Tag Archives: Googlers

Cathy Pearl has learned the art and science of conversation

Conversations can be tough. Whether you’re chit-chatting with a coworker or having an important talk with your partner, it’s easy to misinterpret, say the wrong thing, or accidentally offend someone. Now imagine teaching a computer how to avoid those minefields. That’s even tougher—and Googler Cathy Pearl knows exactly how difficult it is.

Cathy has made a career out of teaching computers how to talk to humans. She’s worked in the field of conversation design for decades, and now works in outreach at Google, where she helps spread the word about her field both within and outside of the company. She also served as a judge for this year’s Webby Awards, which is introducing a category for voice user interfaces for the very first time.  (Google ended up winning several awards, too, in categories Cathy didn't judge.)

For this installment of The She Word, Cathy tells us about the challenges of teaching computers to talk to humans, and what that’s taught her about her own conversations:

Designing conversations is trickier than you think. That’s because human conversations are really complicated.

“Basically, conversation design is about teaching computers how to communicate like humans, not the other way around. We all know how to talk from a young age, so now we need to build computers that can understand us where we are, instead of forcing people to speak some foreign computer language.

People may not realize how complex it really is. Think about something that seems like a simple yes or no question: What if you asked me, ‘Do you want a cup of coffee?’ Let’s say I replied, ‘Coffee will keep me awake.’ Is that a yes, or a no? Well, if you asked me first thing in the morning and I have a big presentation to write, it’s probably a yes. Ask me right before bed, and it’s probably a no. People say things like this all the time, but it’s hard for computers to understand.”

Voice recognition used to seem like the stuff of fiction. It's come a long way.

“I learned how to program when I was a kid, and I was really interested in learning to get the computer to talk back to me. I was really into movies like ‘War Games’ and TV shows like ‘Knight Rider’ that had these talking computers. Now, there was no such career at the time really, unless you were a researcher at Bell Labs or something like that. Coming out of grad school, I didn’t know of any jobs I could take in that field.

So really it was in 1999 when I saw a job opening for a company and they said, ‘Come work on speech recognition!’ And I said, ‘Well, that stuff doesn’t work, it’s still a science fiction thing.’ But they had a demo line you could call, and it was this fake banking demo where you could move money from checking to savings. It’s all you could do, really, but it worked. I was astounded. I spent eight years at the company learning the ins and outs of building voice user interfaces for phone systems for companies.”

When you find yourself at a career crossroads, don't limit your options.

“If you do something like IVF, it takes over your whole life. It’s a constant thing. That’s why I quit my job. You can’t plan vacations, you can’t plan work meetings, because you have to go to the doctor’s office. And it’s so disruptive. After nearly 3 years of trying, I had my son. I spent the next three years as a stay-at-home mom.

I think what was hardest for me was the point where I thought, I absolutely want to go back to work now, which was earlier than those three years, but I didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t know what resources to use to try and figure out what I should do to get back into a great career. I felt very alone in that way.

I went to a career counselor, and I just tried to start saying yes to more things. So when somebody asked me to give a talk, even if I didn’t think I was necessarily qualified, I said yes. I said yes to writing a book, which was just a terrifying prospect. It expanded my worldview of what was out there, and it opened a lot of doors to opportunities I wouldn’t have had otherwise. I think as women we often undersell ourselves.”

Teaching computers how to talk to us can teach us a lot about ourselves.

“So much of the time when we communicate, we want to be acknowledged. We don’t want you to try to solve problems. When I’m saying I had this really hard day, I don’t want my friend to say, ‘You know what you should do next time?’ No! I want you to say, ‘That sounds frustrating.’

That applies to voice user interfaces. With the Google Assistant, there’s a lot of stuff we can’t do yet. But it’s better to acknowledge the things we can’t do then just say, ‘I don’t understand.’ If someone says, ‘I want to rent a car,’ and we can’t do that, can we say, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t rent cars yet?’ That’s more satisfying at a basic, human, primitive level, because at least they understood me.”

Ask a Techspert: What’s so interesting about spreadsheets?

Editor’s Note: Do you ever feel like a fish out of water? Try being a tech novice and talking to an engineer at a place like Google. Ask a Techspert is a new series on the Keyword asking Googler experts to explain complicated technology for the rest of us. This isn’t meant to be comprehensive, but just enough to make you sound smart at a dinner party.

The spreadsheet wizard: Every office has one. They’re masters of functions and pivot tables. It’s as if they hold the secrets of the universe, while I fumble around just trying to alphabetize something.

In today’s workplace, spreadsheets are in, and endless stacks of paper containing years of information are out. That got me wondering: Since when did spreadsheets become “a thing,” anyway? How did they become the de facto way to organize data? And what does the future of spreadsheets look like?

For this edition of Ask a Techspert, I sat down with Ryan Weber, a G Suite Product Manager who works on Google Sheets, to get an expert’s take on how users look to spreadsheets to manage their data. Ryan and his team not only know how we use spreadsheets today, but also have a good idea of how we’ll use them in the future.

How did spreadsheets and computers first meet?  

“Spreadsheets were the first ‘killer app’ of the personal computer,” Ryan told me. “People got them for their home and for their business, and it allowed people to really unlock the true value of a computer.” By “killer app,” Ryan means software so popular that it becomes one of the main reasons many people use a device.  

Essentially, spreadsheets were one of the reasons to actually go out buy a computer for the first time. They presented a technological alternative to all of those paper ledgers and books that, for centuries, have been used to organize information. We take it for granted now, but consider what a game changer it was to have a new, more efficient way to organize data. The advent of spreadsheets made computers useful to millions, who use spreadsheets for anything from wedding guest lists to financial projections for Fortune 500 companies.

How are spreadsheets used in computing today?

These days, you don’t have to write code or know how to create complex formulas in a spreadsheet to make data work for you. “Sheets allows someone to easily generate valuable analysis by using simple tools powered by artificial intelligence (AI),” Ryan says. “AI allows you to play with data in new ways, including automatically getting suggestions for formulas, charts and pivot tables, or even being able to use natural language to ask questions via Sheets Explore.”

This capability means they’re usable by anyone, not just experts, which Ryan calls “democratizing data analysis.” And as the uses and capabilities of Sheets continues to evolve, it will continue to expand to even more people, helping them in more ways in both their personal and professional lives.

Because Sheets is stored in the cloud, it allows everyone to see and edit the same file at the same time. This is particularly helpful for businesses which rely on G Suite apps, like Sheets, to collaborate on heavy duty analyses with multiple people. “Historically, this idea of a single source coupled with real-time collaboration was what made Sheets stand out from other spreadsheets from its inception,” Ryan says. “You don’t have to worry about sending around spreadsheet attachments and then trying to merge them later. This seamless collaboration in G Suite is what makes our tools different.”

What is the future of spreadsheets?

After 40 years, it’s clear that spreadsheets are here to stay. But like many other technologies, AI can dramatically affect how useful spreadsheets are to us. Ryan says Google is developing new ways to incorporate AI into Sheets for just that reason. Now, the team is looking into using AI to automatically clean and format data so it’s in good shape and ready to be used in your analysis.

The team is also looking to increase the types of data available for analysis, since information can come from all sorts of places, especially at work. “We’re making it easier to connect large datasets to Sheets from other critical data sources in your company, or even connect important data from outside of your company into Sheets. We want to ensure that data is easy to access and analyze so you can do what you need to do,” Ryan says.

So, will futuristic AI-powered spreadsheets know where to seat your mother’s mahjong friends at your wedding? As of now, that’s sadly unlikely. You’re still on your own to figure out that social minefield.

Meet the Googler in charge of all things I/O

From May 7 through May 9, more than 7,000 developers will head to Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View for I/O, Google’s annual conference—and take part in talks and events in an area that’s usually a parking lot. In charge of turning that blank space into a festival-like atmosphere is Amanda Matuk, who has been part of the team running the conference for the past 10 years.

Amanda, who is the event’s executive producer, has been in charge of I/O for the past four years. The process takes six to nine months to plan every year, and ends with three hectic days on site. For this installment of The She Word, I asked Amanda exactly how she gets it done—and the songs she blasts in her car to get her pumped up for the big day.

How do you describe your job at a dinner party?

I build things: teams, processes and ideas. My role at Google is split. As the Head of Hardware Experiences, I manage all our hardware activities that take place in real life, from press moments to consumer installations where folks can get hands-on with our products. As the internal executive producer of I/O, I look after an 80+ person team, taking I/O from an idea on paper in November to a three-day live experience in May.

Attendees at Shoreline Amphitheatre in 2018.

Attendees at Shoreline Amphitheatre in 2018.

You were on the team that moved I/O from San Francisco to Mountain View. How did that change the event?

The change of location was a very core moment to the company. It was late 2015 when we decided to make the move, as Sundar Pichai had just stepped up as CEO of the company. We wanted to connect back to our roots with the developer community who are based in Silicon Valley.

We physically connected back with our roots, and celebrated the developer community in a venue typically reserved for concerts. In doing so, we challenged the standard conference format, and also put developers—our core users on many of our platforms—at the center of the conversation.

Sundar Pichai delivers last year’s keynote at I/O.

Sundar Pichai delivers last year’s keynote at I/O.

Your schedule must be jam-packed, especially the week of I/O. How do you stay calm throughout the madness?

I operate under the principle that if you can do something now, do it now. Procrastination is a really natural thing I think we all do, but especially on site when there are a thousand tiny micro-decisions that come up in a given day, it’s important to do what you can in the moment.

Also, it’s super cheesy, but I make a playlist that I listen to on the drive in on I/O days. Last year’s playlist included “Unstoppable” by Sia, “Run the World (Girls)” by Beyoncé, and “I’m Every Woman” by Whitney Houston. There’s nothing like starting the day with a bit of musical female empowerment. (Told you I’m cheesy!)

I average 28,000 steps a day during I/O.

What’s your schedule like the week of I/O?

Once we get to the week of I/O, my job is to support the team. Nobody builds a conference of this scale and level of creative detail alone. My only true solo moment is on the first day. I like to arrive at 6 a.m. and walk the grounds before we open the gates. I started this ritual on the first I/O at Shoreline to remind myself that what once was a parking lot is now effectively a city layout ready for thousands of developers to occupy for the following three days.

A typical day is spent checking in with teammates, managing the various production teams who operate on a rolling schedule, and monitoring potential challenges like the ever-present lunch rush. I average 28,000 steps a day during I/O.

After Dark, our nighttime setup, at I/O 2018.

After Dark, our nighttime setup, at I/O 2018.

What’s one moment you’ll remember from your years on the team?

Something I’ll remember for years to come is the opening moment in 2016. To have Sundar, a former product manager, stand on the stage as the CEO and open what felt like a rock concert of a conference was something really special. We had our new leader, speaking to the developer world, making them feel celebrated in a very real and genuine way, and we ushered in a new style of conference.

Did you always want to run big events like this? What advice would you have for women starting out in their careers?

I started my career thinking I was going to be a lawyer. I was working in a law firm, studying for the LSAT, but I wasn’t energized by the work. I took a hard left turn and got into tech, starting in sales and eventually moving into marketing on the events and experiences team. My main advice is something I have to remind myself everyday: the path’s not linear. Just because you’re on a certain path now does not mean it is “the path.” When you’re starting out in your career, keep your eyes open to possibility, really listen to your intuition and if an opportunity speaks to you, it’s probably worth a listen. Your career is not necessarily going to be a straight line, but it can absolutely be a fun journey.

How a Google office became a sticky-note art gallery

At one of Google’s offices, windows have become canvases...for art made from sticky notes. The “pixel art” is not only a way to decompress after a long day of work, but also a way to make the office personal—and a lot of fun, too.

The decorations all started when a neighbor wanted to say hello. A company located across the street used brightly colored sticky notes to spell out a greeting in their windows. Googlers decided to join in on the fun and reply with art of their own. Their initial response was a shyly-assembled team logo, but soon after, a massive pink pixelated pony took shape on the windows of the office.

And they weren’t stopping there. Their office centers around a glass atrium, and they wanted to make their new home a place they could personalize. What started with a handful of Googlers creating their favorite cartoon characters took on a life of its own. Applying the principle of 10x, that a creation should be ten times better than its predecessor, Googlers upped the ante quickly.

A group would construct a pixelated Mario and Luigi, and see Pikachu popping up across the courtyard. Overnight, a colorful unicorn would appear. Soon, the characters from “Doctor Who” and “Mega Man” were presiding over upper floors. For Chrome’s 10th birthday, the local Chrome team assembled a large-scale Chrome logo—and a sidekick dinosaur—that spanned two entire floors.

Jakub Gielzak and Tyler Wagner, early members of the crew of sticky art enthusiasts, say there’s no organized structure to the notes. No team presides over planning, and no one says what can or cannot be posted where and when, as long as Googlers use their best judgment. (And not take too much time from their actual work, of course.)

But there are some guidelines: Use an outline of black sticky notes to make an image pop. Beware of glass that is frequently exposed to the sun’s glare, because heat can take the “sticky” out of “sticky note.” Keep a strict two-sticky note distance between the art and the floor, because a well-mopped base can be deadly, even to lightsaber-wielding Yoda. And, most importantly, obey the sticky rule of thumb: To prevent curl, pull a sticky note down directly from the stack, instead of to the side or, heaven forbid, up.

Animated GIF of pulling a sticky note off a pad

There are multiple Google offices that embrace windows as canvas. Back in 2015, Googlers in San Francisco once replied to a “hi” in a neighbor’s window with a sticky-note “yo” and a huge QR code which, when scanned, played Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up.”

What’s next for these pixel artists? It’s anyone’s guess. Googlers are often the first to take their own pieces down, in eager anticipation of what someone will make of the available space. Sticky-note art is designed to be temporary and adaptable, just like the stack of notes you keep at your desk.

From food waste to tasty treats in Google’s kitchens

For Kristen Rainey, a carrot is more than a vegetable. It’s the opportunity to cook “from root to stem” and make anything from salads and juice to ice cream and candy. Cooking this way helps combat food waste, an issue that affects everyone—particularly the 800 million people who suffer from hunger each year.

One third of all food produced for human consumption, or about 1.3 billion pounds of food, is wasted every year. Plus,  wasted food emits potent greenhouse gases when it decomposes. “The situation is a lose-lose-lose,” Kristen says. “When you consider all of the resources that went into making the food that’s ultimately wasted, it becomes clear that we have a problem.”

Kristen, a Procurement & Resource Utilization Manager based in Google’s Portland office, leads strategy to reduce food waste, water and energy in company kitchens and cafes. When it comes to food, they take a “circular economy” approach, meaning that they prioritize reusing ingredients and raw materials rather than buying new ones and tossing leftovers in the trash.

Using these strategies, Google has prevented six million pounds of food waste since 2014. Here are four strategies that made that happen.

1. Use technology to cut back on waste.

A LeanPath setup in a Google kitchen.

A LeanPath setup in a Google kitchen.

Google’s offices partner with LeanPath in 189 cafes in 26 different countries. The system features a camera that takes pictures of the food waste items, a scale that weighs it and a tablet for a team member to enter additional information about the item.

This info then gets uploaded to the cloud, and those numbers allow Google to track and gain insights about food waste. Using this data, chefs are able to make adjustments in the kitchen, such as scaling back the purchasing of ingredients or teaching team members how to trim vegetables in order to utilize a greater percentage of the product.

2. Consider the ingredients.

"Imperfect" produce

So-called “imperfect” produce is often used in Google’s kitchens.

When thinking of ingredients, Google’s chefs make sustainability a priority. For example, many dishes can be made with imperfect-looking produce, meaning fruits and vegetables that might look misshapen or have slight discolorations, but are still just as delicious. They are also focused on finding innovative suppliers like CoffeeCherry, which creates flour from coffee bean byproduct, or Toast, beer brewed with leftover bread.

Chefs at Google also consider using the entire vegetable, from root to stem, and an entire animal when cooking meat. Whether it’s using the skin of a sweet potato or carrot tops in a vegetable dish or using turkey neck and giblets for a stock or gravy, it’s easy to utilize food that otherwise would have ended up in a landfill.

3. Get creative in the kitchen.

Chefs prepare vegetables in a Google kitchen

Inevitably, some food is going to be left over, but that doesn’t mean it’s hitting the trash. Scott Giambastiani, Google’s food program manager based in Sunnyvale, California, says chefs in Google kitchens have come up with inventive solutions to repurpose food. They've used trimmings from leafy greens to make smoothies and the stems from those greens and root vegetables to make sauces like pesto and chimichurri. “All of these practices not only reduce food waste but they also enhance the nutritional value of the final dish,” Scott says.

Google chefs also cook in small batches as they go, looking at crowd sizes and estimating how much to cook rather than preparing a large quantity at once. This practice, combined with careful planning of how many ingredients to purchase, prevents a good deal of food waste.

4. Don’t just toss waste in the garbage.

Ingredients in a Google kitchen

If leftovers can’t be repurposed into new dishes, that doesn’t mean they always end up in a landfill. Google cafes make it a point to donate leftovers to local shelters and food banks, and compost whenever possible. They’re also focused on ways to stop food waste before it starts, by encouraging Googlers to be mindful of how much food they put on their plates—and reminding them they can always go back for seconds. 

From kids’ music to the tech world, without missing a beat

Matan Ariel’s young nieces and nephew live on the other side of the world, but they keep up with their uncle thanks to his music—and thanks to Google, too. Though they live in Israel and he lives in New York, the three kids love to ask the Google Assistant to play his songs, which have gone double platinum in their country.

Matan, or “Uncle Matani” as they call him, works in sales in Google’s New York office. But he also has another love, children’s music, which brought him a level of success he never expected before he headed to Google.

He first started singing full-time during his three years serving in the Israeli military. He was part of an entertainment unit for the navy, traveling from base to base to perform at various ceremonies, whether they were celebrations or memorials or something in between. “Think about it as a cover band for Israeli pop songs,” he says. “It was a range of different performances.”

It was during his years in the navy that he decided to record children’s music. Some people in his entertainment unit were babysitters on the side, and they lamented the lack of quality songs for kids. Matan took action, setting up time in a recording studio and coming up with a plan to record as Matan Ariel & Friends. They chose classic Hanukkah songs, since they were in the public domain, and recorded the album immediately after their service officially ended.

One of the Hannukah songs from Matan Ariel & Friends.

Matan and his group recorded modern covers of classic Jewish holiday songs, in Hebrew, and they filled an important need for families in Israel. “There were either the classic songs we all knew growing up, but recordings from the ‘50s and ‘60s that hadn’t been digitally enhanced. You could even hear hissing sounds from the original vinyl records,” he says. “Or there were newer albums where people were saying, ‘I’m going to create my own Passover or Purim songs,’ and they just weren’t as good.”

And to Matan’s surprise, the album took off, selling out its initial run in just a few weeks. “I got an email a few weeks later, saying, ‘We sold out of the Hanukkah songs, so can we have more, because Hanukkah is still not here yet? And do you have Passover songs, and something you can sell year-round?’” he says. “I said, Sure, I’ll get you that!’”

A Passover song recorded by Matan Ariel & Friends.

Eventually, the album of Hanukkah songs exceeded Israeli double platinum status. Matan Ariel & Friends recorded 17 albums and five DVDs, about themes like birthdays and animals and around holidays like Passover, Purim and Sukkot. Two of his favorites are an album of Israeli lullabies and an album of Israeli memorial day songs.


After he graduated from college, though, Matan decided to step back from music and focus on the business world. These days, he leads a team of ad sales executives who work with agencies to help small and medium businesses use Google ads. He saves his singing voice for karaoke nights with friends and the occasional Googler cover band. At work, sometimes he’ll hand out CDs to his coworkers with children, but there’s one problem: many of them don’t have CD players anymore, so they just stream his music instead.


Matan says the biggest reward he’s seen from his music has been with his young nieces and nephew, who he doesn’t get to see as often as he’d like. “I wasn’t a stranger to them because [my brother and sister-in-law] would play my albums to the children, and they would show the DVDs to the children. So Uncle Matani was someone the kids knew,” he says. “I would come to Tel Aviv and they would see me, and run to me and hug me. That to me is an impact that goes even beyond the sales.”

An ultramarathoner running so others can “rise”

Editor’s note: Passion Projects is a new Keyword series highlighting Googlers with unexpected interests outside the office.

If you had asked Zanele Hlatshwayo several years ago if she’d ever go on a run for 10 days straight, she’d probably laugh. But these days, that’s exactly what she’s training for—and she changed her mind about running for a deeply personal reason.

Zanele, an ad sales specialist based in Google’s Johannesburg office, turned to running to cope after a tragedy in her family. In 2010, her father committed suicide, and she needed to find a way to deal with her grief. She already went to the gym to work out, but one day she decided to check out the running track there, and that changed everything. Even though she used to hate running, the sport became a crucial outlet for her. Pushing through the pain of a long run taught her she could overcome anything.

“I got tired of feeling sorry for myself and crying and trying to make sense of the reason why he actually committed suicide,” she says. “Running became my sacred space, so to speak, a space where I could really clear my mind.” She started to run races with a few former colleagues, and she was hooked.

The self-described “adrenaline junkie” wasn’t content with just some 5Ks, though. She tried half marathons, then tried full marathons, and then entered the Comrades ultramarathon, which was a whopping 90 kilometers (55.9 miles). At that point, she was running to test her own limits, but wanted to do more. “There’s no point for me in running all these races and just running for medals,” she says. “I wanted to actually run for a purpose.”

Inspired by her father’s legacy, and also by a friend who was going through depression, Zanele decided to start a campaign called Rise 18 last year. In 2018, she ran 18 races to raise money for a suicide prevention help line, the only one of its kind in South Africa.

Zanele's Rise 18 promotion video

Zanele says there’s a major stigma around depression and suicide, not just in South Africa but around the world. “It’s really a state of emergency at the moment, because there aren’t enough resources to assist people who may be struggling,” she says. “And people are too scared to speak out because they don’t want to be made to feel as if there’s something wrong with them.”

The longest, and final, race of Rise 18 was 100 miles long, and took 26 hours to complete. She showed up to the race injured from her previous long-distance runs, and never stopped to sleep the entire race, but she was still determined to finish. For her, the race was mental, not just physical.

Zanele running the Washie 100 Miler ultramarathon.

Zanele running the Washie 100 Miler ultramarathon.

“The sun rises while you’re still on the road, the sun sets while you’re still on the road, and that takes a lot of mental preparation,” she says. “For me, what really kept me going was the goal I had made to myself, and the commitment I made to myself. I don’t want somebody else to go through what my father did.”

She finished that race, and went above and beyond her campaign’s goal. Her initial aim was to raise R 180,000 ($12,716) to support the help line, but she exceeded that, ultimately raising R 210,000 ($14,575). When she donated the money to the charity, they told her that money would fund 11,000 calls to the hotline, which is entirely run by volunteers. “That’s 11,000 lives,” she says. “It’s truly, truly amazing.”

An experience like that makes you realize how powerful the human mind and the human body is.

Now that Rise 18 has completed, Zanele is setting her sights on even bigger goals. She’s working on building an app to connect South Africans to therapists, and plans to raise funds for the project through her next set of races, which will include an Ironman triathlon. (You can find out more on her campaign page.)

But her biggest challenge is still ahead of her: a 10-day run from Johannesburg to Cape Town this May. She’ll travel with a group of 12, who will take day or night shifts on the road, for the Ocal Global Journey for Change. And through it all, she’ll have her larger mission in mind: The group is raising funds to help provide wheelchairs to children with disabilities.

“An experience like that makes you realize how powerful the human mind and the human body is. We’re able to take so much pain,” she says. “And for me, when I’m running, the pain I go through really signifies the pain people go through when they have challenges in their lives. That small pain I feel does not amount to the challenges those people have to face on a daily basis.”

If you or someone you know needs help, you can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the U.S. at 1-800-273-TALK(8255), or, in South Africa, the South African Depression and Anxiety Group’s Suicide Crisis Line at 0800 567 567.

Ask a Techspert: Why am I getting so many spam calls?

Editor’s Note: Do you ever feel like a fish out of water? Try being a tech novice and talking to an engineer at a place like Google. Ask a Techspert is a new series on the Keyword asking Googler experts to explain complicated technology for the rest of us. This isn’t meant to be comprehensive, but just enough to make you sound smart at a dinner party.

Growing up, I was taught to say “Schottenfels residence” when answering the phone. It was the polite way of doing things. When the phone rang, it was usually family, friends and, yes, the occasional telemarketer on the other side of the line. Then things changed. Personal calls moved to mobile phones, and the landline became the domain of robocalls. My cell was a sanctuary, free of the pesky automated dialers that plague the landlines of yore. Until recently.

Today, it feels like the only phone calls I get are spam calls. And I know I’m not alone. According to a recent Google survey, half of respondents received at least one spam call per day, and one third received two or more per day.

And people are answering those calls. More than one third of respondents worry that a call from an unknown number is a call about a loved one, and another third think it could be a call from a potential loved one, so they pick up. And almost everyone agrees: Spam calls are the worst. In fact, 75 percent of those surveyed think spam calls are more annoying than spam texts or emails.

So what’s the deal with spam calls? And how can we stop them from happening? For the latest edition of Ask a Techspert, I spoke to Paul Dunlop, the product manager for the Google Phone App, to better understand why, all of the sudden, spam calls are happening so frequently, and what tools, like Pixel’s Call Screen feature, you can use  to avoid the headache.

Why spam calls are more common lately

According to Paul, voice-over IP (VoIP) is the culprit. These are phone calls made using the web instead of a traditional telephone line, and today they're cheaper and easier than ever to use. “Using VoIP technology, spammers place phone calls over the Internet and imitate a different phone number,” Paul says. “It used to be that they had a fixed number, and you could block that number. Now with VoIP, spammers have the ability to imitate any phone number.” Paul says this became possible when companies, which wanted to call customers from call centers, made it so one general 1-800 number for a business showed up on caller IDs. So what started as a common-sense solution ended up becoming an easy loophole for spammers.

This is called spoofing, and there’s nothing in phone systems—the infrastructure of telephones—that can prevent spam callers from imitating numbers. “You can actually be spammed by your own phone number,” Paul says. “But the most common is neighborhood spam, using your area code and the first three digits of your phone number, which increases the likelihood you’ll answer.”

How Pixel can help you avoid picking up spam calls

A video explaining the Call Screen feature on Pixel phones

Enter Call Screen, a feature on Pixel phones that helps protect you from spam calls by giving you more information before you decide to answer. Before you have to pick up, Call Screen asks the caller to say why they’re calling and, with the help of the Google Assistant, translates the message into text so you can decide whether or not to answer. All of this happens “on device,” meaning it protects your privacy while it makes sure you get the message as fast as possible.

“Call Screen gives you that bit of protection from those spam calls, and helps you make sure you don’t miss those really important calls,” Paul explains. “It’s only one piece of the puzzle though.”

The future of fighting spam calls

But what about the problem of spam calls at large? Paul and other industry techsperts look to technology called STIR/SHAKEN to address that spoof phone number technology, which the FTC is in the process of approving. And, yes, they are acronyms: STIR for “Secure Telephone Identity Revisited” and SHAKEN for “Signature-based Handling of Asserted information using toKENs.”

This new technology allows cell phone networks to authenticate calls by validating that the number associated with each phone call is legitimate. You can then know that the caller is a real person using a real phone number.

According to our survey respondents, spam calls are the worst type of call you can get. With new advances in technology, however, the number two most annoying group of callers—exes —might just take the top spot.

A recipe for beating the record of most-calculated digits of pi

Editor’s note: Today, March 14, is Pi Day (3.14). Here at Google, we’re celebrating the day with a new milestone: A team at Google has broken the Guinness World RecordsTMtitle for most accurate value of pi.

Whether or not you realize it, pi is everywhere you look. It’s the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, so the next time you check your watch or see the turning wheels of a vehicle go by, you’re looking at pi. And since pi is an irrational number, there’s no end to how many of its digits can be calculated. You might know it as 3.14, but math and science pros are constantly working to calculate more and more digits of pi, so they can test supercomputers (and have a bit of healthy competition, too).

While I’ve been busy thinking about which flavor of pie I’m going to enjoy later today, Googler Emma Haruka Iwao has been busy using Google Compute Engine, powered by Google Cloud, to calculate the most accurate value of pi—ever. That’s 31,415,926,535,897 digits, to be exact. Emma used the power of the cloud for the task, making this the first time the cloud has been used for a pi calculation of this magnitude.

Here’s Emma’s recipe for what started out as a pie-in-the-sky idea to break a Guinness World Records title:

Step 1: Find inspiration for your calculation.

When Emma was 12 years old, she became fascinated with pi. “Pi seems simple—it starts with 3.14. When I was a kid, I downloaded a program to calculate pi on my computer,” she says. “At the time, the world record holders were Yasumasa Kanada and Daisuke Takahashi, who are Japanese, so it was really relatable for me growing up in Japan.”

Later on, when Emma was in college, one of her professors was Dr. Daisuke Takahashi, then the record holder for calculating the most accurate value of pi using a supercomputer. “When I told him I was going to start this project, he shared his advice and some technical strategies with me.”

Step 2: Combine your ingredients.

To calculate pi, Emma used an application called y-cruncher on 25 Google Cloud virtual machines. “The biggest challenge with pi is that it requires a lot of storage and memory to calculate,” Emma says. Her calculation required 170 terabytes of data to complete—that's roughly equivalent to the amount of data in the entire Library of Congress print collections.

Emma

Step 3: Bake for four months.

Emma’s calculation took the virtual machines about 121 days to complete. During that whole time, the Google Cloud infrastructure kept the servers going. If there’d been any failures or interruptions, it would’ve disrupted the calculation. When Emma checked to see if her end result was correct, she felt relieved when the number checked out. “I started to realize it was an exciting accomplishment for my team,” she says.

Step 4: Share a slice of your achievement.

Emma thinks there are a lot of mathematical problems out there to solve, and we’re just at the beginning of exploring how cloud computing can play a role. “When I was a kid, I didn’t have access to supercomputers. But even if you don’t work for Google, you can apply for various scholarships and programs to access computing resources,” she says. “I was very fortunate that there were Japanese world record holders that I could relate to. I’m really happy to be one of the few women in computer science holding the record, and I hope I can show more people who want to work in the industry what’s possible.”

At Google, Emma is a Cloud Developer Advocate, focused on high-performance computing and programming language communities. Her job is to work directly with developers, helping them to do more with the cloud and share information about how products work. And now, she’s also sharing her calculations: Google Cloud has published the computed digits entirely as disk snapshots, so they’re available to anyone who wants to access them. This means anyone can copy the snapshots, work on the results and use the computation resources in less than an hour. Without the cloud, the only way someone could access such a large dataset would be to ship physical hard drives. 

Today, though, Emma and her team are taking a moment to celebrate the new world record. And maybe a piece of pie, too. Emma’s favorite flavor? “I like apple pie—not too sweet.”

For the technical details on how Emma used Google Compute Engine to calculate pi, head over to the Google Cloud Platform blog.

Ask a Techspert: What is quantum computing?

Editor’s Note: Do you ever feel like a fish out of water? Try being a tech novice and talking to an engineer at a place like Google. Ask a Techspert is a new series on the Keyword asking Googler experts to explain complicated technology for the rest of us. This isn’t meant to be comprehensive, but just enough to make you sound smart at a dinner party.

Quantum computing sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie. But it’s real, and scientists and engineers are working to make it a practical reality. Google engineers are creating chips the size of a quarter that could revolutionize the computers of tomorrow. But what is quantum computing, exactly?

The Keyword’s very first Techspert is Marissa Giustina, a research scientist and quantum electronics engineer in our Santa Barbara office. We asked her to explain how this emerging technology actually works.

What do we need to know about conventional computers when we think about quantum computers?

At a first glance, “information” seems like an abstract concept. Sure, information can be stored by writing and drawing—humans figured that out a long time ago. Still, there doesn’t seem to be anything physically tangible about the process of thinking.

Enter the personal computer. It’s a machine—a purely physical object—that manipulates information. So how does it do that, if it’s a physical machine and information is abstract? Well, information is actually physical. Computers store and process rich, detailed information by breaking it down. At a low level, a computer represents information as a series of “bits.” Each bit can take a value of either [0] or [1], and physically, these bits are tiny electrical switches that can be either open [0] or closed [1]. Emails, photos and videos on YouTube are all represented by long sequences of bits—long rows of tiny electrical switches inside a computer.

The computer “computes” by manipulating those bits, like changing between [0] and [1] (opening or closing a switch), or checking whether two bits have equal or opposite values and setting another bit accordingly. These bit-level manipulations are the basis of even the fanciest computer programs.

Ones and zeros, like "The Matrix." Got it. So then what is a quantum computer?

A quantum computer is a machine that stores and manipulates information as quantum bits, or “qubits,” instead of the “classical” bits we were talking about before. Quantum bits are good at storing and manipulating a different kind of information than classical bits, since they are governed by rules of quantum mechanics—the same rules that govern the behavior of atoms and molecules.

What’s the difference between a bit and a qubit?

This is where it gets more complicated. Remember that a classical bit is just a switch: it has only two possible configurations: [open] or [closed]. A qubit’s configuration has a lot more possibilities. Physicists often think of a qubit like a little globe, with [0] at the north pole and [1] at the south pole, and the qubit’s configuration is represented by a point on the globe. In manipulating the qubit, we can send any point on the globe to any other point on the globe.

At first, it sounds like a qubit can hold way more information than a regular bit. But there’s a catch: the “rules” of quantum mechanics restrict what kinds of information we can get out of a qubit. If we want to know the configuration of a classical bit, we just look at it, and we see that the switch is either open [0] or closed [1]. If we want to know the configuration of a qubit, we measure it, but the only possible measurement outcomes are [0] (north pole) or [1] (south pole). A qubit that was situated on the equator will measure as [0] 50 percent of the time and [1] the other 50 percent of the time. That means we have to repeat measurements many times in order to learn about a qubit’s actual configuration.

Quantum computing

Researcher Marissa Giustina (right) in the Google AI Quantum hardware lab shares quantum computing hardware with Google executives. On the left, you can see the coldest part of a cryostat and some quantum hardware mounted to the bottom.

So if qubits are so tricky to measure, how can you build a quantum computer?

Well, you’re right—it’s complicated! My main focus at Google, together with my teammates, is to figure out how to build a quantum computer and how we can use it. Years of research have given us a pretty good idea of how to build and control a few quantum bits, but the process of scaling up to a full quantum processor is not just “copy-paste.” We’re also continuing to investigate possible uses of quantum computers, where there’s a lot that's unknown. It’s wrong to think of a quantum computer as a more powerful version of your regular computer. Instead, each is a machine that’s good at certain—and different—kinds of tasks. If you’re going to your local grocery store, you’d take a car or walk, but you wouldn’t take a plane or a spaceship.

What does a quantum computer look like?

In our hardware at Google, the qubits are resonant electrical circuits made of patterned aluminum on a silicon chip. In our qubits, electricity sloshes around the circuit at a lower or higher energy to encode the quantum version of [0] and [1]. We use aluminum because at very low temperatures aluminum becomes superconducting, which means it experiences no electrical loss. By “very low temperatures” I mean that we operate our quantum processors in a special refrigerator called a cryostat, which cools the chips to below 50 millikelvin—significantly colder than outer space!

When you see pictures of “a quantum computer,” usually you notice the cryostat—which is bigger than a person. But that’s just the shell, providing the proper environment for the processor to function. The quantum processor itself is a silicon chip installed in the cryostat, and is closer to the size of a coin. The qubits are small, roughly 0.1 mm across, but not that small—you can see them with the naked eye (though it’s easier with a magnifying glass or microscope).

Do you know what we would use a quantum computer for?

As I mentioned, a quantum computer is a novel kind of computing machine—not a speedier or beefier version of your laptop. However, quantum computers, with their fundamentally different way of encoding and manipulating information, promise to be good at some problems that would choke regular computers. One example is the simulation of chemical reactions.

Suppose a chemist wants to develop a material—for example a better fertilizer, an anti-corrosion coating, or an efficient solar cell. Even if the chemist knows the structure of a new molecule they’re developing, they won’t know how that molecule behaves in the real world until they make it and test it. This makes materials research laborious and expensive. It would be much more efficient if researchers could simulate the behavior of a new molecule before synthesizing it in the lab. However, every atom in a molecule is affected by every other atom, which means that each time you add an atom to a molecule, there are twice as many parameters to include in the simulation. As a result, chemistry simulation becomes impossible for a classical computer, even for relatively small molecules. The quantum computer, in contrast, is based in the same physics that governs the molecule’s behavior. I’m optimistic that quantum computers could change the way we do research on materials.

Wow, that’s exciting. Where can I learn more about this?

I’m so glad you asked! My teammates and I are working on a series of videos to explain the basics of our work in more detail—you can find them below.

What is a quantum computer?