PATENT DROP: The AI security guard
Plus: Lyft and Uber’s patent faceoff; Walmart’s tech push
Happy Thursday and welcome back to Patent Drop!
Today, we’re checking out patents from Baidu and Microsoft for computer vision-based security checks; tech from Lyft for autonomous vehicle services (which look quite similar to that of Uber); and several filings from Walmart showing the company’s hankering to become a tech company.
But first, a quick programming note: The next edition of Patent Drop will be sent out Tuesday, May 30, in observance of Memorial Day on Monday.
#1. Big Tech’s super vision
Tech firms are using AI to do more than just help you compose emails or conduct searches. Both Baidu and Microsoft filed patent applications for tech that detects attributes of a physical environment.
First up, let’s check out Baidu. The Chinese search giant is seeking to patent a method to train an AI model for “human body attribute detection.” As the name suggests, this system works by training an AI model on positive and negative “sample sub-images,” or images that essentially show one person in two scenarios, complete with annotations. The AI model then can use computer vision to detect those attributes, such as whether or not a person is wearing a safety helmet.
Baidu said in its filing that this kind of tech can be utilized in various safety inspection scenarios – to ensure employees are wearing the proper protective gear in manufacturing environments, or to determine whether or not someone is smoking in a non-smoking area of a workplace, for example.
“In the safe operation and production environment of a factory area ...The human body attribute detection performed on the staff is to ensure normal and safe operation,” Baidu said in its filing.
Microsoft is toying with a similar concept. The company wants to patent adaptive AI for “three-dimensional object detection” using synthetic training data. This essentially uses synthetically generated images of containers “virtually packed with items of interest” and containers packed with items of “non-interest” to train a machine learning model to detect which is which.
Basically, Microsoft is making an AI version of TSA. The company noted that this tech could be used at security checkpoints like airports or courthouses, where screening processes led by humans are “slow, expensive, and inaccurate.” Training these models to find items of interest takes massive amounts of data (hence, the need for synthetic data).
“This requirement to curate large datasets for training AI models is a major drag on algorithm development, making it impossible to rapidly respond to emerging threats (e.g., 3D-printed weapons),” Microsoft noted in its filing.
So why would these companies want to create AI security guards? Microsoft has been plugging its 365 Copilot generative AI development, while Baidu threw out its own chatbot, Ernie Bot, to keep up with the rest of Big Tech’s AI race. But neither has shown an interest in physical security before, focusing instead on their core moneymakers like cloud computing or hardware. What’s more, Abhinai Srivastava, co-founder of AI and computer vision startup Mashgin, said that it’s possible that this kind of tech may not see the light of day for a long while.
The short answer is that Microsoft and Baidu are researching and filing patents for “everything under the sun,” Srivastava said. Despite the effort put into development, at the end of the day, an executive decides whether or not a piece of tech becomes a product, he said. It’s also not uncommon for tech developments like these to be put on the backburner for long periods of time, and pulled out when competitors start to show interest.
“It just comes down to whether the executive teams see the value, or a path forward with the product,” said Srivastava. “Many times the problem is they're already making a lot of money and they're preoccupied with existing product lines. I think that's why these things don't usually see the light of day.”
Whether or not Microsoft and Baidu’s interest in this tech is passive, computer vision is a burgeoning field. It has potential in all sorts of environments – factories, security checkpoints or, in Mashgin’s case, retail.
But with that potential comes the obstacle of getting the tech to be 100% accurate. The biggest hurdle: Getting your hands on massive amounts of different, specialized data is expensive and time-consuming, said Srivastava.
“Computer vision is very easy until it's hard – and then it's very hard,” Srivastava said. “The first 80% is very quick and very easy. But then the last 20% ends up being where you could spend the next five years perfecting it.”
A lot of the computer vision field is at that 80% mark, he said, but over the next five years, developers are bound to break that boundary. Maybe once these developments cross that bridge, Baidu or Microsoft-branded computer vision devices will start hitting the proverbial shelves.
#2. Lyft’s AV face off
Lyft may be reaching for a higher gear in the driverless race.
The company is seeking to patent a method for matching autonomous vehicles to transportation requests. Here’s how it works: After determining the characteristics of both an autonomous vehicle and “road segments of a geographic area,” the tech decides whether or not it can match a rider’s request with an autonomous vehicle.
For example, this system may look at where a requester is being picked up or dropped off, the route, what time the request has been placed, traffic density and weather conditions to decide whether or not a self-driving car has the capability to complete a ride.
“The performance of an on-demand transportation service may depend on properly determining the suitability of providing transportation services using autonomous transportation provider vehicles in certain geographic zones,” Lyft said in its filing.
Lyft said that this kind of tech can avoid sending an autonomous vehicle on a request that it’s not capable of completing, forestalling customer dissatisfaction and unsafe situations for passengers in self-driving rides.
If you’ve a regular Patent Drop reader and all this sounds familiar, it’s because it is: Uber is seeking to patent practically the exact same thing. Earlier this month, we wrote about the company’s plan to patent a method for “selective autonomous vehicle ridership and control,” which examined a user’s request, their profile, and the capabilities of an AV to decide whether or not a self-driving ride was the right fit.
Though these filings focus on slightly different things (Lyft’s centers on vehicle locations, whereas Uber’s details vehicle capabilities), the concepts are fundamentally the same: Both companies want to patent systems for weighing an autonomous vehicle’s abilities against the request itself.
While we can’t know for sure if these companies know about each other's patents, direct competitors, like Uber and Lyft, likely keep tabs on their rival’s public patent activity, said Micah Drayton, partner and chair of the technology practice group at Caldwell Intellectual Property Law.
And with patent applications so similar, which company will prevail? That will come down to two major factors in the end: Timing and detail, said Drayton.
Lyft’s most recent patent came a little more than a month before Uber’s, filed on November 8, compared to December 15. But Lyft’s preliminary amendment (a.k.a., a revision to the filing) was filed on February 2, just six days after Uber filed its own. Going back further, Lyft’s patent is also a continuation of a filing from 2019, whereas Uber’s is a continuation of one from 2020.
But the dates only matter if the patent was filed with the right amount of detail, said Drayton. “It’s not as simple as who filed first,” he said. “If Uber was the one that filed the relevant information first, even if it was in a later filing, they'd have the inside track. They could have priority against Lyft.”
At this point, it could be anyone’s game. As Drayton said, “there's no question that they are close to each other. It wouldn't surprise me to see either of these coming up during examination regarding the other one.”
Patents aside, Uber and Lyft are racing towards a self-driving future. Both companies have deals with autonomous vehicle company Motional, and Lyft claims it has given around 100,000 autonomous rides so far. But Uber’s recent deal with Waymo, Alphabet’s self-driving car company, may push it a pace ahead.
#3. Walmart gets techy
When you close your eyes and imagine a tech company, Walmart probably isn’t the first to come to mind. The retail giant may be looking to change your mind.
Walmart filed a number of tech-related patent applications that suggest the company is looking to make its operation more tech-oriented. Let’s start with the logistics side: Walmart is seeking to patent an “automated warehouse storage system” which utilizes compact, autonomous robotic vehicles for organization and order fulfillment.
The goal of this tech is to achieve a “very high or even total level of automation” within a warehouse environment, Walmart said in its filing.
On the delivery side, the company wants to patent methods for merchandise delivery using both “autonomous ground vehicles” and “unmanned aerial vehicles.” As the title implies, this filing details a delivery system using a larger autonomous delivery vehicle (a.k.a., a self-driving truck) and a delivery drone.
In some scenarios, these vehicles work together – like when the truck can’t complete the delivery and needs the drone to wrap up the last leg. Walmart noted that this tech prevents delivery delays by creating a “back-up mechanism” if a traditional delivery can’t be completed.
And finally, on the consumer side, the company is looking into ways to determine “attribute affinities” for users. This tech is essentially a personalized recommendation system for ecommerce shoppers, which takes into account things like user transaction and engagement data to create an “affinity value” determining whether or not a product recommendation will be a match for a user.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen Walmart take an interest in a tech push. The company announced plans for drone delivery in 2021, and promised in March to bring the option to 4 million households by the end of 2022. By the end of 2022, the company had completed roughly 6,000 drone deliveries.
Walmart’s latest patents stand to make operations much more efficient across the board, said Irusha Peiris, retail analyst and portfolio manager for William O’Neil. But efficiency likely isn’t the only reason for the company’s renewed interest in tech.
While Walmart is a leader in the brick-and-mortar, Amazon, its biggest competitor, is the top dog of e-commerce, and has mastered the art of fast delivery. Taken all together, from logistics to autonomous delivery to user recommendations, Walmart seems trying to “narrow the gap” between it and Amazon, Peiris said.
“It's a race to better serve the customer and get the products to the customer quicker,” Peiris said. “They're filing these patents to try to build a slightly better mousetrap, to make it a little bit more efficient and propose a better value than their competitors.”
But it’s not just Amazon that the retail giant is trying to compete with. Other retail chains like Target are also getting into tech, with fast delivery and pick-up being a main focus, said Peiris. While a tech investment seems like a big leap for a traditional brick-and-mortar shop like Walmart, Peiris said it may be necessary to keep up with consumer trends.
“The standards keep getting raised,” Peiris said. “You have to be that much more efficient or you will lose market share. They’re all incremental improvements, all ways to stay connected to the customer, and more importantly, retain the customer.”
Now for a few fun ones.
Google wants to take out the trash. The company wants to patent “wash chute devices” that identify who throws away what to enforce “pay-as-you-throw” disposal policies.
Microsoft wants to manage your local In-and-Out. The company is seeking to patent “machine-vision person tracking” in a service environment which tracks how many people are in line to estimate how long the wait will be.
Sony is getting the facts straight. The company wants to patent a method for “real time fact checking” during a video stream, which uses machine learning to add fact checked commentary and annotations to a live stream.
What else is new?
Microsoft outlined five principles it thinks will help the government regulate AI, including safety and regulatory frameworks, regular safety breaks, transparency and increased public-private partnerships
TikTok is testing it’s own AI chatbot called Tako, Bloomberg reported. A company representative said the app is trying “new ways to power search and discovery” in some markets.
Alibaba said it’s planning to hire 15,000 people this year, denying reports that the company will lay off staff as “rumours.”
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