Google debuts a new spin on an old boredom-killer

Image: google/screengrab

Back in the Stone Age, before we were all completely plugged in and focused on our gadgets at all times (you know, like, 2002), people would get … bored.

Of course, everyone still finds themselves bogged down by dull moments throughout the day, even with the brightly-lit screens of their devices jockeying for attention.

Google, one of the biggest boredom fighters known to man, just dropped a brand new distraction to keep us all occupied. And it’s based on one of the all-time classic time-killing activities: doodling.

Quick, Draw!, which is just one of the features in Google’s new A.I. Experiments initiative, gives players a favorite new mindless activity in exchange for training its machine-learning tech systems. It’s a win-win for everyone involved.

The concept is simple and akin Draw Something with AI. After entering the portal, the computer prompts players to sketch an object on a 20-second clock using the mouse or touchscreen. While the player doodles, the neural network throws out its best guesses of the subject, stopping mid-sketch if it’s correct.

I gave it a try on a desktop and my iPhone. It’s a fun time. But I have to admit, I’m not very good at it.

The Quick, Draw! game played on an iPhone.

Image: Google/screengrab

My first time playing on the computer, I got a measly three out of six (see above). My iPhone trial went a bit better, but that’s probably because the objects were fairly simple.

Maybe the most interesting feature of Quick, Draw! is the insight players can gain about how the network works. After a completed game, just select one of the drawings and you’ll see two sets of results. Let’s use my pathetic attempt at a sleeping bag as an example.

First, you see what kind of object the computer thought you were going for from its previous user-accrued data.

Pictured: not a sleeping bag.

Image: google/screengrab

Scroll down and you’ll see the images that trained the neural network to recognize that object.

Pictured: clearly much better examples of sleeping bags.

Image: google/screengrab

At the end of the game, Google’s AI Experiment receives some new data, and the player learns that his or her dreams of becoming a computer sketch artist should best be left to die. All in all, not a bad way to beat off boredom.

BONUS: Google Home answers the mind-boggling questions Google uses in job interviews

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Google issues ‘digital death penalty’ for Pixel buyers who used tax loophole

Rick Osterloh, Google senior vice president of hardware, introduces the new Google Pixel phone during a product event in San Francisco.
Image: Associated press/Eric Risberg

Google has suspended hundreds of accounts owned by people who took part in a smartphone resale scheme designed to exploit a loophole in sales tax law.

The banned accounts had apparently all ordered Google Pixel phones to be shipped to a single address in New Hampshire, a state with no sales tax. From there, a vendor resold the phones and then split the tax-free profits with participating users.

Google said the coordinated operation was a violation of its purchase terms, which ban any commercial resale of its hardware.

The company’s crackdown was first reported by the cost-cutting tips blog Dan’s Deals, after site owner Daniel Eleff heard from many of the users affected.

More than 200 people were reportedly locked out of their accounts when his initial article was published.

Instead of just banning the users from Google’s online store, the company shut them out of all of the services under the search engine’s umbrella, including saved photos, documents and email.

“Im not defending those who violated the terms of the sale,” Eleff wrote, “but I do think it is heavy-handed for Google to block access to all of their services for doing so.”

“Was violating Googles phone resale policy really worthy of an effective digital death penalty?”

A Google spokesperson said in a statement Thursday afternoon that the company took action after it noticed an unusual number of phones being directed to a single address.

The company claims that many people seemed to be creating fake shell accounts for the sole purpose of the scheme, and it is now in the process of unlocking those that it deems to be legitimate.

“We prohibit the commercial resale of devices purchased through Project Fi or the Google Store so everyone has an equal opportunity to purchase devices at a fair price,” the company said in a statement. ” After investigating the situation, we are restoring access to genuine accounts for customers who are locked out of many Google services they rely on.”

The New Hampshire reseller responsible for setting up the deal has organized similar arrangements involving Google products in the past without any penalty, Eleff said.

Eleff told Mashable in an email that he has yet to hear from any users who’ve had their account restored.

He still thinks the punishment was unnecessarily harsh.

“Shutting off all Google Services seems draconian to me and blocking access to past data, which is supposed to be owned by the user, is just beyond the pale,” Eleff said. “The punishment doesn’t seem to fit the crime.”

As a growing portion of people’s online lives are consolidated onto a handful of platforms owned by major corporations, wielding this kind of power over users can have far-reaching implications. Oftentimes, users entrust Google with storing priceless family photos, valuable documents and critical emails.

Amazon customers who’ve run afoul of the e-commerce giant have faced similarly devastating consequences losing out on pre-paid memberships and media they supposedly owned.

“Its the 21st century version of losing priceless mementos in a house fire,” Eleff said.

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Google Jamboard Is a Huge 4K Screen You Can Scribble On

Google is off to a solid start with the“we make hardware now” thing. The Pixelphone is great, Google Home and Google Wi-Fi look promising, and Chromecast is already really popular. Now comes Jamboard, a modern spin on an old-school tool: the whiteboard.

The 55-inch 4K touchscreen is the first hardware product in Googles rebranded G Suite of cloud-based tools—you know, things like Gmail, Google Drive, and Google Docs. Thosetools make long-distance collaboration easy online, but that can break down onceeveryone is in the sameroom. People have to agree which tool to use, and trying to sort it all outhampers spontaneity.

“We thought that might somehow limit creativity,” says Jonathan Rochelle, director of product for G Suite. “It made it so that when people wanted to be creative and collaborative, they cant do the same thing at the same time. That bothered us, because the reason youre in a meeting is to collaborate.

Others have riffed on the digitalwhiteboard—Sharps Aquos Board and Microsoft’s Surface Hub come to mind. The difference here is how Googles tools and cloud services tie it all together. Launch a Jamboard session and people can join in from anywhere usingthe Jamboard app on an Android or iOS device. They see a real-time feed from the board and can add text, photos, and drawings to the mix. The leader of the session can share it all with Google Hangout participants.

The big-screen Jamboard session is essentially replicated on the tablet: You can add things, rearrange them, and pull in images or maps from a side menu. The interactions are limited on a phone, but you see everything on the board in real time, and you can add text or createdigital sticky notes. One major limitation is that you can’t really chip in on a laptop or desktop: You can watch a Jam session unfold in a browser, but you can only contribute via the mobile apps.

You can drive a meeting from a tablet, but the massive Jamboard is the ultimate mission control. It includes twochunky passive stylii that feel like sidewalk chalk in your hand, and the screen is pressure-sensitive when youre writing on it. Magnets keep the stylii and microfiber eraser nestled onJamboard’s metal base, but don’t worry if Steve from accounting swipesthem. Any rubber-tipped stylus works, and you can use your hand to erasethings.

Everything is saved to Google Drive, an essential convenience because Jamboard doesn’t have internal memory. Select the“handwriting-to-text tool before you start scribbling and Jamboard does an impressive job converting your scrawl to searchable text.And it canstraighten your lines, shapes, and symbols so everything looks neat and tidy.

From the board, you can dial in participants via Google Hangouts and search for images, maps, videos, and web pages to drag and drop into a Jam session. An HD camera above the screen lets you snap picsor selfies, while HDMI inputs and built-in Chromecast let youNetflix and chill in the comfort of your boardroom.

Youll need to wait a while before you buying this physical embodiment of Google Wavebecause it won’t be widely available until next year. It’ll cost less than $6,000 at that point, butyoucan register today to be part of the early-adopter program. In the meantime, you’ll just have to use your analog whiteboard.

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How much solar energy can your roof make? Just Google it

Marrakech, Morocco (CNN)If you’ve ever thought about putting solar panels on your roof, you know that the process doesn’t exactly qualify as an impulse purchase.

Typically, it involves multiple visits from solar installers.
    The standard practice in the industry is to go up on the rooftop with a fish-eye camera, then take a picture from each of the four corners to make an estimate of the solar potential of the roof.
    What if you could do that from your computer instead, and all by yourself?
    Enter Project Sunroof, a Google tool that uses high-resolution 3D data and artificial intelligence to allow you to do exactly that.

    A better (Google) Earth

    Project Sunroof shares some of its technology with the familiar Google Maps and Google Earth, and then adds its own spin to it.
    The only catch is that the source data must be very detailed: Project Sunroof doesn’t use satellite photos, because the resolution isn’t enough, but high quality imagery which is available only where Google has flown airplanes to collect aerial shots.
    “For that reason we probably won’t ever get to cover all the buildings in the US, or any country for that matter. That’s why we focus on the most populous areas,” said Conkling.
    “We hope to expand abroad but we have no concrete plans to do so as of yet. The data is available for around 30 to 40 other countries already.”

    UN award winner

    The project spawns from Google’s “20 Percent Time” scheme, which allows engineers at the company to spend one day a week on whatever they find interesting. The scheme has incubated some famous Google products, like Gmail and Google News.
    After launching in 2015 in just three cities, Project Sunroof has attracted millions of users so far, according to Conkling.
    It’s one of the winners of the 2016 United Nations “Momentum for Change” award, which every year shines a light on innovative, scalable and replicable examples of what people are doing to address climate change. As such, it was showcased at the UN’s climate change conference, COP22, in Marrakech, Morocco.
    New this year is something called the “Data Explorer:” whereas Sunroof’s original incarnation focuses on the solar potential of a specific house, the Data Explorer takes it up a level to aggregate data about a city, a county or a state.
    “It’s targeted at city or state leaders and other governmental figures who want to learn about the solar potential for their whole jurisdiction to set data driven solar policies,” said Conkling.

    Green commitment

    Google has a strong commitment to renewable energy.
    To date, it says it has invested $2.5 billion in wind and solar projects around the world, which can generate over 3.7 GW a year, enough to power one million US homes. It is the largest non-utility purchaser of renewable energy in the world.
    The company already powers 35 percent of its operations from renewables, with a goal of 100% by 2025.

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    Pixel phone resellers banned from using Google accounts

    Users lose access to mail, photos, documents and anything else linked to their Google identity

    Google has suspended the accounts of hundreds of people who took advantage of a loophole in US sales tax to make a small profit on Pixel phones.

    The Google customers had all bought the phones from the companys Project Fi mobile carrier, and had them shipped directly to a reseller in New Hampshire, a US state with no sales tax. In return, the reseller split the profit with the customers.

    Such an arrangement is against Googles terms of service, which state that customers may only purchase Devices for your personal use [and] may not commercially resell any Device.

    But, according to US money-saving site Dans Deals, which spotted the bans after a number of forum members complained, the New Hampshire dealer has been exploiting the loophole for years with previous Google phones, and not had any issues.

    Google users who did buy the Pixel phones havent only had their access to Googles store rescinded. Instead, their entire accounts have been suspended, losing them access to their mail, photos, documents, and anything else linked to their Google identity. One user reported that an account that hadnt been used to purchase a Pixel was suspended, apparently because it was listed as a back-up address for an account that had.

    Im not defending those who violated the terms of the sale, but I do think it is heavy handed for Google to block access to all of their services for doing so, wrote Daniel Eleff, the owner of the site. Was violating Googles phone resale policy really worthy of an effective digital death penalty?

    Users have lost photos saved in Google Photos, while others have been further locked out of other accounts that have the password reset functionality linked to Gmail. Its the 21st century version of losing priceless mementos in a house fire, Eleff writes.

    Speaking to the Guardian, Eleff said: I cant defend violating Googles terms. But Google has become such a large part of our daily lives that I think they do owe their customers a much higher standard of responsibility.

    I think Google should have banned them from future purchases, but taking away all Google services seems very draconian to me, Eleff added. Not allowing access to past data is even worse.

    The Guardian has asked Google for an explanation of the bans, and whether it considers the moves heavy handed.

    Suspending accounts for terms of service violations is a common punishment for many digital businesses, but in the age of massive conglomeration, its increasingly leading to onerous punishment for only minor infractions.

    In March, for instance, Amazon was revealed to be banning users from the site if they returned too many faulty goods. It is within the sites legal rights to choose who to serve, and the bans were intended to crack down on those who abused the companys no-questions-asked returns policies.

    But given the scale of Amazon, such bans are far more punishing than simply being unable to return to a brick-and-mortar retail establishment. Users lose any credit balance on the site and the use of any remaining months on their annual Amazon Prime membership.

    They also lose access to the companys digital services: any Kindles they own are unable to be loaded with new books, or replaced within the warranty period, while Amazons streaming services including Prime TV and Music Unlimited are also inaccessible with a banned account, rendering devices such as the Echo and Fire TV little more than expensive paperweights.

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    How Alibaba Turns Wealthy Shopaholics Into a Marketing Squad

    Meng Cui Yi spent almost $90,000 at Alibabas online mall in the past year. The 33-year-old restaurateur buys pretty much everything thereBurberry apparel, La Mer skincare products, furniture, groceries and more. After Alibabas annual Singles’ Day sale last year, Mengs purchases were piled so high outside her Shanghai apartment her businessman husband could barely get in the door.

    Mengs lavish spending habits earned her an invite to Alibaba Passport, or APASS. An exclusive rewards program, APASS is a mashup of Facebook, Amazon Prime and the American Express Black Card. Its 100,000 members get the usual perksdeals, trips, personal servicebut are also encouraged to join online communities of shopaholics who blog and talk up Alibaba.

    Rolled out about two years ago, APASS has helped Alibaba persuade the well-heeled shoppers trolling its Tmall and Taobao shopping emporiums to keep spending.  That’s crucial because the Chinese economy is deteriorating and Alibaba is struggling to maintain rapid-fire growth. Just last week, Singles’ Day sales grew at half the pace they did the year before. Meanwhile, the company is trying to ward off growing competition from rivals like, which is starting to attract urban big-spenders. 

    “Standing still is not an option because competitors are nipping at their heels,” says Duncan Clark, founder of investment advisory firm BDA China and an early adviser to Alibaba. “It’s very much worth their while to take care of the high rollers.”

    Like any premium rewards program, APASS pushes exclusivity by setting a seemingly high bar for membership. To make the cut, a customer must drop more than $15,000 a year on Alibabas e-commerce sites, though the company says members typically spend more than $45,000. Spending is just one criterion. Shoppers also receive a user score, based in part on the frequency and credibility of their interaction with other customers. The higher the score, the more likely they are to be invited to join APASS.

    APASS members attend a splashy gala at the Mandarin Oriental in Shanghai
    Source: Alibaba

    “APASS members love to share,” says Hai Wang, Alibabas head of customer experience and innovation. “Every day in our APASS Members Zone, a lot of members are sharing their daily life stories, shopping tips, showing off their shopping lists et cetera. A good number of APASS members are verified bloggers.”

    Meng is Alibabas dream customer. “I talk to other APASS members every day,” she says. “I never actually buy anything from physical stores unless Im going out with friends or something.” Mengs loyalty got her invited to the inaugural APASS annual meeting, one of 50 members selected. Held in May at Mandarin Oriental hotel in Shanghai, the splashy event included a buffet dinner, lucky draw and an awards presentationat which Maserati was voted Most Beloved Brand. Chief Marketing Officer Chris Tung gave a speech.

    Rewards buy loyalty and then are turned into marketing opportunities. In early September, Alibaba took 10 APASS members on an all-expenses paid, nine-day vacation to Italy where they visited a Maserati factory, La Perlas flagship lingerie store and vineyards operated by vintner Mezzacorona. Portions of the all-expenses-paid trip were streamed live on the Tmall app and Youku Tudou, a video site Alibaba Chairman Jack Ma acquired last year. The company says the vineyard tour was viewed 400,000 times and boosted sales.

    Visiting Italy’s Mezzacorona vineyard, on an all-expenses-paid trip for APASS members. 
    Source: Alibaba

    Public displays of loyalty from its most elite customers also could help Alibaba buff a reputation hurt by revelations that some of the goods it sells are knockoffs. While global luxury brands like Maserati and Burberry have official storefronts on Alibaba’s Tmall, the e-commerce giant also relies on fees from its Taobao platform for independent retailers, which have been known to sell counterfeit merchandise. Investors and international brands say Alibaba hasn’t done enough to crack down on fakes, and a retail association recently suggested that the company be put back on a U.S. government blacklist. Getting customers to buy more upscale stuff could help persuade more luxury brands to sell on Alibaba.

    Marshall Meyer, a management professor at the University of Pennsylvanias Wharton School, says APASS is “a very clever form of sales promotion. It’s a great publicity stunt.”

    Alibaba says it will double the number of APASS members next year. It’s an audacious target but perhaps achievable given the explosion of well-heeled consumers who increasingly shun brick-and-mortar stores. While e-commerce now accounts for 15 percent of private consumption, Boston Consulting Group expects it to reach 24 percent in the next five years. APASS member Sukin Su, 27, buys everything from Chilean blueberries to Gucci handbags on Tmallracking up as much as $50,000 a year. “I tell everyone why don’t you all shop on Tmall,” she says. “It’s fast, and if you have any problems they can solve it for you.”

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    Google Jamboard is what the future of digital collaboration looks like

    Image: GOOGLE

    Now that the Pixel and Pixel XL have launched against the iPhone, Google’s going after Microsoft’s Surface Hub with Jamboard, its own collaborative digital whiteboard.

    The Jamboard makes it easier and more fun to collaborate with multiple teams on digital projects. Users simply write on the giant 55-inch touchscreen or organize media files on the display as if they were pinning things on a real whiteboard.

    With a price under $6,000, the Jamboard will also cost a few thousand bucks less than an equally sized Surface Hub when it launches in the first half of 2017.

    I admit, I wasn’t really excited for the Jamboard as I went into my briefing with Google, since it’s aimed at businesses.

    But it all clicked into place as Jonathan Rochelle, director of product for G Suite, opened up a new “Jam” canvas and started working with media from Google services like Maps, Drives and Hangouts. People remotely joined in and actively added things to the canvas, too.

    Jamboard is the right piece of hardware to tie together Google’s G Suite services.

    Jamboard is the right piece of hardware to tie together Google’s G Suite services. I thought about how my colleagues and I work together on projects, and it’s mainly through a Google Doc, where we can see changes made in real-time.

    My team and I could technically do all of the things that Rochelle demonstrated by copying and pasting photos and images into a doc (and by opening Hangouts separately), but it’d be a tedious multi-app and multi-step process.

    Jamboard brings all of these tasks into a single giant screen that can either be hung on a wall or mounted on a stand with wheels. Google’s decision to make the back of the Jamboard red is both inviting and Google-y exactly what collaboration should be.


    Image: google


    Image: GOOGLE

    But the Jamboard is only one component. There will be related Android and iOS apps, too.

    The app for tablets will work more like a mini Jamboard with editing capabilities for anyone within a Jam. The phone app will be more passive and will not have the handwriting, drawing and video chat components due to its smaller screen (although that may change in the future update).

    I gave the Jamboard a quick spin and it’s quite intuitive. The 4K display is Google Cast-ready, so you can fling any Cast-ready media from your phone or tablet to it, and the responsiveness is rock-solid thanks to a 60Hz refresh rate.

    Jamboard comes with a couple of passive styli (about the size of a whiteboard marker) and a bun-shaped eraser (it’s just a chunk of plastic with a microfiber cloth). There’s also a built-in web browser.

    The digital whiteboard is Android-powered, so using it is instantly familiar. Rochelle says his team designed it so that it would be natural to use: Just walk up to it, grab a stylus and start writing and drawing.

    Tap a hamburger menu on the left side toolbar to access Google image search, a Chrome web browser and your Google Drive. Then it’s just a matter of dragging content onto your Jam Canvas. To erase, use your finger or the included eraser. There are also saw stickers and limited emoji to overlay on top of photo and drawings.

    Jamboard supports 16 points of multitouch, pressure sensitivity and handwriting. It also has shape-recognition software.

    Having toyed with the original Microsoft Surface tabletop and the Surface Hub, I can safely say the Jamboard is easier to use. As great as Microsoft’s productivity suite is, the UX design on the Surface Hub is anything but friendly; using a Surface Hub feels like work.

    The Jamboard, on the other hand, makes collaborative work feel like fun. And that makes all the difference.

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    Facebook and Google move to kick fake news sites off their ad networks

    Tech companies announced plans to make it harder for money to be made out of posting fake news stories

    Both Google and Facebook have announced plans to go after the revenue of fake news sites, kicking the hoaxers off their ad networks in an attempt to prevent misleading the public from being profitable.

    Google moved first, announcing on Monday a policy update which restricts its adverts from being placed on fake news sites. We will restrict ad serving on pages that misrepresent, mis-state, or conceal information about the publisher, the publishers content, or the primary purpose of the web property, a spokeswoman told Reuters.

    It remains unclear whether Google has the ability to correctly identify such sites, though. For hours on Monday, the search engines top news link for final election results led to a fabricated story on 70 News which claimed that Donald Trump had won the popular vote by 700,000 votes. In fact, Clinton is currently in the lead by the same margin, according to the AP.

    Later that day, Facebook updated the language in the policies for the Audience Network, its own advertising platform. The platform already bans ads in sites that show misleading or illegal content, and the update makes clear that those terms apply to fake news sites as well.

    Our team will continue to closely vet all prospective publishers and monitor existing ones to ensure compliance, a Facebook spokesman said in a statement.

    Facebook has been accused of potentially swinging the election in favour of Trump by failing to acknowledge the fact that its algorithm was promoting fake news to millions of users. According to Buzzfeed news, more than 100 pro-Trump fake news sites were being run from a single Balkan town in the run-up to the election.

    Cutting off the revenue to such sites by limiting the amount of money they can make from advertising may help limit their proliferation. But Facebook in particular faces a more fundamental issue given the ways in which its algorithm selects posts: if users engage more with fake news than real news, as seems possible, then Facebooks algorithm will promote the fake news. Even if sites cant make revenue through advertising, the possibility of other revenue sources, or even just notoriety, may serve to provide enough motivation.

    Facebook is reportedly internally split over how to deal with these concerns. Employees from across the company have secretly come together to try and tackle the problem, BuzzFeed reported on Monday, despite Facebook publicly playing down the role of fake news in the election.

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