Growing Up Alexa

A few months ago, I wrote about how Alexa and Google Home are used in our house. In my experience, these devices are a better way for kids to use the internet than a mobile phone. A phone becomes an extension of a person, isolating her from the group. Interacting with Alexa is more of a family activity with Alexa acting like another person in the room.

Some people think it’s odd to treat Alexa humanely. As a machine, she doesn’t have any feelings. But think about the way we refer to Alexa. It feels more natural to refer to Alexa as a “her” than an “it” because that’s the way we interface with her. And if we interface with her as a person, we should be polite and say please and thank you. Continue reading “Growing Up Alexa”

How I (Re-)Built My Favorite T-Shirt

Read in the voice of the Mission Impossible announcer: This t-shirt was originally created as a protest against US Export laws. Until 2000, US export law considered the computer code on the shirt as a “munition” that should not be exported from the United States or shown to a foreign national. Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to re-create this shirt.

The T-Shirt

When I was at the GEL conference in 2016, I met a woman who worked for the website Design a Shirt. We started talking about the most creative t-shirts we’d ever seen. This brought me back to the late 1990s when I discovered one of the most innovative shirts ever created — a t-shirt that the US government classified as a weapon.

Oddly Necessary Background on US Encryption Export Policy

This t-shirt was created as a protest against the way the US government was treating the export of encryption (i.e., secret codes).  Until 2000, US government considered encryption as a munition that should not be exported from the United States or shown to a foreign national.

It seems a little odd that software that’s embedded in everyone’s iPhone today used to be illegal to export. Put in historical context it makes more sense. For centuries, encryption was used to allow military organizations to pass messages. The most famous of these devices was the German Enigma machine from World War II. The capturing of an Enigma machine allowed the allies to break the German codes and win the war.

The German Enigma Encryption Machine

In the 1990s, US government policy still hadn’t veered from this idea. Any secret codes that were used by foreign governments should be breakable by the US government without too much effort. At the same time, encryption was becoming a critical part of internet communications. The issue here was that the exact same technology that was powering the internet was also used to send secret government and criminal communications.  This led to internet browser companies like American Online to create two different browser versions. They distributed a “strong encryption” that was only available in the US and a “weak encryption” that could be exported everywhere else.

Some internet activists were upset about weak encryption. You see something similar in the fight today between the US government and Apple on the right to be able to break into criminals’ iPhones. The government was claiming that it was dangerous for people to have secrets that the government couldn’t see if they needed too. The protesters were saying weak encryption creates a weak internet.

Making The T-Shirt

This is where t-shirts make their appearance. Some encryption advocates had the idea to create a very small but strong encryption program whose entire code could be put on a t-shirt. Therefore, anyone wearing this t-shirt to a foreign country or even seen by a foreign national would be exporting a munition would be breaking a law.

That’s a creative t-shirt! I really wanted one. However, I ran into two problems. First, most of the t-shirts are pretty ugly. Secondly,  since the law changed in 1999, the demand for this t-shirt has plummetted and it’s no longer sold.

With no one making these t-shirts anymore, I needed to do it myself. First, I needed to find a design of the shirt that I really liked. Second, I needed to find a way to print it.

For the design, Vipul Ved Prakash made a wonderful version of the computer code in the shape of a dolphin.  The company ThinkGeek printed the shirt back in the 1990s.

So then I needed to make the t-shirt. Most t-shirt printers want you to buy in bulk but Design a Shirt works well for one offs.  Making the shirt is easy. I just uploaded the image and choose a shirt type. The benefit to making your own shirt is you can pay the $5 more for a super premium quality shirt. I also chose to pay another dollar to print the dolphin in blue. If you want to print the shirt, it’s still available on the Design a Shirt site.

Here’s the Final T-Shirt
And Here’s the Image I Used in the Shirt

I really love this t-shirt and proud I re-created it. I thought someone would recognize it when I wore it; however, even at technology events, I haven’t met anybody who recognized it. I even added the last paragraph to the shirt to explain it to people. I’m glad that I made it because the world needs more of these shirts — clever, interesting and pretty designs that tried to change the world. If you want to print one for yourself, it’s still available online.

Note: In the unlikely event you’d like to learn more, there’s a good Wikipedia article on US encryption policy that even mentions the t-shirt.

Why I Love My Fitbit Alta HR

The Fitbit Alta HR is one of the few technology products that gives me almost everything I need and very little that I don’t. It’s a tour de force of good design. When I look at what I need on my wrist, it’s not really a smartwatch or even a fitness tracker but something else (maybe a “smart wristband”). Let’s take a look at the 3 features of the Fitbit Alta HR that are most important to me.

3 Features I Love About My Fitbit

  1. EASY Sleep and Exercise Tracking. I need to track how much I sleep and how often I go to the gym. I used to have a Fitbit Flex, which while being a good product, made me manually track my exercise and sleep. For example, to track sleep I was supposed to tap on the band when I went to sleep and when I woke up. This meant that I forgot many days and didn’t have good data on my sleep patterns. The Fitbit Alta HR makes use of its heart rate tracker to guess at when I go to sleep (my heart rate drops by a lot) and when I’m exercising (heart rate goes up). It can even figure out the type of exercise I’m doing (i.e., bicycling, walking, sports).
  2. Vibrating Notifications. For about 20 years, since I got my first flip phone, my friend Seth Gilbert and I talked about how difficult it is to make sure that we got our phone calls. We would put our phones on vibrate in our pocket and occasionally miss calls. Women had it worse because their phones were in their purses. With the Fitbit Alta HR, the wristband connects to my phone and will vibrate when there are calls or text messages. But notifications are limited to ONLY calls and text messages so I’m not bothered or even tempted by anything else (e.g., app notifications).
  3. Tactile Alarm Clock. A wise man once said, “The hardest thing about being married is not having your own alarm clock.” Not really. I like to wake up earlier than my wife so I can relax and let my mind settle. But if I set off an alarm clock, then everyone wakes up. Having a vibrating alarm clock allows me to wake up with a vibration that’s much nicer than the buzzing of the alarm and wakes me up without waking up the rest of the house.

How I Might Improve These Features

As a product person, it’s fun for me to think about how to make these features even better.

  1. Exercise Guidance (building on the feature EASY Sleep and Exercise Tracking). It would be great if my Fitbit could offer me sleep and exercise guidance in addition to tracking. Fitbit’s certainly going in this direction after having bought Fitstar and renaming it Fitbit Coach. Trying to put all of Fitbit Coach into something without a screen is difficult so I don’t think it’ll be done in the near term. However, I can see something simple like the Seven Minute Workout coming relatively soon.
  2. I Need You NOW (building on the feature Vibrating Notifications). In an emergency, you really want to get someone’s attention. For example, parents want to know where their kids are but they’re not checking their phones. One way that I’ve seen parents get their kids attention is to set off the “Find My Phone” alarm on their kids iPhone. The “Find My Phone” alarm is normally used when the phone is missing in a large house so it puts out a piercing screech which cannot be ignored. One way of bringing this to the Fitbit would be priority vibrations. For example, if someone calls multiple times in a row, the vibrations would increase in intensity so that the wearer could not ignore them. If we wanted to bring this to the next level we could add a small shock to the wristband though I’m not sure how well that would sell 🙂
  3. Wake Up and Relax (building on the feature Tactile Alarm Clock). The first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is turn on my meditation. It would be great if my Fitbit would wake me up and then go right into a 5-minute breathing exercise. The Fitbit Charge 2 HR already has a clever meditation routine for a small screen called breathing sessions. I imagine that my experience would go something like this:
    1. The alarm rings
    2.  I wake up and tap it to tell the watch I’m awake
    3. The guided breathing exercise starts. In … Out … In … Out
    4. If I’m not breathing at the guided breathing rate for 30 seconds, the Fitbit assumes I’ve gone back to sleep and tries to wake me up again.

Reasons I Like My Fitbit More Than an Apple Watch

The obvious comparison here is to the Apple Watch. “Why not just get a smartwatch?” you might say. Then you’d only have to have one thing on your wrist. Here are the reasons that my Fitbit is better than an Apple Watch — at least for me.

  • It’s Not a Watch. I really like my watch. It’s beautiful and far nicer than an Apple watch. Wearing both watches looks a bit silly because hey, how many watches does a person need? It’s also a bit annoying because it has the feeling of “Go Apple or Go Home” —monopolizing my wrist. It’s one thing for my technology items in my life to be Apple. I mean I love my iPhone and I love my MacBook Air but I don’t need everything in my life to be Apple.
  • Long Battery Life. Because it’s not trying to do too much, the battery can last a week without charging. This lets me wear it to sleep which gives me half of the features that I want in my wristband (sleep tracking and alarm clock). The Apple watch needs to be charged every night so misses these features.
  • Small, Light and Fashionable. Because it doesn’t have these Apple Watch features (especially as it doesn’t need a full screen) the Fitbit Alta HR can be small, light and fashionable. I can wear it to the sleep, to the gym and even do vigorous exercise I don’t notice it.
  • Limited Notifications and Features. While there’s another feature or two that I’d love to have, I like the fact that I’m not distracted or even tempted by them. I’m sure if I had an Apple Watch I’d be tempted to read the newspaper or check my appointments on my watch — which I really don’t need to do.

Overall the Fitbit Alta HR is an awesome device. It gets me 90% of the things I need and little else. When I started writing this post I thought about how weird it was that I was talking about a fitness tracker that I don’t really use for fitness very much. Then I came across Wearable’s Top Fitness Tackers of 2017 and saw that they rated the Fitbit Alta HR as their top choice. One of the top features for the favorite “fitness tracker” was sleep tracking!

Smart Audio is Here to Stay: Some Takeaways from NPR’s Smart Audio Report

NPR and Edison Research have been putting together The Smart Audio Report. The study, presented at CES in January, gives a good look into how quickly smart speakers like Alexa and Google Home are entering the home:

  • It’s growing fast: 16% of Americans have a smart speaker − 128% growth since January 2017
  • Usage is growing over time: 84% use their speaker the same amount or more than the first month they owned it
  • They’re becoming embedded into people’s lives: 65% say that they would not like to go back to life without their smart speaker

The most interesting chart is a breakdown of the most frequently used activities by the time of day.

I haven’t done many of these things but I look forward to finding out more about them!

Fun with Patents OR The Possible Future of Amazon Alexa and Google Home

In the article Hey, Alexa, What Can You Hear? And What Will You Do With It?, The New York Times delved into some of the patents that Amazon and Google have filed for the future of their voice assistants (Amazon Alexa and Google Home). The article focused on privacy concerns by the group Consumer Watchdog that may or may not have understood what a patent is. The stuff that really freaked people out was the Amazon patent that focused on an “always on” capability where the assistants are always listening to the discussions around them.

It’s an interesting idea to use the conversations in the room to develop a better understanding of them; however, the language used clearly doesn’t take privacy into account. The patent was filed more as a future idea rather than something with all the kinks figured out.  But I can understand why some phrases from the patent Keyword Determinations From Conversational Data upset people. To paraphrase:

In at least some embodiments, a computing device such as a smart phone or tablet computer can actively listen to audio data for a user, such as may be monitored during a phone call or recorded when a user is within a detectable distance of the device. In other embodiments, voice and/or facial recognition, or another such process, can be used to identify a source of a particular portion of audio content.

I thought some of the other patents might provide a window into how Amazon and Google viewed the future. My favorite one was titled Monitoring And Reporting Household Activities In The Smart Home According To A Household Policy and was written by Tony Fadell, founder of Nest and one of the fathers of iPod.

This patent talks about various different ways to make a home “smart.” Today having a smart home means being able to control various devices, but what if you could set a goal (or policy in the words of the patent) and the smart home would partner with you to achieve it. To paraphrase the language of the patent it is:

A method for household policy implementation in a smart home, comprising: monitoring the household, analyzing household activities, taking actions and reporting the information. This system can help a family achieve goals such as how much screen time is used by family members, how often the household eats together and whether mischief might be occurring.

Ignoring the obvious privacy issues, there were some interesting things here. As a father, this was really interesting because it thought of the way to install parental controls over my entire smart home.

Let’s start with the overall partnership model. As the parent, I get to define a goal and the house will help me achieve it. How will this work? Let’s look at the example of tracking screen time. I’m kind of excited about a future where I can say “Limit my kids to 30 minutes of screen time.”

First, we need to monitor screen time. We need to understand who is in the room and what they’re watching.

Then we need to define our goals.

Finally, we take an action based on whether the goal is met or not.

Other factors may come into play. For example, if the child has been grounded they may lose their TV time.

Also, just because this was pretty funny, I have to include the patent’s “mischief detector” that detects mischief by  (again paraphrasing):

listening for low-level audio signatures (e.g., whispering or silence), while the occupants are active (e.g., moving or performing other actions). Based upon the detection of these low-level audio signatures combined with active monitored occupants, the system may infer that mischief (e.g., activities that should not be occurring) is occurring. Additionally, contextual information such as occupancy location may be used to exclude an inference of mischief. For example, when children are near a liquor cabinet or are in their parents’ bedroom alone, the system may infer that mischief is likely to be occurring.

While I probably won’t be using the mischief tracker any time in the future, the idea of setting goals for the household, and letting Amazon and Google help, is quite appealing.

When AI Get’s Personal OR You’re Not Supposed to Talk About That!

A few months ago Microsoft released Seeing AI. This is a tool created by a blind product manager to help blind people. It’s trying to using computer vision to replace lost sight.

The most interesting piece is the person functionality. This is a fairly transparent implementation of Microsoft’s Face API. The Face API has a number of characteristics that it can determine including hair color,  emotion,  glasses, facial hair, makeup, smiling, gender, and age. Computer geeks, take a look at Face API, it’s pretty awesome. Here’s an example of the person functionality from Seeing.ai using the Face API.

Microsoft’s Seeing AI

It’s a great party trick to show your friends how AI can figure out all this stuff. The most interesting characteristic is age. Microsoft thinks so too and created an entire website called how-old.net.

So I started bringing it out at parties. But there was the problem. People who skewed older than they really were started saying “Hey, that’s not cool.” I started to realize that the app didn’t have a lot of tact.

It was like a little kid saying, “Mommy, that lady looks 45.”

And the woman saying back, “My Lord! Don’t you have any manners!”

This is similar to a scene in the Netflix series Atypical about Sam, a character with Autism Spectrum Disorder (formerly called Aspergers Syndrome). Sam doesn’t read emotions very well and is often too honest — not taking into account other people’s feelings.

At one point Sam made a list of the Pro’s and Con’s of Paige, his prospective girlfriend. Paige found an imprint of the list and used a pencil to read it.

Paige with Sam’s list of Pro’s and Cons about her.

To paraphrase their conversation:

“Why would you do that? You called me bossy and said I’m always interrupting people,” said Paige.

“But I also said that you had very clean shoes and had a nice neutral smell. So there were some good things in there,” said Sam.

“Ugh. You’re just not supposed to write that stuff down. It’s rude.”

And that’s the inherent problem with the way Face API displays people’s age. Making these things too transparent is just rude.

From all this, I’ve learned 3 things.

  1. It’s kind of creepy how AI can take things from the real world and “know” things about you.
  2. When building a computer program, features like “age” are useful in doing things like matching or making predictions but should generally be hidden from the end user.
  3. It’s much better to use this data for a different purpose, like figuring out which piece of artwork you look like.

Update August 16, 2018: Amazon’s Face API is a lot more sensitive in its demo. It uses the word “seems” and not focusing on a specific age but using an age range.

AWS Face API Demo

 

My Personal Contact Cards

About a year ago I made my own business cards. I wanted to have a personal expression of who I was rather than just me as an agent of a company. I wanted to make something I was proud of and made this:

It’s based on an Apple Store recruitment card which reads “Your customer service just now was exceptional. I work for the Apple Store and you’re exactly the kind of person we’d like to talk to. If you’re happy where you are, I’d never ask you to leave. But if you’re thinking about a change, give me a call. This could be the start of something great.”