Sunday’s Super Bowl broadcast included a spot for Amazon’s Alexa, in which Alexa’s name was said some 10 times. But the Amazon Echos in people’s homes didn’t even blink, because they were programmed to look for a particular digital fingerprint in the wake-up word, and ignore it.
Said Amazon in a blog post, the company’s acoustic fingerprinting technology allowed the devices to distinguish between the wake-up words uttered in the ad—which sounded perfectly natural—and commands given to Alexa by actual users.
When John Hennessy announced in 2015 that he was stepping down as president of Stanford University the following year, he said, "The time has come to return to what brought me to Stanford—teaching and research."
Turns out, you can’t keep a guy like Hennessy down on The Farm, at least in that small of a corral. Hennessy this week was named the new chairman of Alphabet, the parent company of Google. Eric Schmidt, who joined Google as CEO in 2001 to provide “adult supervision,” announced in December that he was stepping down.
Looking at the last time Indeed put out a top tech companies list, 2016, there have been a few changes. (An Indeed spokesperson pointed out that the methodology may have been slightly different; the 2016 list came from a general study of best workplaces; the 2018 list zeroed in more closely on tech.)
Indeed’s data analysts pointed out that it’s also worth noting which tech behemoths didn’t make the charts this year: Oracle and IBM.
The analysts also took a deeper look at the reviews to see what makes a top-five engineering workforce. Pay and benefits, job security and advancement opportunities, and corporate culture count for a lot, of course.
More specifically, for Salesforce, they noted, highlights noted include volunteer time off and flexible scheduling. Facebook employees appreciate the company’s dedication to its “mission of connecting the world” and “motivating and encouraging environment.” Google employees “know how to have fun” and say managers are very kind. Adobe employees praise the company’s work-life balance. And SAP employees like the firm’s remote work options and volunteer opportunities.
Best, of course, is in the eye of the beholder—or at least the firm collecting the data. Job search firm Glassdoor in December released a broader review of best places to work in the U.S. for 2018, including tech and non-tech companies. In that ranking, Facebook came out on top, Google in the number five slot, and Salesforce down at number 14, with In-N-Out Burger, Lululemon, and a handful of consulting firms among the companies in between.
In Indeed.com’s latest study of Silicon Valley’s tech job openings, released this week, the job search firm gave a snapshot of which companies are doing the most hiring. And, for the first 11 months of 2017, the older, established companies dominated: Apple, Oracle, Google, and Cisco were among the highest ranked.
While that may be no surprise—these big Silicon Valley companies are always hiring—the top 20 list did have a few unexpected members. Amazon, a company typically considered to be Seattle’s whale, not Silicon Valley’s, came in at number two. And Walmart’s eCommerce group jumped in at number 13, which reflects Walmart’s recent push into artificial intelligence, according to Indeed’s analysis.
Drilling down into the data for specific metro areas, Indeed found that in San Francisco, Salesforce, Square, Amazon, Uber, and Twitter rank on top; for San Jose, Cisco, Paypal, and eBay are the top recruiters; and in Oakland, Pandora and Oracle capture the top spots.
Indeed.com just released its 2017 Silicon Valley salary survey, looking at which tech jobs command the highest average pay over the past year, according to job openings posted on the job search firm’s web site from November 2016 through October 2017.
Product development engineer claimed the number one spot, with an average salary of US $173,570, and director of product management was just a few dollars behind, with an average salary of $173,556.
Meanwhile, dev ops manager, machine learning engineer, and cloud engineer salaries are climbing fast, the data showed. All three categories hadn’t previously made the top 20. This year, dev ops manager ranked fourth, at $166,488; machine learning engineer ranked 13th at $149,519, and cloud engineer ranked 17th at $146,900.
Turmoil in the U.S. immigration system is hurting tech companies. That’s the consensus of panelists from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Microsoft, and Phone2Action, speaking at a session on immigration at CES in Las Vegas last week.
The mess is not brand new, it’s just getting worse, the panelists indicated. Companies struggle with the limitations of the H-1B visa program, they say, and a backlog in permanent resident applications is making the H-1B crunch worse. H1-B visas allow U.S. companies to employ foreign workers with certain specialized skills or educational backgrounds.
“The system has not been functioning well for a long time,” said Portia Wu, director of workforce policy for Microsoft.
“It’s a domino effect,” said Jon Baselice, director of immigration policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “If a country hits the green card cap for a year, that forces people to wait. And then that hurts the H-1B cap, because the people who can’t get green cards have to renew their H-1Bs.”
On the floor of CES, LG’s CLOi service robots got a lot of attention. But just across the parking lot from the Las Vegas Convention Center, two service robots—both Relay robots from San Jose-based Savioke—are quietly at work. These robots, tagged Elvis and Priscilla, are full-time employees of the Renaissance Hotel, and they aren’t getting a lot of attention.
When Priscilla navigated through the crowded lobby to make a delivery on Wednesday, only a few people pulled out cameras. Others casually brushed by, sometimes giving it a little pat as they passed.
I checked in with Savioke founder Steve Cousins, hotel manager Carl Kruger, and robot Elvis, to find out how these robotic workers are doing. (Elvis was taking a break from his duties for media meetings, but Kruger wasn’t sure how long Elvis could hang out. “The front desk wants him back,” Kruger said.)
The hydropanel. It looks a bit like a solar panel. Indeed, it is part solar— the side sections create heat using solar thermal technology (see photo, above); the center two sections of each panel are full of solar cells So it does generate a little electricity, enough to operate its fans, pump, and electronics. But that’s not why you’d want it on your roof. Its purpose is to generate water—pure, safe, drinking water—from the air. Its creators say it works in almost any environment, be that the desert or the rain forest.
Why water? Zero Mass Water founder and Arizona State University associate professor Cody Friesen says that the water system today faces three challenges: a lack of transparency (we usually don’t know where it comes from or what is in the pipes along its journey), broken infrastructure (and that’s not just a problem in the developing world), and inconvenience (relying on bottled water for drinking).
Friesen, speaking on a panel at CES this week in Las Vegas, had been thinking about the evolution of solar energy and wireless communications, and decided to try to decentralize water in a similar way.
“Today, everybody has a supercomputer in your pocket that can communicate wirelessly,” he says, “so if you built a town now, you’d never put in wires. Solar panels, same thing. Our technology enables a similar leapfrog of infrastructure for water.”
CES press day, the day before the opening of the gargantuan consumer electronics show in Las Vegas, is traditionally anchored by the “big” consumer electronics manufacturers. The names change, but these days, that list includes Korea’s LG and Samsung, and Japan’s Panasonic, with China’s TCL waving its flag as well. (The big names used to be U.S.-based RCA and Zenith… but I’m showing my age here.)
These flashy presentations typically focus on the television display. Inevitably, manufacturers would unveil a new display or two, claiming they were the biggest, thinnest, prettiest, or most colorful—or all of the above.
Not this year. If you were dropping into your first CES from another planet, you might not actually realize from the announcements at CES press day that TVs have screens. Instead, the manufacturers struggled to explain tech advances that are coming in places the eye can’t see—under the hood and in the cloud.
Under the hood
LG, Panasonic, and TCL put the spotlight on the chips that do the video processing: For the foreseeable future, any advances in image quality will be coming from these chips, not from the displays themselves.
LG announced its new Alpha 9 processor that, the company says, will produce clearer and more realistic images, with more accurate color reproduction and less picture noise. It will also yield high frame rate (HFR) broadcast video, a technology being experimented with—but not embraced—for sports broadcasts. Its most innovative change, LG said in a statement, “is the four-step process of noise reduction, which boasts twice as many steps compared to conventional techniques. This algorithm allows for greater finesse in noise reduction, improving the clarity of images affected by distracting artifacts and enabling more effective rendering of smooth gradations.”
The processor is showing up in the company’s newest OLED TVs as well as its new top-of-the-line LED TVs.
Panasonic said its new HCX processor would be featured in new models of OLED TVs, able to automatically optimize brightness, color, and contrast as scenes change. The biggest change, the company said in a statement:
“is the introduction of a completely new ‘Dynamic LUT’ system. LUT (Look Up Table) technology is used extensively in professional post-production and broadcast circles in Hollywood and beyond to ensure color accuracy. Until now, LUTs were fixed according to the color space used by the source. With this innovation, the HCX automatically monitors the average brightness level of a scene and uses picture analysis to dynamically load an LUT appropriate to that scene. This brings significant improvements to mid-brightness scenes, making them look much more natural. To improve color accuracy in shadows, Panasonic has included additional layers of LUT data at much darker levels than were previously available. This means that while improving the transition from pure black, the colors in the shadows are even more accurate.”
TCL calls its new processor the iPQ engine, and also promised a more realistic picture.
Samsung, though it didn’t tout a new processor, promised that all its gadgets, big and small, will be a lot smarter this year—and will, by 2020, be using AI and talking to the cloud.
LG pointed to its plans to integrate AI into all its consumer electronics products, including refrigerators, washing machines, and televisions—an effort the company has branded ThinQ. (Most people would pronounce this “think,” but LG wants it to sound more like “thank you.”)
And TCL joined with Roku to connect its gear to the cloud via a new smart soundbar, coming towards the end of 2018.
In their efforts to make their connected products more intelligent and more useful, the major consumer electronics companies are reaching out to the little guys—the startup gadget makers who are putting lightbulbs, swimming pools, and even pets onto the IoT (I’m imagining your TV telling you it’s time to let the dog out). Samsung and LG both touted the efforts to develop open standards through the two-year-old Open Connectivity Foundation.
Thanks to all of your gadgets chattering behind your back, says Tim Baxter, CEO of Samsung Electronics North America, your things will “understand you and figure out what you want before you have to ask.” (This is a movie plot waiting to happen.)
In the shorter term, the technology would enable scenarios like someone asking the TV what is in the refrigerator, then having it display a recipe then send that recipe to the stove. Or, say, pausing a TV broadcast when the washing machine finishes a load.
And, promised LG’s Park, smarter appliances will also mean the end of user manuals, because, he says, “products will learn from users, not the other way around.”
That had me scratching my head a bit, but Yoon Lee, senior vice president of Samsung Electronics America, did an impressive demo of its new televisions pulling apps and user data from a phone, eliminating the laborious process of inputting usernames and passwords for services like Spotify and Netflix.
MicroLED on the horizon?
While the consumer electronics manufacturers made it clear that any improvements in the TV viewing experience in the near future will come from better processors and AI software, one—Samsung—gave a brief hint that display evolution is not at a dead halt. The company gave a don’t-blink-or-you-might-miss-it peek at what it says will be the world’s first commercial MicroLED display, available sometime this year. MicroLED technology operates like the Jumbo Tron in a football stadium, with a dedicated LED for each colored subpixel—shrunk down to the size of a standard TV, that is, with subpixels so small your eye can’t distinguish them. It doesn’t require filters or backlights, so color and brightness can be exceptional.
To date, however, researchers working with this technology have been struggling with manufacturing yields, so cost is likely to be a huge issue for some time to come, and the company offered no pricing information. And given that the company emphasized the ability to piece these displays together into large panels, it seems that this product is aimed more for commercial spaces than living rooms, at least for now.
CES 2018 starts Tuesday for most of the industry, Monday for the press corps. So I will be spending five days being wow’ed by the biggest and thinnest TV displays ever, new networking and wireless power technology, impressive wearables, and lots more that I’ll be reporting on all week. You can keep up with it all, along with all the other reporting from my colleagues at IEEE Spectrum, on our dedicated landing page.
But as I planned my schedule to make sure I attend all the most important tech industry announcements, and tried to figure out which new gadget will be the must-have item in 2018’s zeitgeist, I also put together a very short list of personal must-sees. The criteria? It must be something I actually might want to own; something that I just think would be fun to try; or something whose existence makes me want to ask the developers: what were you thinking? Hunting for these little gold nuggets can get me down an aisle or two of the endless CES show floors that I might pass up otherwise, so it’s the list that I’ll take out when I need a little energy boost.
In no particular order, here are the shiny bits of treasure I pulled from the deluge of hundreds of pre-CES press releases and related news feeds:
Ovie Smarterware. I’m sure most of the major appliance manufacturers will be touting their latest and every smarter intelligent refrigerator. This year, startup Ovie will be demonstrating a set of what they call Smarterware—food storage containers, bag clips, vegetable tags, and other gizmos that track how long your food has been in your fridge and remind you to use it before it goes bad.
These gadgets solve a major challenge that faces smart fridges—knowing what’s gotten shoved in the back of the shelves or buried in the bins, particularly things like fruits, vegetables, and leftovers, which don’t have bar codes. And Ovie promises that the starter set of the gadgets will retail for less than $90.
Do I actually want Smarterware? Probably not. It’s unlikely that I’ll be willing to tag my carrots and Brussels sprouts when I get home from the grocery store and am hurriedly shoving things into the vegetable bins so I can just be done with shopping. And, frankly, I feel guilty enough about ordering takeout when I know that the green beans have been sitting there for a while without an app reminding me. But I love the idea that a $90 set of gadgets can beat a $4000 smart fridge at the intelligence game.
Reliefband 2.0. Two years ago the first generation of the Reliefband, a wearable that treats motion sickness, changed my life. I still carry it with me everywhere and use it often. But nobody ever denied that the first-generation Reliefband is a clunky and not particularly attractive gadget. The company has been promising a redesign for a while, one that looks better and does a better job of transmitting the right amount of electricity to the right spot on the wrist (I confess I sometimes end up holding version one to make sure it doesn’t lose contact during situations in which I’d be particularly susceptible to motion sickness.) So I can’t wait to try out version 2.0.
E Ink’s Prism Dress. An outfit based on the color-changing technology previously found in e-readers display? No, I don’t want one. But I do want to see this mutable garment, if only for its viral photo possibilities—remember the white-gold/blue-black dress debate?
Helite’s Hip’Air. Helite, a startup from Fontaine-lès-Dijon, France, is promising live demos of a wearable airbag. The gadget looks a bit like a fanny pack—or two—and contains sensors that detect a fall in progress and deploy airbags to prevent hip breaks on impact. Given my elderly relatives won’t even wear alert pendants, I don’t see this flying off store shelves. But points for finding a new way to jump on the sensors/wearables/senior tech trends.
Cauldryn’s Fyre Smart Bottle. Cauldryn, based in St Charles, Mo., started their pitch with “What if you could talk to your water bottle, ask it to brew coffee…” so they pretty much had me at hello. I usually carry a water bottle and yes, there are times when I’ve stared at it and wished it were coffee. Cauldryn is promising an Aladdin’s lamp of a water bottle—one that will boil water, and, with upgrades coming in 2018, will grind coffee beans, charge my phone, and act as a speaker. The company touts that the gadget is also remotely accessible, though I have a hard time seeing the point of that. What’s the downside? I’m guessing it’ll weigh as much as my fully loaded CES bag, and that will be a deal breaker, but yes, I want a look.
Samsung’s In-Folding Smartphones. Samsung may be bringing back the flip phone, or something like it. The company hasn’t specifically said that these gadgets will be at CES, but a few months ago announced that they will be released in 2018, so I’m hoping for a CES unveiling, at least as a concept product.
Why foldable? The obvious reason is that it lets the company fit a much bigger display into a pocket-sized gadget. For me, though, there are some things about a flip phone that I still miss—for example not worrying about scratching the display when I tossed it from my pocket and that a device that could be closed up seemed a lot easier to ignore.
Cambridge Consultants’ Vincent. Product development firm Cambridge Consultants is planning to show off their AI chops at CES. One promised demo is Vincent, what the company calls “a breakthrough in machine learning that is capable of interpreting what a human is drawing and then completing the piece for them in real time.” I’m a persistent but not particularly talented art hobbyist who is really slow at completing anything—so I am eager to see what Vincent does with my attempts at sketching.