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Google’s A.I.-powered voice recorder and transcription app comes to older Pixel phones

23:34 | 5 December

Google’s A.I. powered voice recorder app introduced at Google’s October hardware event was one of the company’s more impressive demos. The new app taps into advances in A.I., speech processing, and speech recognition in order to automatically transcribe a voice recording with few mistakes, in real-time as the person is speaking. Unfortunately, Google’s Recorder app was locked to Pixel 4 devices at launch. That has now changed.

As first spotted by Android Police, the Recorder app is available to Android users with older Pixel devices, including Pixel 2, Pixel 3, and Pixel 3a. The updated support was added to the app today, Sensor Tower also confirmed. But the lack of publicity around the launch has led it to see fewer than 1,000 downloads so far.

voice recorder

Google had previously announced its intention to make the app more widely available. In a recent Reddit thread, a company representative said the app would become available to more Pixel users in the future via a software update. They didn’t say when that update would arrive, though.

While there are many voice recorder apps on today’s market, there are fewer that offer real-time transcriptions. And of those that do — like Otter.ai, for example — the resulting text is often half-garbled. While these services can still be useful as a way to quickly find a section of a recording to then play back and manually transcribe, the lack of accuracy can limit adoption.

Google’s Recorder app was demonstrated at Google’s fall event as capable of taking a far more accurate transcription. Of course, the app was being not put to real-world use at the time — with different types of voices, accents, and background noise, it may not be as accurate. In addition, the app lacks the ability to identify and label different speakers, which could make it more difficult to use in situations like meetings or interviews.

That being said, the app held up well in initial tests in a review by The Wall St. Journal’s Joanna Stern, though it stumbled with accents. Other reviewers found the app to be fairly powerful, too, if a little basic in its overall design.

pixel voice recorder

However, Recorder does have an advantage over some of its rivals: it doesn’t require an internet connection to work. Instead, all the recording and transcription capabilities take place directly on the device. That means you could even use the app while in airplane mode.

In addition, a built-in advanced search feature lets you search for sounds, words, and phrases and then see a visual depiction of where the search term was spoken in the playback bar so you can go to the recording you need.

Google has put its real-time speech transcription technology to work in a number of ways, besides Recorder. It also introduced live caption technology for Android devices, for example, which brings transcriptions to things like video or audio saved on your device, or video playback outside of YouTube.

The Recorder app is a free download on Google Play.

We’ve reached out to Google for any update on its plans to make Recorder more broadly available across Android . The company hasn’t responded to our questions at this time.

 

 

 

 


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AWS launches discounted spot capacity for its Fargate container platform

03:58 | 4 December

AWS today quietly brought spot capacity to Fargate, its serverless compute engine for containers that supports both the company’s Elastic Container Service and, now, its Elastic Kubernetes service.

Like spot instances for the EC2 compute platform, Fargate Spot pricing is significantly cheaper, both for storage and compute, than regular Fargate pricing. In return, though, you have to be able to accept the fact that your instance may get terminated when AWS needs additional capacity. While that means Fargate Spot may not be perfect for every workload, there are plenty of applications that can easily handle an interruption.

“Fargate now has on-demand, savings plan, spot,” AWS VP of Compute Services Deepak Singh told me. “If you think about Fargate as a compute layer for, as we call it, serverless compute for containers, you now have the pricing worked out and you now have both orchestrators on top of it.”

He also noted that containers already drive a significant percentage of spot usage on AWS in general, so adding this functionality to Fargate makes a lot of sense (and may save users a few dollars here and there). Pricing, of course, is the major draw here, and an hour of CPU time on Fargate Spot will only cost $0.01245364 (yes, AWS is pretty precise there) compared to $0.04048 for the on-demand price,

With this, AWS is also launching another important new feature: capacity providers. The idea here is to automate capacity provisioning for Fargate and EC2, both of which now offer on-demand and spot instances, after all. You simply write a config file that, for example, says you want to run 70% of your capacity on EC2 and the rest on spot instances. The scheduler will then keep that capacity on spot as instances come and go, and if there are no spot instances available, it will move it to on-demand instances and back to spot once instances are available again.

In the future, you will also be able to mix and match EC2 and Fargate. “You can say, I want some of my services running on EC2 on demand, some running on Fargate on demand, and the rest running on Fargate Spot,” Singh explained. “And the scheduler manages it for you. You squint hard, capacity is capacity. We can attach other capacity providers.” Outpost, AWS’ fully managed service for running AWS services in your data center, could be a capacity provider, for example.

These new features and prices will be officially announced in Thursday’s re:Invent keynote, but the documentation and pricing is already live today.

 


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Google Photos adds a chat feature to its app

20:00 | 3 December

An argument could be made that Google has over-indulged in its creation of way too many messaging apps in years past. But today’s launch of a new messaging service — this time within the confines of Google Photos — is an integration that actually makes sense.

The company is rolling out a way to directly message photos and chat with another user or users within the Google Photos app. The addition will allow users to quickly and easily share those one-off photos or videos with another person, instead of taking additional steps to build a shared album.

The feature itself is simple to use. After selecting a photo and tapping share, you can now choose a new option “Send in Google Photos.” You can then tap on the icon of your most frequent contacts or search for a user by name, phone number of email.

The recipient will need a Google account to receive the photos, however, because they’ll need to sign-in to view the conversation. That may limit the feature to some extent, as not everyone is a Google user. But with now a billion some Google Photos users out there, it’s likely that more of the people you want to share will have an account, rather than not.

You can also use this feature to start a group chat by selecting “New group,” then adding recipients.

Once a chat has been started, you can return to it at any time from the “Sharing” tab in Google Photos. Here, you’ll be able to see the photos and videos you each shared, comments, text chats and likes. You can also save the photos you want to your phone or tap on the “All Photos” option to see just the photos themselves without the conversations surrounding them.

Explains Google, the idea with the new direct sharing option is not to replace users’ preferred messaging apps — a strategy that differs from Google’s investments in apps like Hangouts and Allo in previous years. Instead, the feature wants to relocate some of the photo-sharing activity that takes place in messaging apps to Google Photos.

Google had tried a similar idea with direct video sharing and messaging from the YouTube app. But the company later shut down that feature ahead of YouTube’s announcement of the $170M FTC fine for violating U.S. children’s privacy laws, COPPA. Likely, the chat feature there would have complicated YouTube’s product, now under increased regulatory scrutiny, because many kids were using direct messaging as a way to work around parental controls and other blocks on traditional messaging apps.

Google Photos makes more sense as a place to directly message friends and family, though, and the Google account requirement means users will have to be 13 or older to gain access. (Unless parents created a Google account for their child).

Direct messaging was previously announced as “coming soon” alongside Google Photos’ big fall update that also included the launch of Stories and other features.

The new feature is launching today but the rollout will take place over the next week. It will be supported across platforms, including iOS, Android and web.

 


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Reinventing the relationship between workers and tech

18:21 | 2 December

Rachel Kornberg Contributor
Rachel Korberg is a program officer with the Ford Foundation’s Future of Work(ers) initiative, which seeks to build a more just and inclusive future for workers in our rapidly changing economy.

A young father and kitchen worker in Pittsburgh was thrilled to get a job with a big restaurant chain that paid $15 an hour — much more than he had been making in fast food.

Soon after starting, however, he learned that his schedule was set through an algorithm that crunches a range of data — from weather forecasts to past sales — to predict customer traffic, optimize shifts, and, ultimately, maximize profits. As a result, his hours were extremely unpredictable and sometimes his shifts were cancelled minutes before they were set to start. A job he believed would provide security now barely gave him enough hours to make rent and provide for his family. And it was all because of how his employer used technology.

The Pittsburgh worker’s story is not unique; the average American worker hasn’t gotten a meaningful raise in over 40 years, which has been made worse by meager benefits packages, volatile schedules and pay, and barriers to worker voice. While technology didn’t cause these longstanding challenges, the industry has failed to disrupt them — and at times even scaled and amplified them — as new technologies proliferate the workplace. This is one of the reasons there is a growing backlash against the tech industry, from the Uber and Lyft protests that grounded New York traffic to a halt to Google walkouts to the customer uproar that spurred DoorDash to change its tipping practices. And legal action abounds. Just last week, New Jersey fined Uber $649 million, while Washington D.C. sued DoorDash .

But the future doesn’t have to be this way. New and emerging technologies have the power to improve the lives of workers and make jobs more stable, fair, and dignified, while still delivering value and profit. The first step is making sure workers have a seat at the table — and a voice — to shape every aspect of technology, from design and development, investment and adoption, and policymaking and governance. Several new initiatives led by business, government, and workers are embracing this approach and, in the process, offer models for how to create a new, win-win relationship between tech and workers.

Workers and industry are beginning to partner to develop new technologies. The Partnership on Artificial Intelligence (PAI) is a coalition of major tech companies, from Apple to Google, created with the mission of sharing the benefits of artificial intelligence. PAI recently launched an effort focused on workers and labor, engaging directly with workers and their representatives to develop a set of actionable recommendations about how to integrate AI into the workplace in a way that creates greater opportunity and security for workers. MIT, which is prolific in developing innovative technologies often in partnership with industry, is exploring inviting in groups of workers to advise their labs, an idea that emerged from the labor leaders who are involved with the University’s Work of the Future Taskforce. Tech companies should consider adopting and even deepening these practices of partnering directly with workers and worker groups and inviting them in to shape the development of new tech and business practices around tech adoption.

Government is bringing together business and workers to create policy. Government at all levels has been caught off guard by how quickly new technologies have transformed entire industries and struggled to develop the policies and programs needed to ensure that communities and workers benefit from the changes. To address this, California Governor Gavin Newsom recently launched a commission on the future of work. The president of the Service Employees International Union co-chairs the commission, and members include representatives of domestic workers and restaurant workers serving alongside leaders in business, government, and tech.

Having workers at the table for future of work conversations is all too rare, and it is already making an impact: the commission is not defaulting to only the typical solutions — guaranteed basic income and retraining — and is also exploring a range of ideas, from how workers might earn value from their data to the business case for improving job quality.  A number of cities and states are considering launching similar commissions, and New Jersey already has one in place.

When all else fails, workers are becoming the tech developers and investors they need. Many worker organizations are hopeful about the promise of technology, but they take issue with how tech is is too often used to amplify and scale business practices that hurt workers. Palak Shah, Director of National Domestic Worker Alliance’s innovation lab, is one of several, innovative leaders who is not waiting on the tech industry to develop what workers need and is instead building the tech herself. “Silicon Valley is great at optimizing for convenience… but we wanted to optimize for dignity and equity,” she said.

Over the past few years, Shah and a diverse team of organizers, developers, and domestic workers have launched a new fintech product to extend paid time off to house cleaners for the first time ever, a digital tool to help more nannies access contracts rather than work under the table, and even launched an investment fund that puts domestic workers in the investor role, directing capital to where they believe it would most improve their lives. This stands alongside a handful of other impactful efforts launched in the past few years, such as the Worker’s Lab and Employment Tech Fund, that fund a number of technologies designed for and by workers, as well as startups founded by former low-wage workers and worker organizers, such as Driver’s Seat, which supports ride-hail drivers in aggregating and capturing value from their data.

From city hall to the boardroom to protests in the streets, society is asking who tech should serve. The answer is clear: technology can and must work to disrupt the structural inequities in our workplace and economy. This starts by ensuring that workers have a seat at the table to shape how new technologies are developed, applied, and governed.

 


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Facebook launches a photo portability tool, starting in Ireland

14:14 | 2 December

It’s not friend portability, but Facebook has announced the launch today of a photo transfer tool to enable users of its social network to port their photos directly to Google’s photo storage service, via encrypted transfer.

The photo portability feature is initially being offered to Facebook users in Ireland, where the company’s international HQ is based. Facebook says it is still testing and tweaking the feature based on feedback but slates “worldwide availability” as coming in the first half of 2020.

It also suggests porting to other photo storage services will be supported in the future, in addition to Google Photos — which specifying which services it may seek to add.

Facebook says the tool is based on code developed via its participation in the Data Transfer Project — a collaborative effort started last year that’s currently backed by five tech giants (Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter) who have committed to build “a common framework with open-source code that can connect any two online service providers, enabling a seamless, direct, user initiated portability of data between the two platforms”.

Facebook also points to a white paper it published in September — where it advocates for “clear rules” to govern the types of data that should be portable and “who is responsible for protecting that data as it moves to different providers”.

Behind all these moves is of course the looming threat of antitrust regulation, with legislators and agencies on both sides of the Atlantic now closely eyeing platforms’ grip on markets, eyeballs and data.

Hence Facebook’s white paper couching portability tools as “helping keep competition vibrant among online services”. (Albeit, if the ‘choice’ being offered is to pick another tech giant to get your data that’s not exactly going to reboot the competitive landscape.)

It’s certainly true that portability of user uploaded data can be helpful in encouraging people to feel they can move from a dominant service.

However it is also something of a smokescreen — especially when A) the platform in question is a social network like Facebook (because it’s people who keep other people stuck to these types of services); and B) the value derived from the data is retained by the platform regardless of whether the photos themselves travel elsewhere.

Facebook processes user uploaded data such as photos to gain personal insights to profile users for ad targeting purposes. So even if you send your photos elsewhere that doesn’t diminish what Facebook has already learned about you, having processed your selfies, groupies, baby photos, pet shots and so on. (It has also designed the portability tool to send a copy of the data; ergo, Facebook still retains your photos unless you take additional action — such as deleting your account.)

The company does not offer users any controls (portability tools or access rights) over the inferences it makes based on personal data such as photos.

Or indeed control over insights it services from its analysis of usage of its platform or wider browsing of the Internet (Facebook tracks both users and non users across the web via tools like social plug-ins and tracking pixels).

Given its targeted ads business is powered by a vast outgrowth of tracking (aka personal data processing), there’s little risk to Facebook to offer a portability feature buried in a sub-menu somewhere that lets a few in-the-know users click to send a copy of their photos to another tech giant.

Indeed, it may hope to benefit from similar incoming ports from other platforms in future.

“We hope this product can help advance conversations on the privacy questions we identified in our white paper,” Facebook writes. “We know we can’t do this alone, so we encourage other companies to join the Data Transfer Project to expand options for people and continue to push data portability innovation forward.”

Competition regulators looking to reboot digital markets will need to dig beneath the surface of such self-serving initiatives if they are to alight on a meaningful method of reining in platform power.

 


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Making sense of a multi-cloud, hybrid world at KubeCon

23:42 | 22 November

More than 12,000 attendees gathered this week in San Diego to discuss all things containers, Kubernetes and cloud-native at KubeCon.

Kubernetes, the container orchestration tool, turned five this year, and the technology appears to be reaching a maturity phase where it accelerates beyond early adopters to reach a more mainstream group of larger business users.

That’s not to say that there isn’t plenty of work to be done, or that most enterprise companies have completely bought in, but it’s clearly reached a point where containerization is on the table. If you think about it, the whole cloud-native ethos makes sense for the current state of computing and how large companies tend to operate.

If this week’s conference showed us anything, it’s an acknowledgment that it’s a multi-cloud, hybrid world. That means most companies are working with multiple public cloud vendors, while managing a hybrid environment that includes those vendors — as well as existing legacy tools that are probably still on-premises — and they want a single way to manage all of this.

The promise of Kubernetes and cloud-native technologies, in general, is that it gives these companies a way to thread this particular needle, or at least that’s the theory.

Kubernetes to the rescue

Photo: Ron Miller/TechCrunch

If you were to look at the Kubernetes hype cycle, we are probably right about at the peak where many think Kubernetes can solve every computing problem they might have. That’s probably asking too much, but cloud-native approaches have a lot of promise.

Craig McLuckie, VP of R&D for cloud-native apps at VMware, was one of the original developers of Kubernetes at Google in 2014. VMware thought enough of the importance of cloud-native technologies that it bought his former company, Heptio, for $550 million last year.

As we head into this phase of pushing Kubernetes and related tech into larger companies, McLuckie acknowledges it creates a set of new challenges. “We are at this crossing the chasm moment where you look at the way the world is — and you look at the opportunity of what the world might become — and a big part of what motivated me to join VMware is that it’s successfully proven its ability to help enterprise organizations navigate their way through these disruptive changes,” McLuckie told TechCrunch.

He says that Kubernetes does actually solve this fundamental management problem companies face in this multi-cloud, hybrid world. “At the end of the day, Kubernetes is an abstraction. It’s just a way of organizing your infrastructure and making it accessible to the people that need to consume it.

“And I think it’s a fundamentally better abstraction than we have access to today. It has some very nice properties. It is pretty consistent in every environment that you might want to operate, so it really makes your on-prem software feel like it’s operating in the public cloud,” he explained.

Simplifying a complex world

One of the reasons Kubernetes and cloud-native technologies are gaining in popularity is because the technology allows companies to think about hardware differently. There is a big difference between virtual machines and containers, says Joe Fernandes, VP of product for Red Hat cloud platform.

“Sometimes people conflate containers as another form of virtualization, but with virtualization, you’re virtualizing hardware, and the virtual machines that you’re creating are like an actual machine with its own operating system. With containers, you’re virtualizing the process,” he said.

He said that this means it’s not coupled with the hardware. The only thing it needs to worry about is making sure it can run Linux, and Linux runs everywhere, which explains how containers make it easier to manage across different types of infrastructure. “It’s more efficient, more affordable, and ultimately, cloud-native allows folks to drive more automation,” he said.

Bringing it into the enterprise

Photo: Ron Miller/TechCrunch

It’s one thing to convince early adopters to change the way they work, but as this technology enters the mainstream. Gabe Monroy, partner program manager at Microsoft says to carry this technology to the next level, we have to change the way we talk about it.

 


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Watch Sacha Baron Cohen skewer Zuckerberg’s “twisted logic” on hate speech and fakes

15:11 | 22 November

Comedian Sacha Baron Cohen has waded into the debate about social media regulation.

In an award-acceptance speech to the Anti Defamation League yesterday the creator of Ali G and Borat delivered a precision takedown of what he called Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s “bullshit” arguments against regulating his platform.

The speech is well worth watching in full as Cohen articulates, with a comic’s truth-telling clarity, the problem with “the greatest propaganda machine in history” (aka social media platform giants) and how to fix it: Broadcast-style regulation that sets basic standards and practices of what content isn’t acceptable for them to amplify to billions.

“There is such a thing as objective truth,” said Cohen. “Facts do exist. And if these Internet companies really want to make a difference they should hire enough monitors to actually monitor, work closely with groups like the ADL and the NAACP, insist on facts and purge these lies and conspiracies from their platforms.”

Attacking social media platforms for promulgating “a sewer of bigotry and vile conspiracy theories that threaten our democracy and to some degree our planet”, he pointed out that freedom of speech is not the same as freedom of reach.

“This can’t possibly be what the creators of the Internet had in mind,” he said. “I believe that’s it’s time for a fundamental rethink of social media and how it spreads hate, conspiracies and lies.”

“Voltaire was right. Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities — and social media lets authoritarians push absurdities to billions of people,” he added.

Cohen also rubbished Zuckerberg’s recent speech at Georgetown University in which the Facebook founder sought to appropriate the mantle of ‘free speech’ to argue against social media regulation.

“This is not about limiting anyone’s free speech. This is about giving people — including some of the most reprehensible people in history — the biggest platform in history to reach a third of the planet.”

“We are not asking these companies to determine the boundaries of free speech across society, we just want them to be responsible on their platforms,” Cohen added.

On Facebook’s decision to stick by its morally bankrupt position of allowing politicians to pay it to spread lying, hatefully propaganda, Cohen also had this to say: “Under this twisted logic if Facebook were around in the 1930s it would have allowed Hitler to post 30-second ads on his solution to the ‘Jewish problem’.”

Ouch.

YouTube also came in for criticism during the speech, including for its engagement-driven algorithmic recommendation engine which Cohen pointed out had singlehandedly recommended videos by conspiracist Alex Jones “billions of times”.

Just six people decide what information “so much of the world sees”, he noted, name-checking the “silicon six” — as he called Facebook’s Zuckerberg, Google’s Sundar Pichai, Alphabet’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin, YouTube’s Susan Wojcicki, and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey.

“All billionaires, all Americans, who care more about boosting their share price than about protecting democracy. This is ideological imperialism,” he went on. “Six unelected individuals in Silicon Valley imposing their vision on the rest of the world, unaccountable to any government and acting like they’re above the reach of law.

“It’s like we’re living in the Roman Empire and Mark Zuckerberg is Caesar. At least that would explain his haircut.”

Cohen ended the speech with an appeal for societies to “prioritize truth over lies, tolerance over prejudice, empathy over indifference, and experts over ignoramuses” and thereby save democracy from the greed of “high tech robber barons”.

 


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Sonos acquires voice assistant startup Snips, potentially to build out on-device voice control

00:36 | 21 November

Sonos revealed during its quarterly earnings report that it has acquired voice assistant startup Snips in a $37 million cash deal, Variety reported on Wednesday. Snips, which had been developing dedicated smart device assistants that can operate primarily locally, instead of relying on consistently round-tripping voice data to the cloud, could help Sonos set up a voice control option for its customers that has “privacy in mind” and is focused more narrowly on music control than on being a general-purpose smart assistant.

Sonos has worked with both Amazon and Google and their voice assistants, providing support for either on their more recent products, including the Sonos Beam and Sonos One smart speakers. Both of these require an active cloud connection to work, however, and have received scrutiny from consumers and consumer protection groups recently for how they handle the data they collect form users. They’ve introduced additional controls to help users navigate their own data sharing, but Sonos CEO Patrick Spence noted that one of the things the company can do in building its own voice features is developing them “with privacy in mind” in an interview with Variety.

Notably, Sonos has introduced a version of its Sonos One that leave out the microphone hardware altogether – the Sonos One SL introduced earlier this fall. The fact that they saw opportunity in a mic-less second version of the Sonos One suggests it’s likely there are a decent number of customers who like the option of a product that’s not round-tripping any information with a remote server. Spence also seemed quick to point out that Sonos wouldn’t seek to compete with its voice assistant partners, however, since anything they build will be focused much more specifically on music.

You can imagine how local machine learning would be able to handle commands like skipping, pausing playback and adjusting volume (and maybe even more advanced feature like playing back a saved playlist), without having to connect to any kind of cloud service. It seems like what Spence envisions is something like that which can provide basic controls, while still allowing the option for a customer to enable one of the more full-featured voice assistants depending on their preference.

Meanwhile, partnerships continue to prove lucrative for Sonos: Its team-up with Ikea resulted in 30,000 speakers sold on launch day, the company also shared alongside its earnings. That’s a lot to move in one day, especially in this category.

 


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Google finishes the install of its private Curie cable, announces Panama branch

20:30 | 14 November

Google today announced that it has finished the install and test of its private Curie cable. When it was announced, Curie, which connects the U.S. to Chile, was the company’s third private cable. Since then, it has announced two more, Dunant and Equiano, which will connect the U.S. to Europe and Portugal to South Africa. The 10,500 kilometers long cable will offer a total capacity of 72Tbps and will go online in Q2 of 2020. Right now, Google’s teams are working on connecting the cable to its own network.

In addition, Google also today announced that Curie will get a branch to Panama. “Once operational, this branch will enhance connectivity and bandwidth to Central America, and increase our ability to connect to other networks in the region, providing resiliency to our global cloud infrastructure,” the company says in today’s announcement.

For Curie’s Panama branch, Google will once again work with SubCom, the same engineering firm that helped it build the rest of the cable. SubCom is also working with Google on the Dunant, while Google opted to partner with Alcatel Submarine Networks for the Equiano cable to South Africa.

While Google is also partnering with other technology firms to share bandwidth on other cables, these private cables give it full control over all of the resources. The company also argues that owning and operating its own cables adds another layer of security, on top of all the other benefits.

 


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Google Search now helps you pronounce ‘quokka’

20:00 | 14 November

Google is adding a nifty new feature to its search results when you look for the pronunciation of words. You’ll now be able to not just hear the correct pronunciation, but you can also now practice the right way of saying ‘quokka’ and get immediate feedback on the page. While you may not think you need a tool like this, it’s surely a great tool for language learners.

All of this, of course, is powered by machine learning. Google’s speech recognition tools process the recording, separates it into individual sounds, and then compares it to how experts pronounce it.

In addition to this new pronunciation feature, Google is also adding more images to its dictionary and translate features. For now, this is only available in English and only works for nouns. It’s quite a bit harder to find the right image (or GIF) to illustrate verbs, after all, let alone adverbs.

Advances in speech recognition and machine learning can improve the way we learn about languages,” Google says in today’s announcement. “We hope these new features give you a creative, more effective way to practice, visualize and remember new words. We plan to expand these features to more languages, accents and regions in the future.”

Bonus: here is a video with lots of quokkas.

 

 

 

 


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