Does Google’s Duplex violate two-party consent laws?

Google’s Duplex, which calls businesses on your behalf and imitates a real human, ums and ahs included, has sparked a bit of controversy among privacy advocates. Doesn’t Google recording a person’s voice and sending it to a datacenter for analysis violate two-party consent law, which requires everyone in a conversation to agree to being recorded? The answer isn’t immediately clear, and Google’s silence isn’t helping.

Let’s take California’s law as the example, since that’s the state where Google is based and where it used the system. Penal Code section 632 forbids recording any “confidential communication” (defined more or less as any non-public conversation) without the consent of all parties. (The Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press has a good state-by-state guide to these laws.)

Google has provided very little in the way of details about how Duplex actually works, so attempting to answer this question involves a certain amount of informed speculation.

As a first assumption, it seems clear that, like most Google services, Duplex’s work takes place in a datacenter somewhere, not locally on your device. So fundamentally there is a requirement in the system that the other party’s audio will be in recorded and sent in some form to that datacenter for processing, at which point a response is formulated and spoken.

On its face it sounds bad for Google. There’s no way the system is getting consent from whoever picks up the phone. That would spoil the whole interaction — “This call is being conducted by a Google system using speech recognition and synthesis; your voice will be analyzed at Google datacenters. Press 1 or say ‘I consent’ to consent.” I would have hung up after about two words. The whole idea is to mask the fact that it’s an AI system at all, so getting consent that way won’t work.

But there’s wiggle room as far as the consent requirement in how the audio is recorded, transmitted, and stored. After all, there are systems out there that may have to temporarily store a recording of a person’s voice without their consent — think of a VoIP call that caches audio for a fraction of a second in case of packet loss. There’s even a specific cutout in the law for hearing aids, which if you think about it do in fact do “record” private conversations. Temporary copies produced as part of a legal, beneficial service aren’t the target of this law.

This is partly because the law is about preventing eavesdropping and wiretapping, not preventing any recorded representation of conversation whatsoever that isn’t explicitly authorized. Legislative intent is important.

“There’s a little legal uncertainty there, in the sense of what degree of permanence is required to constitute eavesdropping,” said Mason Kortz, of Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. “The big question is what is being sent to the datacenter and how is it being retained. If it’s retained in the condition that the original conversation is understandable, that’s a violation.”

For instance, Google could conceivably keep a recording of the call, perhaps for AI training purposes, perhaps for quality assurance, perhaps for users’ own records (in case of time slot dispute at the salon, for example). They do retain other data along these lines.

But it would be foolish. Google has an army of lawyers and consent would have been one of the first things they tackled in the deployment of Duplex. For the on-stage demos it would be simple enough to collect proactive consent from the businesses they were going to contact. But for actual use by consumers the system needs to engineered with the law in mind.

What would a functioning but legal Duplex look like? The conversation would likely have to be deconstructed and permanently discarded immediately after intake, the way audio is cached in a device like a hearing aid or a service like digital voice transmission.

A closer example of this is Amazon, which might have found itself in violation of COPPA, a law protecting children’s data, whenever a kid asked an Echo to play a Raffi song or do long division. The FTC decided that as long as Amazon and companies in that position immediately turn the data into text and then delete it afterwards, no harm and therefore no violation. That’s not an exact analogue to Google’s system, but it is nonetheless instructive.

“It may be possible with careful design to extract the features you need without keeping the original, in a way where it’s mathematically impossible to recreate the recording,” Kortz said.

If that process is verifiable and there’s no possibility of eavesdropping — no chance any Google employee, law enforcement officer, or hacker could get into the system and intercept or collect that data — then potentially Duplex could be deemed benign, transitory recording in the eye of the law.

That assumes a lot, though. Frustratingly, Google could clear this up with a sentence or two. It’s suspicious that the company didn’t address this obvious question with even a single phrase, like Sundar Pichai adding during the presentation that “yes, we are compliant with recording consent laws.” Instead of people wondering if, they’d be wondering how. And of course we’d all still be wondering why.

We’ve reached out to Google multiple times on various aspects of this story, but for a company with such talkative products, they sure clammed up fast.

Google News vs. Apple News on iOS

Google recently introduced a new Google News app with an entirely updated interface and a range of new features that put it on par with Apple’s own News app, including a “For You” recommendation section and “Full Coverage” headlines that present a story from multiple angles.

We went hands-on with Google News to check out the new features and to see how it compares to Apple News, the built-in news app that’s available on the iPhone and the iPad.

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The Google News app is a reimagining and revamp to the existing Google Newsstand Play app that was previously available via the iOS App Store. It’s been entirely overhauled though, with a simple, clean interface that’s fairly similar to the look of Apple News with a dedicated navigation bar at the bottom.

Google News does, however, have an additional section for quickly selecting news categories like U.S., World, Business, and Technology.

Both apps feature a “For You” section based on personalized recommendations. Apple’s draws in information from the categories and news sites you choose to follow, while Google presents a selection of stories that become more tailored over time based on what you choose to read and what you favorite.

In each app, you can search for different news sites, blogs, and topics and add them to your coverage lists to impact “For You.” Google’s For You section highlights a list of five top stories and then provides supplemental stories at the bottom of the list, while Apple organizes For You into top stories, trending stories, top videos, and then recommendations based on channels and topics.

Apple News features a “Spotlight” section that features curated news selected by Apple News Editors, which highlights interesting news topics that you might not have otherwise seen.

Google News doesn’t have a similar feature, but it has its own unique offering in the form of the “Headlines” section that aggregates the top news stories at the current time. In the headlines section, major stories have a “Full Coverage” option that lets you see the same story from multiple news sites so all of the angles are covered.

Google also has a dedicated “Newsstand” tab that lets you subscribe to paid and free news sources and a range of magazines using payment information stored in your Google Play account. Apple doesn’t have a similar feature right now, but such an option is said to be in the works following its acquisition of magazine subscription service Texture.

Have you checked out Google News? Do you prefer it over Apple’s own news app? Let us know in the comments.

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What we know about Google’s Duplex demo so far

The highlight of Google’s I/O keynote earlier this month was the reveal of Duplex, a system that can make calls to set up a salon appointment or a restaurant reservation for you by calling those places, chatting with a human and getting the job done. That demo drew lots of laughs at the keynote, but after the dust settled, plenty of ethical questions popped up because of how Duplex tries to fake being human. Over the course of the last few days, those were joined by questions about whether the demo was staged or edited after Axios asked Google a few simple questions about the demo that Google refused to answer.

We have reached out to Google with a number of very specific questions about this and have not heard back. As far as I can tell, the same is true for other outlets that have contacted the company.

If you haven’t seen the demo, take a look at this before you read on.

So did Google fudge this demo? Here is why people are asking and what we know so far:

During his keynote, Google CEO Sundar Pichai noted multiple times that we were listening to real calls and real conversations (“What you will hear is the Google Assistant actually calling a real salon.”). The company made the same claims in a blog post (“While sounding natural, these and other examples are conversations between a fully automatic computer system and real businesses.”).

Google has so far declined to disclose the name of the businesses it worked with and whether it had permission to record those calls. California is a two-consent state, so our understanding is that permission to record these calls would have been necessary (unless those calls were made to businesses in a state with different laws). So on top of the ethics questions, there are also a few legal questions here.

We have some clues, though. In the blog post, Google Duplex lead Yaniv Leviathan and engineering manager Matan Kalman posted a picture of themselves eating a meal “booked through a call from Duplex.” Thanks to the wonder of crowdsourcing and a number of intrepid sleuths, we know that this restaurant was Hongs Gourmet in Saratoga, California. We called Hongs Gourmet last night, but the person who answered the phone referred us to her manager, who she told us had left for the day. (We’ll give it another try today.)

Sadly, the rest of Google’s audio samples don’t contain any other clues as to which restaurants were called.

What prompted much of the suspicion here is that nobody who answers the calls from the Assistant in Google’s samples identifies their name or the name of the business. My best guess is that Google cut those parts from the conversations, but it’s hard to tell. Some of the audio samples do however sound as if the beginning was edited out.

Google clearly didn’t expect this project to be controversial. The keynote demo was clearly meant to dazzle — and it did so in the moment because, if it really works, this technology represents the culmination of years of work on machine learning. But the company clearly didn’t think through the consequences.

My best guess is that Google didn’t fake these calls. But it surely only presented the best examples of its tests. That’s what you do in a big keynote demo, after all, even though in hindsight, showing the system fail or trying to place a live call would have been even better (remember Steve Job’s Starbucks call?).

For now, we’ll see if we can get more answers, but so far all of our calls and emails have gone unanswered. Google could easily do away with all of those questions around Duplex by simply answering them, but so far, that’s not happening.

New YouTube Music Premium costs $9.99 monthly, add $2 to get all Red perks

The long wait for YouTube’s revamped music service is nearly over: the company announced on its blog that it will debut the new YouTube Music on May 22. YouTube already has a service by the same name, but this new version overhauls the old one and introduces two new premium services into the mix: YouTube Music Premium and YouTube Premium.

Let’s break down YouTube Music first: the new music-streaming service will offer free, ad-supported music streaming through a new desktop and mobile app. YouTube emphasizes that “all the ways music moves you can be found in one place” in the new YouTube Music, as it gives users access to thousands of playlists, official songs and albums, remixes, covers, live versions, and music videos.

The new app will also have a “dynamic home screen” that provides listening recommendations based on your history, what you’re doing, and where you are. Users can also search for songs using YouTube Music search without knowing the song’s name. It’s likely that Google incorporates AI into this feature, allowing you to search for songs using descriptions or lyrics. All of that will be available through YouTube Music for free for anyone who can stand advertisements throughout, making it similar to free versions of other streaming services, including Spotify and Apple Music.

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“Smart diaper” by Alphabet’s Verily would skip sniff test to answer: #1 or #2?

Tech companies are always hoping to clear out the competition with their latest wearable. But Alphabet’s life sciences division, Verily, is likely expecting a blow-out with this one.

The company, formerly known as Google Life Sciences, has a patent-pending plan for a wirelessly connected “smart diaper” that would not only alert a caregiver when there’s a new “event” but also analyze and identify the fresh download—i.e., is it a number one or number two? The connected, absorbent gadget will sound the alarm via a connected device and potentially an app, which can catalogue and keep a record of events.

Verily is not the first to try to plumb the potential of derrière devices for babies. Many companies have come before with simple to high-tech moisture sensors—from color-changing strips to wireless alarms. But, Verily argues in its patent application, the market is lacking a convenient, affordable, all-in-one design that can differentiate between a wee squirt and a code brown. While both require attention and a change, a festering or explosive diaper bomb often requires more urgency, particularly if a baby is dealing with diaper rash.

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New $10 YouTube Music Service to Launch Next Week, Replacing Google Play Music

Google is launching YouTube Music next week, shortly followed by YouTube Premium – a revamped version of its ad-free YouTube Red subscription service with a renewed focus on original programming. Announced on Wednesday in a blog post, the shake-up in services represents a splitting of the original YouTube Red subscription model, which gave users both ad-free music streaming and access to original video content for $10 a month.



The new YouTube Music-only service will also cost $10 a month and replaces Google Play Music – existing subscribers will be migrated automatically (that includes non-paying users who have purchased music via Google Play or used the service to upload tracks and playlists). The rebranded service includes personalized playlists, intelligent search, support for background playback and music downloads for offline listening.

The streaming service will also remove ads from music videos, but not the rest of YouTube. An ad-supported version of YouTube Music will be available for free. As part of the launch, Google is promising a “reimagined” mobile app and desktop player that’s “designed for music”.

YouTube Music is a new music streaming service made for music: official songs, albums, thousands of playlists and artist radio plus YouTube’s tremendous catalog of remixes, live performances, covers and music videos that you can’t find anywhere else – all simply organized and personalized. For the first time, all the ways music moves you can be found in one place.



YouTube Premium, meanwhile, will cost $12 a month, and includes all the benefits of YouTube Music plus access to original shows as well as ad-free viewing for all of YouTube. The extra $2 over the original YouTube Red subscription will make way for more YouTube Originals from around the globe, featuring comedies, dramas, reality series, and action adventure shows from the U.K., Germany, France, Mexico, and more. Existing YouTube Red members will continue to pay the current price for YouTube Premium, however.



YouTube Music and launches on Tuesday, March 22 in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico and South Korea, rolling out to more countries in the following weeks. They will include Austria, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Norway, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

YouTube Premium will roll out “soon” in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, and South Korea, later followed by Austria, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Norway, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

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YouTube revamps its Red subscription service to offer standalone music streaming

Like Google’s messaging focus, YouTube’s efforts to spin out successful streaming and music products has felt confusing and haphazard. Now the company is simplifying and consolidating that play by decoupling the music and film components with the launch of a new service.

YouTube Music is, as the name suggests, a music streaming service that will launch on May 22. Aimed squarely at competing with Apple Music and Spotify, it’ll cost $9.99 per month following a free trial period as is standard in the industry.

An ad-supported version will be available for free also, but it won’t include premium features such as background listening, song downloads and music discovery features. (It’s worth noting that this new service will replace the existing Google Play Music service.)

YouTube Music was originally part of YouTube Red, the company’s subscription video streaming service, and though it is being decoupled, customers will be able to subscribe to both services if they buy a YouTube Red subscription, which is now priced at $11.99 per month. Except that YouTube Red will now be known as YouTube Premium since it covers both music and video.

Confused? Well, essentially YouTube has made it possible for customers to opt for music only. But it is also dangling the carrot of the full video service for just $2 more. Or, if you prefer a more negative slant, YouTube Red now costs $2 more than it did before. Take your pick.

The split makes a lot of sense when you consider how many people use YouTube for playing music for free despite a plethora of excellent streaming experiences like Spotify and Apple Music. It’s particularly popular in emerging markets where you can see YouTube listeners on public transport or other moments that Spotify and co would want to own.

That said, the new YouTube services are being focused on first-world markets initially. The company said the first stops will be U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Mexico and South Korea. Further down the line, it will expand to Austria, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Norway, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

Watch every panel from TC Sessions: Robotics

Last week at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall, TechCrunch held its second TC Sessions: Robotics event. It was a full day of panels and demos, featuring the top minds in robotics, artificial intelligence and venture capital, along with some of the most cutting-edge demonstrations around.

If you weren’t able to attend, though, no worries; we’ve got the full event recorded for posterity, along with breakdowns of what you missed below.

Getting a Grip on Reality: Deep Learning and Robot Grasping

It turns out grasping objects is really hard for a robot. According to Ken Goldberg, professor and chair of the Industrial Engineering and Operations Research Department, it’s about forces and torques. He and TechCrunch Editor-in-Chief Matthew Panzarino also discussed what Goldberg calls “fog robotics.” Goldberg differentiates it from “cloud robotics” in that “you don’t want to do everything in the cloud because of latency issues and bandwidth limitations, quality of service — and there are also very interesting issues about privacy and security with robotics.”

The Future of the Robot Operating System

Fetch Robotics CEO Melonee Wise joined fellow Willow Garage ex-pats Brian Gerkey and Morgan Quigley to discuss Open Robotics’ Robot Operating System (ROS) efforts. The team is working to design and maintain an open and consistent framework for a broad range of different robotic systems.

Eyes, Ears, and Data: Robot Sensors and GPUs

Nvidia vice president Deepu Talla discussed how the chipmaker is making a central play in the AI and deep learning technologies that will drive robots, drones and autonomous vehicles of the future.

The Best Robots on Four Legs

Boston Dynamics CEO Marc Raibert announced onstage that the company’s 66-pound SpotMini robot will be available for purchase by the normals in 2019. Yes, one day you, too, will be able to have a dog robot perform services for you at the office or home.

Old McDonald Needs a Robot

Agriculture is one of the next major fields for robotics, and we brought together some of the top startups in the field. Dan Steere of Abundant Robotics, Brandon Alexander of Iron Ox, Sébastien Boyer of FarmWise and Willy Pell of John Deere-owned Blue River Technology joined us onstage to discuss the ways in which robotics, artificial intelligence and autonomous systems will transform farm work in fields and orchards.

Teaching Robots New Tricks with AI

Pieter Abbeel is the Director of the UC Berkeley Robot Learning Lab and the co-founder of AI software company, covariant.ai. In a broad ranging discussion, Abbeel described the techniques his lab is using to teach robots how to better interact in human settings through repetition, simulation and learning from their own trial and error.

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Ayanna Howard of Georgia Tech, Leila Takayama of UC Santa Cruz and Patrick Sobalvarro of Veo Robotics took part in an exploration of the ways in which humans and robots can collaborate in work and home settings. Getting there is a mix of safety and education on both the humans’ and robots’ behalf.

Demos from 254 Lockdown, 1678 Citrus Circuit, Pi Competition: Hercules

Robotics teams from Bellarmine College Preparatory, Davis High School and Hercules High School took to the stage before lunch time to show us what they have been working on. Each team built robots designed to tackle various tasks and the results are impressive.

Venture Investing in Robotics

Renata Quintini of Lux Capital, Rob Coneybeer of Shasta Ventures and Chris Evdemon of Sinovation Ventures all discussed the excitement around startups venturing into the robotics industry, but were also quite candid about the difficulty robotics founders face who are unfamiliar with a particular industry that they hope could reshape their innovation.

Betting Big on Robotics

Andy Rubin has had a lifelong fascination with robotics. In fact, it was his nickname during his time at Apple that gave the Android operating system its name. After a stint heading a robotics initiative at Google, Rubin is using his role as a co-founder of Playground Global to fund some of the most fascinating robotics startups around. In a one-on-one discussion, Rubin talked about why robotics are a good long- and short-term investment, and why one particular long-legged robot could be the future of package delivery.

From the Lab Bench to Term Sheet

This cute little robot from Mayfield Robotics can blink, play music, turn its head and recharge itself. It can also just stay put to take pictures of you and live-stream your daily life. Yep. It watches you. Its name is Kuri and it can be your little buddy to always remind you that you never have to be alone.

Agility Robotics demonstration of Cassie

Agility Robotics’ bipedal humanoid robot was designed with bird legs in mind. But it wasn’t yet designed with arms. The company’s CTO Jonathan Hurst says those are to come. It’ll cost you $35,000 when it’s in full production mode. Custom deliveries started in August 2017 to a select few universities — University of Michigan, Harvard and Caltech, and Berkeley just bought its own. Although we didn’t see an example of this application, Cassie can apparently hold the body weight of a reasonably sized human.

Autonomous Systems

Safety has long been the focus of the push toward self-driving systems. Recent news stories, however, have cast a pall on the technology, leading many to suggest that companies have pushed to introduce it too quickly on public streets. Oliver Cameron of Voyage and Alex Rodrigues of Embark Trucks joined us to discuss these concerns and setbacks, as well as how the self-driving industry moves forward from here.

Teaching Intelligent Machines

Nvidia is working to help developers create robots and artificial intelligent systems. Vice president of Engineering Claire Delaunay discussed how the company is creating the tools to help democratize the creation of future robotics.

The Future of Transportation

Chris Urmson has been in the self-driving car game for a long time. He joined Google’s self-driving car team in 2009, becoming head of the project four years later. These days, he’s the CEO of Aurora, a startup that has logged a lot of hours testing its own self-driving tech on the roads. Urmson discussed the safety concerns around the technology and how far out we are from self-driving ubiquity.

Demos of RoMeLa’s NABi and ALPHRED

Humans are bipedal, so why is it so hard to replicate that in a robot, asks Dennis Hong, professor and founding director of RoMeLa (Robotics & Mechanisms Library) of the Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering Department at UCLA. One of the reasons he said is because the distance between the left and right legs creates a twisting movement that renders forward and backward movement difficult. The resolution is to have them walk sideways. No twisting. So the team developed NABi (non-anthropomorphic biped), a bipedal locomotion robot with no “feet” or “shins.” To extend the admittedly limited functionality of NABi, the team then created ALPHRED (Autonomous Legged Personal Helper Robot with Enhanced Dynamics). ALPHRED’s limbs, as the team calls them (“not legs, not arms”), form to create multimodal locomotion, because of its multiple types of formations.

Building Stronger Humans

The BackX, LegX and ShoulderX from SuitX serve to minimize the stress we humans tend to place on our joints. We saw the application of these modules onstage. But infinitely more impressive during the conversation with company co-founder Homayoon Kazerooni was the application the audience saw of the company’s exoskeleton. Arash Bayatmakou fell from a balcony in 2012, which resulted in paralysis. He was told he would never walk again. Five years later, Arash connected with SuitX, and he has been working with a physical therapist to use the device to perform four functions: stand, sit and walk forward and backward. You can follow his recovery here.