Each week, we review the week’s news, offering analysis about the most important developments in the tech industry.
Hi, I’m Jamie Condliffe. Greetings from London. Joining me this week is Nicole Perlroth, our cybersecurity reporter in San Francisco. Here’s a look at the week’s tech news:
In a paper published in the journal Nature, Google researchers described how they had used a quantum computer to perform, in 200 seconds, a series of calculations that, they claimed, would take the world’s most powerful supercomputer at least 10,000 years to closely replicate. As our colleague Cade Metz wrote, this is the first example of what researchers have called “quantum supremacy” — the point where a quantum computer can perform a task that would take traditional computers a very, very long time.
This achievement won’t turn computing on its head overnight. First, consider the device itself: A behemoth of exotic lab equipment called Sycamore, it is probably rivaled by only one or two similar devices in the world. This is nascent technology of the bleeding edge. Second, the calculations were esoteric and of little practical application; we are still a long way from such devices doing something as practical as breaking encryption. And third, it is by no means the case that quantum computers are set to totally replace traditional ones, as they could be good at only specific kinds of tasks.
So when Google’s chief executive likened his company’s achievement to the Wright brothers’ first flight in an interview with M.I.T. Technology Review, was that reasonable?
Well, probably. “It’s not particularly useful in itself,” Andreas Wallraff, a quantum physicist from ETH Zurich, said. “But is shows that it can be done. I think at this stage we can be sure that quantum devices will become ever more challenging for conventional computers.”
(You may have read, by the way, that researchers at IBM, who are themselves racing to build working quantum computers, disputed Google’s claim, arguing that supercomputers could perform the task in a couple of days rather than 10,000 years. But arguing that point seems to underscore how big a deal the achievement is.)
The big unanswered question now is how long it will take for these kinds of devices to run genuinely useful algorithms, which many researchers think might be able to simulate problems that are quintessentially quantum themselves, like interactions between molecules.
Google’s research paper gives a suitably noncommittal nod in that direction: “We are only one creative algorithm away from valuable near-term applications,” it concludes.
Libra’s congressional cold shoulder
When Mark Zuckerberg showed up in Washington on Wednesday, he expected to argue for his company’s Libra cryptocurrency project before the House Financial Services Committee. Instead, he endured over five hours of questioning about issues, like political ads, disinformation and child pornography, that underscored how little trust lawmakers have in Facebook.
“As I have examined Facebook’s various problems, I have come to the conclusion that it would be beneficial for all if Facebook concentrates on addressing its many existing deficiencies and failures before proceeding any further on the Libra project,” said Representative Maxine Waters, the Democratic chairwoman of the committee.
Tough crowd! Still, Mr. Zuckerberg conceded that he and the company “certainly have work to do to build trust.” And he tried hard to win lawmakers around to Libra, arguing that China could gain first-mover advantage on cryptocurrencies if the currency gets wrapped up in red tape, and offering concessions about how it could be tweaked to appease regulators.
Still, no dice. “It should be clear why we have serious concerns about your plans to establish a global digital currency that would challenge the U.S. dollar,” Ms. Waters said. (Some Republicans went easier. “American innovation is on trial today in this hearing,” Representative Patrick McHenry of North Carolina said.)
This is all in spite of a huge charm offensive by Facebook since it announced Libra in June. That’s seen Mr. Zuckerberg and David Marcus, the head of Facebook’s cryptocurrency effort, in a string of high-profile meetings, and at least eight Facebook lobbyists working solely on the project.
Mr. Marcus told The New York Times that regulators had been much more receptive in private meetings than lawmakers. Right now, that doesn’t seem to say a great deal.
Storming the SCIF
In a publicity stunt on Wednesday, House Republicans, led by Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida, stormed the secure suite where members of the Intelligence, Oversight and Reform, and Foreign Affairs Committees were conducting closed-door depositions.
In they went, charging past the Capitol Police, past cabinets that hold members’ electronic devices, filming with their cellphones along the way. As cybersecurity experts noted Wednesday, they might as well have taken in a Russian listening device. Members of Congress are frequent targets of foreign hackers and not exactly known for their technology and security prowess.
The Intelligence Committee’s Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, better known as SCIF, is supposed to be one of the last secure enclaves on Capitol Hill. By taking cellphones in, the Republicans might have inadvertently taken foreign adversaries in with them, breaking longstanding rules set by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
It is difficult to tell if there were lasting security implications. Uncovering nation-state surveillance operations can take months, often years. And the breach may not be deemed criminal. But one possible punishment is that the 13 Republicans who flouted O.D.N.I. rules may be barred from entering SCIF.
Nice WeWork, if you can get it
It’s not usually easy to persuade people to pay you for having driven a company into the ground. But that seems to be what Adam Neumann, the founder of WeWork, did.
As our colleagues Peter Eavis, Michael J. de la Merced and Andrew Ross Sorkin explained, Mr. Neumann’s hypergrowth strategy for his real-estate-company-in-tech-clothing proved to be its ruin, and left it scrambling for a lifeline.
Fortunately for WeWork, one came this past week from SoftBank in the form of a $1.5 billion investment, a $5 billion loan and a $3 billion buyout of shares from other investors. The takeover reportedly valued WeWork at $7 billion, down from the $47 billion that SoftBank reckoned it was worth in January.
That is crazy. Especially given that SoftBank had already invested over $10.5 billion in the company, which means WeWork has to be valued at over $15 billion again for this not to have been a huge mistake. No surprise, then, that SoftBank is reportedly hurrying to cut as many as 4,000 of the 14,000 workers at WeWork and shut down unprofitable properties to turn things around.
But that’s not the craziest part. The craziest part is that, as part of the deal, Mr. Neumann can sell up to $1 billion of his shares to SoftBank, and will be hired as a consultant to the Japanese company for four years, for which he will receive $185 million. (He’ll have to give up special shares that have 10 votes each, but, whatever, he’s rich.)
Quite how this all came together we don’t yet know. But whatever the back story, it’s an incredible turn of events for Mr. Neumann. Or as Matt Levine of Bloomberg Opinion so beautifully put it:
Neumann created a company that destroyed value at a blistering pace and nonetheless extracted a billion dollars for himself. He lit $10 billion of SoftBank’s money on fire and then went back to them and demanded a 10 percent commission. What an absolute legend.
Some stories you shouldn’t miss
China is hacking its ethnic minority groups far and wide. New, more sophisticated attacks are targeting Uighurs’ phones — even iPhones and even abroad. And foreigners could be next.
The Islamic State is turning to TikTok. The Wall Street Journal reported that militants had been posting short propaganda videos to the usually lighthearted social network.
An internal White House memo that was leaked to Axios on Wednesday warned that “the White House is posturing itself to be electronically compromised once again.” A dozen-plus cybersecurity professionals have been pushed out or resigned, leaving the People’s House vulnerable to the never-ending assault from nation-state cyberattacks.
Some Google employees say the company is spying on them in an attempt to block the organization of protests, Bloomberg reported. Google denies the claim.
Tech companies are working hand in hand with schools to monitor students every digital move. Technology has made it possible for schools to conduct 24-7 tracking of students’ web searches, internet use, and every word they type into official school email accounts, chats and documents. The Guardian investigated how American schools are spying on millions of kids.
Can you really be addicted to video games? Well, the latest research suggests it’s not far-fetched at all — especially when you consider all the societal and cultural factors that make today’s games so attractive.
McDonald’s is using artificial intelligence to predict what people want to eat. Its drive-throughs and touch-screen kiosks are already suggesting extras to customers based on their purchases.
Google’s new Pixel 4 smartphone is good. But our reviewer says it’s not as good as the latest iPhones and Galaxy devices.
Amazon may be selling clothes from ethically dubious factories that other retailers have long-blacklisted, according to a report by The Wall Street Journal.
Facial recognition software can identify patients from M.R.I. scans and match them up to photographs, which hints at an increasing need for digital privacy in health care.
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Nicole Perlroth is a reporter covering cybersecurity and espionage. Before joining The Times in 2011, she reported on Silicon Valley at Forbes Magazine. @nicoleperlroth
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