The Next Phone Call You Get Could Be From A Virtual Assistant And You Won’t Even Know

Every year at I/O, Google’s annual developer conference, the company brings forward an exciting set of products and services. These give us a glimpse of what you can expect from Google over the remaining part of the year. Some of these products and services ship, some get delayed, while some are silently shelved.

This year, Google amazed everyone with a single demo. They could have just ended the keynote right there. I am not sure how Google’s stock situation played around at that time. But that was a moment that left everyone asking for more.

Google showed off an upcoming Assistant feature that will enable the virtual assistant to make calls on your behalf. Yes, you could just ask Assistant to reserve a table for you at a fine restaurant for the weekend. And it would follow your command like a nice guy.

The demo looked unreal. There was nothing robotic about the small phone call conversation we saw during the keynote. With heuristics and so much machine learning swag Google baked into this product, it sounded like two normal people having a conversation over the phone. It blew my mind. It blew a lot of minds, I’m sure.

It is exciting. It’s horrifying too. For one, it’s going to get super hard to determine if the voice on the other end is a real person or a robot. Secondly, if you let your imagination stretch, this could be an insane product for a perfect crime thriller, only this is in the real world.

Scammers would want something like this at their fingertips. This is even easier, it’s just a ‘Hey, Google’ call away. Gullible people on the other end of the phone wouldn’t have a clue what just happened. The possibilities are, if I may say, endless.

This service is like one of those products you’d see in movies that just cannot get into the wrong hands. No doubt Google is already aware of it. This is why it’ll roll out the feature slowly, and it will be highly controlled, offering a very limited set of use-cases, at least to begin with.

Apart from that, letting Google Assistant place calls for yourself could be a whole lot fun too. Personally, I’d like to setup automated calls to tell my folks I’ll come downstairs for dinner in ‘five more minutes’. Ideally, I want all my phone calls to work like this so I don’t need to answer or make calls ever again.

I am counting on Google to let users train the AI systems with their own voice at the next I/O, or maybe the one after that, whatever floats their boat. I am also hoping Google would extend this to actually answering calls, and taking messages while you’re busy. That sounds like more of a ‘smart’ voicemail though, but I’ll have it. I’m even ready to switch to Android if all this happens.

Our Privacy Is Shit, And You Know It!

Privacy is one of those things we don’t talk about a lot in India. Every now and then there’s a small debate in some corner of the social web, where concerned citizens get together and discuss how our privacy is shit. It’s clear by now that we don’t have any major privacy laws in the country.

Things will only get worse from here. More people are signing up for internet access, the government itself wants to promote the vision of a digital India, and more internet connectivity is exploding thanks to the current 4G LTE wave. You’d imagine by now we would have a serious discussion regarding our privacy. But no.

All of us are up for sale on the internet. If you have ever purchased anything online, chances are you are very likely to be on some sort of database that’s up for grabs. These databases sell for anywhere between Rs.5,000-Rs.15,000 depending on the weight. The details include names, addresses, primary cell phone numbers, a preferred mode of payment, and even mode of the transaction with the amount.

That’s a lot of sensitive information. Sometimes that’s all you need to break into someone’s account using basic social engineering skills. Now the question is who is leaking all these details? It could be the e-commerce companies, logistics partners, or third-party service providers to e-commerce companies. The points of leaks can be endless.

Local e-commerce companies treat your personal data like it doesn’t matter. Someone I knew in the industry, who worked in marketing, was regularly given dumps of customer data for manual segmentation. There was nothing in place to prevent him to take home all this sensitive information and sell outside. Then there are logistics partners which ask for customer details like phone numbers during delivery.

Last year a market research firm reached out to me, saying they were doing a survey for Paytm. On being asked if Paytm shared my personal details with them, the person on the other end politely declined. I don’t even know what’s going on anymore.

The offline world isn’t any better. Most offline retail stores now ask for a phone number while checking out. They do this to send you text messages every now and then. Then there are loyalty programs at retail stores, petrol pumps, and all across. All this data finds its way into databases that are up for grabs.

Once the spamming begins there’s no DND (do not disturb) in the world to make it stop. These spammers find loopholes there too. Another area where this information gets misused is to steal users’ identity. Getting personal information makes it super easy for just about anyone to break into your personal accounts, be it a social networking website or a financial entity.

With the government expanding its coverage of Aadhaar, it’s only obvious for them to come up with privacy laws. Apart from protecting the rights of its citizens, it can also help instill a level of confidence amongst everyone for government projects like UID.

The same problems exist with privacy regarding Aadhaar. The ways in which both government and non-government entities are collecting Aadhaar numbers and putting them up on the web makes it a nightmare for everyone. Some educational institutions also go to the extent of uploading highly sensitive information like phone numbers, bank account numbers, Aadhaar number, etc. It’s only a matter of time before Aadhaar based databases go up on sale.

Privacy is shit, no doubt. What can one do about it? Not much. You can ensure you don’t buy online on shady websites. You could give out fake numbers at retail stores. But all this isn’t really bulletproof. One way or the other you’re likely to fall into their trap because nothing is keeping these guys scared from doing what they do.

Use A Mobile Phone? You’ll Need To Verify All Over Again

If you use a mobile phone in India, chances are that you’ll receive a similar text message as above in the next few weeks. It took me by surprise, I must admit. This will be the third or the fourth time I’ll be ‘verifying’ my credentials again.

Telecom companies have been forced to re-verify users at regular intervals of time. While this makes sense, it’s highly inconvenient for subscribers. The pain of visiting a mobile phone service provider’s local outlet, submitting all documents again, waiting for things to go smoothly, it’s just too painful. Thankfully this time it’s just eKYC (electronic Know Your Customer) process.

But don’t expect eKYC to run smoothly either.

eKYC depends on a working data connection, electricity, fingerprints, OTPs, and a few other parameters. It’ll be a walk in the park for most urban locations. I can’t even imagine how the rural population will handle all this unless telecom companies go the extra mile and offer re-verification services at their doorstep.

Telecom companies have been asked to get all subscribers re-verified, with eKYC linked to Aadhaar, latest by February 2018. In case any subscriber is left after that, their mobile connection is likely to be deemed ‘illegal’. That’s hardly a surprise considering the amount of BS we’ve seen from the government when it comes to Aadhaar linkage.

“I am unclear about the benefit that will arise out of the exercise where we will have to re-evaluate all the subscribers,” said Arpita Pal Agarwal, partner, and leader—telecom industry practice—at consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers India Pvt. Ltd. “It will add additional costs to the (telecom) sector, which they, at the moment cannot afford.”

It’s not surprising the telecom companies aren’t going to like this. All this at a time when they’ve had to bring down data charges for LTE access in the country. Consumers aren’t going to love this move either. But have we ever had a real choice?


Let’s Stop Celebrating Toppers Every Year

The trends are the same every year. You grab the morning newspaper, and you realize high school results are out. Kids can be seen with a big smile on their faces, alongside their parents who couldn’t be happier. The hard work has paid off. The parents’ threats have worked, the kid’s life is supposed to be on track. The relatives are excited, and can’t stop spreading the news.

Just a few blocks away there are other kids. Kids who’ve scored rather decently from their average yearly performance. But they’re not on the newspapers. Their parents aren’t exactly delighted with their results. The relatives either haven’t been informed or aren’t too excited either.

And then there are kids who didn’t make it. For some reason of the other, they couldn’t score enough. Some of them have suicidal thoughts just because of the pressure. The pressure from their parents, from their relatives, from their peers, and just about everywhere.

But why?

Can we stop for a moment? Can we stop celebrating the toppers? Can we sit down for a moment and just take a fucking breath?

I don’t have anything toppers. If you score high enough, you should probably party for a whole week or something. But not at the expense of others. I’d rather push for a nationwide ban on celebrating toppers in the national media.

One school of thought might argue that celebrating toppers might help motivate others to work harder in school. I don’t think it’s working though. I personally didn’t feel motivated during my school time, whenever I saw toppers in the newspapers or on the internet. If anything, it made me want to throw up.

In 2014 alone, failure in the examination was a reason for 2,403 suicides in the country. These are not just school kids, but also include college and further higher education students as well. That’s a massive number.

If you are a student, and you’re reading this, let me be blunt. It doesn’t fucking matter how much you score in exams to be successful or live a decent life. It also doesn’t mean you should drop everything and stop studying. Find your interests, see where you want to go and work hard to accomplish your goals. Failures will only help you become stronger. Talk to your parents, be frank with them and help them understand your goals. Nothing else matters.

We really need to stop celebrating toppers. I say this because I’ve lost someone I knew in my extended circle, someone who was let down by the system because he couldn’t score high enough.

WWDC 2017: A New Era For Apple?

WWDC is a crucial event for Apple purely from a software perspective. Apple brings together its enormous developer community and lays down the foundation for what’s supposed to come later this year. Apple announces upcoming versions of its powerful operating systems and gives developers a chance to fine-tune their apps to make the most out of the new technologies. In obvious ways, it also paves the path for major hardware launches for the current year.

The WWDC keynote this year was surprisingly refreshing, even though parts of the keynote felt a bit rushed. When you’ve got to cover so much there’s room for a few hiccups too. All that aside, this year’s WWDC keynote was about both hardware and software. Apple announced new versions of watchOS, macOS, and iOS. It also launched new MacBooks, MacBook Pro, iMacs, as well as the mighty powerful iMac Pro coming later this year. The new iPad Pro was a bit of a surprise, but it eventually ended up taking the limelight.

Everyone expected Apple to make some sort of announcement on its Echo clone, and it did. Apple announced its upcoming speaker called HomePod. It didn’t try and pitch it as a smart assistant. Instead, Apple focused on branding it as a premium speaker with Siri capabilities. That’s smart since you can’t charge a premium for a smart assistant right now, but you can if you’re selling a premium speaker with a smart assistant baked in.

The new Mac hardware is available right away, but you’ll need to wait till December for HomePod and iMac Pro. Developer previews of the upcoming editions of watchOS, macOS, and iOS are out too. The public beta should be available sometime later this month, if not early next month. General users will be able to upgrade their software for free starting December.

There are some major under the hood changes coming to macOS and iOS. watchOS is also getting nice upgrades, but it’ll be more interesting to see how Apple pairs them with new hardware later this year. The existing Watch 2 is doing quite well, according to the company.

But where Apple really hit the bull’s eye was: the new iPad Pro, and ARKit and Core ML. Of course the latter are SDKs meant for developers, but they will have a deep impact on a consumer’s experience going forward.

One could argue that the HomePod speaker is also a game-changer in itself, but I would keep that separate for now.

The new iPad Pro, along with iOS 11, is meant to shed the general assumption that iPads aren’t meant for any solid work. Of course, you can get your writing done, the earlier iPad Pro could handle a lot more, but with iOS 11 things are looking even better for those looking to get rid of their laptops while on the move. The US initiated laptop ban on flights might help with the cause, but that’s an entirely different story.

ARKit and Core ML will enable developers to bring exciting new interfaces to their apps. If you think you’ve seen it with Snapchat or Instagram’s live filters, think again. If the demo during the WWDC keynote is anything to go by, we’re all in for a treat.

How we interact with smartphone operating systems makes all the difference in the world. We started off with touchscreen devices, and we’ve come to a point where we are extremely comfortable with just about any such device. Ahead, in the future, we’ll be interacting in multiple different ways with mixed reality using our mobile devices.

The fall season will be an extreme testing point for Apple. No one likes fingers being pointed at you for not being ‘innovative’ or having too much ‘courage’. But when it comes to showing off real work, Apple didn’t leave any stone unturned at WWDC’s keynote.

What remains to be seen is how the consumers reach, how developers take things forward, and how far Apple can push its hardware and software to reach that perfect point where consumer experience peaks. And, of course, consumers don’t mind a little dent in their bank accounts.