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kottke.org posts about IBM

Google Announces They Have Achieved “Quantum Supremacy”

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 23, 2019

Today, Google announced the results of their quantum supremacy experiment in a blog post and Nature article. First, a quick note on what quantum supremacy is: the idea that a quantum computer can quickly solve problems that classical computers either cannot solve or would take decades or centuries to solve. Google claims they have achieved this supremacy using a 54-qubit quantum computer:

Our machine performed the target computation in 200 seconds, and from measurements in our experiment we determined that it would take the world’s fastest supercomputer 10,000 years to produce a similar output.

You may find it helpful to watch Google’s 5-minute explanation of quantum computing and quantum supremacy (see also Nature’s explainer video):

IBM has pushed back on Google’s claim, arguing that their classical supercomputer can solve the same problem in far less than 10,000 years.

We argue that an ideal simulation of the same task can be performed on a classical system in 2.5 days and with far greater fidelity. This is in fact a conservative, worst-case estimate, and we expect that with additional refinements the classical cost of the simulation can be further reduced.

Because the original meaning of the term “quantum supremacy,” as proposed by John Preskill in 2012, was to describe the point where quantum computers can do things that classical computers can’t, this threshold has not been met.

One of the fears of quantum supremacy being achieved is that quantum computing could be used to easily crack the encryption currently used anywhere you use a password or to keep communications private, although it seems like we still have some time before this happens.

“The problem their machine solves with astounding speed has been very carefully chosen just for the purpose of demonstrating the quantum computer’s superiority,” Preskill says. It’s unclear how long it will take quantum computers to become commercially useful; breaking encryption — a theorized use for the technology — remains a distant hope. “That’s still many years out,” says Jonathan Dowling, a professor at Louisiana State University.

How IBM’s Technology Powered the Holocaust

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 15, 2019

IBM Nazi Punchcard

According to a book by human rights journalist Edwin Black, Hitler needed logistical help in carrying out the genocide of Europe’s Jewish population. IBM, an American company whose leadership was obsessed with growth and profits, was happy to provide Hitler with their punch card machines and technology. From The Nazi Party: IBM & “Death’s Calculator” (excerpted from Black’s 2001 book IBM and the Holocaust):

Solipsistic and dazzled by its own swirling universe of technical possibilities, IBM was self-gripped by a special amoral corporate mantra: if it can be done, it should be done. To the blind technocrat, the means were more important than the ends. The destruction of the Jewish people became even less important because the invigorating nature of IBM’s technical achievement was only heightened by the fantastical profits to be made at a time when bread lines stretched across the world.

So how did it work?

When Hitler came to power, a central Nazi goal was to identify and destroy Germany’s 600,000 Jews. To Nazis, Jews were not just those who practiced Judaism, but those of Jewish blood, regardless of their assimilation, intermarriage, religious activity, or even conversion to Christianity. Only after Jews were identified could they be targeted for asset confiscation, ghettoization, deportation, and ultimately extermination. To search generations of communal, church, and governmental records all across Germany — and later throughout Europe — was a cross-indexing task so monumental, it called for a computer. But in 1933, no computer existed.

When the Reich needed to mount a systematic campaign of Jewish economic disenfranchisement and later began the massive movement of European Jews out of their homes and into ghettos, once again, the task was so prodigious it called for a computer. But in 1933, no computer existed. When the Final Solution sought to efficiently transport Jews out of European ghettos along railroad lines and into death camps, with timing so precise the victims were able to walk right out of the boxcar and into a waiting gas chamber, the coordination was so complex a task, this too called for a computer. But in 1933, no computer existed.

However, another invention did exist: the IBM punch card and card sorting system — a precursor to the computer. IBM, primarily through its German subsidiary, made Hitler’s program of Jewish destruction a technologic mission the company pursued with chilling success. IBM Germany, using its own staff and equipment, designed, executed, and supplied the indispensable technologic assistance Hitler’s Third Reich needed to accomplish what had never been done before — the automation of human destruction. More than 2,000 such multi-machine sets were dispatched throughout Germany, and thousands more throughout German-dominated Europe. Card sorting operations were established in every major concentration camp. People were moved from place to place, systematically worked to death, and their remains cataloged with icy automation.

IBM Germany, known in those days as Deutsche Hollerith Maschinen Gesellschaft, or Dehomag, did not simply sell the Reich machines and then walk away. IBM’s subsidiary, with the knowledge of its New York headquarters, enthusiastically custom-designed the complex devices and specialized applications as an official corporate undertaking. Dehomag’s top management was comprised of openly rabid Nazis who were arrested after the war for their Party affiliation. IBM NY always understood — from the outset in 1933 — that it was courting and doing business with the upper echelon of the Nazi Party. The company leveraged its Nazi Party connections to continuously enhance its business relationship with Hitler’s Reich, in Germany and throughout Nazi-dominated Europe.

It’s not difficult to see the relevance of this episode today. Should Microsoft-owned GitHub provide software to ICE for possible use in the agency’s state-sanctioned persecution of immigrants and asylum seekers? Should Twitter allow Donald Trump to incite terrorism on their service? Should Google provide AI to the Pentagon for the potential development of deadlier weapons? And Christ, where do you even start with Facebook? Palantir, Apple, and Amazon have also been criticized recently for allowing unethical usage of their technology and platforms. “It’s just business” and the belief in the neutrality of technology (and technology platforms) have combined to produce a shield that contemporary companies use to protect themselves from activists’ ethical criticisms. And increasingly, the customers and employees of these companies aren’t buying it because they don’t want history to repeat itself. (via marc hedlund)

Your personality, according to IBM Watson

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 19, 2018

Watson is IBM’s AI platform. This afternoon I tried out IBM Watson’s Personality Insights Demo. The service “derives insights about personality characteristics from social media, enterprise data, or other digital communications”. Watson looked at my Twitter account and painted a personality portrait of me:

You are shrewd, inner-directed and can be perceived as indirect.

You are authority-challenging: you prefer to challenge authority and traditional values to help bring about positive changes. You are solemn: you are generally serious and do not joke much. And you are philosophical: you are open to and intrigued by new ideas and love to explore them.

Experiences that give a sense of discovery hold some appeal to you.

You are relatively unconcerned with both tradition and taking pleasure in life. You care more about making your own path than following what others have done. And you prefer activities with a purpose greater than just personal enjoyment.

Initial observations:

- Watson doesn’t use Oxford commas?

- Shrewd? I’m not sure I’ve ever been described using that word before. Inner-directed though…that’s pretty much right.

- Perceived as indirect? No idea where this comes from. Maybe I’ve learned to be more diplomatic & guarded in what I say and how I say it, but mostly I struggle with being too direct.

- “You are generally serious and do not joke much”… I think I’m both generally serious and joke a lot.

- “You prefer activities with a purpose greater than just personal enjoyment”… I don’t understand what this means. Does this mean volunteering? Or that I prefer more intellectual activities than mindless entertainment? (And that last statement isn’t even true.)

Watson also guessed that I “like musical movies” (in general, no), “have experience playing music” (definite no), and am unlikely to “prefer style when buying clothes” (siiiick burn but not exactly wrong). You can try it yourself here. (via @buzz)

Update: Ariel Isaac fed Watson the text for Trump’s 2018 State of the Union address and well, it didn’t do so well:

Trump Personality

Trump is empathetic, self-controlled, and makes decisions with little regard for how he show off his talents? My dear Watson, are you feeling ok? But I’m pretty sure he doesn’t like rap music…

Amazon Go and “Just Walk Out” shopping

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 05, 2016

Amazon Go grocery stores will let you walk in by swiping an app, grab whatever you need, and just walk right out the door again.

Our checkout-free shopping experience is made possible by the same types of technologies used in self-driving cars: computer vision, sensor fusion, and deep learning. Our Just Walk Out technology automatically detects when products are taken from or returned to the shelves and keeps track of them in a virtual cart. When you’re done shopping, you can just leave the store. Shortly after, we’ll charge your Amazon account and send you a receipt.

I guess that makes these self-shopping stores? Lame jokes aside, this is a pretty cool idea. Not entirely revolutionary though…Apple’s EasyPay service has allowed shoppers to self-checkout with the Apple Store app since 2011. I used the self-checkout at an Apple Store once and it felt *really* weird, like I was shoplifting. New commercial transactions are always tricky. Things like one-click ordering, contactless payments (e.g. Apple Pay), and Uber-style payments feel strange at first, but you get used to them after awhile. Something like Square’s odd “put it on Jack” system — where instead of swiping a card or scanning a QR code on an app, you need to negotiate with a person about who you are — don’t catch on. It’ll be interesting to see where something like Amazon Go falls on that spectrum.

Update: This is an IBM commercial from the 90s that showed Just Walk Out shopping.

(via @stiegjon)

Update: The first Amazon Go store finally opened in January 2018. Here’s a look at the store and how it works.

Silicon Cowboys, a documentary film on the history of Compaq Computer

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 18, 2016

Silicon Cowboys

Silicon Cowboys is an upcoming documentary about Compaq Computer, one of the first companies to challenge IBM with a compatible computer.

Launched in 1982 by three friends in a Houston diner, Compaq Computer set out to build a portable PC to take on IBM, the world’s most powerful tech company. Many had tried cloning the industry leader’s code, only to be trounced by IBM and its high-priced lawyers. SILICON COWBOYS explores the remarkable David vs. Goliath story, and eventual demise, of Compaq, an unlikely upstart who altered the future of computing and helped shape the world as we know it today. Directed by Oscar(R)-nominated director Jason Cohen, the film offers a fresh look at the explosive rise of the 1980’s PC industry and is a refreshing alternative to the familiar narratives of Jobs, Gates, and Zuckerberg.

There’s no trailer yet, but the film is set to debut at SXSW in March. The first season of Halt and Catch Fire had a lot of influences, but the bare-bones story was that of Compaq.

Many reviews mention the similarity of the characters to Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, but the trio of managers from Texas Instruments who left to form Compaq in the early 80s are a much closer fit. The Compaq Portable was the first 100% IBM compatible computer produced.

Cognitive Cooking with Chef Watson

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 14, 2015

Chef Watson

Watson, IBM’s evolving attempt at building a computer capable of AI, was originally constructed to excel at Jeopardy. Which it did, handily beating Jeopardy mega-champ Ken Jennings. Watson has since moved on to cooking and has just come out with a new cookbook, Cognitive Cooking with Chef Watson.

You don’t have to be a culinary genius to be a great cook. But when it comes to thinking outside the box, even the best chefs can be limited by their personal experiences, the tastes and flavor combinations they already know. That’s why IBM and the Institute of Culinary Education teamed up to develop a groundbreaking cognitive cooking technology that helps cooks everywhere discover and create delicious recipes, utilizing unusual ingredient combinations that man alone might never imagine.

In Cognitive Cooking with Chef Watson, IBM’s unprecedented technology and ICE’s culinary experts present more than 65 original recipes exploding with irresistible new flavors. Together, they have carefully crafted, evaluated and perfected each of these dishes for “pleasantness” (superb taste), “surprise” (innovativeness) and a “synergy” of mouthwatering ingredients that will delight any food lover.

IBM centennial films

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 24, 2011

IBM is celebrating 100 years of business with a pair of videos; the following is a 30-minute film by Errol Morris (music by Philip Glass) on the history of the company.

A second film, 100 x 100, shows 100 people each presenting an IBM milestone that occurred the year they were born; not sure if Morris did this one as well. (via df)

What is a Jeopardy playing supercomputer?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 22, 2010

After pretty much solving chess with Deep Blue, IBM is building a computer called Watson to beat human opponents at Jeopardy. It’s not quite at Ken Jennings’ level, but it’s holding its own versus lesser humans.

Deep Blue was able to play chess well because the game is perfectly logical, with fairly simple rules; it can be reduced easily to math, which computers handle superbly. But the rules of language are much trickier. At the time, the very best question-answering systems — some created by software firms, some by university researchers — could sort through news articles on their own and answer questions about the content, but they understood only questions stated in very simple language (“What is the capital of Russia?”); in government-run competitions, the top systems answered correctly only about 70 percent of the time, and many were far worse. “Jeopardy!” with its witty, punning questions, seemed beyond their capabilities. What’s more, winning on “Jeopardy!” requires finding an answer in a few seconds. The top question-answering machines often spent longer, even entire minutes, doing the same thing.

The original IBM ThinkPad

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 02, 2009

A promotional notepad given away by IBM was the inspiration for the computer giant’s popular ThinkPad.

Think. Pad.

Update: And inspired directly by the brown leather cover of the notepad, the ThinkPad Reserve collection. (thx, saket)

You know what’s dumb about the “SoAndSo

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 25, 2008

You know what’s dumb about the “SoAndSo Company is the Next Google” headlines. But do you know what’s *really* dumb about the “SoAndSo Company is the Next Google” headlines? Before Google became the company whose success everyone was chasing, it was Microsoft. Before that, it was IBM. That’s it, three companies since 1960. What are the chances it’s going to happen again anytime soon? (Nothing against Etsy, but this is the one that set me off.)

Following up on why HAL sings “Daisy,

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 28, 2006

Following up on why HAL sings “Daisy, Daisy” in 2001: A Space Odyssey”, Lee Hartsfeld found a 1961 record with the Bell Labs recording on it at a junk shop for $10.

Why does HAL sing “Daisy, Daisy” in 2001: A Space Odyssey?

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 25, 2006

In 1962, Arthur C. Clarke was touring Bell Labs when he heard a demonstration of a song sung by an IBM 704 computer programmed by physicist John L. Kelly. The song, the first ever performed by a computer, was called “Daisy Bell”, more commonly known as “Bicycle Built for Two” or “Daisy, Daisy”. When Clarke collaborated with Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey, they had HAL sing it while Dave powered him down.

A clip of a 1963 synthesized computer speech demonstration by Bell Labs featuring “Daisy Bell” was included on an album for the First Philadelphia Computer Music Festival. You can listen to it (it’s the last track) and the rest of the album at vintagecomputermusic.com. (via mark)

Update: A reader just reminded me that HAL may have been so named because each letter is off by one from IBM, although Arthur C. Clarke denies this. (thx, justin)

Justin reports on his family’s results of

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 21, 2006

Justin reports on his family’s results of a neat project called the Geneographic Project, co-produced by National Geographic and IBM. If you purchase a testing kit, they’ll trace the specific genetic markers of your ancestors back to (possibly) our common African root.