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Google added Driving Mode, and they need your help to fill in the blanks

(TECH NEWS) Google wants you to help build out their driving mode, and all you have to do is annoy every last person around you.

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Google Maps releases a Driving Mode, held in hand.

Google is trying to map the planet and everything on it. An ever-hungry juggernaut dragon, there is some noble utility to having every mappable atom cataloged by their Sauron gaze. They’ve got goofy cars with oversized eyeball cameras gleefully running along every last street in existence, and their dance of taking photos is going to last until the end of time. It’s not even like they are shy about announcing it – HEY THIS IS A GOOGLE CAR AND WE’RE TAAAAAAKING PICTUUUUUURES.

These efforts are a bit hampered at the moment between various travel bans, which – while understandable – means that the beast can’t be sated. But Google is resourceful and full of smart people, and they know that most people are probably pretty bored and need excuses to move around. Bonus – it’s pretty safe to do so in your car (at least in terms of COVID-19 exposure), and everyone needs a change of scenery here and there.

First spotted by users at Reddit last week, Google has opened up a new “Driving Mode” option for their mobile navigation app. It lets users upload photos to their Street View service, which in turn can then be shared out to the internet at large. As a bonus, it blurs out faces and license plates to protect privacy. I guess the paranoid part of me wonders if the app secretly saves data in an  unblurred state, but that means there would have to be a nefarious reason to amass that kind of data.

For the time being, let’s ignore that potentially troubling thought and focus on the positive that Google is providing here – a way to more quickly clear out all the dead gray space their maps might still be riddled with. I’m that friend who doesn’t trust that the address painted on your curb, so I’m totally down for knowing what you meant by “the one with the red door and the big blue thing.”

It’s crowdsourcing at its most genuine and distilled – an army of free freelancers working to collect data on a gargantuan project that might bankrupt even the largest tech giants of the world. If we focused the entirety of Instagram to a specific task, and a willing audience rose up and immediately contributed, we could get enough data to solve practically anything. Google is more or less taking Uber’s model and applying it to data aggregation and collection, and I can’t really fault them for that.

You may be wondering how useful this is, or even if it carries any utility at all. I think the answer there hinges on 2 things to consider. The first is simple – Google hasn’t fully mapped everything out. This includes rural areas in developed countries, to vast expanses in several others. If the thought is that we can better visualize the world in an effort to benefit humanity at large, then this endeavor is highly worthwhile.

The second thing to think about is just how usable the uploaded photos are, and this will rely on the devices themselves. Google could mitigate this by controlling software and hardware version minimums, with requirements that a camera must be able to provide images at a high bit quality. This would cut down on bad data or unusable pictures. Surely there’s a review process for final approval on top of that. In the end, this should ensure pictures that clearly convey visual data properly. (Of course, sometimes you’ll still get weird or funny stuff.)

If there’s one downside to any of this, it is that nagging feeling of another minor intrusion on privacy. When Google drives their cars around, it’s hard to miss their mechanical extremities and brightly colored paint jobs. When some rando down the road loads up a camera in their ‘96 Sonata and starts snapping pics, I could see that making some people upset. At the worst, you could say Google is encouraging unscrupulous behavior (or at least very annoying behavior), but I see enough Facebook updates from people telling me what coffee they drank for the day, so maybe no one is too worried. I guess you could worry about someone keeping any compromising photos, but Google can’t be held responsible for that.

For now, the rollout appears to be controlled at this time, as it’s not widely available to everyone, and there’s no clear indication on when and how it will be publicly released everywhere. Hit the road everyone.

Robert Snodgrass has an English degree from Texas A&M University, and wants you to know that yes, that is actually a thing. And now he's doing something with it! Let us all join in on the experiment together. When he's not web developing at Docusign, he runs distances that routinely harm people and is the kind of giant nerd that says "you know, there's a King of the Hill episode that addresses this exact topic".

Tech News

4 ways startups prove their investment in upcoming technology trends

(TECH NEWS) Want to see into the future? Just take a look at what technology the tech field is exploring and investing in today — that’s the stuff that will make up the world of tomorrow.

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Woman testing VR technology

Big companies scout like for small ones that have proven ideas and prototypes, rather than take the initial risk on themselves. So startups have to stay ahead of technology by their very nature, in order to be stand-out candidates when selling their ideas to investors.

Innovation Leader, in partnership with KPMG LLP, recently conducted a study that sheds light onto the bleeding edge of tech: The technologies that the biggest companies are most interested in building right now.

The study asked its respondents to group 16 technologies into four categorical buckets, which Innovation Leader CEO Scott Kirsner refers to as “commitment level.”

The highest commitment level, “in-market or accelerating investment,” basically means that technology is already mainstream. For optimum tech-clairvoyance, keep your eyes on the technologies which land in the middle of the ranking.

“Investing or piloting” represents the second-highest commitment level – that means they have offerings that are approaching market-readiness.

The standout in this category is Advanced Analytics. That’s a pretty vague title, but it generally refers to the automated interpretation and prediction on data sets, and has overlap with Machine learning.

Wearables, on the other hand, are self explanatory. From smart watches to location trackers for children, these devices often pick up on input from the body, such heart rate.

The “Internet of Things” is finding new and improved ways to embed sensor and network capabilities into objects within the home, the workplace, and the world at large. (Hopefully that doesn’t mean anyone’s out there trying to reinvent Juicero, though.)

Collaboration tools and cloud computing also land on this list. That’s no shock, given the continuous pandemic.

The next tier is “learning and exploring”— that represents lower commitment, but a high level of curiosity. These technologies will take a longer time to become common, but only because they have an abundance of unexplored potential.

Blockchain was the highest ranked under this category. Not surprising, considering it’s the OG of making people go “wait, what?”

Augmented & virtual reality has been hyped up particularly hard recently and is in high demand (again, due to the pandemic forcing us to seek new ways to interact without human contact.)

And notably, AI & machine learning appears on rankings for both second and third commitment levels, indicating it’s possibly in transition between these categories.

The lowest level is “not exploring or investing,” which represents little to no interest.

Quantum computing is the standout selection for this category of technology. But there’s reason to believe that it, too, is just waiting for the right breakthroughs to happen.

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Tech News

Internet of Things and deep learning: How your devices are getting smarter

(TECH NEWS) The latest neural network from Massachusetts Institute of Technology shows a great bound forward for deep learning and the “Internet of Things.”

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Woman using smart phone to control other devices in home, connected to deep learning networks

The deep learning that modifies your social media and gives you Google search results is coming to your thermostat.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed a deep learning system of neural networks that can be used in the “Internet of Things” (IoT). Named MCUNet, the system designs small neural networks that allow for previously unseen speed and accuracy for deep learning on IoT devices. Benefits of the system include energy savings and improved data security for devices.

Created in the early 1980s, the IoT is essentially a large group of everyday household objects that have become increasingly connected through the internet. They include smart fridges, wearable heart monitors, thermostats, and other “smart” devices. These gadgets run on microcontrollers, or computer chips with no processing system, that have very little processing power and memory. This has traditionally made it hard for deep learning to occur on IoT devices.

“How do we deploy neural nets directly on these tiny devices? It’s a new research area that’s getting very hot,” said Song Han, Assistant Professor of Computer Science at MIT who is a part of the project, “Companies like Google and ARM are all working in this direction.”

In order to achieve deep learning for IoT connected machines, Han’s group designed two specific components. The first is TinyEngine, an inference engine that directs resource management similar to an operating system would. The other is Tiny NAS, a neural architecture search algorithm. For those not well-versed in such technical terms, think of these things like a mini Windows 10 and machine learning for that smart fridge you own.

The results of these new components are promising. According to Han, MCUNet could become the new industry standard, stating that “It has huge potential.” He envisions the system has one that could help smartwatches not just monitor heartbeat and blood pressure but help analyze and explain to users what that means. It could also lead to making IoT devices far more secure than they are currently.

“A key advantage is preserving privacy,” says Han. “You don’t need to transmit the data to the cloud.”

It will still be a while until we see smart devices with deep learning capabilities, but it is all but inevitable at this point—the future we’ve all heard about is definitely on the horizon.

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Tech News

Google is giving back some privacy control? (You read that right)

(TECH NEWS) In a bizarre twist, Google is giving you the option to opt out of data collection – for real this time.

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Open laptop on desk, open to map privacy options

It’s strange to hear “Google” and “privacy” in the same sentence without “concerns” following along, yet here we are. In a twist that’s definitely not related to various controversies involving the tech company, Google is giving back some control over data sharing—even if it isn’t much.

Starting soon, you will be able to opt out of Google’s data-reliant “smart” features (Smart Compose and Smart Reply) across the G-Suite of pertinent products: Gmail, Chat, and Meet. Opting out would, in this case, prevent Google from using your data to formulate responses based on your previous activity; it would also turn off the “smart” features.

One might observe that users have had the option to turn off “smart” features before, but doing so didn’t disable Google’s data collection—just the features themselves. For Google to include the option to opt out of data collection completely is relatively unprecedented—and perhaps exactly what people have been clamoring for on the heels of recent lawsuits against the tech giant.

In addition to being able to close off “smart” features, Google will also allow you to opt out of data collection for things like the Google Assistant, Google Maps, and other Google-related services that lean into your Gmail Inbox, Meet, and Chat activity. Since Google knowing what your favorite restaurant is or when to recommend tickets to you can be unnerving, this is a welcome change of pace.

Keep in mind that opting out of data collection for “smart” features will automatically disable other “smart” options from Google, including those Assistant reminders and customized Maps. At the time of this writing, Google has made it clear that you can’t opt out of one and keep the other—while you can go back and toggle on data collection again, you won’t be able to use these features without Google analyzing your Meet, Chat, and Gmail contents and behavior.

It will be interesting to see what the short-term ramifications of this decision are. If Google stops collecting data for a small period of time at your request and then you turn back on the “smart” features that use said data, will the predictive text and suggestions suffer? Only time will tell. For now, keep an eye out for this updated privacy option—it should be rolling out in the next few weeks.

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