Friday Five: Amazon AI and human drum machines

Zone’s Ross Basham handpicks and shares the five best new stories on digital trends, experiences and technologies…

1. The 5G news they DON’T want you to know…

Bad news for fans of conspiracy theories — the first UK safety tests of 5G base stations have found radiation levels are at ‘tiny fractions’ of safe limits. The rollout of ultra-fast 5G mobile signals had sparked fears (particularly on Facebook, unsurprisingly) that the new transmission masts would be dangerous to humans.

But having tested 16 areas in 10 cities, Ofcom found that the highest result was 0.039% of the recommended limit. And in fact the highest EMF emission was 1.5% in Canary Wharf — where there is no 5G at all. Still, that’s unlikely to stop the scare stories on social media — did you know that 5G caused the coronavirus?

2. Carrot take the stick approach with faulty app

A car insurance app that uses phone data to reward young people for safer driving has been failing to work properly, leading to users having their policies cancelled.Carrot Insurance’s Better Driver app uses telematics to measure acceleration, braking, swerving etc, with the aim of lowering premiums for traditionally high-risk drivers.

But because it relies solely on GPS and Bluetooth (rather than a black box in the car), it has been playing up — for example recording someone as driving when actually they were on a train (it marked them as speeding) or cycling (not speeding, I assume). When it comes to the crunch, sounds like Carrot’s app isn’t fit for purpose.

3. Amazon’s AI chatbot can learn on the job

Amazon is testing out two AI-based systems for its customer services department. One deals with customers automatically (without human intervention), while the other helps humans respond more quickly and easily. Most text-based customer service systems are governed by rules — flow charts that specify responses to particular inputs.

The difference with Amazon’s pilot is that the automated agents use machine learning rather than rules to handle enquiries. Amazon claims these agents can handle a broader range of interactions with better results — including producing wholly original dialogue in real time. Which is more than I can manage, to be honest.

4. Smart pet feeder not so smart after all

A smart pet feeder that allows owners to schedule and control feeding via an app recently went offline for a week, leading to frustrated owners and hungry pets. US-based firm Petnet sells its devices for $130 but I doubt it is selling very many smart feeders at the moment, particularly given its lack of communication with customers.

In a masterclass of how not to do it, Petnet posted a total of three tweets across the week-long outage and ignored questions on social media, while emails to the company were undelivered. One customer complained: “My cat starved for a week,” which rather begs the question: “You leave your cat alone for a whole week?”

5. Turn yourself into a human drum machine

Are you one of those irritating people (like me) who continually taps on surfaces? Then you’ll love the new wearable gadget called Music Fingers! It’s a clip-like device that sits on your finger and connects to an app, where sounds or loops can be assigned to the clip’s two buttons. Then just tap away to your heart’s content.

Physical, gesture-based gadgets for making music have proliferated in recent years, from bouncy balls to glove-like devices, although whether any of them actually stand the test of time remains to be seen. Still, if you’re an incorrigible tapper, you can bang the drum for Music Fingers on Kickstarter.

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