This week, Peter Milmine uses Our Week in Digital to report on the news stories rocking the world of “Big Tech”.
In this weeks news, IBM have questioned Google’s claims of Quantum Supremacy. Meanwhile, Microsoft look set to hit a massive 1 billion Windows 10 devices by 2020.
Keep reading for all this and more from the Tech Titans of the ‘Valley’.
IBM hits back at Google’s claims of “Quantum Supremacy”.
Our first “Big Tech” story is about Quantum Computers. Researchers at Google claim to have developed, Sycamore – a quantum processor able to solve a technical mathematical calculation in “about 200 seconds”. Scientists estimate it would take even the most state of the art machines may have taken approximately 10,000 years to complete.
These so-called Quantum Computers are incredibly powerful machines. Essentially, they use minuscule quantum particles called qubits to process information.
Regular computers rely on a binary system of bits – ones and zeros – to operate. In contrast to this, “qubits”, may exist in multiple states of ones and zeros simultaneously.
These developments have led to Google claiming to be close to “Quantum Supremacy”. This achievement was a “milestone”; one that marks the start of a “much-anticipated computing paradigm”.
IBM cautioned that Sycamore had “no practical applications”. Instead of being useful, it is “very far” from allowing meaningful use of quantum technology for calculations and science.
Dario Gil, director of research at IBM has remarked that the claim of “quantum supremacy” and the experiment itself is likely to be misunderstood by the vast majority.
Indeed, he states;
“Quantum computers are not ‘supreme’ against classical computers because of a laboratory experiment designed to implement one very specific quantum sampling procedure with no practical applications”.
IBM has argued that this single task did not prove that quantum computers were now superior to current supercomputers. A quantum expert at UCL has backed up these concerns. Jonathan Oppenheim agreed that said the problem was that Google’s claims made it appear their computer was now better than traditional computing.
He added, “While this is a milestone, it is very far from being a quantum computer that can compute anything useful”. That being said, it is hoped quantum computing will ultimately be able to revolutionise fields of materials science, physics and chemistry in the future.
There’s still a long way to go.
For some time, many firms have been working on developing quantum computing technology that COULD have real, practical applications in the future. IBM themselves released their 14th quantum computer back in September. It is a 53 qubit model – their most powerful yet.
Despite the claims of Quantum Supremacy, Google is aware of the limitations of their model. Google’s own researchers have also noted, “realising the full promise of quantum computing still requires technical leaps.”
Microsoft to hit 1 billion Windows 10 devices in 2020.
In other “Big Tech” news, Microsoft is edging closer to hitting their 1 billion goal for Windows 10. Windows 10 is now running on more than 900 million devices. This is a huge leap from the 800 million that was achieved earlier this year.
This high growth trajectory is in part down to the drop in Windows 7 support. The drop is estimated to take place early next year. Most businesses will move to Windows 10 instead.
The past two years have been a period of strong growth for Microsoft’s Windows 10 journey.
This time last year, the software giant reached 700 million devices. In March 2019 they hit the 800m mark, and now they have secured Windows 10 on 900m devices.
In a tweet from Yusuf Medhi, Corporate VP, it was revealed that there have been more new Windows 10 devices in the last 12 months than in any previous year since Windows 10 was introduced back in 2015. He highlighted that this figure includes traditional PCs, laptops, tablets, and even devices like the HoloLens and Xbox One.
This magic 1bn number has long been Microsoft’s aim. Previously they had given themselves three years from the date of release to hit this impressive target. However, the company had to extend that timeline after it became clear that Windows Phone wasn’t working out. Now it appears that Microsoft will achieve its Windows 10 1 billion goal within five years of the operating system’s release.
Facebook buys “brain tech” start-up.
One of the “Big Tech” giants that regularly hits the news, is Facebook, this week they have bought CTRL Labs. CTRL Labs is a NY based startup which builds mind-reading computer interfaces. It has been reported this week that CTRL Labs has become the latest acquisition to the Facebook portfolio. This purchase offers further proof of the social media giant’s ambitions to forge a new kind of link between human and machine.
This news is the latest chapter in a 4 year journey which has carried Facebook toward building technologies that can read human minds. They have used in-house efforts and funded university research into brain-computer interfaces (BCIs).
Facebook’s vice president of augmented and virtual reality, Andrew Bosworth has confirmed that CTRL Labs will be joining the Facebook Reality Labs team. CTRL Labs’ founder Thomas Reardon will also add his weight to the Facebook Reality Labs Team.
The collaboration will continue to work on the CTRL flagship product. It is an armband which intercepts the signals sent by users’ brains to their hands in order to let them control a virtual keyboard or mouse. The technology allows users to type on an imaginary keyboard simply by moving their fingers in the air. It can be activated by very small twitches.
Facebook Reality Labs will, of course, continue to work on its established products. These include virtual reality headsets and augmented reality glasses.
Facebook has held a long-running interest in BCIs, and can be traced back to 2015. At this point, Facebook commissioned a “neuromarketing agency” called SalesBrain to monitor people’s mental responses to various types of adverts.
Zuckerberg remarked at the time that he can foresee a point where thoughts and feelings could be shared via the means of technology.
Move on two years to 2017, and he again revealed that Facebook had 60 people working on BCIs. Their goal is to create a mind-reading system, hopefully, one that could let users type 100 words per minute.
It doesn’t stop there. Just last month, the company said it was funding a team at the University of California to build a mind-reading system to help paralysed people communicate. They added that they wanted to make such technologies “work for everyone”.
BCIs are of course, not without their critics. Some experts have warned that BCIs will present serious challenges to privacy. Their main concern is that creators could potentially gain unfettered access directly to human brains. Forrester analyst, Fatemeh Khatibloo, for example, has queried what the response will be from regulatory bodies and legislators. In agreement, tech commentator Azeem Azhar believes that Facebook should be inveigling itself LESS into our lives, not more.
The full details of the financial settlement have not been disclosed. However, it has been suggested by some news sources that the deal is thought to be in the region of $500m and $1bn (£0.4bn and £0.8bn).
Google wins landmark ‘right to be forgotten’ case.
The ruling has stemmed from a dispute between Google and a French privacy regulator. This landmark ruling means that the world’s largest search engine only has to remove links from its search results in Europe after receiving an appropriate request.
The right to be forgotten rule gives EU citizens the power to demand data about them be deleted. In the case of search engines, Europeans have had the right to request links to pages containing sensitive personal information about them be removed since 2014. The most recent GDPR came into force in May 2018 and has added further obligations.
Google has applied the right to be forgotten since May 2014. The ECJ first determined that under some circumstances, European citizens could force search firms to delist webpages containing sensitive information about them from queries made using their names.
Google has said that since that time it has received more than 845,000 requests to remove a total of 3.3 million web addresses. About 45% of the links have been delisted.
How it’s done
This process involves a tandem approach, removing the results from its European sites – such as Google.fr, Google.co.uk and Google.de – as well as restricting results from its other sites – such as Google.com – if it detects a search is being carried out from within Europe.
Since that time though, Google has resisted censoring search results for people in other parts of the world. On the ruling, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) said;
“Currently, there is no obligation under EU law, for a search engine operator who grants a request for de-referencing made by a data subject to carry out such a de-referencing on all the versions of its search engine”.
During the hearing, Google centred its argument around the fact that authoritarian governments had the potential to attempt to cover up human rights abuses were it to be applied outside of Europe.
Following the ECJ ruling, Google issued a statement;
“Since 2014, we’ve worked hard to implement the right to be forgotten in Europe, and to strike a sensible balance between people’s rights of access to information and privacy. It’s good to see that the court agreed with our arguments.”
Unsurprisingly, the firm had support from other large tech organisations. These include Wikipedia owners, the Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the UK freedom of expression campaign group Article 19. Microsoft too added their weight behind Google’s campaign.
The case has received much interest and had the potential to hold far-reaching consequences regarding the censorship of big tech. It could have been viewed as an attempt by Europe to police a US tech giant beyond the EU’s borders.
Amazon announces privacy updates as its devices expand deeper into our home.
This week, Amazon unveiled a host of new products alongside a slew of privacy updates for its existing smart devices. These are much needed after a stream of recent privacy scandals.
Amazon has streamlined its “wake word” software – the feature that is used to command the personal assistant software, Alexa. This update has improved its accuracy by 50%. It will also decrease the likelihood that customers will inadvertently record themselves. The company will also provide a mute button that electronically disconnects microphones from Echo. They will also give users the option to opt-out of recording or delete audio recordings after a certain amount of time.
Amazon has also introduced a new privacy feature for the smart doorbells of its subsidiary, Ring. “Home Mode” will prevent the doorbell cameras from recording footage when residents are home. This added security feature will add to the “privacy zones” which had been implemented earlier this year. These zones enabled homeowners to exclude selected areas in Ring’s field of vision from being recorded or viewed live.
What are the privacy concerns?
Amazon has faced a recent backlash following its devices recording customer conversations through Alexa. Additionally, back in April, it was discovered that employees listen to Alexa voice archives to train its artificial intelligence.
Amazon also faced criticism once its public-private partnership with police forces through the smart doorbell company, Ring had been revealed. News investigations into Ring’s expanding partnerships with police forces across the US revealed that the company has partnered with more than 465 law enforcement agencies. This had understandably raised privacy and civil rights concerns.
Dave Limp, senior vice-president of devices confirmed Amazon’s new focus on security and privacy. He remarked;
“Privacy cannot be an afterthought when it comes to the devices and services we offer our customers. It has to be foundational and built in from the beginning for every piece of hardware, software, and service that we create.”
Indeed, the new developments will allow customers to have the ability to instruct Alexa to “delete everything I said today” or “delete what I just said”.
What people are saying:
Commentators have spoken out about the pressing nature of these privacy changes as Amazon seeks to expand into every aspect of our lives. This is demonstrable by the fact that Amazon is working in new spaces and integrating Alexa into a larger variety of devices.
Geoff Blaber, vice-president of research at the market analysis firm CCS Insight agrees. He says:
“The enormous breadth of new features shows that ubiquity also comes with complexity…”. He believes Amazon faces a set of new challenges as Alexa gets integrated more deeply into an ever-expanding range of devices and appliances. Indeed, “…the challenge for Amazon will be managing that complexity.”
Have any other “Big Tech” stories caught your eye this week? We’d love to hear your thoughts on Peter’s top picks. Leave your comments below!