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Video chat apps tout ‘inclusive’ AI features

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Video conferencing services have for years boasted that their technology is “intuitive” to use or “integrated” to function with other tools, but now vendors such as Google and Cisco can hardly go a blog post without trumpeting a different attribute: “inclusive.”

The latest buzzword, and the product development that accompanies it, shows how tech companies are newly focused on assuring Black users and other persons of color that online chat products will not leave them out in the cold. The changes stem in part from the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement – which has prompted vendors and customers alike to think beyond the needs of a white, English-speaking audience – and the pandemic, which created a large “remote” workforce heavily dependent on technology.

Alphabet Inc’s Google this month plans to deploy an artificial intelligence (AI) feature that addresses the longstanding issue of darker skin tones being under-illuminated in video chats.

Cisco Systems Inc in January launched a gesture-recognition feature to display a thumbs-up in Webex, taking pains to assure that skin tones would not affect performance. LogMeIn Inc’s GoToMeeting, Microsoft Corp‘s Teams and Facebook Inc’s Workplace are adding translation or pronunciation options in what they describe as an equity push.

“Technology is fundamentally today just not as inclusive as you want it to be,” said Jeetu Patel, senior vice president and general manager for Cisco security and collaboration. Setting “values and principles that a product should stand for” has become essential, he said.

The tech industry has long been under fire for a poor record on workplace diversity and a failure to recognize the ways in which product design can perpetuate discrimination.

Worries about bias in video conferencing picked up last September after Colin Madland, a doctoral student at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, tweeted a screenshot of a Black colleague appearing headless when deploying a virtual background on Zoom.

Studies of other AI cropping systems have shown they generate more errors with darker skin, in part because the data used to train them mostly included lighter examples.

Zoom’s chief diversity officer, Damien Hooper-Campbell, told Reuters: “Bias was not at play, but rather a combination of the user’s distance from the camera, use of headphones, and seating position.”

Madland said the problem subsided after his colleague purchased a green screen and some “snazzy lighting.”

For Zoom and its rivals, delivering on inclusion could provide an edge while vying for post-pandemic deals with clients – which are facing their own reckonings on diversity.

Global spending on cloud-based conferencing is forecast to reach $5.41 billion this year, up from $5.02 billion in 2020, according to tech consultancy Gartner. It does not track market share, but analysts cite Zoom and Cisco as the leaders.

‘NOT EQUALLY REPRESENTED’

The upcoming Google Meet feature tackles the problem of people appearing darker because of their surroundings, for example when sitting in front of a window, said Niklas Blum, a Google product leader involved with Meet.

“Users with dark skin tones are not equally represented, and we want to build products for everyone,” he said.

The AI separates users from their background, determines whether they are underexposed regardless of their skin tone, brightens the picture accordingly, and finally merges the background and foreground.

Meet’s virtual waiting room will prompt users to activate the lighting adjustment when it detects they could benefit from it, said Stéphane Hulaud, product lead for video quality and processing in Meet.

Blum and Hulaud said Meet first identified the representation issues in video when launching a low-light enhancement for mobile calls well before the pandemic. Developing the latest feature took considerable time, but it led Meet to establish product inclusion testing procedures and mandate them for all of its work.

Google is pursuing additional fixes, too. Meet is pitching laptop makers and operating systems on sharing greater control over cameras’ white balance and exposure. Internally, Google adopted minimum light reflectiveness requirements for conference room designs.

At Cisco, the new gesture-recognition option, when turned on, lets users hold up their thumb on camera for about a second to generate a virtual thumbs-up on screen.

Cisco trained its AI to focus on the shape outline and movement of the gesture in time and space, reducing potential issues from variance in skin tone, said Keith Griffin, a distinguished engineer at the company.

Praying hands – for “thank you” – are among possible new gesture options to come, with a feature that interprets sign language an eventual goal. Webex also expects to add skin-tone options beyond yellow for the icons.

Mike Sharp, LogMeIn’s chief product officer for unified communications and collaboration, said education clients have driven some of the company’s “inclusion” updates.

For instance, forthcoming support for Spanish, Mandarin and other languages in voicemail prompts and transcriptions will benefit an unidentified California school district that wanted to better engage with its community, Sharp said.

Facebook Workplace, a suite of business communication tools, last month said video town hall hosts soon would see name pronunciations for workers posing written questions.

Product head Ujjwal Singh said the pointers, which are AI-generated but editable, aimed to help executives at clients including Nestle SA and Booking Holdings Inc properly address colleagues and promote inclusion.

“I don’t want to mispronounce it to thousands of employees and look like I’m not in touch with the company,” he said.

 

(Reporting by Paresh Dave in Oakland, Calif.; Editing by Jonathan Weber and Matthew Lewis)

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Britain in talks with 6 firms about building gigafactories for EV batteries

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Britain is in talks with six companies about building gigafactories to produce batteries for electric vehicles (EV), the Financial Times reported on Wednesday, citing people briefed on the discussions.

Car makers Ford Motor Co and Nissan Motor Co Ltd, conglomerates LG Corp and Samsung, and start-ups Britishvolt and InoBat Auto are in talks with the British government or local authorities about locations for potential factories and financial support, the report added .

 

(Reporting by Kanishka Singh in Bengaluru; Editing by Himani Sarkar)

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EBay to sell South Korean unit for about $3.6 billion to Shinsegae, Naver

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EBay will sell its South Korean business to retailer Shinsegae Group and e-commerce firm Naver for about 4 trillion won ($3.6 billion), local newspapers reported on Wednesday.

EBay Korea is the country’s third-largest e-commerce firm with market share of about 12.8% in 2020, according to Euromonitor. It operates the platforms Gmarket, Auction and G9.

Shinsegae, Naver and eBay Korea declined to comment.

Lotte Shopping had also been in the running, the Korea Economic Daily and other newspapers said, citing unnamed investment banking sources.

South Korea represents the world’s fourth largest e-commerce market. Driven by the coronavirus pandemic, e-commerce has soared to account for 35.8% of the retail market in 2020 compared with 28.6% in 2019, according to Euromonitor data.

Shinsegae and Naver formed a retail and e-commerce partnership in March by taking stakes worth 250 billion won in each other’s affiliates.

($1 = 1,117.7000 won)

 

(Reporting by Joyce Lee; Editing by Edwina Gibbs)

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Canada launches long-awaited auction of 5G spectrum

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Canada is set to begin a hotly anticipated auction of the mobile telecommunications bandwidth necessary for 5G rollout, one that was delayed more than a year by the pandemic.

The 3,500 MHz is a spectrum companies need to provide 5G, which requires more bandwidth to expand internet capabilities.The auction, initially scheduled for June 2020, is expected to take several weeks with Canadian government selling off 1,504 licenses in 172 service areas.

Smaller operators are going into the auction complaining that recent regulatory rulings have further tilted the scales in the favour of the country’s three biggest telecoms companies – BCE, Telus and Rogers Communications Inc – which together control around 90% of the market as a share of revenue.

Canadian mobile and internet consumers, meanwhile, have complained for years that their bills are among the world’s steepest. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government has threatened to take action if the providers did not cut bills by 25%.

The last auction of the 600 MHz spectrum raised C$3.5 billion ($2.87 billion) for the government.

The companies have defended themselves, saying the prices they charge are falling.

Some 23 bidders including regional players such as Cogeco and Quebec’s Videotron are participating in the process. Shaw Communications did not apply to participate due to a $16 billion takeover bid from Rogers. Lawmakers and analysts have warned that market concentration will intensify if that acquisition proceeds.

In May, after Canada‘s telecoms regulator issued a ruling largely in favour of the big three on pricing for smaller companies’ access to broadband networks, internet service provider TekSavvy Inc withdrew from the auction, citing the decision.

Some experts say the government has been trying to level the playing field with its decision to set aside a proportion of spectrum in certain areas for smaller companies.

Gregory Taylor, a spectrum expert and associate professor at the University of Calgary, said he was pleased the government was auctioning off smaller geographic areas of coverage.

In previous auctions where the license covered whole provinces, “small providers could not participate because they could not hope to cover the range that was required in the license,” Taylor said.

Smaller geographic areas mean they have a better chance of fulfilling the requirements for the license, such as providing service to 90% of the population within five years of the issuance date.

The auction has no scheduled end date, although the federal ministry in charge of the spectrum auction has said winners would be announced within five days of bidding completion.

($1 = 1.2181 Canadian dollars)

 

(Reporting by Moira Warburton in Vancouver; Editing by David Gregorio)

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