News Roundup: Google chips, driverless speeding tickets and Betamax blues

A roundup of the week’s tech news including human virtual assistants, Swiss smartwatches and hearables.

Google chips

They might have only recently sold Motorola, but is Google looking to get into manufacturing its own phones and chips? The Information is reporting – via unnamed sources – that Google is looking to develop chips based on its own designs in order to bring order to the chaos of the Android ecosystem. Where Google’s Nexus project is currently built by third parties to Google’s specifications, the new plans would see production being taken in-house and emulate how Apple controls the iPhone.

Meanwhile, China’s state-owned Tsinghua Unigroup is to invest more than $12 billion in building its own DRAM and flash memory chips after failing to buy US chip-maker Micron earlier in the year.

Facebook’s M – AI with humans, or humans with AI?

Is Facebook’s Virtual Assistant more human than the company lets on? The company said M is Artificial Intelligence with human trainers, but Arik Sosman, a software engineer and blogger, has been putting Facebook’s new service through its paces and has his doubts about how much AI is actually involved. His reasoning? The ability to understand very complicated requests that “no other AI out there could pull off”, the fact M makes typos and sometimes struggles with grammar, and that a human phoned when he asked M to phone a business for him (it was his own company’s landline).

The watch industry wakes up

Quite a lot of tech-based news involving traditional watchmakers this week. First, TAG Heuer finally released its Android-powered smartwatch, the $1,500 Connected, and then Fossil announced it was acquiring fashionable activity tracking startup Misfit.

Although TAG’s news grabbed more headlines, expect more announcements like Fossil’s in the future. Few traditional watchmakers have any interest in becoming full-blown technology companies, but quite a few have already released hybrid activity-tracking models since they combine the traditional watch ethos of longevity, craft and aesthetics with added functionality.


They say that the only certainties in life are death, taxes and Motörhead, and it seems Dell’s merger with EMC may be scuppered by one of them. According to Re/Code, the proposed acquisition could see Dell hit with a tax bill of up to $9 billion. If, sources familiar with the matter warn, the IRS does rule that the complicated deal should be heavily taxed, the deal will be called off.

Google has acquired photo-editing startup Fly Labs, Microsoft has bought Israeli security firm Secure Islands, Alibaba has splashed out for China’s answer to YouTube Youku Tudou, Blue Coat now owns security firm Elastica, AVG has snaffled photo-app MyRoll, Canon Australia has purchased outsourcing company Converga and Swrve has taken over data automation platform

Despite the current wave of consolidation going on in the electronics space, STMicroelectronics has announced that it currently has no plans for any acquisitions in the near future. ”Our priority is No. 1: growth, and No. 2: resolve the problem in our digital products group,” said CEO Carlo Bozotti, adding that M&As are ”not on the table today.”


The usual dose of NSA & privacy-related headlines

-          The NSA tells software companies about zero-day exploits “90% of the time.” How kind.

-          US and German spies routinely spied on each other

-          Previous NSA whistleblower William Binney thinks ”The biggest threat to US citizens is the US government”

-          Tim Cook thinks putting backdoors in for the UK government is a bad idea

-          So does the UN’s head of privacy

-          And so will the people if their bills go up to pay for all the data collection

-          But Ed Snowden has given a new interview advising on how to reclaim your privacy

Facebook has just released its latest Global government requests report for the first half of 2015. As always, the US made the most requests for user data, up 22% to nearly 27,000. The UK was second (6,000 requests) with India third (4,500). The number of government requests to block content has gone up over 100% compared with the second half of last year, with India requesting that over 15,000 pieces of content be removed, while Turkey asked for nearly 5,000 to be removed. The UK and US only asked for less than 10 between them.

Hearables and Augmented Reality

Microsoft are keen on getting Cortana everywhere, and now that includes directly in your ear. According to Wareable, the Redmond Company is working on a dedicated in-ear Cortana device known as Clip. The report doesn’t say whether Joaquin Phoenix will be roped in to advertise the Her-like device.

Asus has revealed its plans to get into the Augmented Reality market. ”It should be next year when we come out with a product,” CEO Jerry Shen during an earnings webcast. ”We think AR will be very important for people’s lives.” The company had previously hinted that they may produce a rival for Microsoft’s HoloLens, but further details are yet to be revealed.

Driverless speeding tickets

Are driverless cars more dangerous than human drivers? A new study from The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) suggests so. “The current best estimate is that self-driving vehicles have a higher crash rate per million miles travelled than conventional vehicles.” Between September 2012 and September 2015, there have been 11 accidents over 1.2 million autonomously-driven miles; an average of 9.1 accidents per million miles, compared to 1.9 per million for human-driven cars. However, in each of the well-documented accidents, no one has been hurt and the fault has been with human drivers shunting into the back of AI cars at slow speed while gawping at the future of automobiles ahead of them. “Even if it not their fault, if the presence of self-driving vehicles causes problems with conventional vehicle drivers, then that is something we should try to understand,” Brandon Schoettle, author of the report told the Daily Dot.

Tesla owners Elon Musk is pretty certain on the future of driverless cars. “In 20 years, if you have a car that isn’t autonomous, it will be like owning a horse. You’re really just owning it for sentimental reasons,” Musk said during a recent earnings call. “I think it will be quite unusual to see cars that don’t have full autonomy, let’s say, in 15-20 years. And for Tesla, it will be a lot sooner than that.”

Microsoft Research’s Eric Horvitz, however, feels infrastructure needs to change first. ”I think we will have the rise of special lanes, hyper lanes, closed to manual traffic,” he said during an MIT event recently. 

Plenty of driverless news from Alphabet (nee Google). The big one today was a one of the prototype pods being pulled over by police for driving too slowly. “The car was traveling at 24 mph in a 35 mph zone,” said a statement on the Mountainview Police Blog. “As the officer approached the slow moving car he realized it was a Google Autonomous Vehicle. The officer stopped the car and made contact with the operators to learn more about how the car was choosing speeds along certain roadways and to educate the operators about impeding traffic per 22400(a) of the California Vehicle Code.” According to a G+ post, the little car that could managed to avoid a ticket.

On a related not, those cute little AI pods also got some new paint jobs recently. The cars – still sporting the “Google” logo as opposed to any “Alphabet” livery – were adorned in designs from local artists who had entered the company’s “Paint the Town” competition.

The company’s monthly report for October is out, and laid out the challenges posed by Halloween. “This week, lots of little ghouls, superheroes and even robots were running around Google with their families, so we asked them to hang out around our parked cars,” it read. “This gives our sensors and software extra practice at recognizing children in all their unique shapes and sizes, even when they're in odd costumes.”

Drones and AI Helicopters

With many people still wary of driverless cars and studies showing people would be reluctant to give up control of their four wheels to a computer, who thought it’d be a good idea to make driverless helicopters? According the US Army, a Black Hawk helicopter autonomously “came in, picked up [an amphibious vehicle], flew five to seven kilometers in an air route, delivered it to a ground location and released it. The unmanned ground vehicle moved through a ten-kilometer scenario where it faced different chemical, biological hazards and then fed that data back via satellite” during a test.

What is it with postal services and drones? The UK’s Royal Mail has followed in the footsteps of Switzerland, Finland and Singapore in announcing that it’s hoping to start delivering to country bumpkins via UAVs in the future. “I don’t think it is going to be to every single address, I think it is going to work in more remote places where you don’t have to deliver too much. I’d love to see things like that,” said CEO Moya Greene. She also added that to eventually have driverless trucks.


When was the last time you bought a video tape? You see them in charity shops and at car boot sales, but it’s been a long, long time since we all swapped to DVD or Blu-Ray. This week saw Sony finally announce that it was ending production of Betamax video tapes next year, some forty years after its introduction, 12 years after it last made a Betamax recorder and a good 30 years since VHS was announced as the winning format of the era. It’s quite a surprise – who even knew they were still making these things?


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Fossil/Misfit merger shows the way ahead for wearables »
Dan Swinhoe

Dan is a journalist at CSO Online. Previously he was Senior Staff Writer at IDG Connect.

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