In many ways, today perfectly encapsulated what is right and wrong with the technology ecosystem. On a day when we should be celebrating (even if it was fueled by advertising dollars) a big breakthrough in quantum computing by a Google team of scientists and engineers, we are forced to focus our precious attention on the amorality of Facebook and financial shenanigans at WeWork.
WeWork and Facebook are two totems that represent the worst of technology, and sadly also serve as the faces of Silicon Valley that the world sees every day in the headlines. How many times have we, the insiders, received an email or a message lamenting what we (as the Silicon Valley community) are doing and wondering how could it be so bad? No one has time to learn about the machine learning technologies that can help flag the likelihood of breast cancer or companies coming up with simple but important technologies to prevent neuropathy in diabetics, to name just two deserving examples.
Add to that list today’s news: Google announced a quantum computing breakthrough — a machine that can solve a math problem in 200 seconds that would have taken supercomputers 10,000 years to figure out. This engineering feat has been likened to Wright Brothers’ first plane flight in 1903 by scientists.
Yet it is drowned out by the incessant talk of the financial engineering at WeWork, a company whose financing shenanigans have had more angles than a tapeworm. Adam Neumann, its founder, is richer by a few hundred million dollars. SoftBank is papering over its own mistakes, once again proving that if are big enough, you can get away with pretty much anything. I don’t know about you, but I consider it technology’s own version of 2008.
Admittedly, allowing the buzz of news coverage to guide your thoughts can be an easy trap to fall into. So, let’s rise above it and take some time to consider Google’s big quantum breakthrough. Here is some context from Time magazine’s website.
Google does not pretend that Sycamore is remotely ready for prime time. There is far more refinement to come before it has truly practical applications—though even this first random-number result can have value in cryptography. And competitor IBM, in a skeptical blog post, argued that a conventional computer with enough storage space could solve the same problem Sycamore did in just 2.5 days, which is a lot more than 300 seconds, though admittedly a lot less than 10,000 years.Time Magazine
Mind you, IBM is not without its own hype machine, as one academic pointed out:
They argue that, by commandeering the full attention of Summit at Oak Ridge National Lab, the most powerful supercomputer that currently exists on Earth—one that fills the area of two basketball courts, and that (crucially) has 250 petabytes of hard disk space—one could just barely store the entire quantum state vector of Google’s 53-qubit Sycamore chip in hard disk. And once one had done that, one could simulate the chip in ~2.5 days, more-or-less just by updating the entire state vector by brute force, rather than the 10,000 years that Google had estimated.Prof. Scott Aaronson
Like IBM, others, too, are skeptical of Google’s quantum supremacy claims. So even if you discount Google’s hype machine which was moving at quantum speed today (I mean why else would Google CEO Sundar Pichai be interviewed in the Technology Review instead of the team members who did the work) and even if you take into account that this is a long way from becoming a commercial reality that impacts our lives, you still can’t and shouldn’t discount the momentous achievement.
“The original Wright flyer was not a useful airplane,” Scott Aaronson, a computer scientist at the University of Texas at Austin told the New York Times. “But it was designed to prove a point. And it proved the point.”
And just like that, flight stoked the imaginations of people around the world and lead us on a path of modern aviation. Today, we think of taking a plane as casually as calling a taxi. Similarly, today’s breakthrough by Google-backed scientists should inspire a generation of future engineers, scientists and artists. We need imagination and excitement to realize the potential of the future. The younger generations will not find either in the likes of WeWork, where film-flam is rewarded with billions.
Just as more substantial accomplishments are being overshadowed, so too are more serious problems. Unless you are an infrastructure nerd or in a job that depends on keeping your website up, you probably wouldn’t have noticed that a key component of Amazon Web Services (AWS) has been causing problems for a wide swath of the internet.
Parts of Amazon Web Services were effectively shoved off the internet today – at times breaking some customers’ websites – after the cloud giant came under attack.Specifically, according to Amazon’s support agents, the AWS DNS servers are being hampered by a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack, which is when miscreants attempt to overwhelm systems with junk network traffic, rendering services inaccessible.The Register UK
AWS is the largest cloud services provider, and if it can come under attack and buckle, then a lot of large and important services can crumble fast. This dependency on a few large “clouds” has made us vulnerable, and frankly, this is a time to ask the tough question of Amazon on its capabilities and preparation.
Unfortunately, you won’t get any answers from Amazon, because most reporters aren’t going to make a big fuss about this clear and present danger to the internet. Unless we have more focus on the centrality of the AWS and what could actually be its weaknesses, we won’t quite understand the problems.
Meanwhile, as I’ve said, the media corps are focusing all their energies on stories like the lies and half truths of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg during his defense of Facebook in Washington, D.C. And to be fair, it is not like they have an option. The tail is wagging the dog now. In the past, the media would tell their readers what is important. In the world of Facebook and Twitter, readers — with their likes, hearts and shares — define what is important, no matter how banal it turns out to be. It is too late to bemoan the context-less distribution of information.
It is pretty well known to many of us who have been following the company for more than a decade that Facebook lies — constantly, blatantly and consistently. It acts contrite, admits mistakes, and sometimes is willing to pay billions in fines, but that is to paper over more lying. Facebook is a corporate version of a sociopath. Either our politicians must actually do something about the company, or this charade is essentially just a ruse to win votes and should be stopped. (Tony Romm from The Washington Post has a good, solid and well reported review of day’s proceedings, if you are so inclined to read it.)
But this is nothing new. Barring some unexpected change, it will be just as true tomorrow and the next day and so on. The only new thing today that actually changed our future reality in a meaningful way was Google’s quantum computing announcement, and that happened relatively quietly that it’s entirely possible that people missed it altogether.
October 23, 2019, San Francisco