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GeekWire

Microsoft teams up with SpaceX for cloud computing

Microsoft says it’s taking the next giant leap in cloud computing, in partnership with SpaceX and its Starlink broadband satellite constellation.

“By partnering with leaders in the space community, we will extend the utility of our Azure capabilities with worldwide satellite connectivity, unblock cloud computing in more scenarios and empower our partners and customers to achieve more,” Tom Keane, corporate vice president for Microsoft Azure Global, said in a blog post.

The partnership with SpaceX is just one of the big revelations in today’s unveiling of Microsoft’s Azure Space cloud computing platform.

Microsoft also took the wraps off the Azure Modular Datacenter, or MDC, a mobile, containerized data hub that contains its own networking equipment and is capable of connecting to the cloud via terrestrial fiber, wireless networks or satellite links.

“If you choose, you can run this device completely disconnected from the rest of the world,” Bill Karagounis, general manager for Azure Global Industry Sovereign Solutions, said in a video describing the data center.

Today’s announcement builds on Microsoft’s earlier rollout of Azure Orbital, a satellite data processing platform that provides ground-station communications as a service. Azure Orbital, which is currently available in private preview, will become part of the wider Azure Space ecosystem.

The developments put Microsoft in the forefront of space-based cloud computing, alongside Amazon Web Services and its recently formed Aerospace and Satellite Solutions business unit. They’re also likely to turn cloud computing into yet another battleground for the multibillion-dollar rivalry between SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who founded the Blue Origin space venture.

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GeekWire

OceanGate copes with COVID-19 as it targets Titanic

Everett, Wash.-based OceanGate is getting ready to send explorers down to survey the wreck of the Titanic in its own custom-made submersible, but sometimes coping with the coronavirus pandemic can seem as challenging as diving 12,500 feet beneath the Atlantic Ocean’s surface.

For example, there was the time OceanGate had to retrieve carbon-fiber material that was held up at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama due to a coronavirus-caused lockdown.

“They had to send a hazmat team into the facility,” OceanGate’s founder and CEO, Stockton Rush, recalled today. “This was in March, and we got our material and our equipment out. I don’t believe NASA is back up and operating even now.”

In hindsight, sending in the hazmat team “was the right thing to do” despite the hassle and expense, Rush said, because that kept OceanGate’s hull fabrication process on track for next summer’s scheduled dives to the Titanic.

Now that process is well underway at Electroimpact and Janicki Industries, two companies north of Seattle that are better-known as aerospace contractors.

Rush said the experience taught him a lesson that other startup CEOs can apply as they cope with the pandemic’s effects: “Being nimble and not waiting is the only way to survive,” he said.

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GeekWire

Pentagon will test 5G for virtual reality missions

Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state is participating in a $600 million Pentagon program to test the use of 5G connectivity for high-tech applications.

JBLM’s piece of the program will focus on 5G-enabled applications that make use of augmented reality and virtual reality for mission planning, training and operations, the Department of Defense said today. The other sites involved in the experimentation and testing program are Hill Air Force Base in Utah, Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany in Georgia, Naval Base San Diego in California, and Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.

“Through these test sites, the department is leveraging its unique authorities to pursue bold innovation at a scale and scope unmatched anywhere else in the world,” Michael Kratsios, acting under secretary of defense for research and engineering, said in a news release.

JBLM’s AR/VR project will also involve the U.S. Army’s Yakima Training Center in central Washington state.

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Cosmic Tech

IonQ goes big in quantum computing’s numbers game

Bragging rights in quantum computing, like quantum mechanics itself, can get fuzzy. Take today’s claim from IonQ that it’s creating “the world’s most powerful quantum computer.”

To back up that claim, IonQ is turning to a metric known as quantum volume. That’s a multidimensional yardstick that combines stats ranging from the number of quantum bits (a.k.a. qubits) in a computer to the system’s error rate and cross-qubit connectivity.

In today’s news release, IonQ says its next-generation system will feature 32 “perfect” qubits with low gate errors, penciling out to a quantum volume value in excess of 4 million.

Taken at face value, that would take some of the steam out of this week’s announcement by Honeywell that its quantum computing system achieved a quantum volume of 128. Which took some of the steam out of IBM’s announcement in August that it reached a quantum volume of 64. And IBM is the company that came up with the metric.

The numbers game highlights the fact that the competition in quantum computing is just getting started, more than two decades after computer scientists laid out the theoretical foundations for the field.

Under the best of circumstances, quantum computing is hard to wrap your brain around. Rather than dealing with the cold, hard ones and zeroes of classical computing, the quantum paradigm relies on qubits that can represent multiple values at the same time.

The approach is particularly well-suited for solving problems ranging from breaking (or protecting) cryptographic codes, to formulating the molecular structures for new materials and medicines, to optimizing complex systems such as traffic patterns and financial markets.

Players in the quantum computing game include heavy-hitters such as IBM, Google and Honeywell — as well as startups such as Maryland-based IonQ, California-based Rigetti and B.C.-based D-Wave Systems.

Different approaches are being used. IBM, Google and Rigetti are focusing on superconducting logic gates; IonQ uses trapped-ion technology; and D-Wave relies on quantum annealing.

The important thing to keep in mind is that different technologies from different providers (including IonQ, Rigetti and D-Wave) are being offered on the quantum cloud platforms offered by Amazon and Microsoft. IBM and Google, meanwhile, provide their quantum tools as options on their own cloud computing platforms.

Developers who want to make use of quantum data processing aren’t likely to go out and buy a dedicated quantum computer. They’re more likely to choose from the cloud platforms’ offerings — just as a traveler who wants to rent a snazzy car from Hertz or from Avis can go with a Corvette or a Mustang.

That’s where metrics make the difference. If you can show potential customers that your quantum machine has more horsepower, you’re likely to do better in an increasingly competitive market.

Last year, IBM’s 53-qubit computer was touted as the world’s most powerful quantum processor, while Google claimed “quantum supremacy” with its own 54-qubit machine. And the ante is repeatedly being upped: Last month, IBM said it would pass the 1,000-qubit mark in 2023 and aim for a million-qubit computer over the longer term.

In contrast, IonQ emphasizes qubit quality over quantity. “We’re not going to throw a million qubits on the table unless we can do millions of operations,” co-founder and chief scientist Chris Monroe told me last December.

Peter Chapman, the former Amazon exec who now serves as IonQ’s CEO and president, said quantum computing should prove its worth well before the million-qubit mark.

“In a single generation of hardware, we went from 11 to 32 qubits, and more importantly, improved the fidelity required to use all 32 qubits,” Peter Chapman, the former Amazon exec who now serves as IonQ’s CEO and president, said in today’s news release.

“Depending on the application, customers will need somewhere between 80 and 150 very high-fidelity qubits and logic gates to see quantum advantage,” Chapman said. “Our goal is to double or more the number of qubits each year.”

IonQ’s 32-qubit hardware will be rolled out initially as a private beta, and then will be made commercially available via Amazon Braket and Microsoft Azure Quantum.

As we await the next raise in the numbers game, it might be a good idea to set up a trusted authority to take charge of the standards and benchmarking process for quantum computing — similar to how the TOP500 has the final word on which supercomputers lead the pack.

Such an authority could definitively determine who has the world’s most powerful quantum computer. Or would that violate the weird rules of quantum indeterminacy?

Update for 3:35 p.m. PT Oct. 5: We’ve added more precise language and links to describe the distinctions between different types of quantum computing technology.

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GeekWire

Aviation vision fueled by hydrogen and electricity

Redmond, Wash.-based MagniX says it’s partnering with a Los Angeles startup called Universal Hydrogen to retrofit 40-passenger regional aircraft with carbon-free, hydrogen-fueled electric powertrains.

The partnership opens up a new frontier for MagniX, which is already involved in flight tests for all-electric versions of smaller airplanes such as the de Havilland Beaver (for Vancouver, B.C.-based Harbour Air) and the Cessna Grand Caravan.

This time, MagniX and Universal Hydrogen aim to transform the de Havilland Canada DHC8-Q300, better known as the Dash 8. The Dash 8 is a time-honored twin turboprop traditionally used for commercial regional air service. If the project succeeds, the lessons learned can be applied for the development of retrofit conversion kits for the wider ATR 42 family of aircraft.

Universal Hydrogen’s plan for the Dash 8 calls for MagniX to provide an electric propulsion system in the 2-megawatt class for each wing, powered by hydrogen fuel cells.

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GeekWire

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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Fiction Science Club

‘Twin Peaks’ star channels tech genius in ‘Tesla’

Can you picture Thomas Edison with a smartphone? Or poking a rival with an ice-cream cone? When you watch Kyle MacLachlan play one of America’s most famous inventors in the movie “Tesla,” you can.

And wait until you hear which 21st-century tech genius MacLachlan would love to portray next.

“The story of Elon Musk would be interesting, just because I think he’s a quirky fellow,” MacLachlan told me during an interview for the inaugural Fiction Science podcast. “That would be challenging, to understand who that his, and how he moves through the world, what he thinks, how he interacts with people.”

MacLachlan is pretty good at playing quirky roles. His best-known character is FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper, who delves into dark secrets, interdimensional weirdness and damn fine coffee in “Twin Peaks,” the classic TV series directed by David Lynch.

In a wide-ranging Q&A, MacLachlan and I talked about “Tesla” and “Twin Peaks,” as well as “Dune,” the science-fiction cult classic (or classic flop, depending on your perspective) from 1984 that marked his big-budget movie debut.

To cut to the chase, proceed directly to the Fiction Science podcast, which is also available via Apple, Spotify, Breaker, Pocket Casts and Radio Public.

It’s interesting that MacLachlan makes a connection between Thomas Edison and Elon Musk. Just as Musk has a long-running rivalry with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos over rockets and cars, Edison butted heads with Nikola Tesla, a Croatian-born genius who was more eccentric in real life than Agent Cooper was on “Twin Peaks.”

The Edison vs. Tesla rivalry had to do with how best to distribute electricity, which was revolutionizing the American economy in the late 1800s. Edison favored the direct-current approach, which pushed the electrical charge in one unvarying direction. Tesla, in contrast, championed alternating current, which involves reversing the direction of the electrical flow dozens of times per second.

Edison argued that DC was safer than AC, and his associates went so far as to have dogs electrocuted with alternating current to prove his point (though a tale about electrocuting an elephant is said to be overblown). Despite Edison’s efforts, AC eventually won out — largely because DC electricity couldn’t be transmitted across long distances.

Tesla went on to blaze trails in wireless communication and power transmission — technologies that are continuing to change the world. But as brilliant as Tesla was as an engineer, he was a total failure as a businessman. He ended up dying penniless in a New York hotel room,

Edison, meanwhile, reaped fame and fortune — in part because of his pragmatism and hardheaded business sense.

“If he was working on something and it didn’t work, he would just try something else,” MacLachlan told me. “It was really that simple. There wasn’t a whole lot of thought given to it. It was just, ‘Let’s bring up the next thing and give that a shot, and see if that gets the job done.'”

Tesla’s life has been touched upon previously in TV shows and movies: In “The Prestige,” David Bowie played him as something of a light-bringing demigod with a Frankensteinian twist. More recently, Nicholas Hoult played Tesla as a foil to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Edison in “The Current War.” Both Edison and Tesla have had their turns in the documentary spotlight as part of PBS’ “American Experience” series.

In head-to-head match-ups with Edison, Tesla tends to come off as the lesser-known underdog. In fact, filmmaker David Grubin told me that when he was asked to do the Tesla documentary, he initially thought it was about the electric car built by Musk’s company of the same name.

In the new movie, veteran actor Ethan Hawke plays Tesla as an earnest electricity nerd who suffers outages in business — but nevertheless generates sparks with women admirers including actress Sarah Bernhardt and Anne Morgan (the scion of industrialist J.P. Morgan).

Anne, played by Eve Hewson, serves as the movie’s narrator and occasionally addresses the audience directly as she pulls up pictures of Tesla on a MacBook. After the Tesla vs. Edison ice-cream fight, Anne immediately sets viewers straight: “This is pretty surely not how it happened, but what can I tell you?” she says.

Those aren’t the only anachronisms engineered by “Tesla” director Michael Almereyda: In one scene, Edison is seen idly thumbing a smartphone, while in another, Tesla sings a karaoke rendition of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.”

But not every weird twist in “Tesla” is an anachronism; some of them are true to life. Tesla really did rub elbows with Sarah Bernhardt and Anne Morgan, and he really did have many of the eccentricities shown in the movie — including an aversion to pearl necklaces and a need to polish his dinnerware with a set of 18 napkins before using them.

Toward the end of the movie, Tesla is shown obsessing over particle-beam weapons and the “statistical certainty” of extraterrestrial life. Back in Tesla’s time, such ideas may have seemed like science-fiction tales at best, and delusions at worst — but today they’re being taken totally seriously.

It’s debatable whether “Tesla” will succeed at the box office, but the mere fact that the movie was made with such high-profile stars argues that the real-life Tesla won’t be forgotten. And in case we’re ever tempted to forget, we should remember every time we switch on a light, flip open a laptop — or watch the movie on a mobile device.

Speaking of movies, here’s a video from astrophysicist Andy Howell that explains the AC vs. DC battle between Tesla and Edison in the context of “The Current War.”

IFC Films’ “Tesla” opens in theaters and on demand on Aug. 21. Use the form at the bottom of this post to subscribe to Cosmic Log, and stay tuned for future episodes of the Fiction Science podcast via Anchor, Apple, Spotify, Breaker, Pocket Casts and Radio Public.

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GeekWire

Kymeta buys a company to boost satellite services

Kymeta Corp. — the satellite antenna venture that’s based in Redmond, Wash., and backed by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates — has extended its reach into the service side of the satellite industry by acquiring Lepton Global Solutions.

Executives for the two companies said the move should strengthen their hand as they pursue contracts for government and military communications systems.

“Having a turnkey satellite service provider like Lepton accelerates Kymeta’s ability to successfully penetrate U.S. military and government customers in partnership with a well-established brand, deep channel experience and network support for those verticals,” Walter Berger, Kymeta’s president and chief operating officer, said today in a news release.

Rob Weitendorf, managing partner at Lepton, said he was excited to become part of Kymeta’s corporate family.

“We think the Kymeta antenna has changed the satellite marketplace, especially in the mobility world inside the government, whether it be for the U.S. Army or Coast Guard, or the Border Patrol or the U.S. Forest Service,” he told GeekWire. “The need for connectivity in the government marketplace has never been stronger.”

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GeekWire

Quantum computing goes public at Amazon

Eight months after unveiling its Amazon Braket quantum computing platform, Amazon Web Services says the cloud-based service is officially open for business.

In a video that pokes a bit of fun at the weirdness of quantum concepts, Bill Vass, vice president for AWS technology, says Braket serves as a “launch pad for people to go explore quantum computing.”

In contrast to the rigid one-or-zero realm of classical computing, Braket and similar platforms take advantage of the fuzziness of quantum algorithms, in which quantum bits — or “qubits” — can represent multiple values simultaneously until the results are read out.

Quantum computing is particularly well-suited for tackling challenges ranging from cryptography — which serves as the foundation of secure online commerce — to the development of new chemical compounds for industrial and medical use. Some of the first applications could well be in the realm of system optimization, including the optimization of your financial portfolio.

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Cosmic Tech

FCC boosts WiBotic’s wireless charging system

The Federal Communications Commission has given the go-ahead for Seattle-based WiBotic’s wireless charging system to provide up to 300 watts of over-the-air power to robots, drones and other battery-powered devices.

WiBotic says that’s a first for the industry.

“FCC approval is not only an accomplishment for our team, but also for our customers and the industry,” WiBotic CEO Ben Waters said today in a news release.

“Previously, only low-power cellphone and small electronics chargers or very high-power electric vehicle chargers were approved for widespread use,” Waters said. “WiBotic is now providing a solution that lets the entire automation industry take advantage of the wireless power revolution.”

The FCC’s authorization, issued last month, should boost confidence among WiBotic’s customers that the company’s system meets regulatory requirements. “This will let them deploy larger fleets faster than would otherwise be possible,” the company’s vice president for business development, told Unite.ai’s Antoine Tardif in an interview.

WiBotic’s system lets drones charge themselves up automatically when they touch down on a charging pad. Robots can pull up to a charging station and pull in power via antennas. WiBotic is also working with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute on a wireless power system for underwater sensors.

The company’s power management software can work with the hardware to optimize battery use for entire fleets of electric-powered machines, without a human ever having to handle a plug. In a June interview, Waters said the hands-off approach is a particularly strong selling point as companies that rely on automation struggle to cope with the coronavirus pandemic.

WiBotic, which was spun out from the University of Washington in 2015, reported raising $5.7 million in a Series A funding round in June, bringing total investment to nearly $9 million. Investors in that round included Junson Capital, SV Tech Ventures, Rolling Bay Ventures, Aves Capital, The W Fund and WRF.

The company is working with an array of customers that include Waypoint RoboticsClearpath Robotics and Aero Corp.

This report was published on Cosmic Log. Accept no substitutes.