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Google Assistant gets a host of upgrades on the Pixel 8 and Pixel 8 Pro

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At a hardware event this morning, Google announced the Pixel 8 and Pixel 8 Pro, its latest flagship smartphones. Among the highlights are a temperature sensor, off-device video processing and enhanced photo editing tools. But both also pack a significantly upgraded set of AI features courtesy Google Assistant, Google’s AI-powered assistant tech.

On the Pixel 8 and Pixel 8 Pro, Google Assistant can summarize, read aloud and translate web pages — an improved version of the “read aloud” feature that Google introduced on Android several years ago. Whereas Assistant previously read aloud every word on a webpage, including unrelated content above and below articles, Google’s AI can now paraphrase what’s on screen into key points leveraging generative models (albeit not in every language or country just yet).

We’ll have to see just how accurate those summaries are — this reporter is a tad skeptical of AI’s summarization skills. But if it works as advertised, Assistant-driven summarization could be a useful, time-saving feature indeed.

Meanwhile, Assistant voice typing on the Pixel 8 and Pixel 8 Pro is twice as fast in English (Google claims) and allows you to type, edit and send messages across multiple languages. Assistant automatically detects — and switches to — language you’re speaking when transcribing voices. And Assistant now understands more natural conversations, picking up on pauses and disfluencies (e.g., “ahs” and “ums”) for English users in the U.S. to start.

Speaking of more natural conversations, the Pixel 8 and Pixel 8 Pro are among the first to benefit from Assistant’s more “realistic-sounding” voice, which will engage with callers that users screen via Google’s Call Screen feature. (Call Screen, launched several years ago on the Pixel 6, can answer phone calls on a user’s behalf and provides features and options to deal with those calls.) The upgraded Call Screen, underpinned by “multi-step, multi-turn conversational AI,” employs a “more natural-sounding series of voice prompts” to determine who’s calling and why — initially available for English-language callers.

Call Screen is also now better at detecting and filtering out spam calls, Google says. And Clear Calling, the background-noise-reduction feature that debuted on the Pixel 7, has been improved for clearer-sounding calls.

Elsewhere on the Pixel 8 and Pixel 8 Pro, the Assistant-powered At a Glance widget on the home screen has been updated with a new design. It also shows more “useful info,” Google says, including updates on travel, event tickets and more.

The enhancements, taken together, are the first visible sign of Google’s new generative-AI-first strategy with Google Assistant. Axios reported earlier this year that Google intended to “reboot” Assistant, focusing on developing new capabilities for Assistant that use generative AI — including capabilities that integrate with Bard, Google’s answer to OpenAI’s viral ChatGPT chatbot. (To that end, Google unveiled a range of new Assistant tie-ins with Bard during today’s event.)

As with other Assistant features that’ve launched on new Pixel devices first, we’d expect more than a few to come to previous-gen Pixel smartphones in the coming months.

Read more about Google's 2023 Pixel Event on TechCrunch



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Grifin’s new model can automatically invest your money as you shop

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Investing app Grifin today officially launched its anticipated investing model called “Adaptive Investing,” which enables you to automatically invest in your favorite brands that you frequently shop from.

Grifin was founded in 2017 with the hope of making investing less intimidating and normalizing it for people who aren’t that financially savvy. To date, Grifin has raised more than $11 million from a notable list of investors, including TTV Capital, Rise of the Rest, Gaingels, NevCaut Ventures, Mana Ventures, Sidecut Ventures, Miami Angels and Playtap Media Ventures, along with Witz Ventures co-founder Austin Hankwitz and GGV Capital managing partner Hans Tung. The company says it sees about 20,000 unique new app installs per month.

Grifin’s new patent-pending technology is an evolution of its original model, which follows the premise of “Stock Where You Shop,” giving you a chance to explore the intimidating world of investing by aligning your shopping habits with stock choices.

“Investing, and even having a healthy positive relationship with money, is an incredibly difficult thing to do and achieve,” co-founder Aaron Froug tells TechCrunch. “The current system simply isn’t geared towards the individual, even with mobile access and 0% commission apps claiming to ‘open up’ investing to all. It still requires a lot of emotional energy, confidence and an understanding of how investing works. Most people still don’t feel like they have enough money to get started and even the most financially adept people I know don’t know what is inside most ETFs [exchange traded funds]. All of it is cloudy and complicated. None of it is centered around the individual.”

Image Credits: Grifin

The Adaptive Investing model aims to give users more flexibility by integrating new functionality into the app, including the ability to pause automatic payments, increase/decrease how much you want to spend and manually invest more money in a company. It also introduces a “Secret Cash” function, allowing for non-public purchases and putting more money away as cash for their future.

“This patent-pending technology builds on the original premise by integrating new functionality to allow for a more intuitive and adaptive approach to investing, centered not just around people’s daily spending habits, but how much they want to invest,” Froug adds.

By default, Grifin automatically invests $1 per transaction. For instance, when you buy a cup of coffee at Starbucks, the app withdraws $1 from your bank account, and you get $1 of SBUX stock. You can also manually increase the investment amount to a maximum of $99.

Image Credits: Grifin

However, just because you enjoy a certain brand, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a smart investment. Grifin now added a new “Disable Company” feature, allowing you to stop or avoid investing in certain companies. There’s also an option to pause your investments for a week.

“We are also keenly aware that just because a person spends at a specific place, they might not want to invest there… By investing in small amounts, as low as $1 at a time, the aim is to help people to learn to navigate the world of investing without incurring too many negative consequences if they don’t get it right,” Froug says.

Plus, Froug argues that Adaptive Investing reduces the impact of single-stock exposure since it encourages a diverse profile as consumers usually spend money across a wide range of companies — phone/internet bills, gas, monthly subscription services and so forth.

“I’ve been personally using our app for a little over two years and I’ve invested in 115 unique companies,” he notes.

Additionally, Grifin is planning a redesign of its app, which will include a premium version as well as an AI chatbot to help people learn how to invest.



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Google Pay takes its QR soundbox to small merchants in India after trial run

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Google said Thursday it plans to roll out the SoundPod, its portable speaker designed to instantly validate and announce successful payments, to small merchants across India over the coming months. The Google Pay expansion in India, where the company is among the mobile payment market leaders, comes even as the firm winds down some of its payments apps in the U.S.

The company, which began a limited trial of SoundPod last year, received positive feedback during the testing and helped merchants reduce the checkout time, Ambarish Kenghe, VP of Products for Google Pay, wrote in a blog post.

The miniature jukeboxes, colloquially dubbed “soundboxes” domestically, have witnessed wide adoption in India, enabling merchants to find respite upon receipt of remuneration and contest any illegitimate claims.

Financial services firm Paytm currently leads the soundbox market and PhonePe is also increasingly expanding its device. More than 20 million merchants in the country already use one of these boxes, which industry insiders estimate costs about $18 to $20 to make. (Incidentally, Paytm is currently “fighting for its survival” as it navigates regulatory clampdown.)

The soundbox was invented to serve small Indian merchants unable to afford regular point-of-sale devices but accepting of UPI payments. (UPI, a payments network built by a coalition of retail banks in India, has become the most popular way for Indians to transact.) Now more popular than Visa, Mastercard and Amex combined, the devices last year prompted the payment giants to look at ways to take advantage of their reach.

It has also evolved into a lucrative subscription model over time as various players impose subscription charges on merchants. The real allure of the soundbox, according to one industry insider, extends beyond its auditory alerts — it provides invaluable insights into merchant behaviors, facilitating the offering of loans based on this data.

Google Pay is offering the SoundPod at a minimal cost — levying a one-time fee of $18 for one year, or a one-time fee of $6.06 per day for 25 days in a month. The company said merchants who use SoundPod to process 400 payments in a month will get $1.5 in cash back.

“To be able to play a role in India’s digital payments story is a matter of deep pride for us, providing invaluable lessons on how digital transformation happens in tech-forward societies, and we continue to stay deeply invested in this journey for the long term,” added Google’s Kenghe.

Reliance, India’s largest firm by market cap, also began testing a similar device at its campus last year, TechCrunch earlier reported. The company confirmed the device in a subsequent earnings call and said it plans to soon launch it to the market.



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NASA Opens Applications For Yearlong Simulated Mars Mission; Here’s How You Can Apply

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NASA has announced an extraordinary opportunity for those seeking extreme challenges: the chance to participate in its second yearlong simulated Mars mission, the Crew Health and Performance Exploration Analog (CHAPEA 2). Scheduled to commence in spring 2025, the mission will immerse four selected crew members in a 1,700-square-foot 3D-printed habitat located in Houston. Interested individuals can apply on the CHAPEA website until April 2.

Although it’s a paid position, NASA has not disclosed the compensation details.

The Mars Dune Alpha habitat at NASA’s Johnson Space Center mirrors the harsh conditions and limited resources future explorers may encounter on the red planet. Volunteers for CHAPEA 2 will engage in habitat maintenance, crop cultivation, and various other tasks during their tenure.

Additionally, the habitat includes a 1,200-square-foot sandbox for simulated spacewalks.

Applicants must meet specific criteria, including being US citizens aged 30-55, proficient in English, holding a master’s degree in a STEM field, possessing at least two years of professional experience, and having either a thousand hours of piloting an aircraft or two years of work toward a STEM doctoral program.

Certain types of professional experience may also qualify applicants without a master’s degree. CHAPEA 2 marks the second of three planned missions in the program, with the first launched on June 25, 2023.

SEE ALSO: Early Look At iOS 17.4: Easier Battery Monitoring, CarPlay Gets An Upgrade And More



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