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Cortana now allows you to schedule voice meetings within Outlook

Izunna Okpala

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Microsoft is adding new capabilities to the “Play My Emails” feature of Outlook which allows you to use voice control to organize your emails and daily schedule. Last November, the company originally launched Play My Emails for Outlook, letting Microsoft’s AI assistant Cortana read emails out loud to users.

Cortana will allow you to accept or decline meetings with the new features, and set up a meeting with someone. If someone sends you emails regarding important or time-sensitive information, it suggests setting up a meeting on your calendar during the next available 30-minute time slot. Cortana will also provide you with the option of displaying your schedule and choosing a time to set up a meeting, enabling you to add emails to your task list.

The latest update will also provide support for the newly released Microsoft Surface Earbuds, allowing owners to use Outlook voice commands and access their emails by swiping back and forth over the earbuds surface. Additionally, if you’re behind on your schedule, Cortana will soon allow you to join a Microsoft Team meeting quickly, so you can join the meeting within a minute before it’s scheduled to start or join once it’s up.

Microsoft launches this feature first on iOS devices, although the company expects that Android support will roll out “in the coming weeks.”

Apps & Services

Coronavirus: The Covid Tracker software from Ireland is out

Izunna Okpala

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Ireland’s just-released contact-tracing app this morning, where it joined Germany’s Corona Warn-App, which was released three weeks ago.

Gibraltar recently released its Beat Covid Gibraltar app, based on the Irish code.

The Republic’s Covid Tracker software is also the foundation of an app. Northern Ireland is promising to release within weeks. And now there’s a hint Wales could go the same way.

The focus henceforth would be on building a “decentralised” app with the toolkit offered by Apple and Google, which is also being used by Germany and Ireland among a growing list of others.

On Monday, Baroness Harding gave evidence to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee alongside Simon Thompson, the Ocado executive she drafted in to take responsibility for the app.

Mr Thompson started by saying how urgent it was to get the job done. He went on to stress that collaboration with other countries and with Google and Apple meant that “we have growing confidence that we will have a product that will be good, so that the citizens can trust it in terms of its basic functionality”.

Bluetooth doubts

Now it is true that there is very little evidence that Bluetooth-based apps have so far been successful in tracking down people who came close to someone diagnosed with the virus.

People who point to the success of countries like South Korea ignore the fact that its efforts have been based not on Bluetooth but on the use of mass surveillance data, which would almost certainly prove unacceptable here.

Scientists at Trinity College in Dublin who advised the Irish app development team have produced a number of studies showing Bluetooth can be a very unreliable way to log contacts.

After tests on a bus they warned “the signal strength can be higher between phones that are far apart than phones close together, making reliable proximity detection based on signal strength hard or perhaps even impossible”.

‘Good enough’

Germany has celebrated the fact that in three weeks its app has been downloaded by 15 million people out of a population of 83 million. But there is little or no information about whether it is performing well in its core mission of contact tracing.

Then again, countries like Germany, Ireland and Switzerland have taken the view that an app does not have to be technically perfect, and that if there is any chance of it making even a small contribution to the battle against the virus, it’s worth a go.

Countries like Germany might be tempted to point out that they have had that “cake” in the form of an effective manual tracing programme all along. Incidentally, if public trust is vital to the app’s rollout, the people of the Isle of Wight may have something to say about that.

Following the trial of the original, scrapped NHSX app on the island, some residents have been asking what will happen to their data. We’ve asked too – and have yet to receive an answer.

While the Covid Tracker app has been launched by the Health Service Executive (HSE) in the Republic of Ireland, people living across the border in Northern Ireland are able to download it and use it.

Its terms and conditions state that it is intended to be used by anyone living in or visiting the island of Ireland.

They also state that its availability for people living or visiting in Northern Ireland “is intended to help us to inform people living in border areas and to trace cases in those areas”.

Anyone using the app in NI is able to activate the contact tracing facility and can also self-report symptoms using the “Covid Check-In section”.

However, in the section which asks users to enter personal details, including gender and age-range, those living in Northern Ireland can’t add their county of residence. Only counties in the Republic of Ireland are listed – not the six in NI.

It isn’t yet clear what impact this has on the functionality of the app for NI users.

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Google

How to enable and use AI-powered Smart Reply and Smart Compose tools from Gmail

Izunna Okpala

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Google has been adding a lot of performance and machine learning capabilities to its email service, leading up to Gmail ‘s 15th birthday last year. (It may have also sought to compensate for the loss of its Inbox email feature, but this is an case for another day.) Additions included a way for Gmail to write subject lines for you and schedule an email to be sent later.

Navigating some of Gmail ‘s functionality can be a little frustrating. In this tutorial we will concentrate on Gmail ‘s Smart Reply and Smart Compose auto-completion tools, which are designed to save time.

Allowing a machine help you write emails and subject lines may make you feel a little weird, but if you’re willing to at least try it out for yourself, here are the ways to automate your Gmail responses.

Enabling Smart Reply and Smart Compose

To allow Gmail to generate responses and email text, you first have to opt in from your Settings menu. If you are a regular Gmail user (instead of G Suite enterprise edition), here’s what to do:

On desktop

  • Click on the gear icon on the upper right side and find the Settings page.
  • Scroll down to the separate Smart Reply and Smart Compose options and choose “On” for either or both to enable the automated suggestions.
  • You can also choose to allow Gmail’s machine learning to personalize the suggestions based on the way you write your emails by choosing “Smart Compose personalization.” For example, if you greet your colleagues with “Hi, team” versus “Hello, everyone,” it will automatically drop in whatever you use most often.
You can let the AI engine personalize your Smart Compose suggestions.
You can let the AI engine personalize your Smart Compose suggestions.

If you use G Suite, you may notice that the option to toggle on Smart Compose is not available. Your G Suite admin must enable this for the organization, so contact the person in charge if you’d like to test this out at work.

On the Android or iOS app

  • Tap the hamburger icon on the upper-left side to open the side drawer. Scroll down to Settings.
  • Select the Gmail account you want to address
  • Tap the checkbox on Smart Reply and / or Smart Compose to toggle the mode on

Once the settings are turned on, your Gmail is set up to suggest replies and help auto-finish sentences based on your writing style.

What it looks like

Basically, you just start typing, and Gmail will begin suggesting words that might fit the sentence you’re writing.

Be aware that it won’t always come on for every email you write. Because Gmail needs context, you’ll likely find Smart Compose chiming in when you’re responding to an email or if you’re starting emails with some generic statements like “Nice to meet you” or “Hope you’re well.” If Gmail has a suggestion, an opaque set of text will appear next to what you’re typing.

On the desktop version of Gmail, you can press Tab to accept the suggestion. On the mobile app, if a suggested word or phrase appears, swipe right to add it to the email.

Smart Compose can also automatically fill in the Subject field.
Smart Compose can also automatically fill in the Subject field.

Smart Compose can also suggest email subjects. Leave the subject line blank, and start writing your email. Once you go back to fill out the subject line, Gmail will offer a suggestion that you can accept by pressing Tab on the desktop app or swipe right on mobile.

Smart Reply for canned responses

Smart Reply works a little faster than Smart Compose. Instead of suggesting words or short phrases for you, Gmail will offer three responses that might suit the email you’ve received. For example, if you’ve gotten an email reminding you of an appointment, Smart Reply may suggest responses like “Confirmed,” “Thanks,” or “I can’t make it.”

If you are in an email conversation with several people, be aware that responding with a Smart Reply will CC everyone on that email. You’ll have to manually remove the people you don’t want in that response, so it’s best to only choose Smart Reply for emails you mean to send to everyone in the thread.

Should you actually use it?

Choosing to let a machine write your emails may feel impersonal, but it’s not designed to write the whole email for you. Smart Compose and Smart Reply work best when you use them to add filler sentences or quickly respond to yes or no emails. Plus, Gmail has gotten a lot better at suggesting responses that will make sense 90 percent of the time. (In my experience, the responses tend to veer toward affirmative answers, so they may not work best if you’re less prone to agreeing to everything.)

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Apps & Services

The Adoption rate of the Apple-Google COVID-19 tracker feature in Nigeria

Izunna Okpala

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The COVID-19 exposure tracker has recently been rolled out by Google and Apple on every Android and iOS device globally. According to the notice released in May, this was done in an effort to fight the spread of the virus through contact tracing — a technique used to stay aware of exposure to an infected person.

When enabled, the feature allows your Smartphone to receive notification of likely COVID-19 exposure.

However, there is a disclaimer that the software is an API that can only be enabled when the device has installed a third party tracking app.

According to the statement, the feature will remain dormant until it is activated by a COVID-19 contact tracing app, which can be deactivated at any time.

COVID-19 Exposure Notification feature cannot be activated without an installed contact tracing app

Google and Apple therefore say that the devices won’t be theirs thus saying that the identity of the user won’t be shared with other users.

To ensure this, Google announced that “Access to technology will only be provided to public-health users. Their applications must meet strict Privacy, Protection and Data Use requirements.”

Still, app creators should be committed to minimise the vulnerabilities of their products.

On Android phones, the feature can be found in ‘Google‘ under ‘Settings‘ where ‘COVID-19 exposure notification‘ is displayed. For Apple devices, ‘COVID-19 exposure logging‘ is found under ‘Health‘ in ‘Privacy settings‘.

Apple-Google COVID-19 Exposure Notification feature

By design, this technology is meant to support the efforts of governments and private players that are building contact tracing apps. When an app is used to opt in, it generates randomly changing IDs based on location. Through Bluetooth, it periodically checks other IDs to confirm if any is associated with the infection. And if it finds any, it sends a notification.

For this to work, a person who is affected or has been exposed to the infection needs to share their IDs with the app, which will immediately alert all that have come in contact with them.

While countries like India make contact tracing apps compulsory for residents, only a few startups have made an attempt at this technology in Nigeria; this explains why adoption is low.

In fact, on the Google Playstore, there’s currently no authorised contact tracing app available in the country currently. Conversely, on the Apple app store, it shows two apps, one of which has already been disabled.

Despite some countries already putting the pandemic behind them, infection cases are unfortunately still increasing across Nigeria. Currently, the figure stands at 25,694, with Lagos state  — 10,510 confirmed cases — still the epicentre.

As economic activities resume fully in states that were previously on mandatory lockdown, this appears to be the time for the adoption of massive contact tracing tools to reduce citizens’ chances of infection.

Recall that before now the use of smartphone tracking and surveillance for COVID-19 tracing have been adopted across the world in China, Hong Kong, Israel, and even in Rwanda.

But there are concerns that this feature has privacy risks, disproving Google and Apple’s promise. Considering past events, this scepticism is not misplaced.

Google, like other tech giants, has at some point been accused of turning user data into narrowly targeted ads without consent. This is often possible because users are usually unaware of the data they are agreeing to share and the company’s plan for the information.

While these privacy concerns remain, we cannot undermine the possible positive impact of the tools this Apple-Google feature will effectively support. Perhaps, it is a case of choosing the lesser evil.

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