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Max Q: SpaceX and Rocket Lab launch rockets and X-Wings take flight

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This week saw a ton of activity in the space industry, with multiple launches, key preparations for commercial crew missions, robots and much more.

Besides all the real space news, there’s also some extreme fan service for Star Wars lovers, courtesy of Disney and Boeing. Now I’m one day closer to my lifelong dream of becoming a real X-Wing starfighter pilot.

Rocket Lab completes key step towards reusable rockets

Launch startup Rocket Lab has been successfully delivering payloads to orbit for a while now, but earlier this year they announced they’d be moving to a launch system in which the booster they use to propel their spacecraft to orbit is reusable.

An Electron rocket launching during a previous test.

During their 10th mission with their Electron rocket, they took a crucial first step – testing the re-entry systems to bring the booster back to Earth’s atmosphere. Rocket Lab says the test went better than expected, which bodes well from moving to an actual test of properly recovering and refurbishing the thing.

SpaceX launches 19th Space Station resupply mission

The other big launch this week was SpaceX’s CRS-19 launch, which delivered 5,200 lbs of experiments and supplies to the ISS. This launch used a brand new Falcon 9, which SpaceX recovered with a landing at sea, and it also employed a Dragon cargo capsule that the company has flown twice before. On board, there’s a load of amazing new equipment for the ISS, like a ‘robot hotel.’

Emotionally intelligent IBM-powered assistant robot is heading to space

You may not have heard, but there’s an advanced Alexa for astronauts called CIMON, and after a successful first test, it’s headed back to the ISS aboard the above SpaceX launch with improvements. One of its key improvements is a new ability to detect and respond to human emotions, which is, you know, HAL territory.

SpaceX completes 7th parachute test

SpaceX is getting closer to a key piece of the puzzle when it comes to its ability to launch astronauts on its commercial crew spacecraft. The company needs to do at least 10 parachute tests in a row to get ship-shape for its crew launch, and it’s now pretty close to getting that done before year’s end.

Boeing completes dress rehearsal of crew launch

Boeing is also getting closer to its own commercial crew launch, and in fact completed an entire rehearsal of how the mission will go on on launch day when it does its uncrewed launch. This rehearsal including fully feeling the rocket, and next time that happens, it’ll be taking off.

Real X-Wings fly for real (really)

X-Wing starfighters ascended through the night sky over Orlando, Florida this week as Disney celebrated the opening of its new ‘Rise of the Resistance’ attraction at Disney World. The X-Wings (2 of them!) were modified versions of a large cargo drone that Boeing has been developing, but both companies are keeping mum on any further details right now.

Here’s what’s up in the world of space startups and investing

What’s going on with space tech, and why is it having a moment? What’s coming next, and where is the smart money going? The answers to those questions and more lie in Starburst founder and aerospace investor François Chopard’s informative deck about space and defense, available exclusively to Extra Crunch subscribers.

Korean AI startup Skelter Labs lands strategic investment to expand to Southeast Asia

Korean AI startup Skelter Labs is expanding to Southeast Asia after it pulled in undisclosed funding from Singapore-based VC firm Golden Gate Ventures.

Skelter Labs was founded in 2015 by founded by Ted Cho, the former engineering site director at Google Korea. It started out developing apps and services that made use of AI but then it pivoted to focus fully on AI tech, which it licenses out to companies and corporations that it works with. Now it is eying opportunities in  Japan and parts of Southeast Asia — which has a cumulative population of over 600 million — with Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia specifically mentioned.

The startup raised a $9 million seed round earlier this year, and Golden Gate has added an additional check to that round which came from KakaoBrain — the AI unit of Korean messaging giant Kakao — Kakao’s K-Cute venture arm, Stonebridge Ventures and Lotte Homeshopping, the TV and internet shopping business owned by multi-billion dollar retail giant Lotte.

More specifically, Seoul-based Skelter Labs works on AI in the context of vision and speech, conversation, and context recognition, while it goes after customers in areas that include manufacturing, customer operations, device interaction, and consumer marketing.

The startup doesn’t disclose customers, but it previously told TechCrunch that its vision is to bring its machine learning technology to daily life and schedules. Possible examples of that might be could include “intelligent virtual assistant technology that can be widely applied to various areas including smart speakers, smartphones, home appliances, automobiles and wearable devices.”

Golden Gate is one of Southeast Asia’s longest running tech VC firms. This deal is part of its recently announced third fund, which is $100 million in size.

In a statement, Skelter Labs CEO Cho paid tribute to the VC’s strong footprint in Southeast Asia that he said could open doors for the company. Startups in Golden Gate’s portfolio that might be of particular interest could include mobile listings startup Carousell, auto portal Carro, fashion commerce site Grana and online furnishings seller Hipvan.

Note: The original version of this article has been corrected. Skelter Labs has announced an extension to its previous round not a new round. Apologies for any confusion caused.

Apple’s Shortcuts will flip the switch on Siri’s potential

Matthew Cassinelli
Contributor

Matthew Cassinelli is a former member of the Workflow team and works as an independent writer and consultant. He previously worked as a data analyst for VaynerMedia.

At WWDC, Apple pitched Shortcuts as a way to ”take advantage of the power of apps” and ”expose quick actions to Siri.” These will be suggested by the OS, can be given unique voice commands, and will even be customizable with a dedicated Shortcuts app.

But since this new feature won’t let Siri interpret everything, many have been lamenting that Siri didn’t get much better — and is still lacking compared to Google Assistant or Amazon Echo.

But to ignore Shortcuts would be missing out on the bigger picture. Apple’s strengths have always been the device ecosystem and the apps that run on them.

With Shortcuts, both play a major role in how Siri will prove to be a truly useful assistant and not just a digital voice to talk to.

Your Apple devices just got better

For many, voice assistants are a nice-to-have, but not a need-to-have.

It’s undeniably convenient to get facts by speaking to the air, turning on the lights without lifting a finger, or triggering a timer or text message – but so far, studies have shown people don’t use much more than these on a regular basis.

People don’t often do more than that because the assistants aren’t really ready for complex tasks yet, and when your assistant is limited to tasks inside your home or commands spoken inton your phone, the drawbacks prevent you from going deep.

If you prefer Alexa, you get more devices, better reliability, and a breadth of skills, but there’s not a great phone or tablet experience you can use alongside your Echo. If you prefer to have Google’s Assistant everywhere, you must be all in on the Android and Home ecosystem to get the full experience too.

Plus, with either option, there are privacy concerns baked into how both work on a fundamental level – over the web.

In Apple’s ecosystem, you have Siri on iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, AirPods, HomePod, CarPlay, and any Mac. Add in Shortcuts on each of those devices (except Mac, but they still have Automator) and suddenly you have a plethora of places to execute these all your commands entirely by voice.

Each accessory that Apple users own will get upgraded, giving Siri new ways to fulfill the 10 billion and counting requests people make each month (according to Craig Federighi’s statement on-stage at WWDC).

But even more important than all the places where you can use your assistant is how – with Shortcuts, Siri gets even better with each new app that people download. There’s the other key difference: the App Store.

Actions are the most important part of your apps

iOS has always had a vibrant community of developers who create powerful, top-notch applications that push the system to its limits and take advantage of the ever-increasing power these mobile devices have.

Shortcuts opens up those capabilities to Siri – every action you take in an app can be shared out with Siri, letting people interact right there inline or using only their voice, with the app running everything smoothly in the background.

Plus, the functional approach that Apple is taking with Siri creates new opportunities for developers provide utility to people instead of requiring their attention. The suggestions feature of Shortcuts rewards “acceleration”, showing the apps that provide the most time savings and use for the user more often.

This opens the door to more specialized types of apps that don’t necessarily have to grow a huge audience and serve them ads – if you can make something that helps people, Shortcuts can help them use your app more than ever before (and without as much effort). Developers can make a great experience for when people visit the app, but also focus on actually doing something useful too.

This isn’t a virtual assistant that lives in the cloud, but a digital helper that can pair up with the apps uniquely taking advantage of Apple’s hardware and software capabilities to truly improve your use of the device.

In the most groan-inducing way possible, “there’s an app for that” is back and more important than ever. Not only are apps the centerpiece of the Siri experience, but it’s their capabilities that extend Siri’s – the better the apps you have, the better Siri can be.

Control is at your fingertips

Importantly, Siri gets all of this Shortcuts power while keeping the control in each person’s hands.

All of the information provided to the system is securely passed along by individual apps – if something doesn’t look right, you can just delete the corresponding app and the information is gone.

Siri will make recommendations based on activities deemed relevant by the apps themselves as well, so over-active suggestions shouldn’t be common (unless you’re way too active in some apps, in which case they added Screen Time for you too).

Each of the voice commands is custom per user as well, so people can ignore their apps suggestions and set up the phrases to their own liking. This means nothing is already “taken” because somebody signed up for the skill first (unless you’ve already used it yourself, of course).

Also, Shortcuts don’t require the web to work – the voice triggers might not work, but the suggestions and Shortcuts app give you a place to use your assistant voicelessly. And importantly, Shortcuts can use the full power of the web when they need to.

This user-centric approach paired with the technical aspects of how Shortcuts works gives Apple’s assistant a leg up for any consumers who find privacy important. Essentially, Apple devices are only listening for “Hey Siri”, then the available Siri domains + your own custom trigger phrases.

Without exposing your information to the world or teaching a robot to understand everything, Apple gave Siri a slew of capabilities that in many ways can’t be matched. With Shortcuts, it’s the apps, the operating system, and the variety of hardware that will make Siri uniquely qualified come this fall.

Plus, the Shortcuts app will provide a deeper experience for those who want to chain together actions and customize their own shortcuts.

There’s lots more under the hood to experiment with, but this will allow anyone to tweak & prod their Siri commands until they have a small army of custom assistant tasks at the ready.

Hey Siri, let’s get started

Siri doesn’t know all, Can’t perform any task you bestow upon it, and won’t make somewhat uncanny phone calls on your behalf.

But instead of spending time conversing with a somewhat faked “artificial intelligence”, Shortcuts will help people use Siri as an actual digital assistant – a computer to help them get things done better than they might’ve otherwise.

With Siri’s new skills extendeding to each of your Apple products (except for Apple TV and the Mac, but maybe one day?), every new device you get and every new app you download can reveal another way to take advantage of what this technology can offer.

This broadening of Siri may take some time to get used to – it will be about finding the right place for it in your life.

As you go about your apps, you’ll start seeing and using suggestions. You’ll set up a few voice commands, then you’ll do something like kick off a truly useful shortcut from your Apple Watch without your phone connected and you’ll realize the potential.

This is a real digital assistant, your apps know how to work with it, and it’s already on many of your Apple devices. Now, it’s time to actually make use of it.

Google has planted its flag at CES

 Google’s here, and it’s planning something big. The company’s presence is impossible to miss as you drive down Paradise Road toward the Las Vegas Convention Center. Like much the rest of the show, the company’s parking lot booth is still under construction today, but the giant, black and white “Hey Google” sign is already hanging above it, visible from… Read More

Facebook on course to be the WeChat of the West, says Gartner

whatsapp-messenger It’s the beginning of the end for smartphone apps as we have known and tapped on them, reckons Gartner. The analyst is calling the start of a “post-apps” era, based on changes in consumer interactions that appear driven, in large part, by the rise of dominant messaging platforms designed to consume more and more of mobile users’ time and attention. Read More

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Crunch Report | Tech Execs Are Matching Donations to ACLU

Tech execs are matching donations to the ACLU, Starbucks unveils a virtual assistant, Dropbox touts a $1 billion revenue run rate, robots are making coffee and Fitbit cuts six percent of its workforce. All this on Crunch Report. Read More

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Google's Assistant might not be exclusive to Pixel for much longer

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You might not have to buy a Google Pixel or Pixel XL to get the company’s intelligent Assistant after all.

LG’s upcoming G6 smartphone might be the first non-Pixel phone to include Assistant, according to a report from BusinessKorea. LG is also said to be in talks with Amazon to possibly incorporate Alexa into future phones.

When Google launched its Pixel phones in October, it touted Assistant as one of the main selling points. Google CEO Sundar Pichai called the Assistant “your own personal Google.” In Mashable’s testing, Assistant bested Siri in a number of ways. Read more…

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