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Google’s ‘quantum supremacy’ feat earns respect

Quantum computing chip
The Sycamore processor is at the heart of Google’s quantum computing project. (Google Photo / Erik Lucero)

Word that a Google-led team of researchers had achieved “quantum supremacy” with a new type of computer chip leaked out weeks ago, but today’s publication of the team’s study in the journal Nature gave outsiders their first good look at what was done. And most of them were impressed.

There were the usual caveats, of course: The project focused on a specific problem in random number generation that’s doesn’t relate directly to everyday applications, and it could be years before the technology behind Google AI Quantum’s Sycamore chip becomes commercially available.

Nevertheless, the computational demonstration provided evidence that quantum computers can do some tasks far more quickly than classical computers.

“This is an exciting scientific achievement for the quantum industry, and another step on a long journey towards a scalable, viable quantum future,” Microsoft, one of Google’s competitors in the realm of quantum computing, said in a statement emailed to GeekWire.

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Tech experts weigh in on the future of AI

AI panel
SalesPal CEO Ashvin Naik, Google Cloud’s Chanchal Chatterjee, Audioburst’s Rachel Batish and T-Mobile’s Chip Reno discuss the future of artificial intelligence at the Global AI Conference in Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Artificial intelligence can rev up recommendation engines and make self-driving cars safer. It can even beat humans at their own games. But what else will it do?

At today’s session of the Global Artificial Intelligence Conference, a panel of techies took a look at the state of AI applications — and glimpsed into their crystal balls to speculate about the future of artificial intelligence.

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Celebrate Pi Day with 31.4 trillion digits

Emma Haruka Iwao writes down pi
Google’s Emma Haruka Iwao dashes across a whiteboard to write down the first digits of pi. She used Google Compute Engine, powered by Google Cloud, to calculate pi to an accuracy of 31.4 trillion digits. (Google via YouTube)

What’s the best way to celebrate Pi Day? That’s the geeky holiday that takes place on 3/14 … in other words, today. For some, it’s a day for baking geeky pies, or getting a $3.14 deal on slices of pizza. For Google, it’s a day for breaking a world record, by calculating the irrational number’s value to 31.4 trillion digits of precision.

31,415,926,535,897 digits, to be exact.

Pi enters into every walk of life, if that walk happens to be circular. On one level, it’s the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. On another level, it’s a mystical number to contemplate, because the digits just go on, and on, and on …

Physicist Larry Shaw invented a ritual to celebrate that mystical value, and that ritual was first celebrated at San Francisco’s Exploratorium for the first time 30 years ago. It involves walking in a circular procession on 3/14 at 1:59 p.m. (in honor of 3.14159), singing happy birthday to Albert Einstein, and reveling in a pie feast (fruit and/or pizza). The ritual is celebrated at the Exploratorium to this day.

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Google kicks off $25M contest for AI social impact

AI-enabled wildfire project
California high-school students Sanjana Shah and Aditya Shah built a device that uses AI to identify areas in a forest that are susceptible to wildfires. (Google Photo)

Google today unveiled a $25 million initiative called the Google AI Impact Challenge, aimed at soliciting and supporting projects that make use of artificial intelligence to solve some of the world’s greatest social, humanitarian and environmental problems.

The global challenge is open to nonprofit organizations and public charities — and to for-profit businesses as well, as long as their projects have a charitable purpose.

Google’s call to humanitarian action is part of its broader “AI for Social Good” campaign, and comes just weeks after Google Cloud decided not to bid on the Pentagon’s $10 billion JEDI cloud computing project due to ethical concerns.

Microsoft, which is bidding on the contract, announced its own $40 million “AI for Humanitarian Action” initiative last month. And in the weeks before his death, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen set up a new organization called the Vulcan Machine Learning Center for Impact to support the use of machine learning for philanthropic projects.

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Why tech titans are leaping into quantum computing

D-Wave computer
A team member at D-Wave Systems, based in Burnaby, B.C.,, works on the dilution refrigerator system that cools the processors in the company’s quantum computer. (D-Wave Systems Photo)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The small world of quantum physics is a big deal on the frontier of computer science.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella rates quantum computing as one of three key technologies that will shape his company’s future, along with artificial intelligence and mixed reality. Google and NASA are working with D-Wave Systems to blaze a quantum trail. IBM has its Q initiative, and Boeing’s newly formed Disruptive Computing & Networks unit is targeting quantum as well.

There’s been a White House summit on quantum information science, and Congress is considering legislation that’d give quantum computing a $1.3 billion boost over the next 10 years.

What’s going on?

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Report: Google to challenge Amazon Echo Show

Lenovo Smart Display
Lenovo’s Smart Display, which is based on the voice-enabled Google Assistant AI platform, is already on the market. Now Google is said to be gearing up for its own Smart Display device. (Lenovo Photo)

Google is aiming to challenge Amazon’s Echo Show by releasing its own smart speaker equipped with a screen in time for this year’s holiday season, Nikkei Asian Review reported today.

In a report from Taipei, the Japan-based publication quoted an unnamed industry source as saying that Google is planning to ship an initial batch of 3 million units. “It’s an aggressive plan,” the source said.

Google declined to comment on the report. “We do not comment on rumors or speculation,” the Google press team told GeekWire in an email.

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Loon and Wing graduate from X moonshot factory

Wing drone
An experimental Wing drone takes flight in California. (Alphabet / Wing Photo)

Two of Google’s best-known flights of fancy, Project Loon and Project Wing, are being hatched from their X incubator to become independent businesses under the wing of Alphabet, Google’s holding company.

Loon will work with mobile network operators globally to bring internet access to a market of billions of people currently without high-speed connections.

Meanwhile, Wing is developing a drone delivery system as well as an air traffic management platform to route robotic drones safely through the skies.

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Google honors Seattle sci-fi author Octavia Butler

Octavia E. Butler
Seattle science-fiction writer Octavia E. Butler gets a star turn in today’s Google Doodle graphic.

Seattle science-fiction author Octavia E. Butler passed away in 2006, but she’s getting timely good wishes today on what would have been her 71st birthday in the form of a Google Doodle tribute.

The black writer’s work broke the “white guys with lasers” mold for science fiction by telling stories that reflected the future-day diversity she wanted to see in present-day society. Not in a preachy way, but in the form of more than a dozen thought-provoking, award-winning novels and shorter works.

In 1995, she was the first science-fiction writer to win a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” and four years later she moved from her native California to Seattle. She died unexpectedly at the age of 58 after falling and striking her head on a walkway outside her home.

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Tech companies join asteroid-tracking campaign

Asteroid tracks
The Asteroid Detection Analysis and Mapping software, or ADAM, can plot the courses of multiple asteroids and other celestial bodies, as shown in this visualization. (B612 Asteroid Institute via YouTube)

Google Cloud and AGI (a.k.a. Analytical Graphics Inc.) have gotten on board with the B612 Asteroid Institute to develop a cloud-based platform for keeping track of asteroid discoveries.

The two companies have become technology partners for the Asteroid Decision Analysis and Mapping project, or ADAM, which aims to provide the software infrastructure for analyzing the trajectories of near-Earth objects, identifying potential threats, and sizing up the scenarios for taking action if necessary.

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X: Where Google’s ideas fly high (or fizzle)

Astro Teller at X
Astro Teller, the “Captain of Moonshots” at Alphabet’s X idea factory, shows off two of X’s innovations: Google’s self-driving car, a venture that was spun off as Waymo; and the communications platform at far left that’s used on Project Loon’s balloons. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — Why does the Captain of Moonshots wear roller skates to work?

That may sound like the start of a joke, but Astro Teller provides a mostly serious answer at the complex that houses the think tank for Alphabet, Google’s parent company.

The inline skates help Teller, the captain who’s at the helm of what’s known as “X: The Moonshot Factory,” get between appointments in the 500,000-square-foot complex more quickly.

“This way I’m two minutes late as opposed to four minutes late,” he told GeekWire during a recent tour.

The clock is always ticking for Teller, and for X as well.

It’s not as if the idea of an idea factory was totally new when the Google X lab was founded in 2010. Microsoft Research has served a similar role for more than two decades. Bell Labs and IBM’s research centers go back decades further.

But today’s rapid pace of innovation and competition is increasing the pressure to turn blue-sky ideas into marketable products and services. No company, not even Alphabet, can afford to bet on every hunch. So X’s aim is to systematize the process of picking winning technologies.

“We are trying to be the card counters of innovation, not the gamblers of innovation,” Teller said.

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