Meet the man who lent Stephen Hawking his voice

A man and a voice who will be missed.
Image: Karwai Tang/Getty Images

Stephen Hawking’s computer-generated voice is so iconic that it’s trademarked — The filmmakers behind The Theory of Everything had to get Hawking’s personal permission to use the voice in his biopic.

But that voice has an interesting origin story of its own.

Back in the ’80s, when Hawking was first exploring text-to-speech communication options after he lost the power of speech, a pioneer in computer-generated speech algorithms was working at MIT on that very thing. His name was Dennis Klatt.

As Wired uncovered, Klatt’s work was incorporated into one of the first devices that translated speech into text: the DECtalk. The company that made the speech synthesizer for Hawking’s very first computer used the voice Klatt had recorded for computer synthesis. The voice was called ‘Perfect Paul,’ and it was based on recordings of Klatt himself. 

In essence, Klatt lent his voice to the program that would become known the world over as the voice of Stephen Hawking.

Hawking passed away on Wednesday at the age of 76. The renowned cosmologist lived with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, for 55 years. His death has prompted an outpouring of love, support, and admiration for his work and his inspirational outlook on life. It’s also prompted reflection on how he managed to have such an enormous impact on science and the world, when his primary mode of communication for the last four decades was a nerve sensor in his cheek that allowed him to type, and a text-to-speech computer. 

Though Hawking had only had the voice for a short time, it quickly became his own. According to Wired, when the company that produced the synthesizer offered Hawking an upgrade in 1988, he refused it. Even recently, as Intel worked on software upgrades for Hawking over the last decade, they searched through the dusty archives of a long-since-acquired company so they could use the original Klatt-recorded voice, at Hawking’s request.

Klatt was an American engineer who passed away in 1989, just a year after Hawking insisted on keeping ‘Perfect Paul’ as his own. He was a member of MIT’s Speech Communication Group, and according to his obituary, had a special interest in applying his research in computational linguistics to assist people with disabilities.

Hawking has been known to defend and champion his voice. During a 2014 meeting with the Queen, she jokingly asked the British Hawking “have you still got that American voice?” Hawking, like the sass machine that he is, replied “Yes, it is copyrighted actually.”

Hawking doesn’t actually consider his voice fully “American.” In a section on his website entitled “The Computer,” Hawking explains his voice technology:

“I use a separate hardware synthesizer, made by Speech Plus,” he writes. “It is the best I have heard, although it gives me an accent that has been described variously as Scandinavian, American or Scottish.”

It’s an accent, and a voice, that will be missed.

You can find Hawking’s last lecture which he gave in Japan earlier this month on his website. It’s called ‘The Beginning of Time.’

Read more: https://mashable.com/2018/03/14/stephen-hawking-voice-origin-story/

Google just gave everyone a great reason to use iMessage apps

iMessage just got even more useful.
Image: lili sams /Mashable

Multi-taskers, rejoice:  Google just made it a lot easier to search while texting with friends.

The company just introduced an update that adds an iMessage extension to Google’s iOS app. This means you can search and share results without ever having to leave your current thread.

Now, so long as you have Google’s iOS app installed, Google searches are only a couple taps away whenever you’re in the Messages app. 

If you haven’t used it before, you’ll need to enable the iMessage extension from app drawer by taping on the App Store icon (you can choose your favorite app shortcuts in the “more” menu.) Once enabled, all you have to do is tap on the Google icon to get a handy search box, along with shortcuts for checking out weather, nearby restaurants, as well as trending YouTube videos and news.

There’s even a GIF search feature because iMessage can never have enough GIFs. 

If you search for restaurant recommendations, the app makes it easy to share results back to the conversation you’re having, though not all of Google’s shortcuts are easily shared via the extension. Even so, it’s a useful feature to have available (and a good way to kill time while you’re waiting for everyone in a group message to chime in).

This isn’t the first time Google has taken advantage of the extra space where your keyboard normall is.

The company’s keyboard app Gboard, also has search built right in. Now though, you don’t even need to have the Gboard app at all — so long as the Google app is installed on your phone, the search extension will show up in the app drawer in iMessage. 

Read more: https://mashable.com/2018/03/05/google-search-imessage/

Google testing new Material design for search results, says report

Image: torsten silz/af/getty images

Google search results — one of the most often used tools on the internet — may soon get a new look. 

Spotted by Reddit user DiscombobulatedLead, Google is apparently testing new kind of search-results page that’s based on the company’s Material design approach that’s been spreading through Google services the past few years.

While the old layout displays all search results on one white background, the new layout reportedly displays each result in a “card box” with defined borders. 

Google has been updated more and more of its desktop services around Material; Google Calendar was one of the most recent to get a makeover. Material roughly began with the launch Android 5.0 Lollipop, and it generally emphasizes cards, layers, “flat” textures, and specific coloring schemes. 

For search, Google tends to favor redirecting users’ attention away from “extra stuff” (like sidebars) and more towards content. In 2012 it moved the search category toolbar from the side to the top of the page, then did a similar move with YouTube a couple years later. YouTube’s recent redesign also de-emphasized menus and made each page simpler and more visual. 

In this case, Google hasn’t moved any menus around, but individual boxes may help each search result catch your eye. 

Read more: https://mashable.com/2018/03/05/google-testing-material-search-results/

Uber joins Apple, Amazon as the next tech company to jump into healthcare

The Uber Health dashboard brings Uber rides to healthcare facilities for its patients and caregivers.
Image: uber

Healthcare is big business, and tech companies don’t want to miss out just because they’re busy building smartphones, apps, and self-driving cars.

Uber announced its new Uber Health platform Thursday. It’s a way for healthcare organizations to order rides for patients who are receiving care at their facilities. Uber also launched an API so the ride-hailing service can be built into existing healthcare tools.

This isn’t an exact replica of the existing Uber app. Instead, health facilities can schedule rides for patients and caregivers (up to a month ahead of time, so patients can get to appointments and make sure they get their follow-up care). The facilities also pay for the rides. Uber Health hopes to replace the transportation options facilities usually book to pick up patients.

Unlike the Uber app, rides work for patients without smartphones. Instead, the rides are coordinated through text message, and there’s a forthcoming plan to set up calls to landlines or cellphones instead of texting. 

Hospitals, rehab centers, and senior care facilities —and more than 100 organizations across the U.S. — are already using a beta version of the program. 

Uber isn’t the first major tech company to break into the healthcare space, which the World Economic Forum values at $6.5 trillion worldwide. Companies like Apple and Google are collecting tons of data on their users, which means it’s not much of a stretch for them to start using information about our eating, sleeping, and heart rate patterns to create new tools and products. 

Last month Google announced an algorithm that can detect, via an eye scan, whether someone has high blood pressure or is at risk for a heart attack or stroke. The researchers were part of Google’s health research division, Verily, which became part of the company in 2015. The AI has a 70 percent accuracy rate, and it’s improving.

Apple is using its Apple Watch product to track health signals like heart rate. With the KardiaBand, wearers can accurately detect irregular heartbeats and other indicators about poor heart health.

Apple introduced the health platform to its operating system back in 2014 and has big goals for diabetes care and other tools for health. 

This week Apple announced its own health clinic system, AC Wellness, for its employees.

Even Amazon is rumored to be thinking about creating its own healthcare company. Depending on how you look at it, that’s either very far — or super close — to selling everything from books to yoga pants to succulents through its online store. Alexa, Amazon’s digital assistant, already knows a lot about users’ habits and health problems, like if you’re asking which pharmacies are open or inquiring as to home remedies for a sore throat.

Health and tech are blurring together. But instead of prescription slips, it’s apps, wearables, and AI. Get ready for the future. 

Read more: https://mashable.com/2018/03/01/uber-health-healthcare-tech/

Artificial intelligence has beaten Q*bert, the iconic Atari video game

Image: aaron ontiveroz/ the Denver Post via Getty Images

Nothing is off-limits to artificial intelligence — even your favorite old video games. 

An artificial intelligence, developed by researchers from the University of Freiburg in Germany, has beaten the Q*bert arcade game by exploiting glitches in its design. 

In the game, players take the role of cartoon character Q*bert, who hops around a pyramid of 28 cubes. Every time Q*bert lands on a cube, it changes color. Players are tasked with changing every cube’s color without being captured by enemies that also roam around the pyramid. 

The AI found two sleazy ways to beat the game. First, it baited an enemy to follow it, then committed suicide by jumping off its pyramid. Though Q*bert lost a life, killing the opponent in the process left the player with enough points to reincarnate and repeat the cycle. 

Additionally, by jumping around the pyramid in a (seemingly) random fashion, the AI caused the pyramid’s tiles to begin to blink, and was granted more than one million points.  

The researchers believe that no human has ever uncovered these loopholes before, but this may not be entirely fair. The researchers tested their AI with an updated version of Q*bert — and the game’s developer claims the original version didn’t have such bugs. 

So it’s possible that humans could have found these loopholes as well. Nonetheless, the AI was able to find them after only five hours of training, which is probably less time than it would take most humans to beat the game. 

The researchers used sets of algorithms called “evolution strategies.” As the name implies, evolution strategies involve generating many algorithms and identifying those that perform the best through trial and error.  

In the paper, researchers suggest that evolution strategies can be considered “a potentially competitive approach to modern deep reinforcement learning algorithms.” Deep reinforcement learning algorithms mimic human neural networks and teach themselves effective strategy. A number of well known artificial agents fall into this category, including Alphabet Inc.’s DeepMind, which recently became one of the world’s most dominant Go players

It’s also possible that these algorithms could end up working together. “Since evolution strategies have different strengths and weaknesses than traditional deep reinforcement learning strategies, we also expect rich opportunities for combining the strength of both,” the researchers wrote. 

This study is a good sign for our robot overlords, which grow more dominant every day. In a recent study, AI outperformed lawyers in interpreting legal contracts. A Google-trained algorithm has trained itself to recognize patients at risk of heart disease — it doesn’t yet outperform existing medical approaches, but it’s on its way. 

It’s a serious, but exciting reminder to all humans. When it comes to skilled AI, nothing is out of reach — not even your childhood arcade games. 

Read more: https://mashable.com/2018/03/01/ai-beats-qbert/

How people are exercising their ‘Right to be Forgotten’ on Google

The EU's 'Right to be Forgotten' allows people to request search engines delist web pages from search results.
Image: Getty Images

After three years in effect, the European ruling with a name that sounds like it’s straight out of a science-fiction book is revealing the things people most want to hide about themselves online.

Google published a new transparency report on Monday entitled “Three years of the Right to be Forgotten.” The 17-page document analyzes requests European citizens have made to delist URLs under the “Right to be Forgotten” online privacy statute. 

Google’s transparency report found that from 2014-2017, Europeans requested that Google delist 2.4 million URLs from search, primarily regarding individuals’ personal information, or legal history. 

In 2014, the European Court of Justice established EU citizens’ “right to be forgotten,” or, more accurately according to Google, the right to be delisted. Under the ruling, European citizens can petition search engine companies like Google to delist URLs from search results. Per a blog post from Google, individuals can ask search engines to delist a page if it is “inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive.” 

After a petition has been submitted, the search engine companies then decide to comply based on whether the individuals’ right to privacy outweighs the public good associated with keeping the URL listing (remember, the site doesn’t go away — it just gets delisted from search).

With over 2.4 million delisting requests, in its new report, Google is able to analyze how and why people are utilizing their “right” to be forgotten — and show that the ability is something a significant amount of people really do want.

Also importantly, the nature of the requests and the requesters, and the rate at which Google accepts or denies them, can shed lights on how well Google is carrying out the individual privacy vs. public good directive. 

Google, too, was looking to the report to evaluate the efficacy of their processes.

“My biggest concern was are our processes doing the best that we can to respect individuals as well as minimize the impact that that would have to the flow of information,” Michee Smith, product lead of the Google Transparency Report said. “I think that our numbers show that. And that’s what I’m really proud of.”

Image: google

Smith said that the fact that nearly 90 percent of the requests came from private individuals, not companies or public figures, surprised and pleased her. She thinks that figure demonstrates that Google’s processes are serving individuals who wanted the law.

Specifically, the report found that 89 percent of the requests come from individuals. The remaining 11 percent comes from corporate entities, government officials, other public officials, minors, and others. This shows it’s not just corporations or public figures using the statute to scrub their online presence, but real people.

But interestingly, just 1,000 of the 400,000 individual requesters are responsible for 15% of all of the 2.4 million petitioned URLs. Many of these “frequent requesters,” as the report calls them, “were law firms and reputation management services.” 

“These results illustrate that while hundreds of thousands of Europeans rely on the RTBF to delist a handful of URLs, there are thousands of entities using the RTBF to alter hundreds of URLs about them or their clients that appears in search results,” the report states.

Nearly half of the requested URLs directed to social media websites or directories (sites that contain personal information like emails, phone numbers, addresses, etc.) And over 20 percent of the pages referenced an individual’s legal history, in news articles or on government pages. 

The latter category is where Google faced the test of how to evaluate privacy needs versus public good. The ability to delist a news article could be a cause for concern, for freedom of information and press advocates. 18 percent of the URLs submitted for delisting were from news organizations.

However, Smith says that the results show that Google was able to maintain this balance. 

“I was happy to see that news and government sites were lower,” Smith said. “Those are the sensitive things that when you think about the balance between privacy and the freedom of information, you really don’t want a lot of news sites being removed from your web search. And to see those numbers be lower really made me feel good about the process that we’ve put in place to handle these types of requests.”

Professional information was the largest target of delisting requests, at 24 percent. The content of other requested pages were pages that were self-authored, or that contained information about professional wrongdoing, politics, and crime. Overall, Google accepted 43 percent of the delisting requests. Which, considering the amount of trolling on the internet, seems a not-too-shabby stat to support the idea that people really are using their Right to be Forgotten in good faith.

“I think the 43 percent number shows that we’re being thoughtful,” Smith said. “We’re not just removing everything that we see.”

“It’s a work in progress.”

Read more: https://mashable.com/2018/02/27/right-to-be-forgotten-google-transparency-report/

Apple now stores some iCloud files on Google Cloud Platform

Image: jaap arriens/Nur Photo via Getty Images

After some speculation, Apple has finally confirmed that it uses Google Cloud Services for iCloud storage. The admission was made in the company’s most recent update to its iOS Security Guide, spotted by CNBC. 

The Security Guide has previously indicated that iCloud services relied on Google competitors Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure. But the most recent version, released in January, states that iCloud files are stored using “third-party storage services, such as S3 [a product of Amazon Web Services] and Google Cloud Platform.” 

According to the guide, all items stored on iCloud, including contacts, calendars, photos, and documents are stored with such third-party services. Each file is broken into chunks and encrypted. The encrypted chunks are then stored on Google Cloud Platform without any user-identifying information. 

The guide does not specify when or why Apple switched from Microsoft to Google, or whether the company is taking advantage of Google Cloud services for anything other than object storage. 

Coca Cola, Best Buy, Niantic, Spotify, Motorola, and Airbus rank among the platform’s almost 300 corporations that use the platform. Apple is not listed among Google Cloud Platform’s prominent customers

Read more: https://mashable.com/2018/02/26/apple-uses-google-cloud-services/

Subway launches loyalty program with surprise rewards and a confusing token system

Mmm bread.
Image: SUBWAY

Subway, the world’s largest fast food chain, is launching a new loyalty program, called Subway MyWay Rewards, that will offer customers surprise treats and tokens that eventually mature into dollars.

The move is a step toward earning more customer love, as well as making the Subway experience more digital — since it comes with a mobile app refresh. 

Subway MyWay Rewards launches in the U.S. and Canada in March and will be available at 28,500 restaurants. With Subway’s scale, it’ll be one of the largest loyalty programs in the world, though MyWay is far from Subway’s first effort in this arena. For example, the chain previously offered free meals with a punch card system called Sub Club. That was discontinued in 2005 in part due to fraud, as Wired reported. The new system tries to avoid that by making it all mobile. 

“We really designed the program with the consumer in mind. You don’t have to read the fine print,” Subway’s Chief Digital Officer Carissa Ganelli told Mashable of MyWay Rewards. 

Here’s a look at Subway’s new mobile app for tracking rewards: 

Image: subway

Image: subway

Subway’s offer of surprises is easy to understand and sounds a lot like Panera Bread’s MyPanera, but the tokens are a bit more complicated. (Fortunately, they aren’t related to cryptocurrency or ICOs or anything like that.) Call them points, if that helps. 

Here’s how the tokens system works:

  • For every dollar customers spend at Subway they earn 4 tokens

  • Reach 200 tokens and receive $2.00 in Subway credit 

So, if Subway customers wanted to maybe earn enough tokens to cover an entire Subway sandwich. Let’s just say one that costs about $6.00. That’s 600 tokens, which means spending $150. Yeah, it’s not easy, but we’re talking about free sandwiches here. The rewards also can be applied to cookies, drinks, salads, soups, or whatever else they’re serving up at Subway. 

Thankfully, keeping track of rewards is pretty easy. MyWay Rewards members can look them up on Subway’s website, the mobile app, or ask in-person at a Subway location. 

The program’s structure is what the people — at least those who Subway surveyed — asked for, according to Ganelli. 

“The $2 threshold was something that’s going to absolutely enable us to reward our members more frequently,” Ganelli said. 

In addition to instituting a $2 reward, Subway gleamed from its customer surveys that people want surprise rewards. 

“You won’t know when you’ve earned our reward until you’ve earned it,” Ganelli said and shared an example of me earning a free drink and being notified via Subway’s mobile app. “That’s awesome. I got a present today because who doesn’t like surprises of delicious stuff?”

Read more: https://mashable.com/2018/02/22/subway-myway-loyalty-program-rewards/

Former Googler: I was fired for comments on ‘white male privilege’

Things aren't going well for Google's workplace culture.
Image: George Rose/Getty Images

Google is now facing a new lawsuit over diversity, but from the opposite side of the one that you’ve probably heard about. On Thursday, Gizmodo reported that former Google employee Tim Chevalier is suing Google for discrimination, harassment, retaliation, and wrongful termination.

Chevalier’s lawsuit alleges he was fired for calling out racism and sexism in internal Google forums, and that his views were targeted in part on the basis of his identity as transgender, queer, and disabled. In particular, he spoke out about white male privilege, in response to James Damore’s “anti-diversity” memo in which Damore made the case that women may have less preference and aptitude for engineering jobs for biological reasons. 

James Damore is also currently suing Google for wrongful termination and discrimination — specifically, against conservatives and white men. Damore and Chevalier may be ideological opposites, but controversy stoked by conversation in Google’s forums have sparked similar causes of action that’s left Google embroiled in legal hotwater and a cultural flame war on all sides.

Chevalier’s lawsuit says that when he began at Google in 2015, Google’s workforce was largely “homogenous,” composed “overwhelmingly” of cisgender white men — and that “its workplace culture reflected their views.” The lawsuit says Chevalier advocated for the rights of women and minorities in order to push back on the online bullying he regularly witnessed on Google’s forums, in order to make Google a more habitable place for him, as well as other minorities. 

However, starting in September 2016, Chevalier’s manager started criticizing him for his “social activism.” Even at one point saying “that wasn’t what we hired you for.” Chevalier subsequently complained, and was encouraged to consider leaving and told that “working at Google was not for everyone.” His request to transfer to a new team was also denied.

Things came to a head after the release of the Damore memo. Per the lawsuit, Chevalier called Damore’s views misogynistic, and quoted a passage from a book that used the phrase “white boys” and described white male privilege. Google found memes he posted on Google’s internal meme generator, Memegen, to be discriminatory against white men. Google also found a comment he made regarding Republicans’ inability to follow community guidelines to be discriminatory. Google fired Chevalier in November 2017, specifically citing these social media posts, which had been discussed on a previous call with HR, as the cause for termination.

It turns out that Chevalier isn’t the only employee who has been disciplined for speaking out against instances of white supremacy, sexism, and homophobia on the Google intranet. Gizmodo reports that at least three other employees were disciplined by HR for comments that “Google allegedly deemed discriminatory toward white men.”

Google is still facing a class action lawsuit spearheaded by James Damore, who Google fired after his memo — in which he claims discrimination on the basis of being a conservative white man — went viral. Last Friday, the National Labor Relations Board, which Damore also petitioned for wrongful termination, found that Google was within their rights when they fired Damore.

In response to the lawsuit, Gina Scigliano, Google spokeswoman told Mashable in a statement: 

An important part of our culture is lively debate. But like any workplace, that doesn’t mean anything goes. All employees acknowledge our code of conduct and other workplace policies, under which promoting harmful stereotypes based on race or gender is prohibited. This is a very standard expectation that most employers have of their employees. The overwhelming majority of our employees communicate in a way that is consistent with our policies. But when an employee does not, it is something we must take seriously. We always make our decision without any regard to the employee’s political views.

For now, Google remains legally challenged and internally mired in the same culture war that’s engulfed much of the country.

Read more: https://mashable.com/2018/02/22/tim-chevalier-suing-google-diversity/

New Google-powered AI scans eyes to detect heart disease, stroke risk

Image: ben brain/Digital Camera Magazine via getty images

The secret to identifying certain health conditions may be hidden in our eyes. 

Researchers from Google and its health-tech subsidiary Verily announced on Monday that they have successfully created algorithms to predict whether someone has high blood pressure or is at risk of a heart attack or stroke simply by scanning a person’s eyes, the Washington Post reports

Google’s researchers trained the algorithm with images of scanned retinas from more than 280,000 patients. By reviewing this massive database, Google’s algorithm trained itself to recognize the patterns that designated people as at-risk. 

This algorithm’s success is a sign of exciting developments in healthcare on the horizon. As Google fine-tunes the technology, it could one day help patients quickly and cheaply identify health risks. 

But don’t get too excited yet. The algorithm didn’t outperform existing medical approaches, such as blood tests according to the Washington Post report. The algorithms were able to pick out the patient at risk 70 percent of the time. That’s impressive, but it’s far from perfect. 

The procedure also hasn’t been replicated or validated to the point where it can be broadly accepted in the scientific community. 

And experts don’t think it will be necessary for Google’s technology to replace conventional, human-powered care in the near future. 

Maulik Majmudar, associate director of the Healthcare Transformation Lab at Massachusetts General Hospital, told the Post that age and gender are already good predictors of risk for such disease. While Google’s algorithm is an improvement, its improvement to current healthcare practices would be marginal at best. 

That said, it’s clear that artificial intelligence and machine learning have the potential to bring added convenience and affordability to the healthcare industry, even in areas as small as our eyes. 

Read more: https://mashable.com/2018/02/20/google-ai-detects-heart-disease-risk/