Month: February 2019

Melania Trump to learn about online safety programs for children in tour next week of Seattle-area tech company

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Melania Trump (Photo via WhiteHouse.gov)

First Lady Melania Trump is headed to the Seattle area on Monday to visit with an undisclosed tech company as part of her Be Best initiative, according to a statement from the White House.

The visit is part of a three-state tour, which will also take the first lady to Tulsa, Okla., and Las Vegas.

After visiting an elementary school in Tulsa on Monday, Trump “will then visit a tech company near Seattle, Washington to receive a tour and briefing on some of their programs and applications meant to teach children online safety, as well as technology innovations meant to help children with disabilities.”

The statement doesn’t mention the company by name, but the reference to “near Seattle” could indicate Microsoft, which is located just east of Seattle in Redmond. The company also has initiatives in the areas of online safety and is working on a number of efforts related to helping those with disabilities.

“Whether it is social media and technology or drug and alcohol abuse, children in our country and around the world are faced with many challenges,” Trump said in the statement. “Through Be Best I will continue to shine a spotlight on the well-being programs that provide children the tools and skills required for emotional, social and physical well-being and promote successful organizations, programs, and people who are helping children overcome some of the issues they face while growing up in the modern world.”

Be Best is described as an awareness program focused on the well-being of children.

Here is more from Trump when she was discussing the issue of cyber bullying with tech leaders last year, including Microsoft executive Julie Brill.

Tesla starts selling $35,000 Model 3 electric cars and shifts to online-only sales

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Tesla Model 3
Tesla has started offering the long-promised $35,000 standard version of its Model 3 electric car. (Tesla Photo)

Tesla is finally following through on its pledge to sell its Model 3 electric cars at the standard price of $35,000, but says it’s shutting down on-the-spot showroom sales to remain “financially sustainable” at the lower price point. Going forward, worldwide sales will shift to online only, the company says.

Many of Tesla’s stores will be shut down over the next few months, the company said on its website. A small number of stores in high-traffic locations will remain open as galleries, showcases and information centers, but would-be buyers will have to go online to close the deal.

Tesla touted the ease of online sales:

“You can now buy a Tesla in North America via your phone in about 1 minute, and that capability will soon be extended worldwide. We are also making it much easier to try out and return a Tesla, so that a test drive prior to purchase isn’t needed. You can now return a car within 7 days or 1,000 miles for a full refund. Quite literally, you could buy a Tesla, drive several hundred miles for a weekend road trip with friends and then return it for free.”

In a conference call with reporters, Tesla CEO Elon Musk said reducing overhead would boost the company’s long-term financial stability. “Ultimately this will be a very strong competitive strength for Tesla,” he said.

The announcement came after Musk built up the mystery surrounding today’s 2 p.m. PT announcement. Some speculated that Tesla would lift the curtain on its Model Y crossover SUV, or provide a surprise sneak peek at the all-electric pickup truck that Musk said would be “something quite unique.”

Instead, the announcement made good on Musk’s years-old promise that the Model 3 would be offered at the “affordable” base price of $35,000. Up to this point, Tesla had been selling only versions with longer range, steeper price tags and bigger profit margins.

The standard Model 3 will have 220 miles of range, a top speed of 130 mph and the ability to go from zero to 60 mph in 5.6 seconds. There’ll also be a Model 3 Standard Range Plus that offers a 240-mile range, 140 mph top speed and zero-to-60 mph acceleration in 5.3 seconds, with a price tag of $37,000 before incentives.

Tesla said the shift to online-only sales, plus “other ongoing cost efficiencies,” will open the way for reducing vehicle prices by an average of about 6 percent, “allowing us to achieve the $35,000 Model 3 price point earlier than we expected.”

Hitting the $35,000 price point should boost Tesla’s sales, but the move could also raise questions about the company’s profit margin. Musk acknowledged that Tesla is likely to report a loss for the first quarter of 2019, after turning a profit in the third and fourth quarters of 2018.

“Given that there is a lot happening in Q1, and we are taking a lot of one-time charges — there are a lot of challenges getting cars to China and Europe — we do not expect to be profitable.” Musk said. “We do think that profitability in Q2 is likely.”

Tesla has also had to deal with a controversy sparked by Musk’s tweets about Model 3 production rates, which sparked renewed legal action from the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Due to this week’s rush of developments, Tesla’s share price has taken a series of twists and turns — including an after-hours dip that came in the wake of today’s announcement.

BrandPost: An Integrated Network – Are You Sure It Means What You Think It Means?

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Vendors, especially networking vendors, use the term “integrated” to imply that their technology works with other parts of the IT infrastructure ecosystem in a blended, cohesive manner. This is especially true for cloud management platforms. However, every vendor seems to have a different idea of what the term means and the implications it has on the overall data center. In other words, an integrated network might not be as integrated as you think.

In the race for technology vendors to win market share, the devil is in the details.

The challenge for IT organizations

Businesses that are trying to build a private, on premise cloud infrastructure want the same ease of use and management experience that they would get with a public cloud service. Providers such as Amazon AWS, Microsoft Azure, or Google Cloud Platform build custom software programs to create highly-integrated environments. Software-defined aspects of compute, storage, and network infrastructure all talk to each other behind the scenes via APIs, exchanging data about their own systems state, health, and capabilities. Custom applications make for an intuitive end user experience, but this option is not feasible for all companies.

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Microsoft’s quantum computing network takes one giant leap at Startup Summit

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Quantum computer hardware
Microsoft is focusing on the development of quantum computers that take advantage of cryogenically cooled nanowires. (Microsoft Photo)

REDMOND, Wash. — Quantum computing may still be in its infancy — but the Microsoft Quantum Network is all grown up, fostered by in-house developers, research affiliates and future stars of the startup world.

The network made its official debut today here at Microsoft’s Redmond campus, during a Startup Summit that laid out the company’s vision for quantum computing and introduced network partners to Microsoft’s tools of the quantum trade.

Quantum computing stands in contrast to the classical computer technologies that have held sway for more than a half-century. Classical computing is based on the ones and zeroes of bit-based processing, while quantum computing takes advantage of the weird effects of quantum physics. Quantum bits, or qubits, needn’t represent a one or a zero, but can represent multiple states during computation.

The quantum approach should be able to solve computational problems that can’t easily be solved using classical computers, such as modeling molecular interactions or optimizing large-scale systems. That could open the way to world-changing applications, said Todd Holmdahl, corporate vice president of Microsoft’s Azure Hardware Systems Group.

“We’re looking at problems like climate change,” Holmdahl said. “We’re looking at solving big food production problems. We think we have opportunities to solve problems around materials science, personal health care, machine learning. All of these things are possible and obtainable with a quantum computer. We have been talking around here that we’re at the advent of the quantum economy.”

Todd Holmdahl
Todd Holmdahl, Microsoft corporate vice president for the Azure Hardware Systems Group, speaks during a Startup Summit kicking off the Microsoft Quantum Network. (Microsoft Photo)

Representatives from 16 startups were invited to this week’s Startup Summit, which features talks from Holmdahl and other leaders of Microsoft’s quantum team as well as demos and workshops focusing on Microsoft’s programming tools. (The closest startup to Seattle is 1QBit, based in Vancouver, B.C.)

Over the past year and a half, Microsoft has released a new quantum-friendly programming language called Q# (“Q-sharp”) as part of its Quantum Development Kit, and has worked with researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and academic institutions around the world to lay the technical groundwork for the field.

A big part of that groundwork is the development of a universal quantum computer, based on a topological architecture that builds error-correcting mechanisms right into the cryogenically cooled, nanowire-based hardware. Cutting down on the error-producing noise in quantum systems will be key to producing a workable computer.

“We believe that our qubit equals about 1,000 of our competition’s qubits,” Holmdahl said.

There’s lots of competition in the quantum computing field nowadays: IBM, Google and Intel are all working on similar technologies for a universal quantum computer, while Canada’s D-Wave Systems is taking advantage of a more limited type of computing technology known as quantum annealing.

This week, D-Wave previewed its plans for a new type of computer topology that it said would reduce quantum noise and more than double the qubit count of its existing platform, from 2,000 linked qubits to 5,000.

But the power of quantum computing shouldn’t be measured merely by counting qubits. The efficiency of computation and the ability to reduce errors can make a big difference, said Microsoft principal researcher Matthias Troyer.

For example, a standard approach to simulating the molecular mechanism behind nitrogen fixation for crops could require 30,000 years of processing time, he said. But if the task is structured to enable parallel processing and enhanced error correction, the required runtime can be shrunk to less than two days.

“Quantum software engineering is really as important as the hardware engineering,” Troyer said.

Julie Love
Julie Love, director of Microsoft Quantum Business Development, talks about the promise of quantum computing at a Startup Summit on the Microsoft campus. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Julie Love, director of Microsoft Quantum Business Development, said that Microsoft will start out offering quantum computing through Miicrosoft’s Azure cloud-based services. Not all computational problems are amenable to the quantum approach: It’s much more likely that an application will switch between classical and quantum processing — and therefore, between classical tools such as the C# programming language and quantum tools such as Q#.

“When you work in chemistry and materials, all of these problems, you hit this ‘known to be unsolvable’ problem,” Love said. “Quantum provides the possibility of a breakthrough.”

Love shies away from giving a firm timetable for the emergence of specific applications — but last year, Holmdahl predicted that commercial quantum computers would exist “five years from now.” (Check back in 2023 to see how the prediction panned out.)

The first applications could well focus on simulating molecular chemistry, with the aim of prototyping better pharmaceuticals, more efficient fertilizers, better batteries, more environmentally friendly chemicals for the oil and gas industry, and a new class of high-temperature superconductors. It might even be possible to address the climate change challenge by custom-designing materials that pull excess carbon dioxide out of the air.

Love said quantum computers would also be well-suited for addressing optimization problems, like figuring out how to make traffic flow better through Seattle’s urban core; and for reducing the training time required for AI modeling.

“That list is going to continue to evolve,” she said.

Whenever the subject quantum computing comes up, cryptography has to be mentioned as well. It’s theoretically possible for a quantum computer to break the codes that currently protect all sorts of secure transactions, ranging from email encryption to banking protocols.

Love said those code-breaking applications are farther out than other likely applications, due to the huge amount of computation resources that would be required even for a quantum computer. Nevertheless, it’s not too early to be concerned. “We have a pretty significant research thrust in what’s called post-quantum crypto,” she said.

Next-generation data security is one of the hot topics addressed $1.2 billion National Quantum Initiative that was approved by Congress and the White House last December. Love said Microsoft’s post-quantum crypto protocols have already gone through an initial round of vetting by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

“We’ve been working at this in a really open way,” she said.

Like every technology, quantum computing is sure to have a dark side as well as a bright side. But it’s reassuring to know that developers are thinking ahead about both sides.

Bill Gates salutes Paul Allen during speech at celebration for new UW computer science building

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Bill Gates speaks at a celebration event for the new Bill & Melinda Gates Center for Computer Science & Engineering. (GeekWire Photos / Taylor Soper)

Bill Gates wanted to clear something up.

Speaking at a celebration event for a new University of Washington computer science building named after the Microsoft co-founder and his wife, Gates on Thursday recalled the days when he and Paul Allen would sneak into buildings on the UW campus and tinker around with the university’s computers — a key step in the journey that led them to launch Microsoft years later.

“There is a history of work that Paul and I did here. But we didn’t actually steal or borrow the computers — they were too big,” Gates joked. “We borrowed the computer time.”

Gates showed some rare displays of emotion at the gathering on campus in Seattle where top tech, political, and education leaders convened to officially open The Bill & Melinda Gates Center for Computer Science & Engineering.

The $110 million, 135,000 square-foot building allows the UW to double enrollment capacity from 300 to 620 students per year for computer science, which has become the top first-choice major for incoming freshmen. GeekWire got a sneak peek inside the building earlier this week — see photos here.

After comments from UW president Ana Mari Cauce, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, and Microsoft President Brad Smith, Gates took the podium and immediately had the crowd chuckling.

“It’s great to be here. I live right over there,” he said, pointing outside across Lake Washington on a beautiful crisp February afternoon. “I’ve been watching, making sure this thing got built well.”

The new building was named in honor Bill and Melinda Gates after Microsoft and a group of their longtime friends gave a $30 million donation in their honor. The Gateses made their own separate $15 million contribution via the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

“It means a lot that great friends stepped up to help,” Gates said. “It’s great to celebrate that group which was so key to the success of Microsoft.”

Gates, 63, appeared to choke up when talking about the late Allen, who passed away last year at the age of 65. Allen also gave millions to the university and to the computer science program. In 2003 he donated $14 million to open the original building that bears his name and last year the school was renamed to the “Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering” after Allen gave another $40 million to the UW.

“It would have been great if Paul could have been here,” Gates said of his longtime business partner. “He deserves so much credit for what happened at Microsoft and for always believing in innovation and believing in the University of Washington. Hopefully he somewhere can appreciate the great development that is taking place here, somewhat in his honor.”

Thursday’s celebration included a shout-out to Microsoft software history.

Gates’ connection to the UW already runs deep. His parents met on campus and have been hugely impactful alumni over the past several decades. His sister, Kristianne Blake, sat on the Board of Regents for several years and was just replaced by Libby MacPhee, Gates’ other sister.

“Everyone in my Dad’s family got a degree here and served as a Regent — I’ve been very careful that I haven’t done either of those things for any university,” Gates joked. “If I ever do — which I won’t — this would be the place to do it.”

Gates said it’s “amazing” when a local university produces talented graduates who go on to launch companies and then ultimately give back to the institution.

“This state is very lucky that that’s going on here in such a strong way,” he said, adding that “the frontiers of software are as important and exciting as they’ve ever been. That’s what I’ve seen with some of the great students downstairs.”

Thursday’s event was a reunion of sorts of former Microsoft luminaries who helped make the building a reality. Those in attendance included Jeff Raikes, the former Microsoft Office chief; Craig Mundie, former Microsoft research and strategy leader; and Charles Simonyi, who oversaw the creation of Microsoft Office and donated $5 million to the building.

Gates chats with Jeff Raikes, the former Microsoft Office chief and former leader of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, at the event on Thursday.

Cauce, the UW president, described the building as “a vehicle for increasing opportunity for Washington students.” Inslee, who is reportedly set to announce a 2020 president run this week, said “this is so much beyond the world of computing.”

“The world of computing feeds every single thing that we are growing our economy and society on now,” Inslee said.

MicrosoftAmazonGoogleZillow, and Madrona Venture Group also contributed to the construction costs, in addition to funds from the university and state. More than half — $70 million — of the funding for the building came from private donors. The state provided $32.5 million and the UW put $9 million toward the building.

The names of local tech titans who provided funding are sprinkled throughout the building. There’s the “Amazon Auditorium”; the “Microsoft Cafe”; the “Google Artificial Intelligence Laboratory”; and the “Zillow Commons.” Classrooms and other spaces are named after Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos; Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella; Microsoft President Brad Smith; Zillow co-founder and CEO Rich Barton; and several other current and former Seattle-area tech leaders.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee shakes hands with Microsoft President Brad Smith.

Smith, the Microsoft president who helped lead fundraising efforts, called it a “wonderful journey” that brought together not only friends of the university but also tech giant rivals who are investing in program’s future.

“Even more than the building itself, what’s really important is what goes on inside: the teaching, the research, the learning,” Smith said.

Since Allen helped open the original UW CSE building, demand for computer science graduates has skyrocketed in the Seattle region, thanks to a strong startup ecosystem, Amazon’s rapid growth, and the opening of Seattle-area engineering offices by Google, Facebook, and many other tech companies based outside the region. About 90 percent of UW CSE graduates remain in-state after completing their degree.

See more photos of the new building here.

BrandPost: The Resurrection of On-Premises Infrastructure

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It wasn’t that long ago that industry experts were quick to declare on-premises computing a thing of the past. It seemed like everyone was moving toward the public cloud, and pundits were calling on-premises computing dead and buried.

Fast forward a few years, and those very same experts were beginning to backtrack. Maybe on-premises infrastructure wasn’t as dead as we’d thought. An interesting headline appeared on Forbes.com: Reports of the Data Center’s Death Are Greatly ExaggeratedThe author explains that although public cloud is pervasive, the data center is actually thriving. Industry analysts seem to agree. Even public cloud vendors recognized the market is not satisfied with only public cloud – and they began pursuing on-premises opportunities. With the announcement of AWS Outposts, AWS, the largest public cloud vendor, admitted that not everything is moving to the public cloud.

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Beyond ‘Zucked,’ what concerns author Roger McNamee most about our future in tech

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Roger McNamee and his new book. (Rick Smolan Photo, left, Amazon.com Image)

Roger McNamee is a veteran investor in Silicon Valley, and one of the earliest people to invest in Facebook, even offering advice to Mark Zuckerberg when he was a young CEO.

A fan of Facebook for many years, McNamee became concerned with posts in his feed about the election early in 2016. His concerns soon grew into his own investigation into Facebook’s role in the spread of misinformation and its consequences, which he shares in his latest book, Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe, and which we reviewed last week.

He tells us that reception for his book has been “fantastic” so far, and after one week, it has made The New York Times Hardcover Nonfiction Best Seller list.

“This is an issue whose time has come,” McNamee said. “The evidence surrounding the reception to Zucked has been confirmation that there is a lot of concern out there, and a lot of uncertainty about what sources of the problem are.”

Below, McNamee talks with us more about a few other big-picture ideas from the book:

On the larger issue of tech companies’ power and responsibility for the greater public good …

This is not about Facebook or Mark [Zuckerberg]. It’s not even about Facebook or Google. Really, it’s about a Silicon Valley culture that, for the better part of two decades, was given license to innovate and disrupt at will.

They were so successful at doing that that it began to have a global impact, and now we have unintended consequences that require change.

Facebook and Google were two of the best executed startups in humanity. There is so much to admire about both of them, so much good they create, but a combination of the Valley’s culture and the business models that took them to scale, at which they amassed political power for which they were unprepared that is currently unregulated and unaccountable, and it’s been super hard for people running these companies to separate issues of politics from the issues of their business.

By the way, I’m sympathetic to that. It’s really hard to run businesses like this. We’re in this place where things we love have unintended consequences. Something’s gotta give. My role is facilitating this conversation. I don’t have answers, I mostly have questions.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. (Screenshot via YouTube)

On how Facebook affects behaviors …

No, it’s there to manipulate your attention. If you have a real-time feedback loop, what do you get to do? First, you use notifications and like buttons and stuff like that to appeal to everyone’s innate need for rewards and get them coming back. If you want them to spend a long time on your site, it makes sense to appeal to lizard-brain emotions, like fear and outrage.

The problem is when you get them coming back to a highly personalized experience, it forms habits that are good for business, but for many, it turns into behavioral addictions that can then be manipulated by someone from the outside. Think of the manipulation by people who come in from the outside to use ad tools to do things that are not socially responsible.

Obviously, none of these platforms set out to create that. I think one thing that has been hard here for the founders of these companies is that people would use the products differently than they intended. Why would they think that someone’s going to throw an election? Why would someone do that? I get that.

Amazon’s huge booth dedicated to Alexa at CES in Las Vegas. (GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy)

On data and privacy concerns with Amazon and other smart-home devices…

Think about Alexa-based products. So, there are three levels of concern around the internet of things devices that use [Amazon Echo’s] Alexa or Google Home as the voice control. No. 1, you’re putting devices that listen all the time into contexts where your guard will be lowered and where things may occur where it would be uncomfortable being listened to.

I accept Amazon at their word that if you don’t say, “Hey, Alexa,” they won’t record, but I make the point that the challenge in the space is that there are lots of other people in that formula other than Amazon. Once the data is collected, there are new use cases that emerge and promises made at Point A are forgotten at Point C, so there is that whole issue.

I think Amazon is sincere today, but if a business-use case emerged where it was attractive to record or retain more stuff, we might not hear about that in real time. It’s not that they’re bad, they just don’t perceive it as important.

Secondly, all that hardware is being made by Chinese companies cited by our intelligence agencies as potentially hostile.

And third, it’s all based on Android, which is relatively easy to hack. Wasn’t there a hack last week of the Nest home security system? All products that come to market, there are no standards on what behavior is appropriate and what limits can be. We need to make sure to have that conversation before that happens.

Amazon robot
Amazon’s robots have revolutionized warehouse operations. (Amazon / Kiva Systems Photo)

On AI taking over  …

AI you’ve got a different set of issues. What are the top three use cases? I would argue that three of top ones are eliminating white-collar jobs, telling people what to think with filter bubbles, and then telling them what to buy or enjoy with recommendation engines.

You can imagine all three as being a service to someone, but you can also imagine very significant groups that can be harmed by those things.

What makes us different? We do different kinds of work. We might believe different things, and we might enjoy different things. Are the best uses of AI to replace our jobs, what we think, and what we like?

I like convenience as much as the next person. Steve Jobs used to talk about bicycles for the mind, using technology to empower people. Those don’t seem like use cases that empower us.

(Bigstock Photo)

On more regulations for tech companies …

Companies should do the smart thing and concede behavior. Regulation is a blunt tool. Google, in particular, misread Europe. They were politely asked to stop using data in search product, and basically said, ‘We don’t care,’ and get all-time-record $5 billion antitrust fine.

The basic message is when people have decided that your behavior is inappropriate, you’re supposed to take the first offer. From their point of view, they’re going to try their best to get you to alter your behavior and be nice in the beginning, and then pull out ever bigger hammers as they go on. In Europe, Google has not understood that.

It’s reminiscent when Microsoft was approached by Justice Department in the antitrust case in mid-’90s. Nobody remembers that Intel was part of this first query. Intel said we’ll do whatever you want. Microsoft fights every step of the way and gets hit pretty hard. That’s how it works. These guys, so far at least, don’t seem to have learned the lessons of history.

On the future of how tech does business …

Fundamentally, I’m a tech optimist. I believe AI should be in the 21st century, but we need to have an understanding about what rules are.

Why is it that companies are allowed to collect data on minors? Is it OK to sell data from credit card transactions? What is geolocation data from cell companies used for? Is it OK to sell that?

My role in this whole thing, and I’ve spent a career doing this, this isn’t about people whose cultural philosophy worked well for 50 years. There were meaningful changes after the turn of the century because we suddenly didn’t have constraints on underlying technology. We had enough bandwidth, memory, storage to do whatever we wanted. All of sudden, we could have global business models that you never could do before.

It’s been a long period of laissez-faire, they do what they want. I don’t think it makes sense to continue down this path. We’ve taken the traditional model of data, marketing and advertising, where we collect data from customers to improve product or service, that’s the old model. And we’ve now taken it to this surveillance-based thing, which is to gather data not so much to improve product or service, but mostly to take data to create new products or services you never benefit from.

Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe by Roger McNamee is out now. McNamee is speaking in Seattle at Town Hall on March 30.

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