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What will the year hold for Alexa, Google, Siri and the smart speaker vying for space in your home?

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Did you get a smart speaker over the holiday season? If so, you’re certainly not alone. Consumer surveys published in the waning months of 2018 suggest the tiny, internet-connected, table-top speakers have finally gone mainstream.

Google Home and Amazon Echo are the two most popular brands of small, table-top speakers. What makes them smart is the included voice assistants — Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa — which you can ask questions or give commands. Want to know the weather? Listen to the news? Set a timer? Buy a book? Just ask.

Other companies, like Sonos and JBL, make smart speakers that now come with at least one of these voice assistants baked in. A few even come with Microsoft’s own virtual assistant Cortana. Apple also makes a speaker primarily aimed at music lovers called Home Pod, which features Siri.

If you thought smart speakers were just another fad, think again. In August, an Adobe Analytics survey found 32 per cent of U.S. adults owned at least one smart speaker. RBC Capital Markets estimated ownership of smart speakers has nearly doubled in the past year. 

And in Canada, eMarketer predicts there will be 5.8 million smart speakers in use in 2019.

No doubt those numbers have been boosted by the holiday season. Adobe’s research says that 79 per cent of smart speaker purchases are made in the fourth quarter of the year, which encompasses both Black Friday and Christmas holiday spending — unsurprising, perhaps, given the deep discounts Google and Amazon give their devices around that time of year.

Amazon, in fact, just told the Verge that more than 100 million Alexa-capable devices have been sold to date.

How are people using their speakers?

Last fall, Adobe Analytics surveyed more than 1,000 U.S. consumers to better understand how people are using their smart speakers. The company found that the most common uses, by far, were playing music (70 per cent of smart speaker owners surveyed) and checking the weather (64 per cent).

Just under half of respondents used their speakers to set alarms and reminders, check the news, and perform online searches, while about a third used their speaker to control their smart devices and order things online.

In short, the ways that people are using the assistants that come with their speakers is still pretty basic. More complex actions like shopping and food delivery, communicating with friends and family, and research are among the still-emerging trends.

Amazon sells one of the most popular smart speakers on the market today, but Google and Apple also include their voice assistants on the millions of smartphones they sell each month, giving them larger reach overall when it comes to voice interaction. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

What can we expect in 2019?

Although smart speakers get their smarts from their built-in voice assistant, you don’t necessarily need a smart speaker to talk with a voice assistant. Most recent smartphones, televisions, and even cars have some sort of voice assistant capability — and this year you can expect to find them in even more corners of your home, a continuation of a trend that truly took off last year.

In the fall, Amazon announced a range of Alexa-enabled products — otherwise utilitarian objects like wall clocks and microwaves that included microphones and voice assistant capabilities. These join a slew of products from third-party manufacturers — such as doorbells, security cameras, washing machines, fridges, appliances, robot vacuums, mirrors, shower heads, the list goes on — that have been imbued with Alexa, Google Assistant, and other niche voice assistants in recent months.

Expect this spread of voice assistants into household products and appliances to accelerate this year, starting with the annual consumer products tradeshow CES, which is set to kick off in Las Vegas this week.

What about the privacy concerns?

Privacy is a perennial concern, and it certainly doesn’t help when technical glitches, infrequent as they may be, can give a total stranger access to your voice assistant’s recordings.

There are privacy tradeoffs that come with any smart speaker or voice-assisted device, and it’s ultimately up to you to decide if the added convenience of playing music or turning off the lights with your voice is worth it.

By design, these devices are always listening — but only leap into action in response to specific wake words such as “OK Google” or “Hey Siri.” No recordings are sent to Apple, Google, or Amazon’s servers until then, and that initial recognition process happens locally on the device. But there have been cases where voice assistants think they hear their wake word, resulting in unintended recordings, which is a possibility to consider if you put one in your home.

Speakers and other devices that use Amazon and Google’s voice assistants keep a record of all the things you say. The companies say this is to help them improve their products and make the speech recognition more accurate.  You can view (and delete) this history from your account on their respective websites.

Yet there’s lots we don’t know about how this information is actually used in practice, or how it may be monetized in the future

Apple has taken a bit of a different approach. Though it also stores user conversations with Siri, Apple says those conversations are anonymized and that your recording history isn’t tied to your account.

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The ‘Maple Majestic’ wants to be Canada’s homegrown Tesla

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Look out Tesla, Canada has a homegrown electric sedan on the way. Well, that’s if AK International Motor Corporation can drum up enough investment to make its EV a reality. Dubbed the “Maple Majestic,” the vehicle is a battery-electric designed to “excel in extreme climate performance without adversely affecting the climate, as befits a vehicle from Canada,” according to its website.

What’s in a name? — The company says the maple leaf is a “symbol of Canada’s warmth and friendliness towards all cultures,” while “majestic” refers to the country’s “status as a Constitutional Monarchy.”

That patriotism carries over into Maple Majestic’s parent company’s lofty goals. AK Motor founder Arkadiusz Kaminski says he wants the company, which he founded in 2012, to become “Canada’s first multi-brand automotive OEM,” and that the “Maple Majestic is intended to be Canada’s flagship brand of automobiles on the world stage.”

Partnerships are key — “We acknowledge that the best chance for the Maple Majestic brand to succeed, lies in continuing to build the relationship with Canada’s parts suppliers and technological innovators, whether they be academic institutions, corporations, or individual inventors,” the company explains. “We are currently seeking partners in automotive engineering, parts manufacturing, automotive assembly, electric propulsion technology, battery technology, autonomous technology, and hybrid power generation technology.”

In other words, don’t expect to be able to buy a Maple Majestic any time soon… and don’t expect to pour over 0-60 mph times, power output, range, or other key stats, because those don’t currently exist. For now, all we have are pictures and a short video clip. But at least those are arresting.

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PE-backed Quorum Software to merge with Canadian energy tech firm

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Houston-based energy technology company Quorum Software will merge with a Canadian tech firm to bolster its presence in oil and gas services.

Quorum announced Feb. 15 it plans to merge with Calgary, Alberta-based Aucerna, a global provider of planning, execution and reserves software for the energy sector. The combined firm will operate under the Quorum Software brand.

Gene Austin, CEO of Quorum Software, will continue in his capacity as chief executive of the combined firm. Austin, former CEO of Austin-based marketing tech firm Bazaarvoice Inc., became CEO of Quorum in December 2018.

Aucerna co-founder and CEO Wayne Sim will be appointed to the Quorum Software board of directors. Both companies are backed by San Francisco- and Chicago-based private equity firm Thoma Bravo.

“Over the last 20 years, Quorum has become the leading innovator of software deployed by North American energy companies,” said Austin. “Today, Quorum is expanding the scope of our technology and expertise to all energy-producing regions of the globe. Customers everywhere will have access to a cloud technology ecosystem that connects decision-ready data from operations to the boardroom.”

In addition to the merger announcement, Quorum Software announced it had entered into an agreement with Finnish IT firm TietoEvry to purchase TietoEvry’s entire oil and gas business. The agreement, which includes hydrocarbon management, personnel and material logistics software and related services, is valued at 155 million euros, or $188 million, according to a statement from TietoEvry.

“Our three organizations complement each other — from the software that our great people design to the energy markets where we operate,” said Sim. “Our new company will be able to deliver value to our stakeholders, while accelerating the growth of our combined business and the energy industry’s software transformation.”

The combined company will serve over 1,800 energy companies in 55 countries, according to the announcement. With its headquarters in Houston, Quorum will continue to have a significant presence in Calgary and in Norway, the headquarters for TietoEvry’s oil and gas software business. Quorum will have other offices throughout North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

As of Sept. 30, 2020, private equity firm Thoma Bravo had more than $73 billion in assets under management. In late December 2020, Thoma Bravo agreed to acquire Richardson, Texas-based tech firm RealPage in a roughly $10 billion acquisition.

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Piece of Kitchener technology lands on Mars on Perseverance rover

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KITCHENER — A piece of Kitchener technology has landed on Mars, thanks to NASA’s Perseverance rover.

The rover settled on the planet’s surface on Thursday afternoon. It’s been travelling through space since it was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. in July.

“The whole idea of being on a device that we’re sending to another plant with the express mission of looking for traces of past life, it’s pretty mind boggling actually,” said Rafal Pawluczyk, chief technical officer for FiberTech Optica.

The Kitchener-based company made fibre optic cables for the rover’s SuperCam that will examine samples with a camera, laser and spectrometers.

“The cables that we built take the light from that multiplexer and deliver it to each spectrograph,” Pawluczyk said.

The cables connect a device on the rover to the SuperCam, which will be used to examine rock and soil samples, to spectrometers. They’ll relay information from one device to another.

The project started four years ago with a connection to Los Alamos National Lab, where the instruments connected to the cables were developed.

“We could actually demonstrate we can design something that will meet their really hard engineering requirements,” Pawluczyk said.

The Jezero Crater is where the Perseverance rover, with FiberTech Optica’s technology onboard, landed Thursday. Scientists believe it was once flooded with water and is the best bet for finding any evidence of life. FiberTech’s cables will help that in that search.

Ioannis Haranas, an astrophysicist and professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said the rover isn’t looking for “green men.”

“They’re looking for microbial, single-cell life, any type of fossils and stuff like that,” Haranas said. “That’s why they chose a special landing site. This could be very fertile land for that.”

“It’s very ambitious,” said Ralf Gellert, a physics professor at the University of Guelph.

Gellert helped with previous rover missions and said it’s the first time a Mars rover has landed without a piece of Guelph technology on it. While he’s not part of Perseverance’s mission, he said the possibilities are exciting.

“Every new landing site is a new piece of the puzzle that you can put together with the new results that we have from the other landing sites,” he said.

“It’s scientifically very interesting because, even though we don’t have an instrument on that rover, we can compare what the new rover Perseverance finds at this new landing site,” he said.

Now that Perseverance has landed on Mars, FiberTech is looking ahead to its next possible mission into space.

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