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The latest: Google Assistant gets smarter

Plus: Alexa for kids, better web browsing, and fun with disposable email


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Google brought quite a demo to its annual I/O developers conference last week. In a pair of pre-recorded phone calls, Google showed how its AI-powered voice assistant can book haircut appointments and inquire about restaurant reservations over the phone, conversing in human-like fashion with the actual people on the line.

The feature, called Duplex, was both impressive and polarizing. It could be powerful tool, especially for folks with speech or hearing impairments, but it could also decrease human interaction and make more jobs redundant. The way Duplex mimics human speech ("ums," "mm-hmms," and all) may also come off as deceptive, even if Google sticks some form of disclosure into the call. The various ethical quandaries might explain why Google is calling Duplex an "experiment," whose initial rollout this summer will be limited.

In the meantime, Google is wielding those AI powers in less controversial ways. If you own a Google Home speaker, you'll soon be able to combine multiple requests into a single voice command. (For instance: "Hey Google, dim the lights and play some relaxing music.") And if you ask a question that might deserve a follow-up, Google's Assistant will keep listening for a brief period so you don't have to say "Hey Google" again. Google is also adding six alternative voices to its virtual assistant, including a few male ones. The cumulative effect of these features is that talking to Google Assistant--whether it's on your phone or through a speaker like the Google Home--will feel more like conversing with a real person.

Google says it's starting to roll out multiple actions now (though they're still not working for me), and the ability to continue a conversation will arrive in "the coming weeks." To try out some of Google's new voices, open the Google Assistant app, find the Settings menu, select Preferences, then press "Assistant Voice." Select a new voice, and it'll take effect on all your Google Assistant devices.

Tip of the moment


Show of hands: How many of you have a "spam" email address that you use to spare your main inbox when signing up for stuff online? Next time, give 10MinuteMail a try. The free website creates a temporary email address for sending and receiving messages, so you can test out new online services without having to log into a separate inbox. While 10MinuteMail is the simplest disposable email solution I've found, plenty of others exist if you need more features.

News for you

Alexa's kid connection: As the owner of too many smart speakers from both Google and Amazon, I've concluded that while Google has an edge in technical capabilities, Amazon is better at inventing new reasons to use its Alexa voice assistant in the first place.

Last week, for instance, Amazon released an $80 kid-friendly version of its Echo Dot speaker. The Echo Dot Kids Edition is $30 pricier than the standard version, but it comes with year's subscription to age-appropriate audio books, ad-free music, and premium voice skills (normally $3 per month). It also includes a brightly-colored protective case. Parents can monitor and manage what their kids are doing through a mobile app, and the device even provides positive reinforcement when it hears "please" in a voice command.

Like Google, Amazon is grappling with its own ethical issues here. While Amazon says it's not using children's data for advertising, the company does store an audio sample of every voice command, just like it does for adults. Because deleting those samples in bulk is a laborious task, the Echo Dot Kids Edition will help Amazon collect an immense amount of data on children's behavior. Amazon is right to create a version of Alexa for kids--many of them are talking to Echo speakers anyway--but without better tools and clearer limits around data collection, parents should think twice about installing one of these in their little ones' bedrooms.

Hey, give Microsoft Edge a chance: I've always wanted to like Microsoft Edge, which replaced Internet Explorer as Windows' default web browser a few years ago. It starts up quickly, feels smoother and snappier than Chrome, and has some novel features that Chrome lacks. For instance, you can annotate web pages, save a cluster of tabs for later, and use a "Reading Mode" to remove ads and other clutter from web pages.

Now, Microsoft has added some features that had previously kept me away from the browser. At last, there's a "mute tab" button that stops auto-playing videos from blaring through your speakers, along with form auto-fill for inserting information you've previously entered on the web (such as your billing address). I currently use Vivaldi as my main web browser--it runs on the same engine as Google Chrome, and adds a bunch of extra features for power users--but I'm looking forward to giving Edge another shot. The new version of Edge is part of Windows 10's April 2018 Update, which you've probably received automatically in the last week or two.

All caught up

  • I wrote about Otter, a neat app for transcribing voice conversations.
  • Gmail can work offline now. Here's how to set it up.
  • PopSci has a handy list of hidden iPhone tricks. (My favorites: Prioritizing app updates and falling asleep to music.)
  • What are Amazon, Google, and other popular online services making you agree to? This website boils their Terms of Service down to a few lines of plain English.

Spend wisely


Keeping with this issue's theme of automation, Amazon is selling Ecovacs' Deebot N79S robot vacuum for $180, which is $70 off the regular price when you use coupon code OZKS4V22 at checkout. This is Wirecutter's pick for best robot vacuum. While it won't create a map of your house--those versions are hundreds of dollars more expensive--it runs quietely and should clean small- to medium-sized rooms without issue. You can also activate it with Alexa voice commands.

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Catch you in a couple weeks,


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