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  • Amazon Alexa & Google's Assistant are inexcusably terrible at knowing when they're called

    As smart speakers continue to encroach into our lives, the cheaper ones from Google and Amazon need to get better at knowing when we do and don't want them to speak up.


    In my home, I have more than a few "smart" speakers. Mixing ecosystems with the likes of Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, and Apple's Siri. My Ecobee 4 and OneLink Safe and Sound both have Alexa built in, as does the Echo Dot located upstairs. My HomePod sits in the office of our open-concept lower level.

    Each time I go to make a request, I have to consider which device will be taking that request and tailor the key phrase based on the assistant I want to invoke. More often than not, it is HomePod that answers my call to action -- because Apple has put a lot of work into that particular aspect.

    Then there is the inverse -- those non-infrequent times that I say something else other than the magic speaker invocation phrase, and yet one of the speakers feel the need to chime in.

    Alexa speakers are the biggest offenders, frequently activating when no keyword was uttered. It is amazingly frustrating and almost scary the things they try to do without me asking.

    My First Alert Onelink Safe and Sound once tried to donate my money to a charity, but luckily no charity was set up so she instead directed me to Amazon's website. Ecobee attempted to make a phone call before also saying that it wasn't set up. Had these been configured, it would be far too easy for these things to happen without me ever intending them to.

    I didn't even know that Alexa was capable of some of the tasks before she tried to carry them out.

    Many of these tasks have checks and balances -- like donating my money -- to help stop them from completing, but that doesn't make me feel any more comfortable with them trying to do so without me explicitly asking them to in the first place.

    The unwanted responses get even worse when the TV is going and countless commercials -- especially around the holidays -- keep repeating Alexa's key phrase and causing my speakers to answer questions or play music. This isn't strictly Amazon or Google's fault -- but there needs to be better recognition to prevent this from ever happening again.

    HomePod, on the other hand, has never inserted its opinion unprovoked. Since I can merely speak the phrase "Hey Siri" from across the downstairs and HomePod answers, Apple is clearly doing a much better job of monitoring and verifying those keywords before taking a request. Admittedly, how well it answers is up for debate, but that's a topic for another day.

    What's the point of a smart speaker if it isn't smart enough to understand when we do and don't talk to them? I'm so close to completely disabling Alexa on my other speakers and picking up a second HomePod, even with the high price tag.

    Yes, the HomePod needs quite a bit of love from Apple from a voice interpretation standpoint. Siri lacks requisite smarts for it to truly dominate the competition, and it lacks direct support for other music services without using AirPlay.

    The one thing Apple did nail, however, is invoking the assistant in the first place, and knowing when it should keep quiet.
  • ECG feature in Apple Watch is already saving lives [u]

    The electrocardiogram function of the Apple Watch Series 4 went live as part of the watchOS 5.1.2 update released on Thursday is already proving its usefulness.

    Apple Watch ECG app
    Apple Watch ECG app

    Released on Thursday, the watchOS 5.1.2 update added the ECG app to the Apple Watch Series 4. By using electrodes in the back crystal and the Digital Crown, a 30-second test can be performed, classifying the user's heart rate as atrial fibrillation (Afib,) sinus rhythm, or inconclusive.

    A Reddit user identified as "edentel" wrote a post about their dealings with the Apple Watch Series 4 after running the update. Warned of an abnormal heart rate in notifications, the user tried out the ECG app and was provided the Afib result.

    Initially the user believed there was a glitch with the firmware, after repeated tests came up Afib, but trials with the user's wife's wrist came back with normal results. After trying the other wrist and the other side of the arm, the warnings continued to be provided when the user tried out the app in other ways.

    The Redditor writes they went to Patient First, expecting to just go home after potentially wasting their doctor's time. When asked what was wrong, "edentel" was embarrassed to say "Ok, so there's a new watch feature..." before asking to check its results.

    The comment was a "quick queue pass" for Patient First, apparently, with the user hooked up for testing. The doctor looked at the readings from the medical equipment, and suggested "You should buy Apple stock. This probably saved you."

    The doctor advised they had read about the ECG feature's release the previous evening, and while they thought there would be an upswing of patients reacting to the messages, the doctor "didn't expect it first thing this morning."

    The Reddit user has reached out to AppleInsider since original publication, and has provided sufficient evidence to prove the story true. On a wider scale, it is highly likely the new ECG feature, as well as the Irregular Rhythm Notification feature available in earlier Apple Watch models, will prompt concerned users to check their health via their physician.

    AppleInsider has reached out to several cardiologists in the Washington D.C. Metro area to talk about the update and the ECG feature. All of the groups we spoke to have either confirmed a reading in the emergency room since release of the OS update as a result of the reading at home, or have seen patients in the office already as a result.

    Afib is said to be one of the leading conditions that can result in a stroke, and is the second-most common cause of death in the world. According to CDC estimates, Afib can affect up to two percent of the younger population of the United States, rising to nine percent for those aged 65 years or older.

    Updated to note response from Reddit user.
  • Australia passes contentious encryption bill opposed by Apple, other tech companies

    The Australia parliament on Thursday passed a set of new cybersecurity measures that compels technology companies to furnish law enforcement agencies access to encrypted customer messages, a law that Apple and other tech firms railed against during its draft period.

    Apple Messages on iOS.

    Officially titled the "Assistance and Access Bill 2018," Australia's new law garnered the scrutiny of tech companies and civil rights advocates alike for the seemingly wide berth it grants law enforcement agencies in requesting access to digital communications.

    Vague language, particularly in a to-be-amended limitation detailing "systemic weakness," prompted public cries of disapproval as critics warned of potential abuse by government agencies. Of immediate concern are backdoors into secure platforms, the creation of which might be foisted upon tech companies under the guise of "assistance."

    As reported by CNET, the legislation calls on companies to provide three levels of assistance to law enforcement and select government agencies:
    • Technical Assistance Requests: Companies provide voluntary assistance to aid certain agencies as they perform duties relating to "Australia's national interests, the safeguarding of national security and the enforcement of the law."
    • Technical Assistance Notices: Requires companies to provide assistance that is "reasonable, proportionate, practicable and technically feasible." Providers are able to use existing means like encryption keys to decrypt communications.
    • Technical Capability Notices: Requires companies to build a new capability that enables it to provide assistance to law enforcement agencies and government bodies. The notice cannot force a provider to build or implement a capability to remove electronic protection, such as encryption.
    Technical Assistance and Technical Capability Notices both require an underlying warrant or authorization, the bill reads.

    Failure to comply with a notice incurs a fine of A$10 million (about $7.2 million) for corporations or A$50,000 for individuals.

    Of the three, Technical Capability Notices are thought to pose the greatest threat to strong encryption practices as the stipulation appears to rubber-stamp the creation of software backdoors. While Australian officials have attempted to ameliorate the situation, vowing the bill does not provide a route to such extreme degradations of existing encryption methods, critics are still concerned.

    In particular, the bill refers to "systemic weaknesses" or "systemic vulnerabilities" that companies cannot be forced to implement as a result of TANs or TCNs. The government says it "has no interest in undermining systems that protect the fundamental security of communications," but opponents argue the language is too vague. Indeed, systemic weaknesses and vulnerabilities do not carry a narrow, technical definition.

    Apple, which is among a cadre of tech giants that have for the past few months vehemently opposed the bill's passage, in part opposes the legislation because of these odd ambiguities.

    In October, Apple submitted a letter to the Australian Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, urging the body to clarify ambiguous language in a draft of the statute before its ratification. The letter also reinforced Apple's commitment to customer privacy, arguing strong encryption is vital to the safeguarding of national security, especially in light of large-scale database hacks.

    "There is a profound risk of making criminals' jobs easier, not harder," Apple notes. "Increasingly stronger - not weaker - encryption is the best way to protect against these threats."

    Despite its contentious nature, the bill was pushed through on the last sitting day of Parliament before the summer break, reports CNET. The federal Labor opposition was forced to table modifications to the legislation, but allowed it to pass on condition that the amendments would be reviewed when parliament reconvenes.
  • Hands on: How to use the ECG app on Apple Watch

    Announced during the introduction of the Apple Watch Series 4, Apple's long-promised ECG has finally arrived with the watchOS 5.1.2 update. We tried out the new electrocardiogram after updating our 44mm model.

    Apple Watch ECG App
    Apple Watch ECG App

    After installing the update, a new app will automatically appear on your Series 4 Apple Watch named ECG. This is used to actually run the electrocardiogram rather than the existing heart rate app.

    This ECG, which is most similar to a single-lead traditional electrocardiogram, can indicate signs of atrial fibrillation or sinus rhythm. Once it runs, it will save the waveform, classification, and any other noted symptoms within the Health app on your iPhone to easily share as a PDF to your doctor.

    Apple Watch ECG results in the Health app
    Apple Watch ECG results in the Health app

    Before you are able to take an ECG, you must first set it up by opening the Health app on your iPhone. There you follow a series of prompts walking you through the basics, and limitations, of the ECG app. If you are under 22, based on the birth date you enter, you won't be able to use the ECG or AFib monitoring features.

    Once set up, to take the ECG, simply open the app, place your finger on the Digital Crown, and the test will automatically start. Using electrodes built into the back of the watch and in the Digital Crown, the ECG is able to read your heart's electrical signals. Every time your heart beats, it sends an electrical impulse through your body and by completing the circuit between your heart and both arms with the Apple Watch in the middle, Apple Watch can create a real-time waveform. It only takes 30 seconds to run the test.

    Apple Watch ECG app adding additional symptoms
    Apple Watch ECG app adding additional symptoms

    When the test finishes, you can add additional symptoms such as dizziness or fainting which will be tied to the test. Apple Watch doesn't show much info, so it will be sent to your iPhone and show up in Notification Center where you can view the results, or export them.

    Relating to the ECG, Apple Watch will now monitor your heart rate in the background for signs of AFib, similar to how it already monitors for high and low heart rates. This too is recorded within the Health app under Heart.

    These medical conditions are serious and often go undiagnosed. According to the CDC, AFib can affect up to two percent of those under 65 and nine percent of those above, here in the US.

    Apple Watch famously received its De Novo FDA classification clearance less than 24 hours ahead of the big reveal, causing much stress for those at the iPhone maker.
  • Apple shares 'Real Stories' videos of people saved by Apple Watch

    The Apple Watch can, and does, save lives. Apple has shared a pair of stories about how it has done so on YouTube.

    Apple Real Stories ad

    The first video is over 4 minutes long and tells the stories of several people -- namely a man with blood clots, a kitesurfer who used his Watch to call his son, a 13-year-old rushed to the hospital for a spiking heart rate, and a mother who called 911 when she and her child were trapped in a car crash. The second is only a minute and 31 seconds, but focuses exclusively on Michael Jackson, a person with cerebral palsy whose Watch indirectly alerted him to sepsis.

    Both clips were released on the same day as watchOS 5.1.2, which adds long-promised electrocardiogram features for the Apple Watch Series 4. By opening the ECG app and holding a finger on the digital crown, users can check for signs of atrial fibrillation. For now the app is only available in the U.S., but it should come elsewhere with regulatory approval.

    All Watches from the Series 1 onward now have access to irregular rhythm notifications, which depend only on having an optical heart rate sensor.

    Apple privately provided clips of from its "Real Stories" marketing to CBS ahead of time to support an interview with COO Jeff Williams.