Here’s everything Google announced today at its “Future of Search” event

Here’s everything Google announced today at its “Future of Search” event

Google has changed a lot in 20 years. What started as an index of “just” a few million pages is now reaching into the hundreds of billions; what was once a relatively simple (if very clever!) search engine is now an impossibly complex brew of machine learning, computer vision, and data science that finds its way into the daily lives of most of the planet.

Google held a small press event in San Francisco today to discuss what’s next, and what it saw as the “Future of Search”.

Here’s everything they talked about:

Google Discover

The famously minimalist Google.com homepage is about to get a bit more crowded (at least on mobile.)

Google says that 1 in 8 queries in a given month are repeats — a user returning to search on a topic they care about. With that in mind, it’s going to start highlighting these topics for you before you start your search.

Google Feed (the content discovery news feed it’s been building out in the dedicated Google App and on the Android home screen) is being rebranded as “Discover” and will now live underneath the Google.com search bar on all mobile browsers.

Discover will highlight news, video, and information about topics Google thinks you care about — like, say, hiking, or soccer, or the NBA. If you want a certain topic to show up more or less, there’s a slider to adjust accordingly.

It’ll start rolling out “in the next few weeks”

Recalling past queries

In the same vein: Google will now learn to recognize when you’re returning to a topic you’ve searched for before, and try to start back up where you left off. When returning to a search topic, you’ll now see a card at the top of the results that’ll offer up a list of the pages you clicked through to before, and relevant follow-up queries people tend to search for next.

While Google keeping track of what you searched for is nothing new, finding that info generally meant digging through settings pages to find your history. With this, Google is attempting to play something that otherwise seems a bit creepy into a front page feature.

(And to answer what I imagine will be just about everyone’s first question: Google’s Nick Fox says you can remove the card, or “opt out of seeing it all together”.)

Dynamic Organization

Trillions of searches later, Google knows what you’re probably looking for, and what you’ll be looking for next. And they can get pretty specific about it.

To use their example: if you’re searching for “Pug”, you’re probably looking for characteristics of the breed, or for images of well-known pugs. People searching for a longer haired breed like a Yorkshire Terrier, meanwhile, are often interested in things like grooming details — even if it’s not the first thing they search for.

With this in mind, Google’s knowledge graph will now dynamically generate cards for a given topic and present them at the top of the results page — basically, an all-in-one info packet of everything it thinks you’re looking for, or might look for next.

Collections

In a move that feels pretty Pinteresty, you’ll now be able to save search results into “collections” for later perusal. Google will look for patterns in your collections, and toss up suggested pages when it finds an overlap.

Stories

Snapchat has its stories. Facebook has stories. Instagram? Stories. Even Skype tried it for a while.

Now Google is “doubling down” (their words) on stories. AI will generate stories built up from articles, images, and videos on a search topic (starting with notable people “like celebrities and athletes) and incorporate them into search results.

Google Images Upgrades

Google Images is picking up support for Google Lens — the company’s computer vision-heavy solution for figuring out exactly what is within an image. Their example: in a search result for “nursery”, Google Lens could help to identify a specific type of crib or bookcase that you’ve highlighted in an image.

China splits the internet while the U.S. dithers

China splits the internet while the U.S. dithers

There are few stories as important right now as the internet being ripped asunder by the increasing animosity between the U.S. and China. Eric Schmidt, the former chairman of Alphabet, said last week at a private event in San Francisco that “I think the most likely scenario now is not a splintering, but rather a bifurcation into a Chinese-led internet and a non-Chinese internet led by America.”

He should know: Alphabet and its Google subsidiary are on the front lines of that split, experiencing a massive furor over the company’s Project Dragonfly to launch a censored search engine in the Middle Kingdom. It’s hardly alone though, with Apple facing militant criticism from Chinese netizens over its iPhone presentation and Facebook finding its application for a corporate entity on the mainland being returned and rejected.

At the heart of this split is the death of the internet as we once knew it: a unified layer for the transfer of human knowledge. As the internet has gained more and more power over society and our everyday lives, the need by governments worldwide to tame its engineering to political and moral ends has increased dramatically.

About four years ago, I wrote a piece called “From internet to internets” in which I argued that this sort of split was obvious. As I wrote at the time: “Across the world, it is becoming abundantly clear that the internet is no longer the independent and self-reliant sphere it once was, immune to the peculiarities of individual countries and their laws. Rather, the internet is firmly under the control of every government, simultaneously.”

Yet, the rules that countries like Spain put in place around media and news didn’t split the internet as I had predicted. The economic power of the U.S. and China did. Alibaba, Tencent, and Baidu may have declined in value this year, but their combined market caps is still in the trillions of dollars. WeChat, which is owned by Tencent, has more than a billion users, and while only 10% of its user base is estimated to be outside China, the ties are growing as more countries build economic bridges with the mainland.

Sometimes, those bridges are quite literal. Through the Belt and Road initiative and fledgling institutions like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, China has provided massive outlays to other nations primarily around infrastructure, building partnerships and deepening economic ties.

China and the U.S. are increasingly fighting a global battle for tech legitimacy (Photo by Jason Lee / AFP / Getty Images)

That infrastructure is sometimes roads, but it can also be in areas like telecommunications. Huawei has made massive inroads into Africa, both in smartphones and in core infrastructure. Chinese-owned Transsion, which most Westerners have probably never heard of, is the dominant smartphone manufacturer on the continent.

Chinese-made telecom infrastructure. Chinese handsets. Increasingly Chinese apps. For all of the concerns of Congress and national security officials about Huawei and ZTE equipment entering the American or Australian markets, the real fight for the future of the internet is going to be in precisely these developing regions which have no incumbent technology.

That’s what has made the Trump administration’s strategy toward trade negotiations with China so miserable to watch. The focus has been on repeated rounds of tariffs that will ensure that Chinese goods — particularly in high-tech industries — are more expensive to American consumers, allowing domestic manufacturers to better compete. Yet, the policies have done nothing to ensure that American values around the internet are exported to continents like Africa or South America, or that Cisco’s equipment will be chosen over Huawei’s.

That might be changing at long last. The Financial Times reported yesterday that the Trump administration is preparing to double down on the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, which offers commercial lending facilities to developing countries. It would be merged into another agency and given a much more rich budget (as high as $60 billion) to go and compete with Chinese financing around the world.

Maybe that measure will be successful in closing the strategic distance between the two countries. Maybe rumors that the administration is going to broadly double down on the trade war will lead to a much more comprehensive set of policies.

But along the way, regardless of what happens, these skirmishes will lead to a fracturing of the internet, and along with it, the death of the internet as a bastion and voice of freedom and knowledge for all people everywhere.

Alaska Airlines is trying to make VR part of its first class experience

Alaska Airlines is trying to make VR part of its first class experience

When it comes to public areas where you are most free to surrender self-awareness and self-consciousness, lounging on a multi-hour airline flight is probably prime territory. Coincidentally, it’s also a venue where virtual reality companies see an opportunity to open people to a world of VR content.

Today, Alaska Airlines announced that it will be partnering with Skylights to bring the startup’s latest hardware to a couple of its routes in a pilot (ha) program.

Skylights launched out of Y Combinator’s accelerator a couple of years ago with the focus of making VR the go-to entertainment choice for airline passengers. This is the startup’s first partnership with an airline in the U.S.; they’ve preciously worked with European airlines including Emirates and XL Airways.

If you’re sitting in coach, sadly the good virtual life is out of reach, as the service is only being rolled out to first-class passengers seated on Alaska Airlines’ Seattle-Boston and Boston-San Diego routes.

The new “Allosky” hardware is pretty compact. It’s designed for watching 2D and 3D movies mostly, though you’ll also be able to watch some 360 content. It’s pretty slick for mobile VR hardware even if it’s still pretty conspicuous. While the last generation looked like a pretty standard Gear VR, the new generation leans into the sunglasses style even if they still fall a bit short of that size.

Just as Bose headphones became a go-to for isolating people from the noise of airplanes, Skylights is hoping its VR hardware can be the go-to for isolating passengers from the sights.

Google Lens is coming to Google Image Search to help you figure out what you’re seeing

Google Lens is coming to Google Image Search to help you figure out what you’re seeing

At a small press event in San Francisco today, Google dropped a mention of a big new feature on the way: Google Lens support is coming to Google Image Search.

For the unfamiliar, Google Lens (previously available as a dedicated app, and as part of Google Photos) taps the company’s computer vision work to figure out the contents of an image and provide more details about exactly what you’re looking at.

One example Google demonstrated: in a search for “nursery” you might see a crib you like and want to buy. With the existing search interface, finding that exact model of crib with nothing but that image might prove challenging. Besides the color and “crib,” what keywords do you type in?

Tap the new Lens button, however, and Google will throw all of its computer vision chops at the image to tear it apart and try to work backwards to identify it. Want to identify something else in the image — like, say, a lamp in the background — instead? Use your finger to highlight that specific section, and it’ll focus on that object instead.

It’s not limited to random pieces of furniture though — it can identify dog breeds in a photo, or landmarks, or clothing, or cars, or any number of abstract categories. If Google has seen enough images of that object or thing to model some level of understanding of it, Lens should be able to work backwards to tell you more about it.

Lens should start rolling into Image Search later this week.

Google Lens is coming to Google Image Search to help you figure out what you’re seeing

Google Lens is coming to Google Image Search to help you figure out what you’re seeing

At a small press event in San Francisco today, Google dropped a mention of a big new feature on the way: Google Lens support is coming to Google Image Search.

For the unfamiliar, Google Lens (previously available as a dedicated app, and as part of Google Photos) taps the company’s computer vision work to figure out the contents of an image and provide more details about exactly what you’re looking at.

One example Google demonstrated: in a search for “nursery” you might see a crib you like and want to buy. With the existing search interface, finding that exact model of crib with nothing but that image might prove challenging. Besides the color and “crib,” what keywords do you type in?

Tap the new Lens button, however, and Google will throw all of its computer vision chops at the image to tear it apart and try to work backwards to identify it. Want to identify something else in the image — like, say, a lamp in the background — instead? Use your finger to highlight that specific section, and it’ll focus on that object instead.

It’s not limited to random pieces of furniture though — it can identify dog breeds in a photo, or landmarks, or clothing, or cars, or any number of abstract categories. If Google has seen enough images of that object or thing to model some level of understanding of it, Lens should be able to work backwards to tell you more about it.

Lens should start rolling into Image Search later this week.

VW’s Porsche drops diesel for good

VW’s Porsche drops diesel for good

Porsche will no longer make diesel-powered vehicles, opting instead to invest more money into electric and hybrid technology, the company said over the weekend.

Porsche has never been as committed to diesel as other automakers under its parent company VW Group. Porsche has offered some diesel versions of its models, including the Porsche Cayenne. But waning demand combined with the fallout from the Volkswagen emissions cheating scandal has accelerated Porsche’s move away from diesel. Now it’s ditching diesel for good.

Porsche hasn’t had any diesel models in its portfolio since February 2018. And the proportion of Porsche diesel models globally was just 12 percent in 2017.

Meanwhile, interest in hybrid models has grown, Lutz Meschke, deputy chairman and board member wrote in a post on LinkedIn. About 63 percent of Panamera vehicles are ordered as hybrid models, Meschke added.

“Porsche has no intention of demonizing the diesel engine — it is, and will remain, an important drive technology,” Meschke said in his LinkedIn post. “As a sports car manufacturer for which diesel engines have traditionally played a subordinate role, we have come to the conclusion that we can survive without diesel models in the future.”

Porsche says it will provide service to existing diesel customers.

The shift away from diesel comes as Porsche ramps up its investment in all-electric and hybrid electric models.

Porsche plans to invest more than €6 billion ($7 billion) into electrification, which includes hybrids, by 2022. Half of all new vehicles from Porsche may feature an electric drive — either as part of a hybrid concept or as a purely electric vehicle — by 2025.

More than $580 million of that capital will be allocated to the production of the Taycan and other vehicles based on it. The Porsche Taycan, the all-electric sports car formerly known as Mission E, is expected to come on the market in 2019.

Mode raises $3M Series A to put sensor data in the cloud

Mode raises $3M Series A to put sensor data in the cloud

True Ventures has led the $3 million round for Mode, a real-time database that gives companies instant access to sensor data. GigaOm founder and True Ventures partner Om Malik has joined the startup’s board of directors as part of the deal.

Sensor data is collected from vehicles, cell phones, appliances, medical equipment and other machines. Businesses deploying these sensors, however, often don’t have back-end databases or tools to understand what that data means for the real world.

San Mateo-based Mode wants to help them make sense of it by moving the hoards of sensor data to the cloud, where they can better understand their devices and derive actionable insights. For now, Mode is targeting the solar, medical and manufacturing industries.

“We focus on data collection because we want to address common infrastructure challenges and let customers spend their time utilizing data for their businesses,” said Gaku Ueda, Mode co-founder and Twitter’s former director of engineering.

Ueda and co-founder Ethan Kan, who was previously the director of engineering at gaming startup 50Cubes, have a long history of friendship. True Ventures’ Malik says that’s part of what attracted him to the company.

“Companies are not a straight line,” Malik told TechCrunch. “You go through ups and downs. If you have a good co-founder, you have someone to get you through it.”

The round brings Mode’s total funding to $5 million. The company, which is also backed by Kleiner Perkins, Compound.vc and Fujitsu, will use the Series A financing to connect additional sensors to the cloud and expand its team.

Snapchat lets you take a photo of an object to buy it on Amazon

Snapchat lets you take a photo of an object to buy it on Amazon

See, snap, sale. In a rare partnership for Amazon, the commerce giant will help Snapchat challenge Instagram and Pinterest for social shopping supremacy. Today Snapchat announced it’s slowly rolling out a new visual product search feature, confirming TechCrunch’s July scoop about this project, codenamed “Eagle.”

Users can use Snapchat’s camera to scan a physical object or barcode, which brings up a card showing that item and similar ones along with their title, price, thumbnail image, average review score and Prime availability. When they tap on one, they’ll be sent to Amazon’s app or site to buy it. Snapchat determines if you’re scanning a song, QR Snapcode or object, and then Amazon’s machine vision tech recognizes logos, artwork, package covers or other unique identifying marks to find the product. It’s rolling out to a small percentage of U.S. users first before Snap considers other countries.

Snap refused to disclose any financial terms of the partnership. It could be earning a referral fee for each thing you buy from Amazon, or it could just be doing the legwork for free in exchange for added utility. A Snapchat spokesperson tells me the latter is the motivation (without ruling out the former), as Snapchat wants its camera to become the new cursor — your point of interface between the real and digital worlds.

Social commerce is heating up as Instagram launches Shopping tags in Stories and a dedicated Shopping channel in Explore, while Pinterest opens up Shop the Look pins and hits 250 million monthly users. The feature should mesh well with Snap’s young and culture-obsessed audience. In the U.S., its users are 20 percent more likely to have made a mobile purchase than non-users, and 60 percent more likely to make impulse purchases according to studies by Murphy Research and GfK.

The feature functions similarly to Pinterest’s Lens visual search tool. In the video demo above, you can see Snapchat identifying Under Armour’s HOVR shoe (amongst all its other models), and the barcode for CoverGirl’s clean matte liquid makeup. That matches our scoop based on code dug out of Snapchat’s Android app by TechCrunch tipster Ishan Agarwal. Snapchat’s shares popped three percent the day we published that scoop, and again this morning before falling back to half that gain.

The feature could prove useful for when you don’t know the name of the product you’re looking at, as with shoes. That could turn visual search into a new form of word-of-mouth marketing where every time an owner shows off a product, they’re effectively erecting a billboard for it. Eventually, visual search could help users shop across language barriers.

Amazon is clearly warming up to social partnerships, recognizing its inadequacy in that department. Along with being named Snapchat’s official search partner, it’s also going to be bringing Alexa voice control to Facebook’s Portal video chat screen, which is reportedly debuting this week according to Cheddar’s Alex Heath.

Snapchat could use the help. It’s now losing users and money, down from 191 million to 188 million daily active users last quarter while burning $353 million. Partnering instead of trying to build all its technology in-house could help reduce that financial loss, while added utility could aid with user growth. And if Snap can convince advertisers, they might pay to educate people on how to scan their products with Snapchat.

Snap keeps saying it wants to be a “Camera Company,” but it’s really an augmented reality software layer through which to see the world. The question will be whether it can change our behavior so that when we see something special, we interact with it through the camera, not just capture it.

Walmart is betting on the blockchain to improve food safety

Walmart is betting on the blockchain to improve food safety

Walmart has been working with IBM on a food safety blockchain solution and today it announced it’s requiring that all suppliers of leafy green vegetable for Sam’s and Walmart upload their data to the blockchain by September 2019 .

Most supply chains are bogged down in manual processes. This makes it difficult and time consuming to track down an issue should one like the E. coli romaine lettuce problem from last spring rear its head. By placing a supply chain on the blockchain, it makes the process more traceable, transparent and fully digital. Each node on the blockchain could represent an entity that has handled the food on the way to the store, making it much easier and faster to see if one of the affected farms sold infected supply to a particular location with much greater precision.

Walmart has been working with IBM for over a year on using the blockchain to digitize the food supply chain process. In fact, supply chain is one of the premiere business use cases for blockchain (beyond digital currency). Walmart is using the IBM Food Trust Solution, specifically developed for this use case.

“We built the IBM Food Trust solution using IBM Blockchain Platform, which is a tool or capability that IBM has built to help companies build, govern and run blockchain networks. It’s built using Hyperledger Fabric (the open source digital ledger technology) and it runs on IBM Cloud,” Bridget van Kralingen, IBM’s senior VP for Global Industries, Platforms and Blockchain explained.

Before moving the process to the blockchain, it typically took approximately 7 days to trace the source of food. With the blockchain, it’s been reduced to 2.2 seconds. That substantially reduces the likelihood  that infected food will reach the consumer.

Photo:  Shana Novak/Getty Images

One of the issues in a requiring the suppliers to put their information on the blockchain is understanding that there will be a range of approaches from paper to Excel spreadsheets to sophisticated ERP systems all uploading data to the blockchain. Walmart spokesperson Molly Blakeman says that this something they worked hard on with IBM to account for. Suppliers don’t have to be blockchain experts by any means. They simply have to know how to upload data to the blockchain application.

“IBM will offer an onboarding system that orients users with the service easily. Think about when you get a new iPhone – the instructions are easy to understand and you’re quickly up and running. That’s the aim here. Essentially, suppliers will need a smart device and internet to participate,” she said.

After working with it for a year, the company things it’s ready for broader implementation with the goal ultimately being making sure that the food that is sold at Walmart is safe for consumption, and if there is a problem, making auditing the supply chain a trivial activity.

“Our customers deserve a more transparent supply chain. We felt the one-step-up and one-step-back model of food traceability was outdated for the 21st century. This is a smart, technology-supported move that will greatly benefit our customers and transform the food system, benefitting all stakeholders,” Frank Yiannas, vice president of food safety for Walmart said in statement.

In addition to the blockchain requirement, the company is also requiring that suppliers adhere to one of the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI), which have been internationally recognized as food safety standards, according to the company.

Google and Yandex may collaborate on a real-time blacklist of all known pirated works

Google and Yandex may collaborate on a real-time blacklist of all known pirated works

A meeting on the status of anti-piracy efforts at search engines has produced a collaborative approach to better addressing the issue of pirated works appearing in search results. An international collective of search giants thinking of creating a blacklist of all known pirated works, which will be compared with search results every five minutes and any matches removed.

The meeting, which took place last week, was reported by Russian outlets Vedomosti and RBC; TorrentFreak noted the news soon after. The attendees included Google, Yandex, Mail.ru Group, Gazprom Media, and other local trade associations. The issue at hand: how to return accurate results when someone searches for “download princess bride movie” without also including links to piracy sites.

Yandex in particular has been under threat by regulators for its refusal to take more serious steps to block pirated content — the company argues that it isn’t required by law to do so. The argument is in some ways similar to that of Google, which has resisted pressure to be the first and last line of defense, incurring great cost to protect someone else’s property. But clearly both are open to a more collaborative effort.

The solution proposed by the groups is a shared ledger of links and works known to be pirated. This register would be continually updated and each partner would regularly check it against its index and strike any matches from being displayed in results within six hours.

The list would be curated by the companies themselves and rightsholders who find, as they often do, links to or copies of their copyrighted materials online.

Obviously this isn’t an entirely novel idea: search engines and media companies of course have their own lists and may even share some information, and Russian regulator Roscomnadzor has one that ISPs consult when issuing blocks at their level. But this would be an official, cross-border, cross-industry collaboration, built to minimize both the time and paperwork needed to remove an infringing link.

The difficulties and dangers of such a system are easily imaginable. A mistaken or fraudulent entry could lead to a site being delisted or demoted in search results, and because this system is largely internal to the companies and not part of an official process (like DMCA takedowns, such as they are), the owner of that entry could lack recourse. There’s no shortage of stories of YouTube videos being taken down via fraudulent reports, so the new system would need to be both robust against that threat and responsive to petitions.

There are also plenty of ways that piracy sites can escape the clutches of these systems, which by necessity given the scale of the issue, are largely automated. Futzing with the URL — for instance, generating a new one for every user and deleting them shortly after —  could lead to an inflated and inaccurate register. (That’s just one simple way of throwing a wrench in the machinery; piracy sites are technically adept and legally savvy and their methods may be rather more sophisticated.)

And because the list wouldn’t necessarily be backed by law — this would be an understanding between these organizations based on mutual benefit — it might be respected only when convenient. If, for example, one of the companies faces an ugly lawsuit or challenge regarding a listing, it may choose to slacken its enforcement to avoid such complications.

The war between big web properties and piracy is an ongoing one and no one is likely to strike a killing blow given how advanced things are on both sides of the line of battle. But it’s equally unlikely that either side will stop or slow in its efforts to gain the upper hand, if only temporarily.

It’s unclear what stage this effort is at, but Roskomnadzor and the trade associations confirmed to Vedomosti that work is underway, though Yandex would only say that it was involved. I’ve asked Google for comment and will update this story if I hear back.