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Will remote work become a staple after the pandemic passes?

(TECH NEWS) The Corona virus has caused a lot of upheavals and one among them is the option of remote work becoming required. After this passes will that option stay?

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Critical moments in history – like what’s happening right now – make it clear which companies are prepared and which leaders wished they had paid attention during those meetings about remote work and how to go paperless.

Life as we know it appears to have taken a left turn, and though it will most likely be temporary, it will assuredly leave a permanent mark on how the business of work gets done.

Whether a large or small company, school district, university or start-up, if the elements weren’t at least somewhat in place for workers to call it in, those organizations are behind the curve and most likely to suffer some of the consequences.

As Chinese workers have already experienced, when COVID-19 caused shutdowns throughout their nation, the companies which were best prepared for remote work were least impacted and avoided major upheaval, according to this column in Forbes. But, many companies were not culturally prepared.

The pandemic is making companies rethink the way work gets done. While the Forbes author speculates some companies will go back to their rigid ways of doing business post-COVID-19, he also asserts some companies will be transformed through the crisis. More businesses will be ready to offer remote options. And, if nothing else, be better prepared for the next time such a crisis occurs.

“Those companies able to use technology well to keep going and rethink their business model for the future by fast-tracking digital transformation will be ones ahead of their competition,” Forbes Contributor Bernard Marr says in the column.

While major companies, such as Twitter and Indeed were asking employees to work from home, it’s also no surprise that organizations like Google and JPMorgan were crafting remote working policies.

How might technology benefit society?

Telemedicine
Using technology to help triage patients remotely. Marr says this will help keep large numbers of people from overcrowding facilities, while also limiting human-to-human contact, slowing transmission. While there are some disadvantages to using telemedicine, healthcare providers are being forced to address those much sooner as a result of COVID-19.

Remote Learning
School districts and universities are planning to switch to remote learning, some for the remainder of the school semester. For some schools, such as the Harvard Business School Online, the switch to remote learning does not create any problems. While some K-12 schools are going digital, this also poses challenges for teachers and schools – particularly public schools where students lack access to technology.

If such pandemics become the norm, students may grow up in an environment that switches between live classrooms and remote learning with more fluidity, according to Digital Trends.

Conferences
The Mobile World Conference (the first conference to cancel as a result of COVID-19) and SXSW were among the many conferences put off. Yet, conferences are a trillion-dollar industry. Virtual conferences haven’t had much traction, according to Wired, but since COVID-19 a few virtual conference startups have the ground running. But, as Arielle Pardes says in the Wired story, as more conferences are canceled or switched to online experiences, their organizers have an opportunity to use the emerging platforms and change things up, creating an alternative to the “boring old webinar.”

Mary Ann Lopez earned her MA in print journalism from the University of Colorado and has worked in print and digital media. After taking a break to give back as a Teach for America corps member and teaching science for a few years, she is back with her first love: writing. When she's not writing stories, reading five books at once, or watching The Great British Bakeoff, she is walking her dog Sadie and hanging with her cats, Bella, Bubba, and Kiki. She is one cat short of full cat lady status and plans to keep it that way.

Tech News

Study finds 1,000 phrases that accidentally activate smart speakers

(TECH GADGETS) Don’t worry about accidentally activating your nosy smart speakers… unless, of course, you utter one of these 1,000 innocuous phrases.

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It’s safe to say that privacy concerns, especially in today’s digital era, are unquestionably valid. With new video recording technology making it easier to identify people at a glance (whether they like it or not) and concerns that your smart speakers are eavesdropping on you, it may feel like you’re bordering on slightly paranoid around modern technology.

After all, even though there have been cases of smart speakers picking up on intimate conversations, there’s absolutely no risk of them overhearing private things without your consent, right? Even though it’s been documented that these devices — including Cortana, Alexa, Siri, and Google Home — have listened in relationship spats, criminal activity, and even HIPAA-protected data, you’re totally in the clear.

Oh yeah. The thing is, everything that gets broadcast into your smart speaker? There’s a completely random chance that someone back at headquarters may decide to sift through it in order to improve AI learning.

And while most of the time these conversations are totally benign, it doesn’t change the fact that a complete stranger is getting an earful of your private life. In fact, these transmissions? Are actually completely admissible in court, as several murder cases have already demonstrated. Their key evidence was none other than poor Alexa herself.

But wait, wait. These smart speakers can only get your information if you activate them, and that requires you to clearly enunciate their names. Right? Um. Not exactly. Even though you may think that you need to speak crisply into the speaker to activate it, it turns out that these devices are highly sensitive to any suggestion that you might be talking to them. It’s almost like your dog when you even remotely glance at his bag of doggie treats in the corner: one crinkle and Fido comes running, begging for some kibble and ready to serve you.

It’s the same for your smart speakers. As it turns out, there are over a thousand words or phrases that can trigger your device and invite it to start recording your voice. These can range from the perfectly reasonable (Cortana hearing “Montana” and springing to attention) to the downright absurd (Alexa raising her hackles over the words “election” and “unacceptable”). Well, crap. Now what?

It’s no secret that someone is listening in on your conversations. That’s been clearly documented, researched, dissected, and even accepted at this point. However, if you thought that they’d only listen to it if you gave them implicit permission by activating your device (which, to be fair, should not even count as permission in the first place), you were wrong.

So what’s a privacy-loving person to do? Just suck it up and try to choose between the lesser of two evils? On one hand, yes, these smart speakers are super convenient and can make your life easier. On the other?

Well, if you’re a fan of your privacy, then perhaps these devices aren’t meant for you. At this point, you’ve got little recourse. These companies will continue to use your data, and there’s nothing stopping them from spying on you. That is, unless you prevent them from doing it in the first place.

If you want to keep your private conversations private, either unplug your smart speaker when you’re not using it, or don’t get one in the first place. Otherwise, you’ll continue to give your implied consent that you’re totes cool with them butting in on your personal life, and they’ll continue to be equally totes cool with using it without your permission.

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Tech News

HEY needs to fix its issues to be the Gmail killer it claims to be

(TECH NEWS) You would hope that HEY, the paid email service, would launch without issues but it has a few. Let’s hope some of that money goes to fixing them.

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Hey email

Last week, we covered HEY–a new email service that seemingly has a lot to offer–and while we largely praised the service despite it being a paid client awash in a sea of free email options, not everyone is fully on board with HEY’s inimitable charm–at least, not yet.

Adam Silver, an interaction designer focused on user experience, had some criticisms of HEY–many of which he identified as “pretty surprising oversights.” Though Silver does mention that his overall opinion of the service is good, these oversights are the focus of his review.

“HEY isn’t very accessible,” says Silver in his notes. His assessment, while self-admittedly not a holistic view, includes issues related to JavaScript (specifically when it isn’t enabled, which is something more and more companies are requiring) and lack of reasonable keyboard shortcuts for anyone using a screen reader. As Silver points out, these are fairly simple–and, thus, surprising–problems that probably should have been caught from the onset.

“All of these things are really easy to fix,” amends Silver.

Another issue Silver highlights is the inbox (imbox?) sorting. As we mentioned previously, there are three locations for email: the imbox, the feed, and the paper trail, each of which serves a different purpose. The problem with this system is that organizing emails by only three overarching categories affords little flexibility; furthermore, Silver notes that the menu for accessing each folder leaves a lot to be desired from a design standpoint.

The feed is also the subject of Silver’s criticism in that it doesn’t function enough like a traditional inbox to the point that it is actually difficult to use. Especially given the feed’s purpose–to store newsletters and such in a free-scrolling manner–this is a hold-up for sure; coupled with the feed’s lack of notifications, you can see how this problem cripples the user experience without active attention to the ancillary feed inbox.

Lastly, Silver mentions that the name “imbox” is, well, stupid. “This is not a typo but it’s not good,” he says. “You need a really good reason not to keep things simple.”

This is actually a point that we initially glossed over in our overview, but it’s another instance of a company doing a little too much to stand out–and, in doing so, potentially disrupting the user experience. “Keeping it simple” by calling the delivery place for your email the “inbox” won’t sink your brand, and the name “imbox” is sure to, at best, annoy.

It’s important to reaffirm that HEY’s driving principle–accessible email that prioritizes your privacy and charges you a relatively nominal fee for doing so–is good, and that’s the tough part of any app’s development; should they choose to follow Silver’s lowkey advice and make a few tweaks, they’ll have a winning product.

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Tech News

Live captioning via AI is now available for Zoom, if a little limited

(TECH NEWS) In order to be more inclusive, and improve the share of information with your team, live captioning is a great option for your next Zoom call.

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Zoom live captioning

The ubiquitous all-father Zoom continues to prompt innovation–and in a time during which most companies are still using some form of remote communication, who can blame them? It’s only fitting that someone would come along and try to flesh out Zoom’s accessibility features at some point, which is exactly what Zoom Live Captioning sets out to accomplish.

Zoom Live Captioning is a Zoom add-on service that promises, for a flat fee, to caption up to 80 hours per month of users’ meetings via an easy-to-implement plugin. The allure is clear: a virtual communication environment that is more time-efficient, more accessible, and more flexible for a variety of usage contexts.

Unfortunately, what’s less clear is how Zoom Live Captioning proposes to achieve this goal.

The live-captioning service boasts, among other things, “limited lag” and “the most accurate [speech-to-text AI] in the world”–a service that, despite its sensational description, is still only available in English. Furthermore, anyone who has experienced auto-captioning on YouTube videos–courtesy of one of the largest technology initiatives in the world–knows that, even with crystal-clear audio, caption accuracy is questionable at best.

Try applying that level of moving-target captioning to your last Zoom call, and you’ll see what the overarching problem here is.

Even if your Zoom call has virtually no latency, everyone speaks clearly and enunciates perfectly, your entire team speaks conversational English at a proficient degree across the board, and no one ever interrupts or experiences microphone feedback, it seems reasonable to expect that captions would still be finicky. Especially if you’re deaf or hard of hearing–a selling point Zoom Live Captioning drives home–this is a problematic flaw in a good idea.

Now, it’s completely fair to postulate that any subtitles are better than no subtitles at all. If that’s the decision you’d like to make for your team, Zoom Live Captioning starts at $20 per person per month; larger teams are encouraged to contact the company to discuss more reasonable rates if they want to incorporate live captioning across an enterprise.

Nothing would be better for speech-to-text innovation than being wrong about Zoom Live Captioning’s potential for inaccuracy, but for now, it’s safe to be a little skeptical.

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