How Does Google Maps Know Where Traffic Is?

Google Maps
Google Maps

Before you leave the house in the morning, a quick glance at Google Maps can tell you which routes should be avoided at all costs and which ones might get you to work a few minutes early. Google Maps can even tell you how long you can expect to be delayed should you take a route that’s more congested than usual. How can it possibly know up-to-the-minute information about your day-to-day travel plans?

The answer is one part creepy, one part cool: Google gets its information from you, according to Business Insider. The company uses the Location Services function on Apple and Android phones to track your coordinates. If you have the Location Services capability enabled for Google Maps, you're constantly sending real-time data about your whereabouts and the time it takes you to get from place to place. Google combines everyone’s data to determine the concentration of cars on the roads and how fast they are moving. (Or aren’t moving, depending on your situation.)

Over time, Google has compiled all of this traffic information to create traffic histories, which is how it can tell you if traffic is running slower or faster than “normal.” It also uses information gleaned from the Waze app, which includes updates from Departments of Transportation from across the country—that’s why Google Maps can pinpoint specific accidents.

If this is all a bit too Big Brother for your liking, you can simply disable Location Services on your phone—but you'd better hope that everyone else doesn't follow suit, or else Google's impressive calculations would be rendered completely useless.

Google Now Lets Parents Manage Their Kids' Phone Time Remotely

iStock
iStock

Setting screen time limits on teenagers was much easier in the pre-smartphone era. Modern parents often have to choose between taking their kids' phones away or letting them text through family game night—but now Google is offering a different option. Beginning today, September 18, Android phone owners are able to set restrictions on their teens' devices, either by setting time limits, locking their phones remotely, or subjecting app downloads to parental approval, The Verge reports.

These features are rolling out through Family Link, an app Google released in 2017 that lets kids create Google accounts that their parents can access. With the new changes, minors over age 13 can create similar Google accounts, or update their old ones to enable parental controls.

As is the case with Family Link for kids, parents can use Google's software to manage how—and how much—their kids use their phones as well as track their location. The biggest difference with the Family Link apps for teens is that both account holders must consent before parents can start monitoring their kids' phones. And if teens ever decide they want to make their phone activity private, they can choose to turn off the supervision mode. The catch is that doing this will lock them out of their phones for 24 hours and send a notification to their parents.

The new features are now available on all Android phones, and will be coming to Chromebooks soon. Users in the U.S. will also be able to use their Google Assistants to manage their Family Link accounts starting next week.

[h/t The Verge]

AI Is Tackling Yet Another Creative Medium: Improv Comedy

iStock
iStock

AI-generated fan fiction, music videos, and film scripts are often so bad that they’re hilarious. Could an AI program get the same number of laughs if it attempted improv comedy in front of a live audience? As Inverse reports, artificial intelligence researcher Kory Mathewson created an algorithm to find out.

Mathewson, from Canada’s University of Alberta, teamed up with London-based researcher Piotr Mirowski to create a chatbot, A.L.Ex, which stands for Artificial Language Experiment. They fed subtitles from 100,000 films into a neural network in the hope that A.L.Ex would be able to come up with jokes and carry on a conversation with a live human performer. (They also applied a filter to the robot to stop it from saying “politically incorrect” things, and presumably to prevent a disaster akin to Tay, Microsoft’s Twitter bot.)

Once A.L.Ex was sufficiently prepared for the spotlight, a performer interacted with the chatbot (who was given a robot body) on stage in an improv scenario. Audiences were asked to participate in a Turing test: During some scenes, a human backstage was controlling the robot's responses, while in others, A.L.Ex was doing all the work. Audience members were later asked to guess whether the dialogue was coming from the bot or an actual human. The experiment was repeated in three locations: Stockholm, Sweden; London, England; and Edmonton, Canada.

The result? The bot failed to fool humans and pass the Turing test, but it still garnered a few laughs. For one thing, the system was unable to tell complete stories. “If you want to tell a story, humans tend to have to pick up the arc and carry it through, since the Cyborg rarely brings arguably important characters or plot items back,” one of the improv performers wrote, according to a paper that Mathewson and Mirowski uploaded to the preprint platform arXiv [PDF].

Mirowski told The New York Times that the bot is like a “completely drunk comedian” who is only “accidentally funny” on occasion. Fortunately for comedy lovers, machines probably won’t be taking over the stage anytime soon. “We do not think that machines will replace human actors or comedians,” Mathewson told Inverse. “We aim to build new tools and techniques for human storytellers to share their human experience. This work aims to test the development of a new form of medium.”

[h/t Inverse]

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