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Why Big Companies Are Investing in a Service that Listens to Phone Calls

• Jessica Leber via

Would you give your wireless carrier permission to listen in on your phone calls? Telefónica, one of the world’s largest mobile carriers, is testing a technology that can understand conversations and quickly pull up relevant information. If that info turns out to be useful, customers may want to invite it to listen in.

The technology is being built by a small San Francisco startup, Expect Labs, which is announcing strategic investments from the venture capital arms of three weighty backers today: Samsung, Intel, and Telefónica Digital, the business unit the telecom company launched in 2011 to unearth new revenue opportunities. The size of the investments was not disclosed.

Expect Labs has attracted attention because its technology is in line with the general direction that search technology has been taking with the advent of wearable computers such as watches and glasses, and Internet-connected cars and TVs. Rather than wait for users to search for something, the new technology offers up info that it thinks the user might need. The Google Now software for mobile devices, for example, already monitors its users’ locations, search history, and e-mail to call up traffic reports and other information. But Google Now doesn’t mine old-fashioned voice conversations yet. In October, Google Ventures invested in Expect Labs as part of a $2.4 million financing round by the startup.

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