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Category: Technology

Actually use your phone / computer’s much-hyped voice assistant feature for something other than playing music and setting calendar invites? Dream the impossible dream.

Background:

Voice recognition has existed in somewhat passable form since the late 1990s. But recently it has become more prominent with Apple Siri, the “OK Google” voice assistant, and Amazon Alexa.

The issue:

However, these products are all incredibly limited, and can perform almost no actions beyond a few hard-coded ones that were added at release.

The last 5 years of “voice assistant” development have mainly been focused on extremely specific items of potential commercial interest (e.g. “now you can ask about baseball scores or movie showtimes”), rather than adding core functionality.

If you want to do something besides play music, interact with your calendar, or set a timer, then using a voice assistant is an exercise in frustration.

Proposal:

At every company with a voice assistant division, all senior engineers should have a recurring Monday task where they have to:

  • Find the #1 query that users ask for that is both 1) reasonable and 2) totally un-answerable by the system.
  • Add a response to that query the ever-growing list of hard-coded phrases that the system recognizes.

To assist, I have run through a list of plausible and reasonable queries to test Siri on iOS 11 and “OK Google” on Android 8, and have provided screenshots of the equivalent queries and disastrous results below. They are divided by category.

CALCULATOR: BASIC

  • “What’s 2 + 2”
    • Google: SUCCESS
    • iOS: SUCCESS
  • “What’s 10 factorial?”
    • Google: SUCCESS (“10 factorial = 3 628 800”)
    • iOS: SUCCESS (“The answer is 3628800.”)
    • 001CALC-1b-calculator-10-factorial
  • “Open the calculator”:
    • Google: Failure (Redirects to a “install this third-party calculator app!” link, despite the default Android Calculator app already being present.)
    • iOS: Failure on iPad (but, similarly provides an app-store link where a third-party calculator could be downloaded.)
    • 001CALC-1c-calculator-open

BASIC APP INTERACTION:

  • “Redo my last question.”
    • Google: Failure (Gives the results of an irrelevant web search).
    • iOS: Failure (“Sorry, [your name], we don’t seem to be navigating anywhere”)
    • 005APP-1-1z01-redo-my-last-question
  • “Clear my browsing history for the last one hour.”
    • Google: Partial success (It says “No problem!” but then directs you to a link with instructions to do it yourself.)

    • iOS: Failure (“I didn’t find any appointments about ‘Browser history.’ “
    • Apparently, Siri interpreted this as a request to clear a calendar event.)
    • 005APP-2-1z02-history-browser-clear
  • “How many new mail messages did I get today?”
    • Google: Failure (Shows a list of recent emails, but does not count them.)
    • iOS: SUCCESS (“Seven new emails were received today.”)
    • 005APP-3-1z03-mail-1-partial-success
  • “Are there any new podcasts?”
    • Google: Failure (Provides irrelevant web search results.)
    • iOS: Failure (“Playing podcasts, starting with the newest episode…” and shows an “Open Podcasts” button.)
    • 005APP-4-1z04-podcasts-new

SYSTEM:

  • Version of the OS:
    • Google: “What version of Android am I running” or “What is my Android version” or “What is the system version” –> Failure (gives the results of an irrelevant web search).
    • iOS: “What version of iOS am I running” –> Failure (Refusal: “Sorry, I can’t do that”).
    • 006SYS-1-2a-version-of-os-name

      This fails on iOS… but the question below succeeds.

    • iOS, attempt #2: “What version of iOS is running” –> SUCCESS (“You’re running iOS 11.0.3.” Note that it says you are running this version, but will not respond to a question in that format.)
    • 006SYS-2-2b-version-of-os-part-2-partial-success

      Note that this question succeeds on iOS where the one above failed.

  • “Change the system language to Portuguese”
    • Google: Failure (Gives an irrelevant web search result about changing the interface of a Nintendo DS portable game system).
    • iOS: Failure (Refusal: “Sorry, but I’m not able to change that setting” with no additional information).
    • 006SYS-4-2d-system-language-gives-3ds-results
  • “Change the OK Google Voice to UK English” or “Change the Siri Voice to UK English”
    • Google: Failure (Gives a relevant web search result for a change, at least.)
    • iOS: Partial success (“I can’t change my voice, but you can do it yourself in Settings” (Button to “Siri Voice Settings” appears on screen.)
    • 006SYS-5-2e-voice-change
  • “How many gigabytes of RAM does this phone have” (Android) or “How much RAM is on this iPad” (iOS) or “how much RAM is on this device” (both)
    • Google: Failure (Provides irrelevant web search results.)
    • iOS: Failure (Refusal: “I’m sorry, I can’t do that here.”)

SCREEN & CAMERA RESOLUTION:

  • “What’s the screen resolution?” / “What’s the screen resolution of this phone?”/ “What’s the screen resolution of this iPad?”
    • Google: Failure (Provides relevant-ish web search results for an assortment of different phones.)
    • iOS: Failure (Provides generic Wikipedia link to the definition of “Display resolution.”)
    • 009CAM-2-screen-resolution-2
  • “What is the resolution of the phone camera?” / “What is the resolution of the iPad camera?” / “What is the camera resolution of the front facing camera?”
    • Google: Failure (Provides irrelevant web search results.)
    • iOS: Failure (Provides irrelevant web search results.)
    • 009CAM-4-resolution-camera

SLIGHTLY MORE DIFFICULT MATH:

  • “What’s the sine of 30 degrees?”
    • Google: SUCCESS (“sine(30 degrees) = 0.5”).
    • iOS: SUCCESS (Even though it says, along with the correct answer, “The answer is approximately 0.5.”)
    • 050MATH-1-whats-sine(30 degrees) 2
  • “What’s the sine of pi?”
    • Google: SUCCESS (“sine(Pi radians) = 0.” Note that “radians” is (correctly) appended here by Google.)
    • iOS: SUCCESS (“The answer is 0.”)
  • “What’s the sine of pi radians?”
    • Google: SUCCESS (“sine(Pi radians) = 0.”)
    • iOS: Failure (Fails where “sine of pi” succeeds. “OK, I found this on the web for ‘What is the sine of pi radians’.”)
    • 050MATH-3-whats-sine-of-pi-radians-2

      “What is the sine of pi radians?” fails on iOS, but “What is the sine of pi?” succeeds.

  • “What’s the sine of 2 radians?”
    • Google: SUCCESS (“sine(2 radians) = 0.909297427.”)
    • iOS: Failure (“OK, I found this on the web for ‘What is the sine of 2 rad.’.”)
  • “What’s ‘sine 2 radians’?”
    • Google: Failure (Provides a web search. Interpreted as “what’s sign to radians.”)
    • iOS: Failure (Provides a web search. Interpreted as “what’s sign to radians.”)
    • 050MATH-whats-sine(2 radians)

NETWORK:

  • “What WiFi networks are available”
    • Google: Failure (Provides irrelevant web search results.)
    • iOS: Failure (Provides irrelevant web search results.)
  • “What’s the strength of the current WiFi network?”
    • Google: Failure (Provides somewhat relevant installation link to a program called WiFi analyzer that could probably answer this question.)
    • iOS: Failure (Provides vaguely relevant web search results.)
    • 010NET-2a-wifi-2
  • “Is my Wi-Fi encrypted?” or “Is my Wi-Fi network encrypted?”
    • Google: Failure (Informs me that Messages are encrypted, which is a different question entirely.)
    • iOS: Failure (“Wi-Fi is on.”)
  • “Does this device support 80211-ac?” (A WiFi network standard.)
    • Google: Failure (Informs me that Messages are encrypted, which is a different question entirely.)
    • iOS: Failure (“Wi-Fi is on.”)

BACKUPS AND STORAGE:

  • 100BACK-3a-last-backup-2
  • “When was this device last backed up”  or “When was the last backup” (identical results)
    • Google: Failure (gives the results of an irrelevant web search).
    • iOS: Failure (Shows a random calendar event from years ago that happened to have the word “backup” in it).
  • 100BACK-3c-space-on-device-1
  • “How much space is left on this device?”
    • Google: Failure (gives the results of an irrelevant web search).
    • iOS: Failure (Refusal: “Sorry, I can’t help you with that here).
  • “How much disk space is free?” or “How much free space is available” (identical results)
    • Google: Failure (gives the results of an irrelevant web search).
    • iOS: Failure (Refusal: “I’m sorry, I can’t do that here”).

Conclusion / Final Ratings:

  • Siri: D-minus
  • “OK Google”: D-minus
  • Alexa: not tested

If every Apple, Google, and Amazon programmer just spent one entire work day contributing a single answer to the repertoire of easy-but-unanswerable questions, perhaps voice assistants would be more reliable.

PROS: Makes voice assistants more reliable.

CONS: Brings the day even closer when humans are replaced by metal skeleton robots.

Speed recklessly with no regard for others with this one insane automotive tip! “BIG SPEED BUMP” hates it!

Background:

Sometimes, when driving through a residential neighborhood road, you may encounter annoying speed bumps, speed humps, or speed lumps (Figure 1).

speed-lumps-0-small.jpg

Fig. 1: Not the dreaded speed lump! (This is a real un-edited sign.)

The issue:

These speed bumps / lumps discourage you from taking the shortcut (Figure 2). But you’re important, and have places to be!

If only there were some way you could take these speed bumps at full speed, without slowing down at all.

speed-bumps-1.png

Fig. 2: Ugh, not speed bumps! Or speed humps! Or speed lumps!

Proposal:

A car could be enhanced with:

  1. An extra set of axles (so six wheels total, instead of four).
  2. A set of laser rangefinders that would detect speed bumps (and other irregularities in the road surface)
  3. A powered suspension that could lift the wheels a substantial distance up into the car (perhaps a foot or more).

Then, when the car detects upcoming speed bumps, it could preemptively move the wheels up just before the speed bump is hit (and then back down after the speed bump has passed (Figure 3).

speed-bumps-2.png

Fig. 3: Top: the car detects an approaching speed bump. Middle: the car moves wheel #1 up to avoid it. Bottom: now that the speed bump has passed, wheel #1 is pushed back onto the ground (and wheel #2 is lifted).

PROS: Ends the tyranny of the speed lump.

CONS: You might forget about this feature when driving another car and hit a speed bump at 45 miles per hour, which would probably not be great.

P.S. Apparently a variant of this was a developed as a proof-of-concept by Bose (the audio company!) in 1986: Youtube link (2 minutes)article link.

Increase your profit margins with this one possibly legal trick for selling orange juice from a vending machine. Remember to consult a lawyer to see if product mis-labeling and consumer fraud is legal in your jurisdiction! I mean it might, be, right? But who knows.

Background:

Certain types of vending machines are capable of squeezing oranges and dispensing the freshly-squeezed orange juice right there at the machine. Generally speaking, these machines actually show you the oranges through a transparent window, so you can see the orange-juice-making process.

Most of these machines proclaim that you are getting “100% Orange Juice” or “All Your Vitamin C,” but typically they don’t bother to tell you that the orange juice is fresh—after all, you can literally SEE the oranges being juiced, so there’s hardly any room for confusion. The machines typically look something like the illustration in Figure 1.

vending-machine-exterior

Fig. 1: A futuristic vending machine that can dispense freshly-squeezed fruit right there at the machine.

Proposal:

Since the machines don’t always say that they are actually squeezing the oranges, it might be possible to have a magic-trick-style arrangement where the oranges go into an opaque grinding mechanism and then orange juice is dispensed—the customer will naturally infer that the oranges are being squeezed in the opaque mechanism, but what if this were not ACTUALLY the case?

Figure 2 shows a proposal for a system that keeps the oranges safe and sound (they could even be plastic oranges), while still appearing to squeeze them.

vending-machine-schematic

Fig. 2: An enterprising individual might be able to think of a workaround where the “100% orange juice” vending machine was dispensing much-cheaper juice and avoiding the mechanical hassle of actually squeezing the oranges.

Conclusion:

People usually enjoy food more if it looks good: orange juice that comes from a fresh source will probably be appreciated more than orange juice that comes from a huge drum labeled “50 GAL. LIQUID ORANGE PRODUCT.”

With this “placebo effect” in mind, maybe it’s not you who are to blame for mis-labeling your from-concentrate orange juice, but rather the customer’s taste buds!

PROS: Possibly more eco-friendly, as it allows orange juice to be transported in concentrated form, rather than in bulky whole-orange form. “Placebo effect” of the orange-squeezing process may increase perceived flavor of the orange juice.

CONS: Any claims of “freshly squeezed” oranges could run afoul of product labeling laws in your jurisdiction—word your vending machine text carefully! As always, consult a lawyer before perpetrating blatant anti-consumer fraud on your customers!

Stop paying living wages and replace all your employees by robots—even if the A.I. isn’t there yet to accomplish the task that the employees did! See below for how this revolutionary new way of thinking is possible. Also if you are not a cartoonish plutocrat with a top hat, please do not read this post.

Background:

Running a business is expensive, and employee wages are usually a huge fraction of total costs (see Figure 1).

However, these jobs can’t always be eliminated: many jobs still REQUIRE a human employee, and jobs that require an on-site presence can’t be outsourced.

guy-regular

Fig. 1: This employee has to be on-site to operate the poorly-drawn green rectangles in front of him. He costs 8 of these nebulous “currency units” each day.

Proposal:

Some jobs require an on-site presence and are difficult to outsource, but perhaps we just weren’t thinking hard enough!

In this proposal, a difficult-to-automate on-site task can still be solved by a human operator, except the operator is living far away (in a cheaper cost-of-living country).

The remote operator then performs the difficult-to-automate task using a virtual reality interface (Figure 2) that controls an on-site robot*.

[*] More properly, but verbosely, referred to as a “remote manipulator.”

robot

Fig. 2: Employee (b) in a low-wage country uses the virtual reality / telepresence gloves (c) which are connected to computer (d) and Internet-connected antenna (e) to send a signal (f) to the far-away robot (g) in the high-wage country. Now the guy from Figure 1 can be fired and replaced by Figure 2 guy plus Figure 2 robot (which costs two “$” per day in ongoing maintenance costs). Even with this new robot-maintenance expense, the system is much cheaper than the traditional one in Figure 1.

Conclusion:

Now you can fire all your local employees and replace them with remotely-operated robot arms operated by underpaid foreign laborers.

PROS: Reduces operation costs for your company. The employees can retrain and… go do whatever jobs are left for humans, like writing operas.

CON #1: Maybe it shouldn’t be called a “robot” since it’s not autonomous? Apparently you can call this system a “remote manipulator” or “waldo” or “telefactor,” but those haven’t really entered the popular lexicon (yet).

 

CON #2: You might say “hey, if these robots are operated by citizens of a foreign nation and replace all the industrial capacity of my own country, what prevents that country from just deciding, one day, to take all the robots over, seizing my factory in some sort of cyberpunk-flavored Russian Revolution?” Unfortunately, the solution to that is rather long, and there is insufficient space to write it here.

Stop worrying about a “loose cannon” coworker jeopardizing your company’s reputation with this one weird tip from 17th-century France!

The issue:

Sometimes, a representative for a company causes a public relations disaster by saying something dumb on camera (Figure 1).

Obviously, we’d like to avoid this.

But although it’s easy to avoid interview disasters over email (just have a PR department filter the outgoing emails), this doesn’t work for real-time in-person interactions.

ceo-normal

Fig. 1: This CEO has been unfortunate enough to say something really dumb while on camera. Millions of dollars of theoretical shareholder value were wiped out as a result! If only this could have been avoided.

Proposal:

Fortunately, we can fix this problem using an idea from the 1600s!

Specifically, when the CEO (or other employee) is scheduled for an interview, they can wear a soundproof helmet (perhaps styled after the Man in the Iron Mask helmet, Figure 2).

The process then works as follows:

  • The helmet is soundproof, but:
  • The helmet has an interior speaker and external microphone, so the wearer can hear the interviewer.
  • When the wearer speaks, there is a brief “tape delay” before sound is emitted from the helmet’s external speaker.
  • This delay gives a remote monitoring PR department the ability to quickly dub over any unacceptable interview responses with their own sanitized version.
ceo-helmet

Fig. 2: Interview woes: solved! Also removes the need for time-consuming hairstyling and makeup.

PROS: Never again worry about a company’s stock plummeting as a result of a catastrophic interview!

CONS: None! Except for the possibility of the interviewee being switched out with their identical twin, as in the plot of the 19th century Dumas novel (and/or 1998 film) The Man in the Iron Mask.

 

Are you hunched over your laptop while you give a presentation? Save both your posture and your presentation with this one incredible eco-friendly tip.

Background:

When giving a presentation on a large screen, there are two popular options for calling attention to specific areas of a slide deck:

  1. Physically gesture at the screen (or use a laser pointer, as seen in Figure 1).
  2. Use the laptop trackpad to move the mouse pointer / arrow around.

The issue:

The trackpad method—which requires the presenter to hover around their laptop—usually makes for a less engaging presentation, but it’s the only option for a presentation that requires real-time interaction.

So far, there’s been no way to combine the best of both worlds: 1) the direct-pointing of the laser pointer and 2) the ability to affect the on-screen user interface elements.

 

laser-remote

Fig. 1: Presentation remotes often consist of a slide advance button, a “back” button, and a laser pointer. Some of them also have a gyroscopic mouse, but this feature usually controls awkwardly at best.

Proposal:

Until now, that is!

In this proposal, the presentation remote (and laser pointer) will allow the user to point the laser at an element on the screen (say, a “play video” button), click a button on the remote, and have the on-screen element respond (in this case, playing the video).

The system works as follows:

  • The presentation remote is paired to the presenter’s laptop already, in order to allow the slide advance button to work. This is a normal feature of all presentation remotes.
  • The remote also gets a “reference” image of what’s on the laptop screen at the exact moment. This doesn’t have to be high-resolution; the remote just has to know generally what the screen looks like, updated a few times per second.
  • The remote also also contains a camera, so it can see what its laser pointer is pointing at.
  • So when the presenter points a laser at the large presentation screen, the remote now knows exactly what element the laser is hitting, since it can compare the camera image to the reference image of what’s on the laptop.

This allows the user to essentially turn the presentation screen into a giant touchscreen.

For a touch-aware operating system (e.g. iOS, Android, or Microsoft Windows), this would require no additional software support beyond sending a simulated touch event at the laser-pointer-pointed-at location.

laser-pointer-touchscreen

Fig. 2: The remote has a camera in it, so it can compare what it’s pointing at to the “reference” image from the presenter’s laptop: if the images mostly match, the remote can figure out exactly what the laser pointer is pointing at.

Conclusion:

If you thought it was TOO EASY to set up a presentation these days, this new and complex system will guarantee at least 15 minutes of “wait… hang on, I think I’ve got it working…. no, huh. Is it input 1, or input 2?” at the beginning of every presentation.

PROS: Prevents deforestation by reducing the number of wooden presentation pointers that will be manufactured.

CONS: May reduce deforestation so much that plants grow rampantly across the globe, killing all animal life and depleting the atmosphere of carbon dioxide. All because you couldn’t be bothered to walk over to your laptop to move the mouse!!!

Get cheap health care and solve the doctor shortage in one amazing tip that ALSO provides new employment opportunities for struggling actors looking to make their big break!

Background:

Health care is expensive—but it could be cheaper, if labor were cheaper (apparently somewhere between half and two-thirds of costs go to salaries).

The issue:

Unfortunately, doctors and nurses will probably remain relatively expensive—but what if we can recruit cheap labor to do some of the tasks that normally require a highly-trained medical professional?

Specifically, if we look at doctors as having two primarily qualifications:

  1. Medical competence
  2. Ability to interact with patients

…we can then delegate the “ability to interact with patients” task to a group of people who are charismatic* but poorly-paid: struggling actors.

(* Or at least capable of pretending to be.)

Proposal:

Under this proposal, all the patient interaction is done by actors—the doctor just writes up some general instructions, and the non-medically-trained actors carry them out. The organizational chart for this plan is shown in Figure 1.

doctor-fanout

Fig 1: By delegating the patient-interaction tasks to barely-trained personnel (at right), the relatively expensive doctor (at left) can manage a much larger patient load.

Now, actors can focus on dealing with patients, and doctors can focus on the diagnostics.

As a bonus, each actor could be fitted with a wireless camera, allowing the doctors to monitor multiple actors at the same time, and switch around between patients by simply pressing a button on a computer (Figure 2).

doctor-computer

Fig 2: An officially-licensed doctor can monitor multiple actors at once. This also prevents the doctor from having to waste time by actually walking around from room to room. As an added bonus, the remote doctor could even be in a foreign country with extremely low salaries. Since this remote doctor would be happy to undercut the high local wages, it would drive health care costs down even further!

PROS: Doctors can now focus on medical diagnoses, rather than having to worry about their patient-interaction skills. Provides employment opportunities for struggling actors.

CONS: None! Presumably the American Medical Association will endorse this idea any day now.