she observed, is that for many jobs outside of driving people from Point A to Point B, the work requires more skill than you think. It turns out that even something as seemingly menial as grocery shopping has nuance to it, and individuals tend to be very particular about the way it’s done. Finding the best avocados for you might not be the same as finding the best avocados for me.

“People saw Uber making this business model work, and you had a bunch of people who are experts at starting tech companies launching a service business for cleaning or washing your clothes or whatever,” says Kessler, “And it is a lot more complicated and requires a lot of expertise to do those things, and so a lot of them did get in trouble.”

Sarah Kessler

Sarah Kessler

Not only did the jobs require more skill than expected, but the gig economy is set up in such a way that work is inherently modular, sometimes varying wildly from contractor to contractor. The problem is customers generally want consistency and reliability, and for many of these tech startups, creating an environment that encourages that — while also offering a cheaper product than traditional employee-driven industries — was too tall an order.

Not all gig economy companies failed, though. One of them, a cleaning company called Managed by Q, ended up pivoting to an employee model, just with the same conveniences enabled by technology that the original contractor model had. There was some sacrifice in nimbleness, but the shift resulted in a better business overall.

“They did make that change, and decided there was a business reason to do so,” Kessler explains. “They wanted their cleaners to have relationships with people whose offices they were cleaning, and through those relationships they would start to sell other services like supplies. And you needed to have happy workers who liked your company in order for that to work.”

Downfall of ‘Uber for X’

The danger of pivoting away from the original gig economy promise is that it’s a much tougher sell to investors, who tend to fixate on scale, scale, scale. While there will always be tech startups based around centralizing contract work — and some may even succeed — the central lesson of the gig economy is that it’s much harder than it looks.

“You could see in the reviews of some services that they would be raving about one person but then talking about getting your jewelry stolen by the next person. The acquisition cost of trying to go find people, who have no allegiance to you and then pseudo-train them to do what you want to do but then they leave the next week when they find a real job, is pretty high.”

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How should cryptocurrency be regulated?

Image: Lili Sams/Mashable

Does Facebook know something about blockchain that we don’t?

Probably. If there’s one thing we can all agree on about blockchain tech and cryptocurrency, it’s that most people don’t understand them. Facebook, which recently re-organized itself to make blockchain one of its major focuses, clearly has something up its sleeve with regard to crypto. But even if Facebook revealed what it is, users would likely react with a head scratch.

The financial world is already a mystery to many. Add to that a layer of novel technology involving a digital “immutable ledger” that runs on a peer-to-peer network, decoupling the currency from any central authority, and even an interested person will start to resemble the Confused Lady meme.

To those folks, this week must have been especially troubling. It was Blockchain Week in New York City, headlined by CoinDesk’s Consensus Conference. Besides the Lamborghinis on display and the bizarre crypto-inspired stunts, there was clear progress in bridging the world of cryptocurrency with that of real-world finance, including a new suite of investor tools and a new “stablecoin” for jittery crypto investors. HTC even debuted a blockchain-based phone.

But does any of that matter in light of crypto’s Wild West reputation, with shady startups and scams dominating most of the headlines? How should the field be regulated? And what is Facebook’s crypto team up to anyway?

On this week’s MashTalk podcast, Mashable Senior Editor Stan Schroeder and Tech Correspondent Jack Morse give a status report on the state of cryptocurrency and answer some of the fundamental questions around the space around regulation, energy consumption around “mining,” and whether or not all these tokens will be worthless in the end.

You can subscribe to MashTalk on iTunes or Google Play, and we’d appreciate it if you could leave a review. Feel free to hit us with questions and comments by tweeting to @mashtalk or attaching the #MashTalk hashtag. We welcome all feedback.

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