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How to make the most of your new smart speaker

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Nick Kirmse, CTVNews.ca Staff


Published Tuesday, December 25, 2018 7:00AM EST


Last Updated Tuesday, December 25, 2018 7:06AM EST

Christmas has come again, and many Canadians will find themselves unwrapping a voice-activated assistant this year.

Smart speakers have made it into the mainstream, with almost 15 per cent of Canadian homes owning at least one device, according to a Consumer Technology Association study from November of this year.

Though Google’s Home mini is still king, the Amazon Echo Dot is closing the gap, while Apple’s more expensive HomePod pulls up the rear.

Worried that your new smart device might end up just being an expensive paperweight? Never fear – voice-activated assistants are a simple and painless way to streamline home entertainment.

But once you know your way around the device, they have the potential to be much more than that.

With more than a year since the Google Home and Amazon Echo line of voice-assistants launched in Canada, have the smart speakers caught up to what their American counterparts can do?

Not quite yet, but that’s not to say there isn’t a lot your new voice-activated assistant can do for you.

CTVNews.ca takes a look at the best tips, tricks, and tweaks to help you make the most of your new device.

Up your entertainment game

Getting started with your new smart speaker really is as simple as they make it look.

Download and open either the Amazon Alexa or the Google Home app, and you’ll be prompted to set up your device.

Follow the on-screen instructions and create or log into your Google or Amazon account, and you’re good to go.

Once you’ve got the device online and connected to your account, it’s as easy as saying “Alexa, play Despacito” and tunes will start playing from the default music service.

While the default options will work, if you want access to a deeper selection of music, the Echo and Google Home are both good at enhancing your home media choices.

Regardless of what device you own, it’s easy to explore their proprietary music services, as well as free music-streaming mainstays such as Spotify, Pandora, and Deezer.

When it comes to video, the brand divide can start to complicate things.

The little speakers, smart as they may be, can’t control your TV on their own. That’s where devices such as the Chromecast or the FireTV come in.

While Roku-branded devices can play nice with either Google or Amazon products, the companies have decided to restrict their devices to their own AI systems.

That means Echo devices will only control Fire TV, while Home can only co-operate with Chromecast – if you have mismatched devices, you’re out of luck.

But once that’s sorted out, you can use your voice to control what you’re seeing on the screen, casting YouTube, Netflix, Amazon Prime, and more directly to your TV.

Just say “Hey Google, play American Vandal season 1,” and your Chromecast will start playing your show.

You can control playback with your voice, telling the device to pause, rewind, and skip episodes.

Unfortunately, requesting specific episodes or seasons of a TV series is not supported by either Google Home or Amazon Echo, but if you’re looking to binge watch a series over the holiday – you’re set.

Catch up with the latest news

Want to quickly catch up on the day’s top headlines? Alexa and Google assistant can help with that.

Just ask Alexa “What’s the news?” to start the flash briefing function, giving you news and content from the world’s most popular broadcasters, as well as local weather and more.

You can customize your flash briefing experience to have Alexa read news from your favourite sources, including CTV News.

Just say “Alexa, enable CTV News,” to add the skill to your Echo devices.

Other Canadian, U.S., and international news networks are also available.

Google Home devices can also be customized to fit your preferences through the Google News page online.

You can ask them to read you news from specific providers, a particular topic, or the latest news on a category, like sports or technology.

Simplify your morning

Picture waking up to a room slowly lighting up to emulate the sunrise, checking the morning’s news, and heading downstairs to the smell of freshly brewed coffee – all without lifting a finger.

It’s not just science fiction anymore, thanks to Routines.

Routines allow your Echo or Home assistant to execute multiple actions at once, activated through either a key phrase or at a set time.

To get rolling with automation, set up your routine through the Home or Alexa app, telling your assistant what smart devices you want to control.

For example, you could set up a “good night” routine that turns off all the lights, locks the doors, and adjusts the thermostat instantaneously.

With the ability to easily create custom routines, you’re limited only by your imagination – and the number of smart devices you own.

For Amazon Echo users, the company has announced that location-based routines will be coming to Echo devices at some point in the future.

The new feature will allow for routines to automatically start when you enter or leave your home, so you don’t even have to take the time to say the key phrase to get your smart-home humming.

Make your home ‘smarter’

There are a number of smart-enabled devices that you can integrate with your Echo or Home products to start automating your home.

Smart lights, such as the Phillips Hue, are one of the most common smart items, allowing you to remotely turn your lights off and on.

But some of the more expensive smart bulbs go way beyond the traditional on-off, giving you the option to change the colour of the light, dim the brightness, or play music through a built-in speaker.

Smart thermostats such as the Nest or the ecobee can be paired with voice-assistants to let you make the room more comfortable without leaving the couch, while products such as the Ring doorbell allow you to remotely view and talk to anyone who comes to your front door.

You might even want to take it to the next level and install smart locks, allowing you to ask Alexa if your doors are locked, remotely allow people to enter your home, or get warnings when your door didn’t close properly.

Have any other “dumb” devices that you want to integrate into your smart home?

Several companies offer smart plugs that allow you to control your TV, lamp, or other appliances or integrate them into your routines.

Major appliances are also making the jump into the realm of voice-control, with ovens, washers and driers, and refrigerators being developed to allow you to remotely run wash cycles or preheat your oven.

For those looking to try out voice-activated appliances without breaking the bank, Amazon has released an Alexa-enabled microwave.

Retailing for only US$60, the smart microwave can intelligently heat items; picking a power level and time based on what you tell it is inside.

Currently, the microwave is only available in the U.S. on Amazon.com, but keep your eyes open for the device to make it to Canada if you don’t want to go through the trouble of importing one.

Not all gadgets are universally compatible, so before you start buying any and every smart gadget, check the product information to make sure they’re compatible with Alexa or Google Home, and that they don’t require a home hub to operate.

Reach out

Making and receiving phone calls through your Echo or Home device Is an added perk.

Simply register for device-to-device calling in the Alexa or Google Home app, which verifies your phone number, and you’ll be able to use your voice-activated device in place of a phone.

Currently the Echo allows you to make calls to most mobile and landline numbers in Canada, the U.S., and Mexico, while Google Home can reach numbers in Canada and the U.S.

Another cool feature you can take advantage of, if you’ve got multiple Echo or Home devices, is to use the devices as a multi-room intercom with the Announcements and Broadcast features.

Forget yelling downstairs to tell the family it’s time to eat – simply say “Alexa, tell everyone supper is ready” and your voice will be broadcast to any Echo devices or Fire HD tablets around the house.

If you’re after a more in-depth conservation, both the Echo and the Home can do device-to-device calling, including video chats if you own an Echo Show or Echo Spot or a Google Home Hub.

Call another room in your house, a friend, or a relative on the other side of the world, and their device will let them know you’re waiting to talk.

Sort out dinner plans

One of the most touted functions of voice-activated assistants is their usefulness in the kitchen.

Echo devices and Google Home can become your personal sous chef, talking you through 60,000+ recipes step by step – but they have plenty of other uses in the kitchen you may not know about.

The devices can convert measurements, keep multiple timers running, and even play music while you cook – all you have to do is ask.

Build a shopping list by telling Alexa or Google assistant what you need to buy, which you can print or check on the go through the respective apps on your phone.

If shopping isn’t in the cards today, enable the Allrecipes skill on Echo devices to receive recommendations of what meals you can make based on the ingredients you have on hand.

Or, if you don’t feel like cooking at all, ask Alexa or Google Assistant to order from Foodora, giving you a curated choice of local restaurants.

The skill, launched last summer for Alexa and last month for Google Home, allows you to order food by name, ask for your “usual” order by setting your preferences online or in the app, or to repeat a past order.

You can also track your delivery through your virtual assistant, getting an estimate for how long it will take until the delivery is at your door.

Have some fun

Google Home and Amazon Echo may have plenty of more serious uses, but they also know how to have fun.

Both have a variety of fun activities that you only have to ask to play, including riddles, jokes, and games.

The games range from the simple – Blackjack, 21 Questions, and Hangman – to more in-depth fun such as trivia and quizzes, Mad Libs, or voice-based RPG and exploration games such as 6 Swords.

Both Alexa and Google Home have an endless knowledge of pop culture, making for some fun Easter eggs.

Alexa who she’s gonna call, to set beam you up, or where in the world is Carmen Sandiego and see what happens.

Some of the best Easter eggs for Alexa and Google Home have been compiled by Reddit users, if you don’t want to search them out by yourself. 

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Trudeau Government Should Turn to Sustainable Floor Heating In Its New Deal

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A consortium has been chosen by Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) to manage the $1.1-billion overhaul of five heating and cooling plants in the National Capital Region. However, this decision has been met with a lot of disapproval by the country’s largest federal public service union.

Early June, the department announced that Innovate Energy has been awarded the 30-year contract “to design, retrofit, maintain and operate the plants,”winning the bid over a rival group that included SNC-Lavalin.

Minister of Environment, Catherine McKenna, said the federal government was “leading by example” in its bid to drastically reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions across the country. McKenna noted that by supporting this project, they’re utilizing heating and cooling infrastructure to promote a more environmentally friendly option.

“We’re very proud that our government is working with partners like Innovate Energy to modernize this critical infrastructure,” she said during the announcement at one of the facilities that will be upgraded, the Cliff Heating and Cooling Plant in downtown Ottawa.

The plants would be known as the district energy system and would heat 80 buildings in the area with steam. It is also expected to cool 67 of these buildings with chilled water through more than 14 kilometres of underground pipes.

Under the Energy Services Acquisition Program, PSPC will be tasked with modernizing the outdated technology in the plants to lower emissions and supportgrowth in the eco-friendly technology sector.

During the first stage of the overhaul, the system would be converted from steam to low temperature hot water and then switched from steam to electric chillers—with the estimated completion date being 2025. PSPC notes that the project will reduce current emissions by 63 per cent, the equivalent of removing 14,000 non-eco-friendly cars off the road.

Afterwards, the natural gas powering the plant will then be replaced by carbon-neutral fuel sources, which according to estimated will reduce emissions by a further 28 per cent. The renovation project is bound to save the government an estimated fee of more than $750 million in heating and cooling costs in the next 40 years.

Furthermore, the implementation of radiant floor heating in Ottawa by the federal government would be an additional step in driving its agenda for a more eco-friendly state.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Savers website, radiant floor heating has a lot of benefits and advantages over alternate heat systems and can cut heating costs by 25 to 50 per cent.

“It is more efficient than baseboard heating and usually more efficient than forced-air heating because no energy is lost through ducts,” the website states.

Radiant floor heating provides an equal amount of heat throughout a building, including areas that are difficult to heat, such as rooms with vaulted ceilings, garages or bathrooms. Consideringit warms people and objects directly—controlling the direct heat loss of the occupant—radiant floor heating provides comfort at lower thermostat settings.

“Radiators and other forms of ‘point’ heating circulate heat inefficiently and hence need to run for longer periods to obtain comfort levels,” reports the Residential Energy Services Network (RESNet).

Radiant heating is a clean and healthy option—a perfect choice for those with severe allergies—as it doesn’t rely on circulating air, meaning there are no potentially irritating particles blowing around the room. Additionally, it is more energy efficient, aesthetically pleasing with wall radiators or floor registers and virtually noiseless when in operation.

“They draw cold air across the floor and send warm air up to the ceiling, where it then falls, heating the room from the top down, creating drafts and circulating dust and allergens.”

It is important for the leadership in Ottawa to equally drive the adoption of radiant floor heating as doing this would lead to increased usage in residential buildings—and even government-owned buildings.

However, in October, the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), a representative body of employees of the plants,began a campaign target at the government against their decision to use a public-private partnership (P3) for the retrofitting project, citing concerns about costs and safety.

According to the union, outside employees won’t be bound to the same health and safety standards of government workers and that typically P3 projects cost a lot more than traditional public financing deals.

The union demands that the government scraps the proposed project and meet PSAC members and experts to brainstorm on a new way forward that would ensure federal employees continue to operate and maintain the plants.

However, parliamentary secretary to public services and procurement minister, Steve MacKinnon said that the union officials have consulted him but that after conducting an analysis, the P3 option was still the best for the job.

“We didn’t have (to) sacrifice on safety or health — we didn’t have to sacrifice on job security,” he said.

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Steps to becoming a Data Scientist

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Data science has become one of the most in-demand career paths in this century, according to Business Insider. With the amount of information being circulated online, it has created a huge demand for storing, interpreting and implementing big data for different purposes—hence the need for a data scientist.

Today, there too much information flying around for regular people to process efficiently and use. Therefore, it has become the responsibility of data scientists to collect, organize and analyze this data. Doing this helps various people, organizations, enterprise businesses and governments to manage, store and interpret this data for different purposes.

Though data scientists come from different educational backgrounds, a majority of them need to have a technical educational background. To pursue a career in data science, computer-related majors, graduations and post graduations in maths and statistics are quite useful.

Therefore, the steps to becoming a data scientist are quite straightforward.  After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in an IT related field—such as computer science, maths or physics—you can also further your education by obtaining a master’s degree in a data science or any other related field of study. With the necessary educational background, you can now search for a job and obtain the required experience in whichever filed you choose to invest your acquired skills.

Here are the necessary steps to be taken to become a data scientist.

Step 1: Obtain the necessary educational requirements

As earlier noted, different educational paths can still lead to a career in data science. However, it is impossible to begin a career in data science without obtaining a collegiate degree—as a four-year bachelor’s degree is really important. However, according to a report by Business Insider, over 73% of data scientist in existence today have a graduate degree and about 38% of them hold a Ph.D. Therefore, to rise above the crowd and get a high-end position in the field of data science, it is important to have a Master’s degree or a Ph.D.—and with various online data science masters program, obtaining one is quite easy.

Some institutions provide data science programs with courses that will equip students to analyze complex sets of data. These courses also involve a host of technical information about computers, statistics, data analysis techniques and many more. Completing these programs equips you with the necessary skills to function adequately as a data scientist.

Additionally, there are some technical—and computer-based degrees—that can aid you begin a career in data science. Some of them include studies in, Computer Science, Statistics, Social Science, Physics, Economics, Mathematics and Applied Math. These degrees will imbibe some important skills related to data science in you—namely, coding, experimenting, managing large amounts of data, solving quantitative problems and many others.

Step 2: Choose an area of specialization

There rarely exists an organization, agency or business today that doesn’t require the expertise of a data scientist. Hence, it is important that after acquiring the necessary education to start a career as a data scientist, you need to choose an area of specialization in the field you wish to work in.

Some of the specializations that exist in data science today include automotive, marketing, business, defence, sales, negotiation, insurance and many others.

Step 3: Kick start your career as a data scientist

After acquiring the necessary skills to become a data scientist, it is important to get a job in the filed and company of your choice where you can acquire some experience.

Many organizations offer valuable training to their data scientists and these pieces of training are typically centred around the specific internal systems and programs of an organization. Partaking in this training allows you learn some high-level analytical skills that were not taught during your various school programs—especially since data science is a constantly evolving field.

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Artificial intelligence pioneers win tech’s ‘Nobel Prize’

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Computers have become so smart during the past 20 years that people don’t think twice about chatting with digital assistants like Alexa and Siri or seeing their friends automatically tagged in Facebook pictures.

But making those quantum leaps from science fiction to reality required hard work from computer scientists like Yoshua Bengio, Geoffrey Hinton and Yann LeCun. The trio tapped into their own brainpower to make it possible for machines to learn like humans, a breakthrough now commonly known as “artificial intelligence,” or AI.

Their insights and persistence were rewarded Wednesday with the Turing Award, an honor that has become known as technology industry’s version of the Nobel Prize. It comes with a $1 million prize funded by Google, a company where AI has become part of its DNA.

The award marks the latest recognition of the instrumental role that artificial intelligence will likely play in redefining the relationship between humanity and technology in the decades ahead.

Artificial intelligence is now one of the fastest-growing areas in all of science and one of the most talked-about topics in society,” said Cherri Pancake, president of the Association for Computing Machinery, the group behind the Turing Award.

Although they have known each other for than 30 years, Bengio, Hinton and LeCun have mostly worked separately on technology known as neural networks. These are the electronic engines that power tasks such as facial and speech recognition, areas where computers have made enormous strides over the past decade. Such neural networks also are a critical component of robotic systems that are automating a wide range of other human activity, including driving.

Their belief in the power of neural networks was once mocked by their peers, Hinton said. No more. He now works at Google as a vice president and senior fellow while LeCun is chief AI scientist at Facebook. Bengio remains immersed in academia as a University of Montreal professor in addition to serving as scientific director at the Artificial Intelligence Institute in Quebec.

“For a long time, people thought what the three of us were doing was nonsense,” Hinton said in an interview with The Associated Press. “They thought we were very misguided and what we were doing was a very surprising thing for apparently intelligent people to waste their time on. My message to young researchers is, don’t be put off if everyone tells you what are doing is silly.” Now, some people are worried that the results of the researchers’ efforts might spiral out of control.

While the AI revolution is raising hopes that computers will make most people’s lives more convenient and enjoyable, it’s also stoking fears that humanity eventually will be living at the mercy of machines.

Bengio, Hinton and LeCun share some of those concerns especially the doomsday scenarios that envision AI technology developed into weapons systems that wipe out humanity.

But they are far more optimistic about the other prospects of AI empowering computers to deliver more accurate warnings about floods and earthquakes, for instance, or detecting health risks, such as cancer and heart attacks, far earlier than human doctors.

“One thing is very clear, the techniques that we developed can be used for an enormous amount of good affecting hundreds of millions of people,” Hinton said.

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