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Microsoft buys keyboard software maker SwiftKey

SAN FRANCISCO (AFP) – Microsoft said Wednesday it acquired British-based software keyboard maker SwiftKey, saying it would be integrated with the tech giant’s “intelligent systems” for mobile devices.

SwiftKey makes keyboard apps which are used on some 300 million Android and Apple devices, replacing the default interfaces with a more efficient one.

The price was not disclosed but media reports said Microsoft paid $250 million.

SwiftKey, which uses artificial intelligence to help make keystrokes more intuitive and efficient, expands Microsoft’s efforts in the domain.

“In this cloud-first, mobile-first world, SwiftKey’s technology aligns with our vision for more personal computing experiences that anticipate our needs versus responding to our commands, and directly supports our ambition to reinvent productivity by leveraging the intelligent cloud,” said Microsoft executive vice president for research and technology Harry Shum.

“SwiftKey estimates that its users have saved nearly 10 trillion keystrokes, across 100 languages, saving more than 100,000 years in combined typing time.”

Shum said Microsoft would continue to make the service available on “all platforms,” not just those operated by Microsoft.

“We’ll continue to develop SwiftKey’s market-leading keyboard apps for Android and iOS as well as explore scenarios for the integration of the core technology across the breadth of our product and services portfolio,” he said.

SwiftKey founders Jon Reynolds and Ben Medlock said in a blog post that “joining Microsoft is the right next stage in our journey.”

“Eight years ago we started out as two friends with a shared belief that there had to be a better way of typing on smartphones,” they wrote.

“We’ve come a long way since then; today hundreds of millions of people around the world, and many of the leading mobile manufacturers, rely on our language prediction technology.”

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New Wave In Tech: Hacking The Brain

Las Vegas (AFP) – The next frontier for the tech sector is the human brain.

A new breed of neuro-hacker is finding ways to capture and manipulate brainwaves to improve health, with potential to help the severely handicapped.

A number of the innovations were on display at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where computer scientists and biomedical experts showcased ways to tap into and use brain signals.

The “mind control” headband unveiled by startup BrainCo effectively hacks into brain signals with a range of possible applications — from helping to improve attention spans, to detecting disease, controlling smart home appliances or even a prosthetic device.

The device “translates your brainwaves into electronic signals,” said the Boston-based firm’s Zenchuan Lei.

At CES, BrainCo demonstrated how a person could use the headband to manipulate a prosthetic hand — a potential life-changer for those paralyzed or missing limbs.

“These signals can be used to control objects like a prosthetic hand,” Lei said. “You can turn the lights on or off just by focusing on that.”

The device designed by scientists from Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology employs “neuro feedback,” a means of allowing people to control their brain waves for various purposes. It is expected to be sold later this year for less than $150.

Lei suggested the device could also help people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder because “it teaches you to enhance your focus and concentration.”

A similar project on display from New York-based OpenBCI (which stands for open-source brain-computer interface) seeks to create a platform for applications of the technology in health care, education or other fields.

OpenBCI uses a 3D-printed helmet which captures brainwaves from various sectors of the brain.

– ‘Neuro-marketing’ potential –

“This can be used to help people with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or Lou Gehrig’s disease) or quadriplegics communicate,” said OpenBCI chief executive Conor Russomanno.

The technology also offers a potential for so-called “neuro-marketing” which tests new products and services on the basis of sensory and cognitive response.

South Korean startup Looxid Labs unveiled a headset that tracks both brainwaves and eye movements, claiming this provides more accurate insights into the mind.

“No other device that I’m aware of combines these things,” said Looxid chief business officer Alex Chang.

With the headset attached to a computer, “you can roll your eyes to scroll the mouse, and click on a button by blinking,” Chang said.

The headset is being launched in July as a developer kit, with scope to build applications for controlling physical or virtual objects, communicating, analyzing a user’s mood or mental health, or verifying their identity.

“We also see this as having potential in gaming because you can control things with your eye,” Chang said.

“When you concentrate you can stop the bullets.”

He added that for neuro-marketing applications, “we can show someone an ad and we can see where the eyes are focused. We can scan emotions and understand how someone is responding.”

Other exhibitors at CES demonstrated wearable devices that block pain signals to the brain, as an alternative to medications with side effects for people who suffer from debilitating pain.

– Meditation aid –

The neuro-feedback technique is being applied as a meditation aid by Canadian-based Interaxon and its Muse headband.

Muse uses sensors on the forehead and behind the ears to measure brain signals, and advise users how to improve their meditation technique.

The coaching app helps people achieve a level of consistency in their meditation efforts.

“It’s like going to the gym. The muscle doesn’t get stronger unless you do it over and over again. It’s the same with your brain,” said Muse marketing manager Tracy Newsom-Rosenthal at the CES show.

One startup at CES was showcasing a technique to deliver pleasure signals to the brain via music, by triggering the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin.

The hand-held device from Florida-based Nervana allows users to plug in a music player into the $299 device and get the pleasurable signals delivered by its headphones.

“We send a signal into the vagus nerve which produces dopamine, and that relaxes you,” CEO Ami Brannon told AFP on the show floor.

“Some people describe the sensation as euphoric.”

But Brannon said the technique “is not really hacking the brain.”

“We access the central nervous system and it just tickles the nerve to remind the brain to release dopamine,” she said.

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End Of The Road For Rearview Mirror?

Las Vegas (AFP) – With forward-looking car technology, the rearview mirror as we know it may soon become a thing of the past.

Technology at the Consumer Electronics Show showed how electronic cameras on a vehicle can give a driver a better view than conventional mirrors, eliminating blind spots which can lead to accidents.

BMW showed its system in which small cameras replace mirrors and offer an electronic display, allowing drivers to get three separate images or a single panoramic view.

According to BMW, this means a driver can look ahead and won’t need to turn his or her head to see side mirrors — which have been removed and replaced with small cameras.

French equipment maker Valeo meanwhile offered its “Sightstream” system which uses cameras as well but maintains electronic displays on each side of the car.

The Valeo system offers a less dramatic change than BMW, so drivers who are accustomed to looking right and left don’t have to change their habits.

Both companies say their systems offer several advantages: a more complete view of the landscape and better vision at night. And they will avoid problems of side mirrors which get fogged up or covered with rain.

The systems offer a better aerodynamic profile for the car, which can reduce fuel consumption.

None of these systems are in cars yet, but looking ahead, cameras seem to be the wave of the future.

General Motors said the inside mirror in its Bolt electric car, to be introduced soon, will be able to connect to a camera, eliminating the problem of a view blocked by passengers or tall objects in the back seat.

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Transport Of The Future Takes Many Shapes At Tech Show

Las Vegas (AFP) – In the future world of mobility, you might be traveling in a car, on a bike or a personal air transporter — with a range of new possibilities raised by connected technology.

Many of the exhibitors at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas offered their vision of mobility made easier by connectivity.

Chinese drone manufacturer EHang sees a future by air. Its 1.5-meter (five foot) long quadcopter on display at the show can carry one person and squeeze into a car parking space.

“It’s not a drone. It’s an autonomous aerial vehicle,” said EHang vice president Claire Chen.

While the company faces a number of regulatory obstacles — it doesn’t fit into drone regulations and it’s not a road vehicle — Chen said that “we are ready to sell to anybody.”

The EHang 184 prototype being tested in China is designed so the user can push a button for a destination and arrive by automatic pilot. It can now travel above traffic for 23 minutes. The price tag is in the range of $200,000 to $300,000.

Other visions are more down to earth. Ford Motor Co. was showing its folding electric bicycle, which fits in the trunk of a car that maintains data connectivity to a smartphone.

Ford’s eBike enables “multimodal” transportation where a traveler can go part of a journey by car, and the rest by bicycle — a two-wheeler which is guided by GPS and a uses a vibrating warning system for an approaching vehicle.

The underlying technology for smart transport was also on display at CES. Japanese equipment maker Denso unveiled its new system of vehicle to vehicle (V2V) communication designed for accident avoidance and reducing congestion.

Denso’s Patrick Powell, who heads the group’s “smart city” activities, says these systems can play an important role by connecting with traffic signals in real time, cutting down on traffic jams and allowing for a smoother vehicle flow.

– Transport as a service –

Industry executives at CES recognize that people’s relationships with their vehicles may be changing: Some people may not want to own and maintain a car, and new models are being examined.

The concept of car sharing was being talked about at the show, by big automakers as well as the startup Faraday Future, which unveiled a concept electric car it plans to produce.

“We’re completely rethinking how we approach the business, with one foot today and one foot tomorrow,” Ford chief executive Mark Fields said at CES.

“We are very proud to be an auto maker… but at the same time, beginning this year, you’re going to see us change pretty dramatically, becoming an automotive and mobility company. You’ll see us focus even more attention on the transportation services sectors.”

Ford is already looking into on-demand car-sharing models, aiming at millennials who may not want to own a vehicle.

General Motors signaled its own interest in these alternative models by announced a $500 million investment in ride-sharing service Lyft. The two companies also said they will study ways to create a network of self-driving vehicles available on-demand for customers.

– Autonomy changes the game –

As cars move closer to full autonomy, this changes the game for consumers. Many may not see the need to own a car if they can signal one instantly with a smartphone.

And the marketing of the driving experience may also change, says Edmunds.com analyst Ron Montoya.

“Ultimately, when the car drives itself, it doesn’t matter what you drive,” Montoya said.

Many automakers have been talking about self-driving cars, and ramping up some features like automatic parking and lane guidance as an interim step. South Korea’s Kia said it expects to put a fully autonomous car on the road by 2030.

It may take that much time to sort out issues about regulation, liability and other obstacles to self-driving cars.

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Mark Zuckerberg Urges India To Approve Free Internet Plan

New Delhi (AFP) – Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg urged India Monday to approve a controversial plan that would provide a free Internet service to the poor, his latest bid amid an escalating row with authorities.

The head of the social network tried to drum up support for the Free Basics service that offers people without the Internet free access to a handful of websites through mobile phones, in a column in the largest-selling English daily The Times of India.

“If we accept that everyone deserves access to the Internet, then we must surely support free basic Internet services,” the chief executive wrote, comparing the Internet to a library, public health care and education.

“Surprisingly, over the last year there’s been a big debate about this in India,” he added.

“Instead of wanting to give people free access to basic Internet services, critics of the programme continue to spread false claims — even if that means leaving behind a billion people.”

Zuckerberg’s personal appeal comes amid fierce criticism from net neutrality activists who say his plan violates the principle that the whole Internet should be available to all and unrestricted by any one company.

Earlier this month the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India ordered Reliance Communications, the sole mobile operator for the service, to suspend it temporarily without giving a reason, documents seen by AFP show.

Some 3.2 million people have petitioned India’s telecoms regulator not to ban Free Basics, formerly named Internet.org. It launched nationwide last month after being trialled in several states.

Several prominent Indian entrepreneurs and members of the tech community have spoken out against Free Basics, arguing that even for poor citizens, no Internet is better than a hand-picked and corporate-controlled web offering.

But in an attempt to counter claims “that this will make Internet more like a walled garden”, Facebook has taken out billboards and full-page newspaper adverts defending the initiative.

Free Basics is “at risk of being banned” in India, Facebook said in the adverts, adding that the service aims to help a billion unconnected Indians — mostly living in poor rural areas — to get online.

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Santa tracked by Google, Microsoft

San Francisco (AFP) – Google and Microsoft had their virtual eyes on Santa Claus and his gift-laden sleigh on Thursday.

Each of the rival technology giants continued their separate Internet holiday traditions that allow children, no matter how grown up they might be, to track Santa online as he makes his way around the world on Christmas Eve.

“Google’s Santa Tracker launches today — And it’s time to follow the jolly man’s sleigh,” the California-based Internet firm said in a blog post playfully penned in rhyme.

“The elves have been working hard for this night, Santa’s village is abuzz — tonight’s the big flight.”

The santatracker.google.com website includes an animated map and a running tally of the number of gifts delivered.

Microsoft once again partnered with the North American Aerospace Defense Command on an interactive website at noradsanta.org where Santa’s reindeer-drawn sleigh can be seen making its way over countries around the world.

NORAD’s involvement began 60 years ago when a wrong telephone number printed in a newspaper advertisement resulted in children calling for Santa.

The commander on duty that day had staff provide callers with updates on Santa’s location and the tradition evolved into the NORAD Santa-tracking website.

“Throughout the year, we can be pretty cynical,” Matthew Quinlan, marketing director for Bing, Microsoft’s search engine, said in a blog post.

“But this is one moment where we can see things again through a child’s eyes, and it gives us a fresh sense of wonder.”

The NORAD Santa-tracking website includes games and allows people to ask Cortana, Microsoft’s virtual assistant software, where Santa is at any given moment.

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YouTube Ramps 360-degree Video With ‘Spotlight Stories’

San Francisco (AFP) – YouTube on Tuesday added interactive, 360-degree animation video to its line-up, with help from the makers of “Wallace and Gromit.”

Dubbed “Spotlight Stories,” the new feature will be viewable on the YouTube app of an array of Android-powered smartphones.

Showcasing the technology was a Santa-themed short film from Academy Award-winning studio Aardman Animations, entitled “Special Delivery.”

The animated short centers on a building custodian trying to find a “mysterious stranger” who remains just out of sight but leaves behind a trail of gifts.

Designed by Google as a new form of storytelling, the immersive films allow users to drill down into sub-stories within their plot by moving their phone towards what they want to see.

“The sensors on your phone allow the story to be interactive, so when you move your phone to various scenes, you unlock mini-stories within the story,” technical project lead Rachid El Guerrab said in a blog post.

“Special Delivery” features 10 subplots and three potential endings.

Google Spotlight Stories will be expanded next year to more Android devices as well as a YouTube application for mobile devices powered by Apple software, El Guerrab said.

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Apple Criticises UK’s Proposed Spying Law, British Media Say

London (AFP) – Technology company Apple criticised draft British legislation designed to stiffen surveillance powers on Monday, saying the proposed bill could “spark serious international conflicts”, British media reported.

Home Secretary Theresa May said November’s Investigatory Powers Bill would make existing surveillance laws more transparent and update them to take into account the growth of online communications.

Rights groups have condemned the draft legislation as an attack on civil liberties, while technology firms have said the plans are ambiguous, compromise customer security and would create a legal minefield.

“It would also likely be the catalyst for other countries to enact similar laws,” Apple said in a document sent to a parliamentary committee scrutinising the new legislation, British media reported.

The legislation could paralyse “multinational corporations under the weight of what could be dozens or hundreds of contradictory country-specific laws” Apple’s submission continued.

The parliamentary committee, which fields opinions from experts on proposed legislation, said it had received a submission from Apple, but it had not yet passed through formal protocols for publication on its website.

Apple’s British and US media offices were not immediately available for comment.

Technology companies fear they may be forced to hand over data held in other countries, which Apple said could “immobilise substantial portions of the tech sector and spark serious international conflicts”.

The proposed legislation would give British intelligence agencies partial access to Internet browsing records and outlines powers for the bulk collection of data.

Worryingly for technology firms, the bill spells out how agencies can “interfere” with electronic equipment such as computers and smartphones to obtain data, which may require the “assistance” of communications service providers.

“The bill as it stands seems to threaten to extend responsibility for hacking from government to the private sector,” Apple said.

Also of concern for technology companies is an obligation in the bill for communications service providers to be able to retain and intercept certain types of communications and “remove any encryption”, the draft law says.

Apple said that would require technology companies to adopt weaker encryption standards that would make “the personal data of millions of law-abiding citizens… less secure”.

“A key left under the doormat would not just be there for the good guys. The bad guys would find it too,” the company said.

At the time of unveiling the bill, officials said separate existing laws on data interception, encryption and electronic interference would only be consolidated in one piece of legislation, and would not be strengthened.

May said the new legislation would not force foreign-based companies to meet “domestic retention obligations” for communications data.

She also said the bill’s most intrusive powers would be under a “double lock” requiring her authorisation and that of a judge.

However, technology firms and many members of the public are concerned that governments already have too much access to communications data after revelations of widespread surveillance by former intelligence analyst Edward Snowden.

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Windows 10 Tuned For Chinese Government

San Francisco (AFP) – Microsoft is forming a joint-venture in China to tailor a version of its new Windows 10 computer operating system for use by the Chinese government.

“We’re announcing a new joint venture that will license, deploy, manage and optimize Windows 10 for China’s government agencies and certain state owned enterprises and provide ongoing support and services for these customers,” Microsoft executive Yusuf Mehdi said in an online post late Wednesday.

If the joint-venture succeeds, state-owned enterprises cleared to buy Windows 10 would include key infrastructure fields such as energy, telecommunications, and transportation, according to Mehdi.

The joint venture, tentatively called C&M Information Technologies, is being created in a partnership with state-owned China Electronics Technology Group and will be based in Beijing, Microsoft said.

The venture will need clearance from regulators. Windows 10 is not currently allowed on Chinese government computers.

Cyber defense and reliability will be among features that would be tailored to suit the Chinese government. Making it onto the list of approved vendors means agencies there could buy Windows 10, but would not be required to do so.

“It’s common for governments to look to specialty technology partner organizations to deploy technology at scale, and this venture signals the possibility for new opportunities for Windows 10 in the many government entities in China,” Mehdi said.

The venture is significant for Microsoft, which is keen to grow in the China market but has been vexed by software piracy, as well as a ban last year on the use of Windows 8 on government computers.

Microsoft boasted that hundreds of millions of computers in China are powered by Windows software, and that it has been encouraging upgrades to the latest version through partnerships with local technology titans Baidu, Tencent, Qihoo 360, and Lenovo.

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Cook Bashes Talk Apple Is Dodging Taxes

San Francisco (AFP) – Apple chief Tim Cook emphatically rejected accusations that the world’s richest company is sidestepping US taxes by keeping bundles of cash overseas, suggesting that the claim was politically motivated.

World leaders last month approved a crackdown on tax avoidance by multinationals such as Apple, Google and McDonald’s, major firms whose rock-bottom tax bills have provoked widespread outrage in the United States and beyond.

Cook argued that Apple pays the biggest tax tab in the United States and that it keeps more money overseas than other company because two-thirds of its business is there.

Cook’s staunch defense of the California-based technology colossus came during an interview with Charlie Rose in a 60 Minutes news program interview to be aired on Sunday on CBS.

“That’s total political crap, there is no truth behind it,” Cook responded when pressed about the highly contentious tax issue in a short preview of the interview.

“We pay every tax dollar we owe.”

Cook laid the blame on an outdated US tax code, calling for it to be revamped for modern times.

“This is a tax code that was made for the Industrial Age, not the Digital Age,” Cook said.

“It’s backwards. It’s awful for America.”

The empassioned response from Cook followed Rose contending that many members of Congress believe Apple is perpetuating a scheme to pay little or no taxes on $74 billion in overseas revenue.

“I’d love to bring it home,” Cook said of cash kept outside the US.

“But don’t because it would cost me 40 percent to bring it home and I don’t think this is a reasonable thing to do.”

It comes a year after the “LuxLeaks” revelations that some of the world’s biggest companies — also including Pepsi and Ikea — had lowered their tax rates to as little as one percent in secret pacts with tax authorities in Luxembourg.

US President Barack Obama, Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron joined fellow leaders in endorsing a clampdown drawn up by the wealthy nations’ Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The OECD calculates that national governments lose $100-240 billion, or 4-10 percent of global tax revenues, every year because of the tax-minimizing schemes of multinationals.

Its 15-point plan, adopted after years of negotiations, seeks to oblige multinationals to pay tax in the country where their main business activity is based.

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