All posts in “Mashtalk”

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.”

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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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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Has tech given us a dark future?

Image: Lili Sams/Mashable

Is the future broken?

Maybe not, but by many measures the present is. Over the past couple of years, the networks and devices that we’ve come to rely on for our information, consumption, and social interactions have had their toxic underbellies exposed: Social networks have been twisted by fake news and filter bubbles, the constant ping of notifications on screens has shortened attention spans and created addictions, and it sometimes seems all the big tech companies are determined to erase every trace of privacy left in the world.

We know how we got here. In fact, most of the conversation around technology in 2017 was about examining the problems and laying blame. Now the conversation has begun about repairing the damage and charting the best way forward.

One of the people leading that conversation is Andrew Keen. Keen is an author, and if you look at the titles of his previous books — The Cult of the Amateur, Digital Vertigo, and The Internet Is Not the Answer — you can tell he’s been a tech naysayer since before it was cool. But he’s singing a different tune with his new book, How to Fix the Future. Instead of diagnosing problems, Keen is proposing solutions, traveling the globe to educate himself and his readers on how governments, private enterprise, and individuals can build a kind of new “digital social contract” as the influence of technology in our lives inevitably grows.

Keen joins Mashable’s MashTalk podcast to discuss those solutions, and the five tools he thinks are essential in creating them: competitive innovation, social responsibility, worker and consumer choice, education, and — yes — regulation. While many in Silicon Valley might bristle at any discussion of government stepping in on their turf, Keen sees regulation as an essential part of fixing things, although he also explains that it’s not a panacea, and that it needs to be complemented with empowered consumers and innovative companies with new business models if it’s going to help instead of hinder progress.

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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Was Evan Spiegel right to turn down a billion dollars?

Image: Lili Sams/Mashable

Snap is starting the year off strong. Its quarterly earnings blew past expectations, and while its redesign is angering some users, the change is expected to improve the app experience for everyone, with time. 

But life hasn’t always been so great for Snapchat. CEO Evan Spiegel continues to be compared to Mark Zuckerberg and his tech giant Facebook, whose much larger products keep taking on Snapchat-esque features. Such a comparison isn’t so crazy. Back in 2013, Facebook offered $1 billion to acquire Snapchat. Zuckerberg later upped the offer to $3 billion. And that’s just one drama in a long saga of how Snapchat and Spiegel rose to fame. 

For more details on the rise of Snapchat, we spoke with the guy who wrote the book — seriously — on this week’s MashTalk. Billy Gallagher is the author of “How To Turn Down A Billion Dollars: The Snapchat Story,” which is out Feb. 13 and available on Amazon

Gallagher has quite the personal knowledge of the whole “Snapchat Story.” He attended Stanford with Spiegel and was in the same fraternity. Back then, he covered the early days of Snapchat for TechCrunch. Gallagher later worked in venture capital, and now, he’s getting his MBA from Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. He also says his favorite Snapchat filter is the puppy lens.

Billy Gallagher

Billy Gallagher

Image: larry langton

In the book, Gallagher illustrates the personality of Spiegel as a frat brother, someone who would stand back, solo cup in hand, and watch pledges push each other in shopping carts; someone who would ask those some pledges to help him with his startup; someone who later took Taylor Swift as his date to Snapchat’s New Year’s Eve party. 

A major character and story arc in the book is Reggie Brown, the classmate who suggested the idea of a disappearing messaging app. Brown later forced out of the company and sued. Spiegel and his fellow cofounder Bobby Murphy settled for $157.5 million. 

We chatted with Gallagher about Spiegel and Brown and what he predicts for the future of Snapchat. There wouldn’t be a Snapchat without Spiegel, he said, and there may not be one in the future without him, he argued.  

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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