Google promises a software fix for the Pixel 2’s buzzing phone call problem in ‘the coming weeks’

Google’s hardware team can’t catch a break this year. In spite of solid reviews (us included), the company’s new Pixel 2 handsets have been plagued by glitches, including a buzzing sound heard in the ear piece during phone calls.

A company rep issued a short response to a lengthy thread about the problem on Google’s Pixel User Community board, noting that the company will start rolling out an over the air software update aimed at fixing the issue in “the coming weeks.”

The buzzing problem isn’t an isolated issue for the phones. Late last month, the company promised a software update designed to address the phone’s color calibration — a conscious choice on the company’s part that left many users cold. Google also promised to launch an investigation into a burn-in issue with the screen.

Beyond that, complaints have ranged from bad sound recording on videos to wonky touchscreens. And then there’s the whole privacy problem with the Home Mini the company had to patch, not to mention various bluetooth syncing issues with its first-gen Pixel Buds, which were met with lukewarm to negative reviews last week, in spite of a lot of initial excitement around the product.

The battle for control of data could be just starting

Companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon happily take our data in exchange for convenience, lower prices or free services, but individuals and businesses are beginning to understand the value of controlling their data instead of simply handing it over to the world’s largest technology companies. The battle to regain control over that data could be starting in earnest.

I saw a couple of examples of this in stories I wrote this past week. For starters, the GDPR data protection rules are coming to the EU next spring, and when they do, they are going to begin putting control of data into the hands of individual EU citizens.

Segment is a company helping businesses track the customer journey across the myriad of touch points, pulling the information out of data silos and putting it in a single customer record. If GDPR is about putting EU citizens in control of their data, that means if you want them to stop collecting that data, they have to do it. If you want them to erase your data as though it never existed, they have to do that too. Segment announced a product this week to help companies comply with those requests.

That helps solve one piece of the puzzle, but what about if the business doesn’t want to share their customer data with Amazon, Facebook or Google? In another example this week, we saw how this could work when Roxy, a company building customized voice-enabled devices for business landed $2.2 million in seed money.

One of the reasons that co-founder and CEO Cam Urban found customers want a customized device instead of one off the shelf from one of the big vendors, is that these businesses don’t want to give their customer information to Google or Amazon. They want to keep those interactions between them and the customer, while continuing to own that customer relationship. If they were to use an Amazon Echo or Google Home instead of the Roxy device, not only would they not get a device customized for their business, they would lose control of those interactions.

Both of these examples show that not everyone wants to simply give their data to the largest tech companies. GDPR could just be the beginning when it comes to stricter control over individual data as other countries outside of the EU begin to create similar laws to put data in control of the individual instead of the company and companies like Segment build tools to help them comply with these regulations.

As for businesses, they may want to start looking for alternatives that don’t involve sharing the data with the biggest companies for the sake of convenience, and there could be a big opportunity for companies like Roxy that can give that to them.

Featured Image: fandijk/Getty Images

YouTube terminates exploitive ‘kids’ channel ToyFreaks, among broader tightening of its child endangerment policies

Following consumer outrage over YouTube’s handling of disturbing videos aimed at children on its network, the company has now banned one of the more controversial kid channels it hosted, Toy Freaks. The channel, the 68th largest on YouTube with over 8.5 million subscribers, was often criticized for its vile and seemingly exploitive videos featuring a dad and his daughters, which many said bordered on abuse.

YouTube tells TechCrunch the ban is part of a new tightening around the enforcement of its child endangerment policies. It says it will now remove videos to protect “viewers, uploaders and children” when the company receives signals that cause concern.

The removal is part of a broader review of similar content on YouTube, the company also said.

If you’re not familiar with ToyFreaks, consider yourself lucky.

Past videos on the channel included the dad filming the girls in obvious distress, screaming or crying, for example. In one video, the dad follows his daughter into the bathroom, as she cries with a mouthful of blood from a tooth falling out. In another, he sneaks into the bathroom and dumps a bucket of frogs in the tub while the girls are bathing in order to scare them. More videos show the school-aged kids dressed as babies with pacifiers in their mouths, or spitting up on one other.

The videos are presumably scripted, and focus on gross-out humor, but they’ve still disturbed a number of viewers as it’s not clear to what extent a child can knowingly consent to participate in videos like this. It’s also appears the children are actually in distress at times, and that’s being used as fodder for views. (Way to go, dad.)

The channel was also specifically mentioned in the recently viral Medium post by James Bridle as one of the more troubling examples of videos targeted towards children that seem to cross a line. Notably, it has for a long time served as one of the origin points for many of the copycat videos that now spread across YouTube.

Today, Toy Freaks is gone.

In its place is a message that “This account has been terminated for violating YouTube’s Video Guidelines.”

The ban follows other actions YouTube has taken following Bridle’s analysis of the YouTube problem and a report from The New York Times.

Bridle’s post was largely speaking about “kid’s YouTube” – meaning video content aimed at children on YouTube – and not necessarily the standalone YouTube Kids mobile app.

Today’s YouTube can be scary and weird for children. They’re often targeted with inappropriate content thanks to video creators who are gaming YouTube’s recommendation technology to increase their views – even when kids are harmed.

And though YouTube Kids (the app) offers some basic filtering (and a way to turn off search), many disturbing videos have slipped through, The NYT reported.

In response to these reports, YouTube implemented a new policy to age-restrict inappropriate videos – like those that make inappropriate use of family friendly characters – so they wouldn’t make their way over to the YouTube Kids app.

To outright ban a popular YouTube channel, however, is a much bigger step on Google’s part.

Tubefilter and The Outline were the first to spot Toy Freaks‘ takedown.

The Outline also noted KiddieToysReview, which had nearly a million subscribers, had two clips removed – one which had over 62 million views. And Freak Family Vlogs, which is the sister channel to Toy Freaks, has been cut down to just one video, the report also said.

Google responded to a request for comment about its actions with the following statement:

“We take child safety extremely seriously and have clear policies against child endangerment. We recently tightened the enforcement of these policies to tackle content featuring minors where we receive signals that cause concern. It’s not always clear that the uploader of the content intends to break our rules, but we may still remove their videos to help protect viewers, uploaders and children. We’ve terminated the Toy Freaks channel for violation of our policies. We will be conducting a broader review of associated content in conjunction with expert Trusted Flaggers.”

Crunch Report | The tech companies helping to educate the public on fake news and how to get free Postmates Unlimited

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Google’s chatbot analytics platform Chatbase launches to public

At Google I/O this year, Google quietly introduced a new chatbot analytics platform called Chatbase, a project developed within the company’s internal R&D incubator, Area 120. Today, that platform is being publicly launched to all, after testing with hundreds of early adopters including Ticketmaster, HBO, Keller Williams, Viber, and others.

The idea behind Chatbase’s cloud service is to offer tools to more easily analyze and optimize chatbots. This includes giving bot builders the ability to understand what works to increase customer conversions, improve the bot’s accuracy, and create a better user experience.

This data is available through an analytics dashboard, where developers can track specific metrics like active users, sessions, and user retention. These insights give an overall picture of the bot’s health and see general trends.

The dashboard also lets bot creators compared the bot’s metrics across platforms, to see if some platforms need additional optimizations.

The system today integrates with any messaging platform, Google says, including Allo, Kik, Line, Messenger, Skype, Twitter, WeChat, and more. It also works with any type of bot, including voice or text.

And though it has had many high-profile testers in its early days, it’s not necessarily meant to be used only by larger companies. As a free service, Chatbase supports bot builders of any size – whether they have one or hundreds of bots in operation.

Google notes, for example, that an early customer, BLiP – a bot platform for brands – has been using Chatbase to track over 2 million messages to date across over 50 bots. Ingenious.AI, meanwhile, uses Chatbase with a bot built for a large, Australian healthy insurer to help customers of its eyeglass stores. And Keller Williams uses Chatbase with a bot that lets its 170K associates ask questions, manage appointments, connect with other associates, and track their goals.

Other testers on Chatbase’s platform have included bots for external-facing customer support, entertainment, advice and e-commerce, as well as internal-facing bots for productivity and information discovery, Google says.

The Chatbase website’s customer list includes: HBO, Keller Williams, Ticketmaster, Poncho, Swelly, Botnation AI, Viber, inGenius.AI, Starbutter AI, Foxsy, Crystal, FitWell, push, mia, and Unicef.

Beyond bot analytics, the tool leverages Google’s machine learning capabilities to figure out what sort of problems could be affecting the bot.

Typically, developers would have to scour through log files to find patterns in user messages, but Chatbase’s system instead clusters user messages that aren’t being handled (this is still available only to Early Access testers) and finds opportunities to answer more requests. It then offers ways to optimize the bot for both problems.

“One example would be for finding and fixing ‘misses,’ or alternate phrasing of supported actions that weren’t originally anticipated by the developer,” explains a Google spokesperson. “Like in so many other areas, machine learning and natural language processing are opening up powerful new opportunities in bot analytics. Putting some of Google’s machine learning capabilities to work for our users is a clear differentiator, and our users are really excited about that,” they added.

Rakuten-owned Viber, which has over 900 million users in 193 countries, detailed Chatbase’s success with a stickers bot it runs.

“We increased query volume by 35% for a popular stickers bot by optimizing queries with high exit rates,” the company said, in a statement shared by Google. “Chatbase has been immensely helpful in improving our bot. Instead of combing through logs, we rely on its machine-learning capability to help prioritize required optimizations — saving precious time that we need to focus on building new features,” Viber added.

Another notable capability in Chatbase is the auto-generated data visualization of conversation flows across sessions. This lets bot developers see what common paths users take, and where they often exit the application. A Funnel report highlights these steps and shows the success rate per step.

The company announced the general availability of Chatbase via blog post today, adding that it’s free to use.

When asked how the company plans to monetize the platform, Google said that’s something it’s thinking about for the future, but didn’t offer details on those plans.

Google also noted users of Dialogflow (formerly API.AI), Google’s end-to-end platform for building cross-platform conversational experiences, will automatically get access to basic Chatbase features within Dialogflow.

The public availability of Chatbase comes at a time when chatbots themselves have faced criticism for not being as useful as promised, and often suffering from usability issues. But the market is still in its early days, and chatbots aren’t exiting the scene. Some have even gotten better as developers figure out what works and what doesn’t.

Chatbase isn’t the only solution for chatbot analytics, but the machine learning angle could give it an edge. Plus, Google’s ability to offer it for free could help it achieve market share that bot analytics companies can’t necessarily compete with. However, as an Area 120 project, it’s unclear to what extent Google will back the project long-term. To date, most Area 120 projects have been more experimental. Chatbase seems like the kind of thing that should graduate to a Google product in the future.

Google launches a paid enterprise edition of its Dialogflow chatbot builder

Google today announced the beta launch of its enterprise edition of Dialogflow, its tool for building chatbots and other conversational applications.

In addition, Dialogflow (both in its free and enterprise version) is now getting built-in support for speech recognition, something that developers previously had to source through the Google Cloud Speech API or similar services. Unsurprisingly, this also speeds things up (by up to 30 percent, Google tells me), because apps only have to make a single API call.

Dialogflow now also features a number of basic analytics and monitoring capabilities, courtesy of Google’s Chatbase service.

You may still remember Dialogflow as API.AI, which was its name when Google acquired it last year, but the company has since renamed it. The main idea behind API.AI/Dialogflow was always to give companies the building blocks they need to build their conversational agents and other text- and voice-driven interactions and to make them easy to use.

To gain users quickly, the service was always available for free (with some rate restrictions), but that’s not what big enterprises want. They are happy to pay a fee in return for getting 24/7 support, SLAs and enterprise-level terms of service that promise data protection, among other things.

With the Dialogflow Enterprise Edition, they can now get all of this. Dan Aharon, Google’s product manager for Google Cloud AI, also noted that this version of Dialogflow is now part of Google Cloudt. That may sound like a minor thing, but it means that enterprises that want to adopt it can do so under the same terms they already have in place for Google Cloud. “Say you are Spotify, you can now add Dialogflow pretty easily because it already answers all of the requirements of being a Google Cloud product,” he told me. This also means that users who want to sign up for the enterprise edition have to do so through the Google Cloud Platform Console.

Google is charging enterprises $0.002 per text interaction request and $0.0065 per voice interaction request.

Aharon also stressed that the free version of Dialogflow isn’t going anywhere. Indeed, free users will also get access to the new speech recognition integration, though with a limit of 1,000 interactions per day (or 15,000 per month). Both versions also continue to offer support for 14 languages and integrations with virtually any major chat and voice assistant platform, including from Google competitors like Microsoft and Amazon.

When Google acquired API.AI, it was already one of the most popular tools for building chatbots and Google argues that this momentum has only continued. Google PR told Aharon not to say that it’s the most popular tool of its kind on the market, but chances are it actually is. He told me that the service now has now signed up “hundreds of thousands” of developers — and definitely far more than the 150,000 developers number the company shared at its Cloud Next event earlier this year.

“What we hear from customers time and time again is that the quality of the natural language understanding is head and shoulders above anything they have tried,” he said. “You don’t want to deploy something in production if it’s not very, very good” (though some companies obviously do…).

Beside the natural language understanding, though, it’s also Dialogflow’s flexibility that allows developers to go beyond basic decision trees and features like a deep integration with Cloud Functions for writing basic serverless scripts right in its interface that set Dialogflow apart from some of its competitors. Dialogflow also makes it easy to connect to other applications — no matter where they are hosted. That’s something you need if you want to integrate your conversational app with your ordering and shipping systems, for example.

Aharon tells me that it took about a year to port all of the API.AI features to the Google Cloud. Now that this is done, the service’s users can profit from all of Google’s investments in AI and machine learning. And given that Google is doing its best to attract more enterprises to its platform, it doesn’t come as a surprise that Dialogflow is joining this parade now, too.

Featured Image: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Facebook, Google and others join The Trust Project, an effort to increase transparency around online news

“Fake news” and other misinformation, online propaganda, and satirical content people believe is true have filled the web via search engines and social media, and have caused a rift in how people perceive today’s news organizations and the quality of their coverage. A nonpartisan effort called The Trust Project is working to address this situation by helping online users distinguish between reliable journalism and promotional content or misinformation.

Today, a key part of that effort – called “Trust Indicators” – are going live on Facebook, offering easy-to-access, transparent information about a news organization’s ethics and practices.

Here’s how this will work in practice: starting today on Facebook, an icon will appear next to articles in the News Feed. When you click on this icon, you can read information the publisher has shared related to their organization’s “ethics and other standards, the journalists’ backgrounds, and how they do their work,” according to an announcement from The Trust Project.

Facebook, Google, Bing and Twitter have all committed to displaying these indicators, though not all implementations are yet live.

On Google, the Trust Indicators will appear within Google News, Google Search, and in other Google products where news is found, the company explained in a blog post today. However, Google says it’s still determining how exactly the Indicators will be displayed.

The Trust Project itself was started by journalist Sally Lehrman of Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, and is funded by Craigslist founder Craig Newmark’s Philanthropic Fund, Google, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the Markkula Foundation.

“In today’s digitized and socially networked world, it’s harder than ever to tell what’s accurate reporting, advertising, or even misinformation,” Lehrman said, in a statement. “An increasingly skeptical public wants to know the expertise, enterprise and ethics behind a news story. The Trust Indicators put tools into people’s hands, giving them the means to assess whether news comes from a credible source they can depend on.”

Specifically, The Trust Project has released eight Trust Indicators created by leaders from over 75 news organizations that will offer additional transparency about an organization’s ethics and practices.

These are as follows:

  • Best Practices: What Are Your Standards? Who funds the news outlet? What is the outlet’s mission? Plus commitments to ethics, diverse voices, accuracy, making corrections and other standards.

  • Author Expertise: Who Reported This? Details about the journalist who wrote the story, including expertise and other stories they have worked on.

  • Type of Work: What Is This? Labels to distinguish opinion, analysis and advertiser (or sponsored) content from news reports.

  • Citations and References: For investigative or in-depth stories, greater access to the sources behind the facts and assertions.

  • Methods:  Also for in-depth stories, information about why reporters chose to pursue a story and how they went about the process.

  • Locally Sourced? Lets people know when the story has local origin or expertise.

  • Diverse Voices: A newsroom’s efforts to bring in diverse perspectives.

  • Actionable Feedback: A newsroom’s efforts to engage the public’s help in setting coverage priorities, contributing to the reporting process, ensuring accuracy and other areas.

The first news organizations to adopt the Trust Indicators are going live this month, including The German press agency dpa, The Economist, The Globe and Mail, the Independent Journal Review, Mic, Italy’s La Repubblica and La Stampa, Trinity Mirror and The Washington Post. Haymarket Media Group will implement the indicators on three brands by year-end, and several more outlets will begin to display the indicators over the next six months.

On Facebook, publishers including Vox Media (select sites) and the AP are involved in its tests, but didn’t disclose the full list of publishers.

A WordPress plugin will also be available for qualified publishers.

The rallying cry of “fake news,” led by President Trump, has helped to erode some U.S. citizens’ trust in the media. Today, only one-third of Americans say they have either a “great deal” or “fair” amount of trust in news media, according to a Gallup poll. But this is not a problem that’s limited to the U.S. In the U.K., only 43 percent of people in a in a 2017 Reuters Institute said news could be trusted, a sizable drop from the year prior. Similar problems are experienced elsewhere, as well.

That’s why The Trust Project’s efforts are not U.S.-only – it’s working in collaboration with a consortium of news organizations worldwide.

The Trust Project’s efforts follow related attempts from major tech companies, like Facebook and Google, to handle the problems with the spread of misinformation and propaganda across their platforms.

Facebook and Google have both adopted fact-checking initiatives and other efforts in recent months, but these have been criticized as being “too little, too late,” to solve the problem. Misinformation can still go viral, while fake news writers can simply change URLs to avoid the “disputed” tag for their debunked content. And some early surveys show that the efforts may even be causing harm, as it stories without tags – even if false – are believed to be true, The Guardian recently reported.

The Trust Project’s Trust Indicators are a different matter, of course. Instead of labeling content as disputed, they’re allowing users to learn more about the organization behind the news and come to their own conclusions about the content.

Whether it will actually help in the long-run, of course, remains to be seen.

Featured Image: Thomas Faull/Getty Images