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Northwest researchers get in on a quantum leap

Microsoft, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the University of Washington are playing supporting roles in the White House’s $1 billion effort to advance research into artificial intelligence and quantum information science.

Those three organizations have already been working together through the Northwest Quantum Nexus to develop the infrastructure for quantum computers, which promise to open up new possibilities in fields ranging from chemistry to systems optimization and financial modeling.

The initiatives announced today are likely to accelerate progress toward the development of commercial-scale quantum computers, Chetan Nayak, Microsoft’s general manager for quantum hardware, said in a blog posting.

“Today marks one of the U.S. government’s largest investments in the field,” he said. “It is also a noteworthy moment for Microsoft, which is providing scientific leadership in addition to expertise in workforce development and technology transfer.”

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Microsoft’s Eric Horvitz sees AI-human synergy

Eric Horvitz
Eric Horvitz, the director of Microsoft Research Labs, discusses trends in artificial intelligence during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Artificial intelligence is often portrayed as a rising competitor for human intelligence, in settings ranging from human-vs.-machine card games to the “Terminator” movie series. But according to Eric Horvitz, the director of Microsoft Research Labs, the hottest trends in AI have more to do with creating synergies between the humans and the machines.

Mastering human-AI collaboration is something “we don’t hear enough about in the open press,” Horvitz said Feb. 15 during a lecture at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Seattle.

He ticked off several examples where humans and AI agents can create a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

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UW, Microsoft join $25M DNA data storage project

Image: DNA in test tube
All the movies, images and other digital data from more than 600 basic smartphones (10 terabytes) can be stored in the pink smear of DNA at the end of this test tube. (Credit: Tara Brown Photography / UW)

The University of Washington and Microsoft will take part in a federally funded effort to develop data storage techniques using synthetic DNA.

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Automated DNA data storage demonstrated

DNA data storage system
Microsoft and University of Washington researchers built an automated system that was fed by bottles of chemicals to encode date in custom-designed DNA molecules. (Microsoft / UW Image)

DNA data storage holds the promise of putting huge amounts of information into a test tube — but who wants to carry test tubes around a data center all day?

Researchers from Microsoft ahd the University of Washington are working on a better way: a completely automated system that can turn digital bits into coded DNA molecules for storage, and turn those molecules back into bits when needed.

They used their proof-of-concept system, described in a paper published today in Nature Scientific Reports, to encode the word “hello” in strands of DNA and then read it out. That may sound like a ridiculously simple task, but it served to show that the system works.

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What will quantum computing do for us?

Microsoft researchers
Microsoft’s Krysta Svore and David Reilly work on hardware for a quantum computer. (Microsoft Photo)

Quantum computer scientist Krysta Svore has a dream.

In her dream, she arrives at the week’s Northwest Quantum Nexus Summit at the University of Washington in a self-driving car that uses quantum computation to sharpen the precision of its GPS readings and optimize its route through traffic. “So I got here faster than I ever have before,” Svore said.

“I paid with my quantum credit card, which I know no one has stolen, because it’s fully secure,” she said  “On the way, I looked outside, and the air was crisp and clear. We have more carbon being extracted from the atmosphere. We have cleaner energy solutions. In fact, the country was just rewired with room-temperature superconducting cable, so we have lossless power transmission across the United States.”

In Svore’s dream, quantum computers have optimized the routes for transmitting that power, and have also come up with the chemistry for super-efficient storage batteries, turning solar and wind power into always-available electricity. “All of this is leading to a lower power bill for me,” she said.

Svore dreams of quantum technologies that can design new drugs on the molecular scale, map distant black holes with incredible precision and create new types of games that will help the next generation get used to how the weird world of quantum physics works.

“This was my dream last night,” Svore said. “The world was different. It was quantum. But in fact, this dream is here. The world is quantum. And it’s in our hands today to create this dream, to create it here in the Northwest.”

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Northwest pioneers team up on quantum frontier

PNNL reasearchers
Researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory plan to employ quantum computing to develop new materials for chemical applications. (Microsoft Azure via YouTube)

Experts in the weird and woolly field of quantum computing tend to concentrate on one slice of the challenge, whether it’s developing hardware, algorithms or applications — but in the region that’s home to Microsoft and Amazon, the University of Washington and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, a new consortium is going after the whole stack.

We’re not talking about pancakes or sandwiches here. We’re talking about the Northwest Quantum Nexus, which is aiming to widen a network of quantum connections for researchers, developers and business leaders. The group, led by Microsoft Quantum, PNNL and UW, was formally unveiled today in advance of its inaugural summit this week at the university.

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AI2 and Microsoft join forces on academic search

Microsoft Academic Graph
A chart generated by Microsoft Academic Graph shows the interconnections between a group of research authors associated with Microsoft, with Nathan Myhrvold and Bill Gates at the center and Satya Nadella, the company’s current CEO, highlighted on the periphery. (Microsoft via YouTube)

The Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, also known as AI2, is partnering with Microsoft Research to widen the sphere of scientific search tools by connecting AI2’s Semantic Scholar academic search engine with the Microsoft Academic Graph.

Semantic Scholar is a free online tool makes use of artificial intelligence to maximize the relevance of search results for studies focusing on computer science and biomedicine. Its database takes in more than 40 million academic papers, plus associated blog items, news reports, videos and other resources.

Since its inception in 2015, Semantic Scholar’s user base has grown to more than 2 million monthly users.

Microsoft Academic Graph, meanwhile, charts the networks that knit together more than 200 million academic documents and citations on a wide variety of scientific subjects.

Doug Raymond, Semantic Scholar’s general manager, said the new collaboration is in line with his project’s goal of combating information overload in the scientific community. “This partnership with Microsoft Research relates to our shared interest in this problem,” Raymond told GeekWire.

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Microsoft is turning down some sales over AI ethics

Eric Horvitz
Microsoft Research Lab’s Eric Horvitz speaks at Carnegie Mellon University. (CMU via YouTube)

Concerns over the potential abuse of artificial intelligence technology have led Microsoft to cut off significant sales, says Eric Horvitz, technical fellow and director at Microsoft Research Labs.

Horvitz laid out Microsoft’s commitment to AI ethics today during the Carnegie Mellon University – K&L Gates Conference on Ethics and AI, presented in Pittsburgh.

One of the key groups focusing on the issue at Microsoft is the Aether Committee, where “Aether” stands for AI and Ethics in Engineering and Research.

“It’s been an intensive effort … and I’m happy to say that this committee has teeth,” Horvitz said during his lecture.

He said the committee reviews how Microsoft’s AI technology could be used by its customers, and makes recommendations that go all the way up to senior leadership.

“Significant sales have been cut off,” Horvitz said. “And in other sales, various specific limitations were written down in terms of usage, including ‘may not use data-driven pattern recognition for use in face recognition or predictions of this type.’ ”

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Scientists double down on DNA data storage

DNA data storage experiment
The University of Washington’s Luis Ceze and Lee Organick prepare DNA containing digital data for sequencing. (UW Photo / Tara Brown Photography)

Twist Bioscience says it’s extending its collaboration with Microsoft and the University of Washington on a project aimed at perfecting a process for encoding digital data in DNA molecules.

In a news release issued today, San Francisco-based Twist said Microsoft will purchase 10 million strands of synthetic DNA from the company for use in future experiments. The deal comes more a year after an initial purchase of the same number of strands for data storage.

Last July, researchers at Microsoft and UW announced that they were able to store and read out a record 200 megabytes of DNA-encoded data with 100 percent accuracy.

“After working together for over a year, the organizations have improved storage density, thereby reducing the cost of DNA digital data storage by encoding more data per strand and increasing the throughput of DNA production,” Twist said.

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How a robo-trap zeroes in on Zika mosquitoes

Mosquito trap
Microsoft researcher Ethan Jackson sets up a robotic mosquito trap in Grenada. (Microsoft Photo)

BOSTON – Microsoft’s robotic mosquito trap is so smart it can tell one insect species from another – and that’s good news for scientists fighting the Zika virus, dengue fever and other mosquito-borne maladies.

It can also tell if you’re buzzing an electric toothbrush in its vicinity.

The toothbrush was used to dramatic effect today by Ethan Jackson, a Microsoft researcher from Redmond, Wash.

Jackson heads up Project Premonition, a research effort aimed at giving epidemiologists smarter tools for tracking disease outbreaks. Today he showed how the high-tech trap works at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting in Boston.

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