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Power

Microsoft just built one of the world’s most powerful supercomputers — in Azure

The device will crunch huge AI problems exclusively for OpenAI and is the latest sign of supercomputing facilities moving out of labs and onto the cloud.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella gives a keynote speech at a newly virtual Microsoft Build on Tuesday morning.

Photo: Courtesy of Microsoft

Microsoft has constructed a 285,000-processor supercomputer designed for machine learning applications as part of its Azure cloud infrastructure service. It should be one of the most powerful computers on the planet — and is the latest sign that supercomputing may slowly migrate to the cloud.

The supercomputer was developed for OpenAI, the organization working to build "safe artificial general intelligence," assuming such a thing is possible. It will be exclusively available to OpenAI as a cloud service for running the "massive distributed AI models" that it says will be needed to achieve artificial general intelligence, Microsoft announced Tuesday.

OpenAI has made some of the more notable AI advances in recent years, including building algorithms capable of powerful language processing and beating the world's best players at the video game Dota 2. But while mastering Dota 2 is difficult, it pales compared to building algorithms that understand the complexities of the real world, and OpenAI's plan is to use ever-greater data sets and computational power to make steps toward building an AGI.

OpenAI received a $1 billion investment from Microsoft last year, the bulk of which will be spent on computing power to achieve its goal. The terms of that deal require Microsoft to eventually become OpenAI's only source of computing.

The new machine, which Chief Technology Officer Kevin Scott called Microsoft's "first large-scale AI supercomputer," is the highlight of several announcements the company plans to make Tuesday during Microsoft Build, its annual developer conference. Held the last few years in downtown Seattle, Build, like many events, is being conducted entirely online this year and features a keynote address from CEO Satya Nadella on Tuesday morning.

The new system lives entirely within Azure, which is still subject to capacity constraints brought on by a surge of cloud computing activity caused by global stay-at-home orders during the COVID-19 pandemic. The new system for OpenAI was brought online in six months according to Scott — fast, given its claimed power, and curious, given that Microsoft could have really used that computing power to service existing customers.

Supercomputer rankings are taken very seriously among researchers and system builders, and Microsoft acknowledged that it has yet to submit the new Azure system to the Top500 organization, the official source of record on such matters. Still, with almost 300,000 CPUs, 10,000 GPUs and 400 Gbps of network connectivity to those GPUs, Microsoft estimates that its new system should rank fifth on the current list.

Artificial intelligence tools have been a key part of every cloud vendor's strategy over the last few years, in large part because artificial intelligence services require a lot of expensive computing power. This is a big step forward, but it's not clear whether Microsoft will allow other customers to access the supercomputer over time or whether it will be indefinitely reserved for OpenAI.

Given the size and unique requirements of supercomputers, most remain on-premises, managed by their owners. Cloud-based supercomputing is gaining steam, however; last year AWS devoted a significant portion of the opening keynote at its re:Invent conference to explain how it is building supercomputing capacity in its cloud, and Google has also talked up how high-performance computing customers can access supercomputing capacity in its cloud.

The new machine will be used to conduct "self-supervised learning," Scott said, taking very large datasets and training models for speech and image recognition that have the potential to produce outsized benefits compared to smaller datasets. "The bigger these models get, the more they can do," he said.

Other noteworthy announcements on the Build agenda this week include:

  • Azure Synapse Link, a new database service that lets customers combine transactional processing and analytical processing in Azure.
  • Microsoft Cloud for Healthcare, the company's "first industry-specific cloud offering" designed to help doctors and health care facilities provide better service and use advanced data analysis techniques.
  • A more customizable Microsoft Teams, which allows customers to tweak their company's Teams setup with a default set of applications, and also build and deploy Microsoft Teams applications from Visual Studio and Visual Studio Code, Microsoft's popular developer environments.
Sign up to the Protocol Cloud newsletter to receive a special edition this week focused on all the news coming out of Build.
Politics

'Woke tech' and 'the new slave power': Conservatives gather for Vegas summit

An agenda for the event, hosted by the Claremont Institute, listed speakers including U.S. CTO Michael Kratsios and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

The so-called "Digital Statecraft Summit" was organized by the Claremont Institute. The speakers include U.S. CTO Michael Kratsios and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, as well as a who's-who of far-right provocateurs.

Photo: David Vives/Unsplash

Conservative investors, political operatives, right-wing writers and Trump administration officials are quietly meeting in Las Vegas this weekend to discuss topics including China, "woke tech" and "the new slave power," according to four people who were invited to attend or speak at the event as well as a copy of the agenda obtained by Protocol.

The so-called "Digital Statecraft Summit" was organized by the Claremont Institute, a conservative think tank that says its mission is to "restore the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life." A list of speakers for the event includes a combination of past and current government officials as well as a who's who of far-right provocateurs. One speaker, conservative legal scholar John Eastman, rallied the president's supporters at a White House event before the Capitol Hill riot earlier this month. Some others have been associated with racist ideologies.

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Emily Birnbaum

Emily Birnbaum ( @birnbaum_e) is a tech policy reporter with Protocol. Her coverage focuses on the U.S. government's attempts to regulate one of the most powerful industries in the world, with a focus on antitrust, privacy and politics. Previously, she worked as a tech policy reporter with The Hill after spending several months as a breaking news reporter. She is a Bethesda, Maryland native and proud Kenyon College alumna.

Doxxing insurrectionists: Capitol riot divides online extremism researchers

The uprising has sparked a tense debate about the right way to stitch together the digital scraps of someone's life to publicly accuse them of committing a crime.

Rioters scale the U.S. Capitol walls during the insurrection.

Photo: Blink O'faneye/Flickr

Joan Donovan has a panic button in her office, just in case one of the online extremists she spends her days fighting tries to fight back.

"This is not baby shit," Donovan, who is research director of Harvard's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, said. "You do not fuck around with these people in public."

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Issie Lapowsky
Issie Lapowsky (@issielapowsky) is a senior reporter at Protocol, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University’s Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing. Email Issie.

The current state-of-the-art quantum computers are a tangle of wires. And that can't be the case in the future.

Photo: IBM Research

The iconic image of quantum computing is the "Google chandelier," with its hundreds of intricately arranged copper wires descending like the tendrils of a metallic jellyfish. It's a grand and impressive device, but in that tangle of wires lurks a big problem.

"If you're thinking about the long-term prospects of quantum computing, that image should be just terrifying," Jim Clarke, the director of quantum hardware at Intel, told Protocol.

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Dan Garisto
Dan Garisto is a freelance science journalist who specializes in the physical sciences, with an emphasis on particle physics. He has an undergraduate degree in physics and is based in New York.
Protocol | Enterprise

Twilio CEO Jeff Lawson explains how he decided to face off with Parler

Also, why he thinks the $3.2 billion purchase of Segment will help Twilio's customers help their customers and why he's OK with being reliant on AWS.

"I think in a society, words matter, actions matter," Twilio CEO Jeff Lawson said. "That's why companies have things like Terms of Service and acceptable use policies."

Photo: Twilio

Cloud computing companies were one of the few segments of society that enjoyed 2020. But even companies like Twilio, whose stock price tripled over the last 12 months, have had enough of 2021 already.

Last Friday, in the wake of the deadly attack on the Capitol, Twilio sent a letter to the right-wing social media app Parler notifying the company that it was violating Twilio's acceptable use policy for two of its authentication services. Parler decided to turn off Twilio's services rather than moderate calls for violence against elected officials on its app, which became a moot point after AWS cut Parler off from its own computing and storage services Sunday evening.

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Tom Krazit

Tom Krazit ( @tomkrazit) is a senior reporter at Protocol, covering cloud computing and enterprise technology out of the Pacific Northwest. He has written and edited stories about the technology industry for almost two decades for publications such as IDG, CNET, paidContent, and GeekWire. He served as executive editor of Gigaom and Structure, and most recently produced a leading cloud computing newsletter called Mostly Cloudy.

Protocol | Enterprise

How Salesforce, despite big setbacks, had a banner 2020

Amid the chaos of major layoffs and top executive departures, Salesforce announced a key acquisition and managed to report blockbuster earnings.

Marc Benioff is the CEO of Salesforce.

Photo: Kimberly White/Getty Images

On Aug. 27, Salesforce announced it would lay off around 1,000 employees.

The news came as a shock to many. At the beginning of the pandemic, CEO Marc Benioff committed to making no "significant" layoffs for 90 days. (The 1,000 job losses occurred 155 days after that pledge was made.) But any blowback to the announcement appears to have been brushed aside by some of the company's top leaders.

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Joe Williams

Joe Williams is a senior reporter at Protocol covering enterprise software, including industry giants like Salesforce, Microsoft, IBM and Oracle. He previously covered emerging technology for Business Insider. Joe can be reached at JWilliams@Protocol.com. To share information confidentially, he can also be contacted on a non-work device via Signal (+1-309-265-6120) or JPW53189@protonmail.com.

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