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Anki CEO: Consumer robots need personality to succeed

Anki's latest robot, Vector.
Anki’s latest robot, Vector.

Image: Jake Krol/Mashable

In case you missed it, the robots are here.

No, not the apocalyptic hordes of artificially intelligent machines that some believe are destined to enslave or eradicate us (hello, Boston Dynamics!), but the everyday devices and companions that are rapidly becoming commonplace. After decades of lofty sci-fi-inspired promises, robots like iRobot’s Roomba vacuums and the many iterations of the Sony Aibo robodog are slowly carving out their places in our domestic lives. Even Amazon’s Alexa is arguably a disembodied robot.

A new entry into the field is Anki’s Vector. Vector is a small tabletop robot with big features. First and foremost, unlike other “robots” like those from Sphero or even WowWee, Vector doesn’t need a smartphone to control it. It’s fully autonomous and loaded with sensors, enabling it to interact with and learn from its environment from the get-go.

Vector is another milestone for Anki, a company that’s had one of the most interesting stories in tech. Unknown to the world before its splash launch at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) in 2013, the robotics company has come out with several products, including intelligent toy race cars and a previous, more limited robot, Cozmo.

Where does the robustly funded company go next? And when will it move its robotics business into something more capable (i.e. not a toy). Anki CEO Boris Sofman dropped by Mashable’s MashTalk podcast this week to give us the full story of his young company, why it’s so focused on the “personality” of its robots, and what he sees in the future for domestic robots and AI.

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Apple’s 2018 iPhones have a serious naming problem

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Image: Lili Sams/Mashable

Let me blow your mind with this rumor: Apple is going to unveil new iPhones in the fall.

Yes, that we know. But we also “know” a little more than that. Obviously Apple has so far not said a single word about its 2018 iPhone models, but the rumor mill has been chugging away, and the consensus is Apple will launch three different iPhones: a successor to the iPhone X, a large-screen version of that phone, and a new model that mostly mirrors the iPhone X design, but doesn’t have quite all the same features so Apple can sell it at a lower price.

There have been plenty of reports about the screen sizes, features, and technology the three phones will have, but there’s a big question about the phones that doesn’t have an obvious answer: What is Apple going to call these babies? 

We discussed the topic of the 2018 iPhone names at length in the most recent MashTalk podcast.

For the names of the new iPhones, Apple has really painted itself into a corner. In 2017, Apple debuted the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus alongside the iPhone “ten,” which it designated with the letter X. Apple’s rationale with the names was that the 8 was the obvious successor to the previous models, but the iPhone X would offer customers the opportunity to jump ahead to a phone that set the template for the next decade of the iPhone, according to CEO Tim Cook. The number 10 seemingly conveyed how advanced the phone was compared to the 8 models (and was also a play on the 10-year-anniversary), while the Roman numeral hinted that this was just slightly experimental — almost kind of a hardware beta.

That all made sense, but what do we do now, a year later? With the iPhone X going away — as has been rumored — the logical choice for its successor seems like 11 (or XI), but that sounds a little weird and it also exacerbates the problem of the “lower-end” model sounding less advanced, assuming Apple goes with the logical choice of “iPhone 9” for that one.

The gen-2 iPhone X, and its big brother, could get a letter or number designation to differentiate from the current model. iPhone X2 is possible (and will certainly generate a smirk from X-Men fans), though the most recent rumor suggests “iPhone XS” (or “Xs” if Apple keeps its normal lower-case S-designation).

Both of those have problems, however. iPhone “ten-two” is utterly meaningless and silly, and sounds a preschooler’s attempt to pronounce 12. That’s cute if a kid says it — not so much the most valuable company in the world. And even though Apple will call the iPhone XS “ten-ess,” you can bet everyone else will call it “ex-ess.” Does Apple really wants to invite a year of snarky headlines about “iPhone excess?”

Image: Lili Sams/Mashable

Apple could, of course, just go with another letter (iPhone “ten-A” has a certain ring to it). But a better solution might to ditch the numbers altogether, or at least mostly. Apple could keep the iPhone X branding for the X’s successor, and simply add an iPhone X Plus model. That will create a little confusion about which “iPhone X” anyone owns, but since Apple appears to be discontinuing the current iPhone X then that won’t matter as much.

This kind of approach tends to work for Apple’s other products, including the iPad and MacBooks. The iPad number became more or less unofficial years ago (remember the “new iPad?”) and MacBooks are usually differentiated by year (“late 2018 MacBook Pro,” etc.).

That still leaves the issue of what to call the lower-end phone. If not iPhone 9, why not just iPhone? Apple hasn’t officially had a phone simply called the “iPhone” since 2007, but, really, paying attention to the numbers — and even knowing exactly what number you have — is the purview of tech geeks and the press. By dividing its line into simply “iPhone” and “iPhone X,” and keeping it for the foreseeable future, Apple would simultaneously end all the hand-wringing and make its bifurcated product strategy crystal-clear. Techies might fret, but the public would love it.

Whatever Apple ends up doing, it’s important to remember that product names rarely matter. The Nintendo Wii was one of the most lampooned product names in history, and that device ended up conquering the console market. The iPad had a similar trajectory.

The iPhone, of course, has already made its conquests. There’s a good chance the 2018 models will have the most confusing names to date, but now, with Apple recently becoming the first company in history to pass $1 trillion in value thanks to its iconic invention, the word “iPhone” has never stood for so much.

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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.

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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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.

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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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.”

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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