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Android’s winter update adds new features to Gboard, Maps, Books, Nearby Share and more

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Google announced this morning Android phones will receive an update this winter that will bring some half-dozen new features to devices, including improvements to apps like Gboard, Google Play Books, Voice Access, Google Maps, Android Auto, and Nearby Share. The release is the latest in a series of update bundles that now allow Android devices to receive new features outside of the usual annual update cycle.

The bundles may not deliver Android’s latest flagship features, but they offer steady improvements on a more frequent basis.

One of the more fun bits in the winter update will include a change to “Emoji Kitchen,” the feature in the Gboard keyboard app that lets users combine their favorite emoji to create new ones that can be shared as customized stickers. To date, users have remixed emoji over 3 billion times since the feature launched earlier this year, Google says. Now, the option is being expanded. Instead of offering hundreds of design combinations, it will offer over 14,000. You’ll also be able to tap two emoji to see suggested combinations or double tap on one emoji to see other suggestions.

Image Credits: Google

This updated feature had been live in the Gboard beta app, but will now roll out to Android 6.0 and above devices in the weeks ahead.

Another update will expand audiobook availability on Google Play Books. Now, Google will auto-generate narrations for books that don’t offer an audio version. The company says it worked with publishers in the U.S. and U.K. to add these auto-narrated books to Google Play Books. The feature is in beta but will roll out to all publishers in early 2021.

An accessibility feature that lets people use and navigate their phone with voice commands, Voice Access, will also be improved. The feature will soon leverage machine learning to understand interface labels on devices. This will allow users to refer to things like the “back” and “more” buttons, and many others by name when they are speaking.

The new version of Voice Access, now in beta, will be available to all devices worldwide running Android 6.0 or higher.

An update for Google Maps will add a new feature to one of people’s most-used apps.

In a new (perhaps Waze-inspired) “Go Tab,” users will be able to more quickly navigate to frequently visited places — like a school or grocery store, for example — with a tap. The app will allow users to see directions, live traffic trends, disruptions on the route, and gives an accurate ETA, without having to type in the actual address. Favorite places — or in the case of public transit users, specific routes — can be pinned in the Go Tab for easy access. Transit users will be able to see things like accurate departure and arrival times, alerts from the local transit agency, and an up-to-date ETA.

Image Credits: Google

One potentially helpful use case for this new feature would be to pin both a transit route and driving route to the same destination, then compare their respective ETAs to pick the faster option.

This feature is coming to both Google Maps on Android as well as iOS in the weeks ahead.

Android Auto will expand to more countries over the next few months. Google initially said it would reach 36 countries, but then updated the announcement language as the timing of the rollout was pushed back. The company now isn’t saying how many countries will gain access in the months to follow or which ones, so you’ll need stay tuned for news on that front.

Image Credits: Google

The final change is to Nearby Share, the proximity-based sharing feature that lets users share things like links, files, photos and and more even when they don’t have a cellular or Wi-Fi connection available. The feature, which is largely designed with emerging markets in mind, will now allow users to share apps from Google Play with people around them, too.

To do so, you’ll access a new “Share Apps” menu in “Manage Apps & Games” in the Google Play app. This feature will roll out in the weeks ahead.

Some of these features will begin rolling out today, so you may receive them earlier than a timeframe of several “weeks,” but the progress of each update will vary.

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Israel’s “green pass” is an early vision of how we leave lockdown

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The commercial opens with a tempting vision and soaring instrumentals. A door swings wide to reveal a sunlit patio and a relaxed, smiling couple awaiting a meal. “How much have we missed going out with friends?” a voiceover asks. “With the green pass, doors simply open in front of you … We’re returning to life.” It’s an ad to promote Israel’s version of a vaccine passport, but it’s also catnip for anyone who’s been through a year in varying degrees of lockdown. Can we go back to normal life once we’ve been vaccinated? And if we can, what kind of proof should we need?

Although there are still many unknowns about vaccines, and many practical issues surrounding implementation, those considering vaccine passport programs include airlines, music venues, Japan, the UK, and the European Union

Some proponents, including those on one side of a fierce debate in Thailand, have focused on ending quarantines for international travelers to stimulate the hard-hit tourism industry. Others imagine following Israel’s lead, creating a two-tiered system that allows vaccinated people to enjoy the benefits of a post-pandemic life while others wait for their shots. What is happening there gives us a glimpse of the promise—and of the difficulties such schemes face.

How it works

Israel’s vaccine passport was released on February 21, to help the country emerge from a month-long lockdown. Vaccinated people can download an app that displays their “green pass” when they are asked to show it. The app can also display proof that someone has recovered from covid-19. (Many proposed passport systems offer multiple ways to show you are not a danger, such as proof of a recent negative test. The Israeli government says that option will come to the app soon, which will be especially useful for children too young to receive an approved vaccine.) Officials hope the benefits of the green pass will encourage vaccination among Israelis who have been hesitant, many of whom are young. 

“People who get vaccinated need to know that something has changed for them, that they can ease up,” says Nadav Eyal, a prominent television journalist. “People want to know that they can have some normalcy back.”

Despite the flashy ads, however, it’s still too early to tell how well Israel’s program will work in practice—or what that will mean for vaccine passports in general. Some ethicists argue that such programs may further entrench existing inequalities, and this is already happening with Israel’s pass, since few Palestinians in the occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank have access to vaccines

The green pass is also a potential privacy nightmare, says Orr Dunkelman, a computer science professor at Haifa University and a board member of Privacy Israel. He says the pass reveals information that those checking credentials don’t need to know, such as the date a user recovered from covid or got a vaccine. The app also uses an outdated encryption library that is more vulnerable to security breaches, Orr says. Crucially, because the app is not open source, no third-party experts can vet whether these concerns are founded.

“This is a catastrophe in the making,” says Ran Bar Zik, a software columnist for the newspaper Haaretz. 

Zik recommends another option currently available under the green pass program: downloading a paper vaccination certificate instead of using the app. Although that’s possible, the app is expected to become the most widespread verification method.

Unnecessarily complicated

In the US, developers are trying to address such privacy concerns ahead of any major rollout. Ramesh Raskar runs the PathCheck Foundation at MIT, which has partnered with the design consultancy Ideo on a low-tech solution. Their prototype uses a paper card, similar to the one people currently receive when they’re vaccinated. 

The paper card could offer multiple forms of verification, scannable in the form of QR codes, allowing you to show a concert gatekeeper only your vaccination status while displaying another, more information-heavy option to health-care providers. 

“Getting on a bus, or getting into a concert, you need to have a solution that is very easy to use and that provides a level of privacy protection,” he says. But other situations may require more information: an airline wants to know that you are who you say you are, for example, and hospitals need accurate medical records. 

It’s not just about making sure you don’t have to hand over personal information to get into a bar, though: privacy is also important for those who are undocumented or who mistrust the government, Raskar says. It’s important for companies not to create another “hackable repository” when they view your information, he adds. 

He suggests that right now commercial interests are getting in the way of creating something so simple—it wouldn’t make much money for software companies, which at least want to show off something that could be repurposed later in a more profitable form. Compared with Israel, he says, “we’re making things unnecessarily complicated in the US.” 

The way forward

It’s unclear what the US—which, unlike Israel, doesn’t have a universal identity record or a cohesive medical records system—would need to do to implement a vaccine passport quickly. 

But whichever options eventually do make it into widespread use, there are also aspects of this idea that don’t get laid out in the ads. For example, proposals have been floated that would require teachers and medical staff to provide proof of vaccination or a negative test to gain admittance to their workplaces. 

That could be overly intrusive on individual privacy rights, says Amir Fuchs, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute. Still, he says, “most people understand that there is a logic in that people who are vaccinated will have less limitations.”

Despite the progress in delivering vaccines, all these passport efforts are all still in the early stages. PathCheck’s idea hasn’t rolled out yet, although pilots are under discussion. In Denmark, vaccine passports are still more a promise than a plan. And even in Israel, the vision put forward by government advertising is still just an ambition: while pools and concert venues may be open to green pass holders, dining rooms and restaurants aren’t open yet—for anybody.

This story is part of the Pandemic Technology Project, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation.

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Hyzon Motors’ hydrogen fuel ambitions include two US factories

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Hyzon Motors plans to produce fuel cells, including a critical component required to power hydrogen vehicles, at two U.S. factories in a move aimed at kickstarting domestic production at a commercial scale.

The hydrogen-powered truck and bus manufacturer has already leased a 28,000-square-foot facility in the Chicago suburb of Bolingbrook and plans to expand it by an additional 80,000 square feet. Production at the Chicago facility is expected to begin in the fourth quarter of 2021. The announcement comes just three weeks after Hyzon announced it would become a publicly traded company through a merger with Decarbonization Plus Acquisition Corporation in a deal valued at $2.1 billion, and a little over one week after revealing plans to renovate a 78,000-square-foot factory in Monroe County, New York.

Hyzon is a new name with a nearly two decades of experience. The company was established in March of last year after spinning off from Singapore’s Horizon Fuel Cell Technologies, which has been developing commercial applications for fuel cells since 2003. Hyzon inked a deal in February with the New Zealand company Hiringa Energy for up to 1,500 fuel cell trucks on New Zealand’s roads by 2026. Now it is setting its sights on the North American hydrogen fuel cell vehicle market. Due to the lack of an established domestic hydrogen fueling network, the company is targeting heavy-duty vehicle customers that have a “back-to-base” business model.

Hyzon’s decision to build factories in the United States is noteworthy because production of fuel cell materials in the country lags far behind Europe and Asia. The U.S. also lacks the kind of national hydrogen refueling and infrastructure network found abroad.

“Hydrogen is much more available in places like Germany or The Netherlands,” Hyzon CEO Craig Knight said in an interview with TechCrunch. “There’s already a number of commercial vehicle stations where you can just pull up and pay to fill up like you do with gasoline today in the U.S. It won’t be long before that is a reality, but for the moment we limit the dependence on networks of hydrogen stations by focusing on the customers that use back-to-base operating models, where you only need one piece of hydrogen infrastructure to fuel dozens or even sometimes hundreds of vehicles in a given area.”

Much of the hydrogen that’s produced in the U.S. is so-called “grey hydrogen,” or hydrogen that’s produced from natural gas. An increasing number of companies are pursuing “green hydrogen,” or hydrogen produced via electrolysis powered by renewable energy. Hyzon sources both types for its operations. Hydrogen production remains one of the main factors determining the rate of scale for fuel cell producers.

The Chicago facility will design, develop and produce the membrane electrode assembly, the fuel cell component that helps trigger the electrochemical reaction required to produce power. The company anticipates the new facility will be able to produce enough MEAs for up to 12,000 fuel cell-powered trucks annually.

Finished MEAs will be sent to the company’s recently announced fuel cell stack and system assembly plant in Monroe County, where the components will be assembled into complete fuel cells. From there, the fuel cells will be delivered to a partner truck manufacturer to be assembled into commercial heavy-duty vehicles. The company’s main assembly partner in the United States is Berkshire Hathaway subsidiary Fontaine Modification.

Hydrogen fuel cell technology is finding use cases in heavy-duty vehicles because trucking companies are frequently paid by how much weight they can transport, and how quickly they can do it. The time investment of battery charging and the loss of carrying capacity makes fuel cells an attractive alternative for companies looking to decarbonize their vehicle fleets.

Hyzon sees positive network effects and economies of scale associated with hydrogen fuel cell adoption — and increasing marginal costs of electric battery adoption. Although the company has not announced plans to dive into the light-duty vehicle market, it remains bullish on the value proposition of hydrogen fuel cells.

“We think at some point it becomes an increasing marginal cost of adoption for battery electric, because you run into infrastructure limitations around the electricity grid, around the size of depots and the capacity to build the charging infrastructure,” Knight said. “We believe there’s a dis-economy of scale attached to going battery electric when you’ve got really high utilization. We believe that some of the lighter vehicles will also start to move onto hydrogen. We’re not totally dependent on that for our model, but that’s our belief.”

Hyzon, which expects to be listed on the Nasdaq in late May or early June, will be listed under the ticker HYZN.

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Donald Trump is one of 15,000 Gab users whose account just got hacked

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Promotional image for social media site Gab says

Enlarge (credit: Gab.com)

The founder of the far-right social media platform Gab said that the private account of former President Donald Trump was among the data stolen and publicly released by hackers who recently breached the site.

In a statement on Sunday, founder Andrew Torba used a transphobic slur to refer to Emma Best, the co-founder of Distributed Denial of Secrets. The statement confirmed claims the WikiLeaks-style group made on Monday that it obtained 70GB of passwords, private posts, and more from Gab and was making them available to select researchers and journalists. The data, Best said, was provided by an unidentified hacker who breached Gab by exploiting a SQL-injection vulnerability in its code.

“My account and Trump’s account were compromised, of course as Trump is about to go on stage and speak,” Torba wrote on Sunday as Trump was about to speak at the CPAC conference in Florida. “The entire company is all hands investigating what happened and working to trace and patch the problem.”

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