TIME Google

Google’s Plan for a Sci-fi Teddy Bear is Terrifying

USPTO USPTO

Google has patented the idea for a connected stuffed animal that is part toy, part robot

Out of Google’s secretive moon-shot factory may come the scariest toys you’ve ever seen: Internet-connect robots that look like stuffed animals but are essentially fuzzy house servants that take orders from humans and program their other connected devices accordingly.

According to a patent filed by Google’s self-described mad scientist Richard DeVaul and fellow engineer Daniel Aminzade, the company has designed an “anthropomorphic device” that could take the form of a “doll or toy” and interact both with people as well as tech gadgets from computers to DVRs. While the patent was filed in February 2012, it was only published this week.

The patent filing diagrams a stuffed teddy bear and a bunny rabbit, but says that the devices could also apply to mythical creatures like dragons and aliens, or even humans themselves. Robots that are “cute” or “toy-like” are best, however, because they appeal to children as well as adults, according to the filing.

Equipped with cameras, microphones, speakers and motors, the toy animals could make eye contact with humans and blink; “straighten or relax” their ears, wiggle their nose, or twitch their tail.

And they could also handle some chores if someone commanded them—say, to turn on a TV to channel 7, pull up a weather report, or blast a playlist of 1960s John Coltrane jazz.

Indeed, the robots could potentially act like a sort of butler or concierge for Google’s growing family of so-called Internet-of-Things devices, such as its Wi-Fi-enabled “smart” thermostat, Nest. The blueprint for the devices references the proliferation of automated systems and “Internet appliances” for the home, including lighting, air conditioning and even window curtains. “Thus, it may be desirable to be able to simplify the management and control of a variety of media devices that may comprise a home entertainment system or a home automation system,” the patent filing states.

But the toy-like robots’ abilities seem to go far beyond functional and into artificial intelligence, potentially standing in for human companions. From the filing:

To express interest, an anthropomorphic device may open its eyes, lift its head, and/or focus its gaze on the user or object of its interest. To express curiosity, an anthropomorphic device may tilt its head, furrow its brow, and/or scratch its head with an arm. To express boredom, an anthropomorphic device may defocus its gaze, direct its gaze in a downward fashion, tap its foot, and/or close its eyes. To express surprise, an anthropomorphic device may make a sudden movement, sit or stand up straight, and/or dilate its pupils.

Cute or scary? We may never know, because a Google spokesperson told the BBC it couldn’t confirm whether the product would ever reach the market.

We would have asked DeVaul to comment, but his website is quite clear on what his response would have been:

I’m fortunate enough to have one of the coolest jobs in the tech world. And no, I’m not interested in discussing what I do with anyone outside a very small circle of people I work with. People I don’t talk to about my work include trusted friends and family as well as members of the press, bloggers, etc. I am extraordinarily unlikely to make an exception for you so it will save us both time if you fail to ask.

TIME Uber

Why the Disabled are Suing Uber and Lyft

Uber
Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images Uber

The ride-sharing services are being sued for allegedly denying service to passengers with wheelchairs and guide dogs.

Ride hailing services Uber and Lyft are on the same side for once: They both deny accusations they discriminate against disabled passengers.

The two companies are named as defendants in a smattering lawsuits from California to Texas alleging they violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to make their cars handicapped accessible. In some courts, Uber and Lyft are even named as co-defendants in a single case—putting the rivals, awkwardly, in the same boat.

The complaints paint the car service companies—or at least their drivers—as callous to the disabled. One lawsuit by the National Federation of the Blind of California, for example, says an UberX driver stuffed a blind passenger’s guide dog in the trunk, and refused to stop the car to let the animal out. Other drivers allegedly refused to pick up blind customers accompanied by dogs.

Another physically disabled woman, Jennifer McPhail of Austin, says in a lawsuit that a Lyft driver left her on the curb because her wheelchair couldn’t fit in the car. The driver then failed to provide alternative transportation.

Meanwhile, other disabled app users are airing their own grievances outside of court. Kristin Parisi, 30-year-old Boston woman who uses a wheelchair, told The Daily Beast that an Uber driver refused to pack her chair into the trunk, for example. So Parisi had to maneuver herself and the chair into the back seat with no assistance, while the driver berated her as an “invalid.”

Uber denies any responsibility by saying it doesn’t discriminate against the disabled and that it can transport blind and wheelchair-bound passengers. It told The Daily Beast that drivers accused of discrimination are usually suspended or fired. Lyft has a similar policy:

It is Lyft’s policy that passengers that use wheelchairs that can safely and securely fit in the trunk of the vehicle or backseat of the car without obstructing the view of the driver should be reasonably accommodated by drivers on the Lyft platform, and drivers should make every reasonable effort to transport the passenger and his or her wheelchair.

Lyft says it is also willing to accommodate service animals. But it recommends that passengers who need them call the driver in advance and let them know–and has a hotline for drivers to call if they have a “medically documented reason” that would prevent them from taking the animal.

Still, the heart of Uber’s defense against the discrimination allegations could not only define its identity as a firm, but set a new precedent for how it and other disruptive tech-based businesses are viewed in the eyes of the law.

Uber argues that as a technology company, it is not subject to laws regulating public transit and other transportation providers, such as the ADA, or “required to provide accessible vehicles or accommodations.”

Still, the U.S. Justice Department recently intervened in the blind plaintiffs’ case to urge that the discrimination accusations be taken seriously. It also requested that the court interpret whether the laws governing other transportation providers should apply to Uber as well.

A decision against Uber could be costly to it and other upstart tech firms that may find themselves classified as belonging to a more traditional industry.

In a Texas case, Uber has already indicated that the cost of making the necessary modifications would be “extraordinary.” The plaintiff in that lawsuit said a driver refused him service and that he could not order an accessible vehicle through the app.

“It would have to modify the Uber App, modify its policies and procedures, and provide wheelchair accessible vehicles in numerous cities,” according to an October court filing.

Indeed, Uber has recently added the ability to order a wheelchair-accessible vehicle using its app in certain major cities like New York and San Francisco. But it’s unclear if or when the option will be available elsewhere.

In the meantime, Eric Lipp, executive director of the Open Doors Organization, which advocates for accessible transportation for disabled passengers, offered this advice in The Daily Beast:

“I think that many in the community do not understand that Uber has nothing against access and the ADA,” says Lipp. “The big problem is that until the courts settle whether Uber is a software company or transportation company the disability community will just have to be patient and try to work with Uber, not against them.”

TIME Microsoft

Here’s Why Microsoft Didn’t Buy Salesforce

The Davos World Economic Forum 2015
Simon Dawson—Bloomberg/Getty Images Marc Benioff, chairman and chief executive officer of Salesforce.com Inc., center, and Michael Dell, chairman and chief executive officer of Dell Inc., right, wave from inside an elevator following a Bloomberg Television interview on day two of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 22, 2015.

Negotiators couldn't close a $15 billion price gap

Microsoft had 15 billion reasons to back out of talks to acquire business software giant Salesforce.

Early this spring, Microsoft offered to pay $55 billion for the company, raising the potential of a blockbuster tech merger, but Salesforce countered with a demand for as much as $70 billion.

Sources familiar with the talks told CNBC News that the two sides failed to narrow the gap in their negotiations. Microsoft’s offer was met with a series of counteroffers from Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff.

Salesforce shares soared last month after Bloomberg News reported that an anonymous buyer had approached the company. Microsoft insiders have since told Reuters that the company has made no recent offers, implying that the negotiations have ended.

 

TIME tobacco

Big Tobacco Sues British Government Over Effort to Strip Logos From Cigarette Packaging

New laws would strip logos from cigarette packages

Tobacco companies are fighting a recently passed law that would strip logos and branding from cigarette packages to in order to make them less enticing to consumers in the United Kingdom.

Philip Morris International, which owns the Marlboro band, filed suit Friday in a British court seeking to stop regulators from imposing standardized packaging on cigarettes. Philip Morris argues that such regulations would unlawfully deprive the company of use its own trademarks.

“Countries around the world have shown that effective tobacco control can co-exist with respect for consumer freedoms and private property,” Philip Morris said in a statement.

Under the new law, traditional cigarette logos would be replaced with large, graphic health warnings. Australia enacted a similar law in 2012.

According to Philip Morris, Marlboro was the ninth most valuable brand in the world in 2014 with an estimated value of $67 billion.

TIME Apple

Why Apple’s New TV Service May Be Delayed

Tim Cook
Eric Risberg—AP Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks in San Francisco on March 9, 2015

Another setback in Apple's quest to deliver your TV shows.

Apple’s long quest to get a slice of the television business may have just gotten a bit longer.

According to a report in Re/code, Apple’s rumored TV service–which would bundle TV shows people would normally get through a cable provider–will not be unveiled this fall, “as it had told programmers it would like to do.”

The reason? Apple is hoping to differentiate itself from competitors like Dish’s Sling TV by offering local television content. This however, will be a time-consuming process, as most local television content is owned by local affiliates, rather than parent networks like CBS or ABC. According to Re/code:

Clearing the rights to show local programs and commercials takes some time — ABC, for instance, spent two years getting the rights to show live programming via its Watch ABC app, and its livestreams remain limited to viewers in eight cities. Also, some executives say that providing digital feeds of the programming from dozens of affiliates will also require the broadcasters to build new streaming infrastructure.

TIME food industry

This Is the Big Lie About Your Olive Oil

Bottle of olive oil
Sue Wilson—Alamy

New findings cast further doubt

The National Consumers League tested 11 different olive oils purchased at various supermarkets, and found that six of them, despite being labeled “extra virgin,” weren’t extra virgin at all.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise, given extensive reports of lax standards and outright fraud in the olive-oil business. In fact, the findings are better than some earlier studies that indicated some olive oils were adulterated with other kinds of oil, such as soybean oil, or were made with olives from countries other than Italy, despite label claims of “Made in Italy.”

These practices were revealed in a widely shared New York Times interactive feature last year that was based on a couple of different studies.

The NCL’s testing comes with a load of caveats. It wasn’t a “study” so much as a more-or-less random bit of testing. Puzzlingly, while the NCL listed the five oils that passed the test, it didn’t name the six that didn’t.

That’s because the companies whose products failed the tests made “a huge stink” over the results, said Sally Greenberg, the NCL’s executive director. Those companies complained that only a single bottle of each variety was tested, and so the results were unfair, since occasionally a single bottle will go bad thanks to exposure to light or some other environmental factor. She said the NCL might test the same products again in “six or seven months,” using a different lab, and if the results are repeated, the NCL will reveal which products failed. “If it happens twice, well then maybe we’re on to something,” she said.

In 2011, the University of California at Davis found that about 69% of the olive oil sold in the United States is adulterated.

The NCL tested olive oil purchased in supermarkets in the Washington, D.C. area. None of the products they tested contained any oil that didn’t come from olives, but six of them, despite labels indicated the contrary, didn’t meet the standards for calling it “extra virgin.” The testing included lab analysis and tasting by experts.

“The results of our olive oil testing reveal that, while consumers are buying and paying extra for olive oil labeled EVOO, too much of the olive oil bought off the shelf isn’t the real deal,” said Sally Greenberg, executive director of the NCL, in a statement.

The five that did pass muster were:

California Olive Ranch Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Colavita Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Trader Joe’s Extra Virgin California Estate Olive Oil

Trader Joe’s 100% Italian Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Lucini Premium Select Extra Virgin Olive Oil

TIME Tech

This Swiss Company Just Totally Burned the Apple Watch

Apple Watch Consumer Reports
David Paul Morris—Bloomberg Customers look at Apple Watches on display at an Apple Store in Palo Alto, Calif., on April 10, 2015.

The company says its products are timeless

Swiss watchmaker Montblanc is the latest company to pick a fight with Apple over its newly created smartwatch. The luxury watchmaker really wants consumers to know that its new smart wristband, which attaches to Swiss watches, is timeless by comparison.

A new electronic watchband was developed by the company and comes with a pedometer, email capabilities and helps takes selfies, according to Bloomberg. Alexander Schmiedt, Montblanc’s managing director for watches, told Bloomberg in an interview that electronics makers, like Apple, don’t focus on making items that last. “Our products should have very long life cycles,” he said. “That is not to say the Apple Watch is not a great product. I predict it will do very well, but I don’t think that customers are going to be ecstatic to throw away watches in one to two years when the technology is obsolete.”

The Montblanc device costs $349 for a basic version and up to $17,000 for a high-end version, which are price points similar to the Apple Watch. “The pricing is reasonable,” said analyst Patrik Schwendimann of Zuercher Kantonalbank to Bloomberg. “If it turns out to be just a fad, at least the consumer still has a nice, normal watch they can continue to wear.”

Per the article, Montblanc’s product does the following:

When connected to a smartphone, Montblanc’s device can select songs and jump through playlists. It has an activity tracker that allows users to set targets for calories burned and steps taken. The e-Strap can also trigger the phone’s camera, facilitating easier ‘selfie’ shots and group photos.

The product is compatible with Samsung and Apple phones, among others.

TIME Fast Food

Here’s How Much a Single Shake Shack Is Worth

People walk past a Shake Shack restaurant in New York
© Carlo Allegri / Reuters—REUTERS People walk past a Shake Shack restaurant in the Manhattan borough of New York August 15, 2014.

That's a lot of burgers

Each Shake Shack restaurant is reportedly worth $50 million, according to a chart by Zero Hedge citing value per restaurant as included in public filings.

If accurate, Shake Shack outpaces the value-per-restaurant of its competition by far. For example, Business Insider reported that each Chipotle is worth just $10 million, while a McDonald’s[fortune-stock symbol=”MCD”] is worth just $3 million.

Shake Shack currently has 63 locations and expects to open up hundreds more in the future. The company went public at the start of 2015, with the stock price rising over 130% on the first day of trading to $49 per share. As of Friday morning, shares were above $90 each.

MONEY groceries

Eggs Aren’t The Only Thing That Just Got More Expensive

French fries and Egg McMuffins, we're looking at you.

More than half of American consumers say they are concerned about the bird flu outbreak, according to an NPD Group survey. And yes, there’s ample reason to fret: The virus has killed nearly 40 million birds, including 32 million hens, or about 10% of the nation’s egg producers. Understandably, egg prices have spiked as a consequence. The incredible edible egg isn’t the only everyday purchase that is getting more expensive for consumers lately. The price tags on these items are also going up.

  • Eggs

    Eggs produced from cage-free hens on sale in a supermarket in New York on Saturday, January 3, 2015. The recent outbreak of Avian Flu which impacted 10% of the egg-laying chickens has cut into the supply of eggs.
    Richard B. Levine—Newscom

    The bird flu outbreak has been wreaking havoc in the Midwest, with some 40 million turkeys and chicken exposed to the virus. Roughly 25 million chickens have been lost just in Iowa, the nation’s leading egg producer. One result is that wholesale and retail egg prices have soared. The wholesale price of “breaker” eggs purchased in bulk by fast food chains and baking manufacturers has nearly tripled in the past month, while the price of a dozen large eggs rose 58% in one month’s time in the Midwest.

    If the problem persists, it’s expected it won’t be long for baking companies and fast food outlets like McDonald’s to raise prices on products with eggs as primary ingredients. In other words, your Egg McMuffin could be getting a price hike soon.

  • Rental Cars

    Airport car rental offices at the Long Beach California Airport
    Daniel Dillon—Alamy

    It’s usually hard to tell when and by how much rental car companies increase prices because there are so many factors involved: Rates are determined by demand, location, how far in advance a traveler books, and so on. But recently Hertz, which also owns brands Dollar and Thrifty, publicly announced that as of mid-June it was raising rates $5 per day and $20 per week on rentals at airport locations, with $3 and $10 hikes, respectively, at off-airport rental lots.

    A quick 5% spike in Hertz’s stock price indicates that investors liked the move. That could be one reason why Hertz jacked up prices openly rather than stealthily. It also seems like Hertz is trying to push rates northward across the board in the industry, in the same way that all airlines tend to match the fare increases of any competitor. “Rent-a-car companies are normally very discreet about raising prices,” Mike Millman, who covers travel companies for Millman Research, told the New York Post. “What’s so unusual about this is Hertz is publicly declaring it wants to lead the industry up.”

  • Deep-Fried Foods

    French Fries coming out of fryer
    Saul Loeb—AFP/Getty Images

    A prolonged dry spell in Canada’s prairies has meant big trouble for the crops used to make of one of the region’s prime products, canola oil. As Bloomberg News reported, the vegetable oil is necessary for McDonald’s, Taco Bell, KFC, and Frito-Lay to make so many of the deep-fried treats we crave while knowing they’re probably terrible for our health. Prices have jumped 18% since September, and it’s expected the increase will trickle onward to price hikes for potato chips, French fries, KFC chicken, and other deep-fried delicacies.

  • Turkey

    Shady Brook Farms brand Turkeys for sale in a supermarket refrigerator in New York
    Richard Levine—Alamy

    While the bird flu outbreak has primarily affected chickens, it has impacted turkey populations as well—and turkey prices. Wholesale prices are up 4.5% compared with a year ago, corresponding to 10% price increases for turkey breast meat at supermarket deli counters.

    The real fear is that the avian flu virus causes a ripple effect in America’s turkey population, potentially translating to shortages and price spikes for Thanksgiving, when the demand for turkey naturally reaches a yearlong high. For now at least, suppliers are maintaining that there will be more than plenty of turkeys available come Thanksgiving. Regardless, we’re predicting that there will be reports causing panic among turkey lovers in the months to come, as they seem to appear every autumn.

  • Gas

    Gas station attendant pumping gas in Andover, Mass., May 8, 2015.
    Elise Amendola—AP

    Just in time for the summer travel season, gas prices are rising. As of Friday, the national average for a gallon of regular was $2.74, representing a rise of roughly 25¢ over the last month. Gas prices have remained particularly pricey on the West Coast, with drivers in Los Angeles seeing $4 per gallon at the pump. With California prices that have stayed stubbornly high compared to the rest of the country, some consumer advocates have accused the oil companies of gouging drivers.

    At the same time, it must be noted that gas is significantly less expensive compared with the same time last year, when the national average was $3.65. Cheap gas is one of the big reasons huge crowds—and epic traffic—are expected on the roads over Memorial Day weekend.

TIME Management

Why Monitoring Employees’ Social Media Is a Bad Idea

Quote tweet feature
Nick Ansell—PA Wire/Press Association Images Quote tweet feature. File photo dated 10/02/15 of the Twitter bird logo. Twitter has overhauled its "frustrating" quote tweet feature to allow people to say more about text they want to comment on. Issue date: Tuesday April 7, 2015. The social media giant had faced criticism that users barely had any characters left to add a comment when they quoted a tweet because of the 140-character limit. See PA story TECHNOLOGY Twitter. Photo credit should read: Nick Ansell/PA Wire URN:22671665

there is a vast difference between asking for employees to exercise good judgment and hovering over their Tweets like Big Brother

People today live in a virtual online aquarium, and chances are good that one of the people watching you is probably your current or potential employer. According to job site CareerBuilder, 52% of companies now check job applicants’ social media profiles before hiring them, up from 43% just a year ago.

On one hand, it’s understandable. After all, it can be embarrassing for a business if one of its representatives posts offensive content or does something illegal via social media. Employers can even get into legal trouble for their workers’ actions. Advocates of the practice say that it’s necessary to protect companies’ reputations, confidential information, and is an inevitable byproduct of the Internet age, according to the Wall Street Journal.

But does monitoring of employees’ social media really protect a company or can it do more harm than good?

First, the argument that companies need to keep tabs online to ensure that their employees refrain from inappropriate or illegal behavior doesn’t really hold. While it’s conceivable that some low level silliness, such as posting a picture of yourself dancing on a table, could be prevented by employer monitoring, more serious infractions are unlikely to be shared on social media and therefore never appear on the radar of the company anyway.

In addition, when job candidates or employees know that they are being watched, they can restrict access to certain posts, set up dummy profiles to fool companies, or otherwise throw up smokescreens. This is particularly true of millennials, who are technologically adept at controlling and manipulating their online avatars. The point is, the limited preventative effect of social media monitoring may not be worth the time and expense required for companies to do it.

There is also the problem of bias. Americans today are arguably more socially and politically conscious than previous generations and actively use social media to convey their thoughts, debate important topics, and fight for causes. In some cases, employers may even be supportive, such as if a job candidate works tirelessly to raise money for breast cancer research, but in other cases, there is a real danger of people being penalized for their personal views on things like politics, race, or religion.

Even if a company itself is neutral, the subjective feelings of the person tasked with monitoring employees’ social media could easily lead to discrimination, especially in the highly polarized environment of the U.S. People should be able to share their views on gay marriage, for example, with their friends on social media, without running afoul of an employer who disagrees with them. Recognizing that in essence this is an inadvertent violation of laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, political preference, gender etc, employers should at the very least factor this into their social media policies and put safeguards in place to prevent against it. The harm caused by bias to workers is immense but so are the potential legal consequences for companies.

Finally, by looking over workers’ shoulders, companies could stifle the most important trait that can benefit a business: creativity. As innovation becomes increasingly necessary in a hyper-competitive business landscape, this factor can be crucial for a company’s success.

Social media, for those who use it avidly at least, can be a medium to express our personality – for who we are – which is naturally linked to our creativity. Companies that foster creativity are more profitable and 50% more likely to be market leaders than their peers, according to the Harvard Business Review. Yet some businesses fail to make the connection between suppressing their employees’ online freedom and restricting their creativity.

There is no doubt that companies are within their rights to expect compliance with some common-sense social media etiquette. However, there is a vast difference between asking for employees to exercise good judgment and hovering over their Tweets like Big Brother. The latter can erode a necessary sense of trust between companies and their workers and undermine loyalty. Just as an employee or a job candidate needs to trust that a company has integrity and is worth working for, the company needs to show its people that it trusts them to behave like responsible adults.

By allowing workers to live their personal lives without intrusion, smart businesses can make a powerful statement; namely, that they accept them for who they are, treasure their professional contributions to the company, and want them to be happy and fulfilled outside as well as inside the office. This, in turn, would inspire loyalty and boost productivity in the workforce, and make those companies more profitable.

Kumar has worked in technology, media, and telecom investment banking. He has evaluated mergers and acquisitions in these sectors and provided strategic consulting to media companies and hedge funds.

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