Seeqc raises $5M to help make quantum computing commercially viable

Seeqc, a startup that is part of a relatively new class of quantum computing companies that is looking at how to best use classical computing to manage quantum processors, today announced that it has raised $5 million from M Ventures, the strategic corporate venture capital arm of Merck, the German pharmaceutical giant. Merck will be a strategic partner for Seeqc and will help it to develop its R&D efforts to develop useful application-specific quantum computers.

With this, New York state-based Seeqc has now raised a total of $11 million, including a recent $6.8 million seed round that included BlueYard Capital, Cambium, NewLab and the Partnership Fund for New York City.

Since developing new pharmaceuticals is an obvious use case for quantum computing, it makes sense that large pharmaceutical companies are trying to get ahead of their competitors by making strategic investments in companies like Seeqc.

The company is a spin-out of Hypres, a company that specializes in building superconductor-integrated circuits. Hypres itself had raised about $100 million in total and notes that much of the work it did on building its solutions are now part of Seeqc.

As a company spokesperson told me, the idea behind Seeqc is to bring today’s room-sized quantum computers down to a more manageable scale. It’s doing so by combining its (and Hypres’) expertise in building superconductors with a hybrid approach to combine analog and digital. This includes digital qubit control and readout, together with the company’s own proprietary chip technology that integrates classical and quantum circuits into a hybrid system (and by default, quantum computers are hybrid systems that need a classical computer to control them).

The company argues that co-locating the classical compute with the quantum processor is critical to achieving the best performance. And since it owns and operates its own fab to build these chips, Seeqc also believes that it is one of the few companies that has the right infrastructure and expertise in place to design, test and build these superconductors.

“The ‘brute force’ or labware approach to quantum computing contemplates building machines with thousands or even millions of qubits requiring multiple analog cables and, in some cases, complex CMOS readout/control for each qubit, but that doesn’t scale effectively as the industry strives to deliver business-applicable solutions,” said John Levy, co-chief executive officer at Seeqc. “With Seeqc’s hybrid approach, we utilize the power of quantum computers in a digital system-on-a-chip environment, offering greater control, cost reduction and with a massive reduction in energy, introducing a more viable path to commercial scalability.”

The company believes that its approach can cut the cost of today’s large-scale quantum computers to 1/400th. All of this, of course, is still a while out and, for now, the company will use the new funding to build a small-scale version of its system.

“We’re excited to be working with a world-leading team and fab on one of the most pressing issues in modern quantum computing,” says Owen Lozman, vice president at M Ventures . “We recognize that scaling the current generations of superconducting quantum computers beyond the noisy intermediate-scale quantum era will require fundamental changes in qubit control and wiring. Building on deep expertise in single flux quantum technologies, Seeqc has a clear, and importantly cost-efficient, pathway towards addressing existing challenges and disrupting analog, microwave-controlled architectures.”

Seeqc is, of course, not the only startup working on more efficient quantum control schemes. Quantum Machines, for example, also recently raised quite a bit of venture capital for its hardware/software quantum orchestration platform that also includes a custom processor, though that company’s overall approach is quite different from Seeqc’s.

Microsoft says video calls in Teams grew 1,000% in March

With the COVID-19 pandemic making work from home the default for those companies that are able to do so, it’s no surprise that we are seeing a massive rise in the usage of video chat tools like Zoom, Google Meet and Teams . We’d already heard some updates from Zoom and Google, but today Microsoft joined the parade with a new report on how its Teams users have adapted to the rise of remote work.

Back on March 16, the company reported 900 million meeting minutes in Teams . Now, less than a month later, it says that it saw a new daily record of 2.7 billion meetings in one on March 31. During those meetings, more users than ever also turn on their video cameras. Overall, the number of users who go on camera has doubled since before this crisis began and the overall number of video calls in Teams grew by over 1,000 percent in March.

That’s a lot of time spent in meetings that could’ve probably been used in more productive ways, but it sure is a lot of Teams meetings.

The Microsoft team also looked at where people use video most, with Norway and the Netherlands leading the pack. There, 60 percent of calls include video. In the U.S., that number is 38 percent. Microsoft says this may be due to the availability of fast broadband.

Microsoft also found that its users are also spending more time of the day with Teams. In March, the average time between when somebody first used teams and the last use of the service increased by over an hour. The company argues that this doesn’t mean that people are working longer hours, “rather that they are breaking up the day in a way that works for their personal productivity or makes space for obligations outside of work.”

No matter the service a company uses for remote work, it’ll be interesting to see how many of these new habits will stick once this crisis is over. In China, where some employees are now returning to work, the number of daily active Teams users continues to grow according to Microsoft but there will surely also be regions where usage will decline quickly once things get back to something resembling normal.

Microsoft starts testing a new news reading experience in Windows 10

Microsoft announced its latest Windows 10 preview build today and while that is a pretty routine affair these days, the company also used today’s announcement to also launch the beta version of a new news consumption experience that anybody on a Windows 10 device can try out today. The Microsoft News Bar aggregates news from the 4,500 publishers in the Microsoft News network and then displays those as a semi-persistent bar on any side of your screen.

Windows 10 has long featured the Microsoft News app, which is more of a fully-features news reading experience (though I admit I always forget it even exists). The idea behind the News Bar is to give you a news ticker that is either always visible or that you can hide away at will. In order to make sure you don’t forget it, you can choose to have it pop back up in either two or eight hours — or never, if you’re seriously tired of the news right now. Nobody would blame you.

Right now, this is a pretty barebones affair, without the ability to really personalize the news you see beyond the country you are in. What you can do is select some stocks you want to monitor and over time, Microsoft will add weather and sports options (hopefully with the ability to turn off sports news, because who cares, right?). It’d be nice to at least get some sense of what’s breaking news in the news bar, but as of now, there are no timestamps attached to the updates.

If you’ve been around long enough, you may remember Windows Active Desktop, PointCast and Wired’s (in)famous Push cover story. Somehow this Microsoft News Bar feels a bit reminiscent of that and it seems a bit old-school to have a moving ticker on your desktop in 2020. But if that’s your style, you can now give this new experience a try by downloading the application from the Microsoft Store.

Google rolls back SameSite cookie changes to keep essential online services from breaking

Google today announced that it will temporarily roll back the changes it recently made to how its Chrome browser handles cookies in order to ensure that sites that perform essential services like banking, online grocery, government services and healthcare won’t become inaccessible to Chrome users during the current COVID-19 pandemic.

The new SameSite rules, which the company started rolling out to a growing number of Chrome users in recent months, are meant to make it harder for sites to access cookies from third-party sites and hence track a user’s online activity. These new rules are also meant to prevent cross-site request forgery attacks.

Under Google’s new guidance, developers have to explicitly allow their cookies to be read by third-party sites, otherwise, the browser will prevent these third-party sites from accessing them.

Since this is a pretty major change, Google gave developers quite a bit of time to adapt their applications to it. Still, not every site is ready yet and so the Chrome team decided to halt the gradual rollout and stop enforcing these new rules for the time being.

“While most of the web ecosystem was prepared for this change, we want to ensure stability for websites providing essential services including banking, online groceries, government services and healthcare that facilitate our daily life during this time,” writes Google Chrome engineering director Justin Schuh. “As we roll back enforcement, organizations, users and sites should see no disruption.”

A Google spokesperson also told us that the team saw some breakage in sites “that would not normally be considered essential, but with COVID-19 having become more important, we made this decision in an effort to ensure stability during this time.”

The company says it plans to resume its SameSite enforcement over the summer, though the exact timing isn’t yet clear.

OctoML raises $15M to make optimizing ML models easier

OctoML, a startup founded by the team behind the Apache TVM machine learning compiler stack project, today announced it has raised a $15 million Series A round led by Amplify, with participation from Madrone Ventures, which led its $3.9 million seed round. The core idea behind OctoML and TVM is to use machine learning to optimize machine learning models so they can more efficiently run on different types of hardware.

“There’s been quite a bit of progress in creating machine learning models,” OctoML CEO and University of Washington professor Luis Ceze told me. “But a lot of the pain has moved to once you have a model, how do you actually make good use of it in the edge and in the clouds?”

That’s where the TVM project comes in, which was launched by Ceze and his collaborators at the University of Washington’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. It’s now an Apache incubating project and because it’s seen quite a bit of usage and support from major companies like AWS, ARM, Facebook, Google, Intel, Microsoft, Nvidia, Xilinx and others, the team decided to form a commercial venture around it, which became OctoML. Today, even Amazon Alexa’s wake word detection is powered by TVM.

Ceze described TVM as a modern operating system for machine learning models. “A machine learning model is not code, it doesn’t have instructions, it has numbers that describe its statistical modeling,” he said. “There’s quite a few challenges in making it run efficiently on a given hardware platform because there’s literally billions and billions of ways in which you can map a model to specific hardware targets. Picking the right one that performs well is a significant task that typically requires human intuition.”

And that’s where OctoML and its “Octomizer” SaaS product, which it also announced, today come in. Users can upload their model to the service and it will automatically optimize, benchmark and package it for the hardware you specify and in the format you want. For more advanced users, there’s also the option to add the service’s API to their CI/CD pipelines. These optimized models run significantly faster because they can now fully leverage the hardware they run on, but what many businesses will maybe care about even more is that these more efficient models also cost them less to run in the cloud, or that they are able to use cheaper hardware with less performance to get the same results. For some use cases, TVM already results in 80x performance gains.

Currently, the OctoML team consists of about 20 engineers. With this new funding, the company plans to expand its team. Those hires will mostly be engineers, but Ceze also stressed that he wants to hire an evangelist, which makes sense, given the company’s open-source heritage. He also noted that while the Octomizer is a good start, the real goal here is to build a more fully featured MLOps platform. “OctoML’s mission is to build the world’s best platform that automates MLOps,” he said.

You can now buy AWS’ $99 DeepComposer keyboard

AWS today announced that its DeepComposer keyboard is now available for purchase. And no, DeepComposer isn’t a mechanical keyboard for hackers but a small MIDI keyboard for working with the AWS DeepComposer service that uses AI to create songs based on your input.

First announced at AWS re:Invent 2019, the keyboard created a bit of confusion, in part because Amazon’s announcement almost made it seem like a consumer product. DeepComposer, which also works without the actual hardware keyboard, is more of a learning tool, though, and belongs to the same family of AWS hardware like DeepLens and DeepRacer. It’s meant to teach developers about generative adversarial networks, just like DeepLens and DeepRacer also focus on specific machine learning technologies.

Users play a short melody, either using the hardware keyboard or an on-screen one, and the service then automatically generates a backing track based on your choice of musical style. The results I heard at re:Invent last year were a bit uneven (or worse), but that may have improved by now. But this isn’t a tool for creating the next Top 40 song. It’s simply a learning tool. I’m not sure you need the keyboard to get that learning experience out of it, but if you do, you can now head over to Amazon and buy it.

Microsoft Teams is coming to consumers — but Skype is here to stay

Microsoft today announced that later this year, it will launch what is essentially a consumer version of Teams, its Slack-like text, audio and video chat application. Teams for your personal life, as Microsoft likes to call it, will feature a number of tools that will make it easier for families and small groups to organize events, share information and get on video calls, too.

As Google has long demonstrated, there can never be enough messaging applications, but it’s interesting to see Microsoft preview this direction for Teams when it has long solely focused on Skype as its personal chat, audio and video call app. But as Yusuf Mehdi, Microsoft’s corporate VP for Modern Life, Search and Devices, told me, Skype isn’t going away. Indeed, he noted that over half a billion people are using tools like Skype today.

“Skype continues,” he said when I asked him about the future of that service. “We remain committed to Skype. Skype today is used by a hundred million people on a monthly basis. The way I think about it is that Skype is a great solution today for personal use. A lot of broadcast companies use it as well. Teams is really the more robust offering, as you will, where in addition to doing video and chat calling, we also bring in rich communications and templates […], we have things like dashboard and it also helps you pull in a richer set of tools.”

With the more personal Teams only launching later this year, Skype remains Microsoft’s main consumer chat service for the time being. Indeed, about 40 million people current use it daily, in part because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the company is seeing a 220 percent increase in Skype-to-Skype call minutes.

While Microsoft thought about giving this new personal take on Teams a different brand, the company decided that Teams had pretty broad brand awareness already. In addition, the focus of today’s updates was very much on bridging the gap between work life and home life, so it makes sense for the company to try to combine both enterprise and personal features into the same application.

White House extends social distancing guidelines to April 30

Only a few days after saying that he would like to see the country “opened up and raring to go by Easter” and maybe relax rules for at least some parts of the U.S. sooner than later, President Trump today announced that he is extending the government’s social distancing guidelines through April 30.

“Nothing would be worse than declaring victory before the victory is won. That would be the greatest loss of all,” he said. “Therefore, the next two weeks and during this period it’s very important that everyone strongly follows the guidelines — have to follow the guidelines that our great vice president holds up a lot. He’s holding that up a lot. He believes in it so strongly. The better you do, the faster this whole nightmare will end. Therefore, we will be extending our guidelines to April 30 to slow the spread.”

He also noted that we can expect more data and information about the federal government’s strategy on Tuesday. “We’ll be having a very important statement made on Tuesday.”

Earlier today, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that we should expect between 100,000 and 200,000 deaths from COVID-19. “The reason the president made the announcement today about going to the end of April, is because we want to make sure that we don’t prematurely think we’re doing so great. We may be, but we want to push it to the extreme,” Fauci, who called the decision “wise and prudent,” said in today’s press conference.

And while Trump has said that he wants to open up the country as fast as possible and get the economy back on track, it now looks that — at least for the time being — that timeline has been pushed back as he listened to Fauci and task force head Deborah Birx’s advice.

The new date he mentioned today is June 1st.

“We can expect that by June 1st we will be well on our way to recovery,” he said today. “We think by June 1st a lot of great things will be happening. I want every citizen in our country to take heart and confidence in the fact that we have the best medical minds in the world tackling this disease.”

Currently, Trump said, death rates are expected to peak in two weeks. The original “15 days to slow the spread” campaign launched just under two weeks ago, on March 15.

Google’s travel search now highlights travel advisories and airline cancellation policies

Google today announced a small but important addition to its travel search site on both mobile and desktop.

When you search for flights, hotels and activities, the site will now highlight active travel advisories for your destination. In addition, now that most airlines have changed their flight change and cancellation policies in light of the current COVID-19 pandemic, Google has added a direct link to your airline’s policies to the flight results page, too.

These are obviously minor changes but sadly necessary ones. And while everybody is likely aware of the State Department’s current Level 4 ‘Do Not Travel‘ advisory, at some point in the next few months, we’ll get to a point where those advisories will change for some regions while they may still be in place for others.

As for the airlines, it’s worth noting how much their response to the coronavirus pandemic is still in flux. A number of companies have now extended their cancellation policies to cover all flights booked for May, for example. And while most airlines are still operating at least a limited flight schedule for the time being, that could easily change in the coming weeks as the industry tries to grapple with the fallout of this crisis.

To keep up with the policy changes across airlines, Google also published a new document on its help center with links to all of these policies for most major airlines, too.

IBM, Amazon, Google and Microsoft partner with White House to provide compute resources for COVID-19 research

During today’s White House coronavirus task force press conference, President Trump announced the launch of a new public/private consortium to “unleash the power of American supercomputing resources.” The members of this consortium are the White House, the Department of Energy and IBM . Other companies, including Google, Amazon and Microsoft, as well as a number of academic institutions, are also “contributing lots of different things,” the president said.

While Trump’s comments were characteristically unclear, IBM provided more details, noting that it is working with a number of national labs and other institutions to offer a total of 330 petaflops of compute to various projects in epidemiology, bioinformatics and molecular modeling. Amazon, Google and Microsoft are also part of the consortium, which is being led by IBM, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the Department of Energy.

IBM and its partners will coordinate the efforts to evaluate proposals and provide access to high-performance computing resources to those that are most likely to have an immediate impact.

“How can supercomputers help us fight this virus? These high-performance computing systems allow researchers to run very large numbers of calculations in epidemiology, bioinformatics, and molecular modeling. These experiments would take years to complete if worked by hand, or months if handled on slower, traditional computing platforms,” writes Dario Gil, IBM’s Director of Research.

AWS has already dedicated $20 million to support COVID-19 research while Microsoft has already announced a number of different initiatives, though mostly around helping businesses cope with the fallout of this crisis. Google has now launched its own coronavirus website (though it’s very different from the one Trump once promised) and Alphabet’s Verily is helping Bay Area residents find testing sites if needed. It’s unclear what exactly Google and Microsoft will contribute to these current efforts, though.

“Today I’m also announcing the launch of a new public/private consortium organized by the White House, the Department of Energy and IBM to unleash the power of American supercomputing resources to fight the Chinese virus,” Trump, who continues to insist on calling COVID-19 ‘the Chinese virus,’ said in today’s press briefing.

“The following leaders from private industries, academia and government will be contributing and they are gonna be contributing a lot of different things, but compute primarily — computing resources to help researchers discover new treatments and vaccine. They will be working along with NIH and all of the people working on this. But tremendous help from IBM, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, MIT, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the Department of Energy’s, the National Science Foundation and NASA. They are all contributing to this effort.”