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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.

Does Elon Musk make Tesla tech?

Between the massive valuation and the self-driving software, Tesla isn't hard to sell as a tech company. But does that mean that, in 10 years, every car will be tech?

You know what's not tech and is a car company? Volkswagen.

Image: Tesla/Protocol

From disagreements about what "Autopilot" should mean and SolarCity lawsuits to space colonization and Boring Company tunnels, extremely online Tesla CEO Elon Musk and his company stay firmly in the news, giving us all plenty of opportunities to consider whether the company that made electric cars cool counts as tech.

The massive valuation definitely screams tech, as does the company's investment in self-driving software and battery development. But at the end of the day, this might not be enough to convince skeptics that Tesla is anything other than a car company that uses tech. It also raises questions about the role that timeliness plays in calling something tech. In a potential future where EVs are the norm and many run on Tesla's own software — which is well within the realm of possibility — will Tesla lose its claim to a tech pedigree?

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Becca Evans
Becca Evans is a copy editor and producer at Protocol. Previously she edited Carrie Ann Conversations, a wellness and lifestyle publication founded by Carrie Ann Inaba. She's also written for STYLECASTER. Becca lives in Los Angeles.

As President of Alibaba Group, I am often asked, "What is Alibaba doing in the U.S.?"

In fact, most people are not aware we have a business in the U.S. because we are not a U.S. consumer-facing service that people use every day – nor do we want to be. Our consumers – nearly 900 million of them – are located in China.

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J. Michael Evans
Michael Evans leads and executes Alibaba Group's international strategy for globalizing the company and expanding its businesses outside of China.
Protocol | Workplace

Apple isn’t the only tech company spooked by the delta variant

Spooked by rising cases of COVID-19, many tech companies delay their office reopening.

Apple and at least two other Silicon Valley companies have decided to delay their reopenings in response to rising COVID-19 case counts.

Photo: Luis Alvarez via Getty

Apple grabbed headlines this week when it told employees it would delay its office reopening until October or later. But the iPhone maker wasn't alone: At least two other Silicon Valley companies decided to delay their reopenings last week in response to rising COVID-19 case counts.

Both ServiceNow and Pure Storage opted to push back their September return-to-office dates last week, telling employees they can work remotely until at least the end of the year. Other companies may decide to exercise more caution given the current trends.

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Allison Levitsky
Allison Levitsky is a reporter at Protocol covering workplace issues in tech. She previously covered big tech companies and the tech workforce for the Silicon Valley Business Journal. Allison grew up in the Bay Area and graduated from UC Berkeley.
Protocol | Workplace

Half of working parents have felt discriminated against during COVID

A new survey found that working parents at the VP level are more likely to say they've faced discrimination at work than their lower-level counterparts.

A new survey looks at discrimination faced by working parents during the pandemic.

Photo: d3sign/Getty Images

The toll COVID-19 has taken on working parents — particularly working moms — is, by now, well-documented. The impact for parents in low-wage jobs has been particularly devastating.

But a new survey, shared exclusively with Protocol, finds that among parents who kept their jobs through the pandemic, people who hold more senior positions are actually more likely to say they faced discrimination at work than their lower-level colleagues.

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Issie Lapowsky

Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol's chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol's fellowship program. 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.

Protocol | Enterprise

Alphabet goes deep into industrial robotic software with Intrinsic

If it succeeds, the gambit could help support Google Cloud's lofty ambitions in the manufacturing sector.

Alphabet is aiming to make advanced robotic technology affordable to customers.

Photo: Getty Images

Alphabet launched a new division Friday called Intrinsic, which will focus on building software for industrial robots, per a blog post. The move plunges the tech giant deeper into a sector that's in the midst of a major wave of digitization.

The goal of Intrinsic is to "give industrial robots the ability to sense, learn, and automatically make adjustments as they're completing tasks, so they work in a wider range of settings and applications," CEO Wendy Tan-White wrote in the post.

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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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