Google CEO Sundar Pichai speaks publicly for the first time about its censored China search engine

Commenting publicly for the first time about Google’s censored search engine for China, CEO Sundar Pichai said onstage at the WIRED 25 summit in San Francisco that the company is taking “a longer-term view” about the country. Codenamed Project Dragonfly, the controversial development has been public knowledge since a report in August by the Intercept, generating significant backlash, with several employees resigning in protest.

Google did not confirm Project Dragonfly’s existence until its chief privacy officer, Keith Enright, spoke at a Senate hearing last month. Even then, Enright did not provide much information about the project, so this means Pichai’s comments at WIRED 25 are the most detailed ones made officially by Google’s leadership so far.

Even before Project Dragonfly was revealed by The Intercept, Google had already been quietly working on a strategy to re-enter China, including launching (or re-launching) apps through third-party Android stores (Google Play is not available in China) and working with partners like Xiaomi and Huawei to introduce its ARCore technology for augmented and virtual reality there. Pichai said Google has not decided if it will actually launch Project Dragonfly in China, but if it does, the search engine’s biggest competition would be Baidu.

Pichai said that Chinese tech innovations means it’s time for Google to get an understanding of the market from the inside out. “It’s a wonderful, innovative market. We wanted to learn what it would look like if we were in China, so that’s what we built internally,” adding that “given how important the market is and how many users there are, we feel obliged to think hard about this problem and take a longer-term view.”

Even though it follows China’s strict censorship laws, Pichai claimed that Project Dragonfly will still be able to answer “well over 99% of the queries” put to it and that “there are many, many areas where we would provide information better than what’s available.”

Google once operated a censored search engine in China at Google.cn, but pulled out of the country in 2010. At the time, Google said its decision was prompted by a “sophisticated cyber attack originating from China” that targeted human rights activists, and the country’s efforts to “further limit free speech on the web in China” by blocking websites like Googe Docs, Blogger, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

For its critics, Project Dragonfly’s existence means Google has reneged on the values it avowed nine years ago. While onstage at WIRED 25, however, Pichai said working on a search engine is in line with the company’s mission to “provide information to everyone,” noting that China contains about 20% of the world’s population.

Google only embarked on Project Dragonfly after much deliberation, he said. “People don’t understand fully, but you’re always balancing a set of values” when entering new countries,” adding “but we also follow the rule of law in every country.”

This robot uses lasers to ‘listen’ to its environment

A new technology from researchers at Carnegie Mellon University will add sound and vibration awareness to create truly context-aware computing. The system, called Ubicoustics, adds additional bits of context to smart device interaction, allowing a smart speaker to know it’s in a kitchen or a smart sensor to know you’re in a tunnel versus on the open road.

“A smart speaker sitting on a kitchen countertop cannot figure out if it is in a kitchen, let alone know what a person is doing in a kitchen,” said Chris Harrison a researcher at CMU’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute. “But if these devices understood what was happening around them, they could be much more helpful.”

The first implementation of the system uses built-in speakers to create “a sound-based activity recognition.” How they are doing this is quite fascinating.

“The main idea here is to leverage the professional sound-effect libraries typically used in the entertainment industry,” said Gierad Laput, a PhD student. “They are clean, properly labeled, well-segmented and diverse. Plus, we can transform and project them into hundreds of different variations, creating volumes of data perfect for training deep-learning models.”

From the release:

Laput said recognizing sounds and placing them in the correct context is challenging, in part because multiple sounds are often present and can interfere with each other. In their tests, Ubicoustics had an accuracy of about 80 percent — competitive with human accuracy, but not yet good enough to support user applications. Better microphones, higher sampling rates and different model architectures all might increase accuracy with further research.

In a separate paper, HCII Ph.D. student Yang Zhang, along with Laput and Harrison, describe what they call Vibrosight, which can detect vibrations in specific locations in a room using laser vibrometry. It is similar to the light-based devices the KGB once used to detect vibrations on reflective surfaces such as windows, allowing them to listen in on the conversations that generated the vibrations.

This system uses a low-power laser and reflectors to sense whether an object is on or off or whether a chair or table has moved. The sensor can monitor multiple objects at once and the tags attached to the objects use no electricity. This would let a single laser monitor multiple objects around a room or even in different rooms, assuming there is line of sight.

The research is still in its early stages, but expect to see robots that can hear when you’re doing the dishes and, depending on their skills, hide or offer to help.

Google Pixel 3 XL vs. iPhone XS Max: Which Camera Reigns Supreme?

Google’s newest flagship smartphones, the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL, are officially launching later this week. With their high-quality cameras, fast processors, and other improvements, the new devices are direct competitors to Apple’s newly released iPhone XS models.

We were able to get our hands on the new Pixel 3 and Pixel 3XL ahead of their debut, and in our latest YouTube video, we compared the Google Pixel 3 XL camera to Apple’s iPhone XS Max camera to see which one reigns supreme.

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Both the Pixel 3 and the Pixel 3 XL are equipped with a single-lens 12-megapixel rear camera system, while the iPhone XS Max uses a dual-lens camera system that features a 12-megapixel wide-angle lens and a 12-megapixel telephoto lens.



The two camera system allows the iPhone XS Max to do things like capture Portrait Mode images with an adjustable depth of field and a blurred background, but the Pixel 3 XL has much of the same functionality enabled through software.



Like the iPhone XS Max, the Pixel 3 XL features a Portrait Mode. With its newest devices, Apple introduced some improvements to Portrait Mode with the A12 Bionic chip, and that gave it the edge over the Pixel 3 XL in our image tests. The Pixel 3 XL won out when it came to edge detection in most cases, with less blurring in areas we didn’t want blurred, but iPhone XS Max Portrait Mode images were sharper.



Google advertises a new “Super Res” zoom in the Pixel 3 XL, but the single-lens camera system can’t compete with Apple’s telephoto lens.

With the iPhone XS Max, Apple introduced a new Smart HDR feature that takes multiple images at different exposures and combines them for one ideal shot. Google’s Pixel 3 XL has a similar HDR+ mode that does the same thing to eke out more detail in photos with a lot of variation in lighting.



In our testing, we preferred the Smart HDR on the iPhone because it was able to preserve more detail without blowing out bright areas like the sky, but the Pixel 3 XL was not far behind.

Google’s Pixel 3 XL uses a Night Sight feature that’s designed to create brighter, clearer photos than the iPhone XS Max can produce. Night Sight isn’t available at launch, but will be coming to the Pixel phones later and could give the devices a serious edge over the XS Max.



In our low light photo tests, both performed well, but the Pixel 3 XL demonstrated more noise and grain than low-light photos taken with the iPhone XS Max. In Portrait Mode, though, the Pixel 3 XL outperformed the iPhone XS Max.



While the Pixel 3 XL has a single-lens rear camera, Google has implemented a two-camera system at the front of the device with two 8-megapixel cameras for taking selfies. The iPhone XS Max, meanwhile, has a single-lens 7-megapixel front-facing camera and TrueDepth camera system that allows it to capture the same Portrait Mode photos as the rear camera system.

Because Google is using two cameras, there are front-facing features not available on the iPhone XS Max, such as a wider-angle lens that captures 184 percent more of a scene to enable group selfies.



When it comes to front-facing camera systems, the Pixel 3 XL definitely beats the iPhone XS Max. Front-facing Portrait Mode photos look great on both devices, but the group selfie mode is something Apple can’t compete with.

The camera systems in the iPhone XS Max and Google Pixel 3 XL both have their strengths and weaknesses, but when it comes down to it, both are so good that determining which one is better is a matter of preference.



Photos from the iPhone XS Max, for example, tend to be a bit more even in color than the overly cool or warm-toned photos coming from the Pixel 3 XL, which some people prefer and others don’t. iPhone XS Max images also come out a bit darker due to the Smart HDR feature that preserves detail, which is another visual difference that may influence opinion towards one camera or the other.

Bottom line, though, both the iPhone XS Max and the Pixel 3 XL produce impressive images that are better than both the previous-generation iPhone X and the Pixel 2 smartphones, and both are closer than ever to overtaking more traditional handheld cameras.

You can see all of the full resolution photos that we took with the Pixel 3 XL and the iPhone XS Max in this Imgur album that we created. Do you prefer Pixel 3 XL photos or iPhone XS Max photos? Let us know in the comments.

Related Roundup: iPhone XS
Buyer’s Guide: iPhone XS (Buy Now)

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A former Google+ UI designer suggests inept management played a role in the network’s demise (beyond Facebook’s impact)

A lot of people leave their jobs because of bosses they can’t stand. Yet it’s seldom the case that a former employee publicly badmouths management after the fact. The obvious risk in doing so: future employers might not want to gamble on this person badmouthing them at a later date.

That isn’t stopping Morgan Knutson, a UI designer who seven years ago, spent eight months at Google working on its recently shuttered social networking product Google+ and who, in light of the shutdown, decided to share on Twitter his personal experience with how “awful the project and exec team was.”

It’s a fairly long read, but among his most notable complaints is that former Google SVP Vic Gundotra, who oversaw Google+, ruled by fear and never bothered to talk with Knutson, whose desk was “directly next to Vic’s glass-walled office. He would walk by my desk dozens of times during the day. He could see my screen from his desk. During the 8 months I was there, culminating in me leading the redesign of his product, Vic didn’t say a word to me. No hello. No goodbye, or thanks for staying late. No handshake. No eye contact.”

He also says Gundotra essentially bribed other teams within Google to incorporate Google+’s features into their products by promising them handsome financial rewards for doing so atop their yearly bonuses. “You read that correctly, “tweeted Knutson. “A f*ck ton of money to ruin the product you were building with bloated garbage that no one wanted.”

Gundotra is today the cofounder and CEO of AliveCor, maker of a device that captures a “medical grade” E.K.G. within 30 seconds; AliveCor has gone on to raise $30 million from investors, including the Mayo Clinic.

Asked about Knutson’s characterization of him, Gundotra suggested the rant was “absurd” but otherwise declined to comment.

Knutson disparages even more strongly a former manager that he calls “Greg” and he portrays a fellow designer, Jim, as paranoid and vindictive. Indeed, in describing how his unit was organized, Knutson paints a picture of a political, haphazard, wasteful and ultimately disappointing division where it was never quite clear who should be working on what or why. In fact, though he says he thought he was “joining the big leagues” when recruited by Google, Knutson wound up taking a job with Dropbox shortly afterward in order to escape from the corporate leviathan.

It also sounds from his own telling like Knutson might have been canned eventually.

No matter what you think of the tweets, it’s an interesting narrative and it’s instructive as one insider’s view onto what — other than Facebook’s stranglehold on users — may have ultimately doomed Google+, which was shut down last week due to lack of user and developer adoption (even while a business version of the network lives on for the foreseeable future).

The biggest takeaway: like many other gigantic companies, Google has its fair share of flaws.

You can check out the full tweetstorm here.

Thread Reader has also published them in a more palatable format here.

Why is a Lisbon soccer team trying to unmask Portuguese bloggers in US court?

Pizzi of SL Benfica in action during the Liga NOS match between SL Benfica and FC Porto at Estadio da Luz on October 7, 2018 in Lisbon, Portugal.

In April 2018, a professional Portuguese soccer team sued three major American tech companies—Google, Cloudflare, and Automattic—in federal court in Los Angeles.

The soccer club, Benfica, alleged that the American companies were partially responsible for disseminating internal memos, presentations, and emails obtained via a 2017 phishing attack against it.

However, in recent weeks, American lawyers for Benfica agreed to remove the tech firms from the lawsuit, most of whom had formally filed motions to dismiss previously.

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Five graphics from Google show how carbon-intensive its data centers really are

Solar panels on Google rooftop

Google has long been a carbon-neutral company in a theoretical sense. That is, even when it’s physically impossible for Google’s data centers and offices to consume renewable energy, the company offsets that “dirty” energy with “clean” energy purchases at other times and locations.

The problem is, this does not make Google carbon-neutral in a practical sense, because the company still needs polluting energy sources to keep functioning. In a new report (PDF), Google has acknowledged this limitation and offered a few interesting graphics showing how much carbon-free energy its data centers actually consume.

The report is interesting not just because Google is the largest corporate buyer of renewable energy in the world but also because it shows Google is heading off criticism that has been lobbed at all kinds of corporate buyers of renewable energy, including major players like Facebook and Apple. That is, if you’re “offsetting” your carbon emissions by paying a wind farm owner for energy that’s created at 2am on land that’s 3,000 miles from your data center or factory, how much good have you really done?

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App Store generated 93% more revenue than Google Play in Q3

There’s always been a gap between how much money Apple’s App Store makes when compared with Google Play. But in the third quarter of 2018, that gap widened considerably – possibly to the widest point yet. According to a new report from Sensor Tower, the App Store earned nearly 93% more than Google Play in the quarter, the largest gap since at least 2014 – or, when Sensor Tower began tracking Google Play data.

The firm says that approximately 66% of the $18.2 billion in mobile app revenue generated in Q3 2018 came from Apple’s App Store. The store made $12 billion in the quarter, up 23.3% from the $9.7 billion it made during the same period last year.

Meanwhile, Google Play earned $6.2 billion in the quarter, up 21.5% from the year-ago quarter’s $5.1 billion.

Based on Sensor Tower’s chart of top-grossing apps across both stores, subscriptions are continuing to aid in this revenue growth. Netflix remained the top-grossing non-game app for the third quarter in a row, bringing in an estimated $243.7 million across both platforms. Tinder and Tencent Video remained in the second and third spots, respectively.

Mobile game spending also helped fuel the revenue growth, with spending up 14.9% year-over-year during the quarter to reach $13.8 billion. In fact, it accounted for 76% of all app revenue across both platforms in the quarter, with $8.5 billion coming from the App Store and $5.3 billion from Google Play.

In terms of app downloads, however, Google Play still has the edge thanks to rapid adoption of lower-cost Android devices in emerging markets, the report said. App installs grew 10.9% across both stores, reaching 27.1 billion, up 24.4% from Q3 2017.

The rankings of the most downloaded apps also got a big shakeup in Q3, thanks to Bytedance’s short-video app TikTok absorbing Musical.ly during the quarter. As a result of the merger, it’s now the No. 4 ranked app worldwide, having grown 15% quarter-over-quarter and 440% year-over-year.

That puts it ahead of both Instagram (No. 5) and Snapchat (No. 10), in terms of Q3 app downloads, and sets the stage for Bytedance becoming a more serious player in the social app market.

Sensor Tower’s full report is available here.

Senators to Google: Why didn’t you disclose Google+ vulnerability sooner?

The Google Plus (G+, or Google +) social network logo is seen in the company's offices behind Android toys on August 21, 2014 in Berlin, Germany.

Three United States senators have demanded that Google provide answers about its recent disclosure of a security breach in its Google+ social network that led to its closure. Google only came forward after the Wall Street Journal broke the story on October 8.

So far, one federal proposed class-action lawsuit has been filed in the wake of the episode.

In a Thursday letter sent to Google CEO Sundar Pichai, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), and Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) have asked a number of pointed questions of the tech giant.

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