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A photo of Charles Trimble from the mid to late 90’s

Charles Trimble Bet His Company on GPS—and Won

Next month, Brad Parkinson receives the IEEE Medal of Honor for his work bringing GPS navigation from concept to reality. Parkinson told me in January that he’d always wanted a cheap, consumer version of the technology—though he never imagined just how cheap and ubiquitous it would become.

Writing a profile of Parkinson sent me down a trail of my own—into my memory banks, to recall the others who made GPS something we can take for granted today. In addition to Parkinson, there’s Ivan Getting, whose vision set the stage for GPS today—the full text of my 1991 article on Getting is here. And there’s Charles Trimble, who shared Parkinson’s vision of consumer applications for GPS. His company, Trimble Inc., introduced its first GPS product in 1984, a system designed for off-shore oil drilling platforms. In 1994, the company brought out its first GPS receiver that fit on a PC card. The full text of that profile is below.

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Professor Ivan Getting working in his laboratory.

For GPS, Also Thank Ivan Getting; He Got “the Damn Thing Funded”

In 1991, I sat down with Ivan Getting, then age 79 and retired but still serving on the boards of directors of several companies. The U.S. satellite navigation system, now referred to as GPS, then more commonly called Navstar, wasn’t complete, but covered most of the world and had proved essential to the U.S. military in the Persian Gulf War. We thought Spectrum’s readers would want  to know more about how Getting came to play such a big role in making Navstar.

I had no idea at the time just how much GPS would come to mean personally, to me and just about everyone. Getting had some good stories to tell, so I was interested, but GPS hadn’t changed my life—at least, not yet.

Getting was the first satellite navigation pioneer to tell me his story, but not the last. The next year I interviewed Charles Trimble, founder of Trimble navigation and one of the first to bet his company on the commercial possibilities of satellite navigation; the full text of that profile is here. (In just that short year, we’d stopped calling the technology Navstar, it was now and going forward GPS.)

This year, I met with a third key figure in the history of satellite navigation, Brad Parkinson, who, as an Air Force colonel, took Getting’s vision of satellite navigation and ran the program that got that system spec’d out and launched (literally). Next month, Parkinson will receive the 2018 IEEE Medal of Honor for his work.

This time I knew how much of a difference GPS made to the world and to me, so was more than a little excited. On the way to meet Parkinson, I also thought about what I’d perhaps lost—once in a while in that pre-GPS past, wrong turns led to even better destinations than those originally targeted. But the net gain has been a huge, even though my children will never know how to read a Thomas guide or a AAA Triptik.

What follows below is my 1991 article profiling Ivan Getting. It covers the development of Navstar, along with an early project in Getting’s career which evolved into the “Scudbuster” used in the Gulf War, other technical projects, and the origins of the Aerospace Corp.

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Kumail Nanjiani, Zach Woods, Martin Starr, Thomas Middleditch in a scene from Season 5 of Silicon Valley

Where is HBO Silicon Valley’s Real Pied Piper? Look in Ayr, Scotland

Pied Piper, the fictional startup of HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” began as a data compression company. Producers during its first few seasons consulted with researchers at Stanford who specialize in compression algorithms—first, Tsachy Weissman and Vinith Misra, and later Dmitri Pavlichin—to put a real-world spin on discussions about its technology and the whiteboards explaining it. Weissman developed a new compression metric, the Weissman Score, for the show; real-world researchers even started using it. And Misra wrote a technical paper, published online, explaining a fictional (and R-rated) improvement to the compression algorithm.

But like so many startups, Pied Piper eventually pivoted to a different business model—and a new technology. Last season, Richard Hendriks and his team changed their focus to decentralizing the Internet, that is, creating what the show explained as a peer-to-peer network of websites “with no firewalls, no tolls, no government regulation, no spying.”

This wasn’t a unique idea, though it hadn’t gotten a huge amount of notice outside of segments of the tech industry. In 2015, Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, published a white paper making a case for a Decentralized Web, and in 2016 the Internet Archive held the first Decentralized Web Summit. Meanwhile, several real-world startups were working on developing the technology, including Anonymouse and MaidSafe. (While HBO Silicon Valley refers to a decentralized Internet, what the show describes is generally what the rest of the tech world calls a decentralized web.)

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Photo of the real Tekla Perry

I Was a Russian Facebook Troll Named Martha

Back in the earliest days of Facebook, before you could attach a second name to your Facebook account or before businesses could set up pages, I created two Facebook accounts. I use my original name professionally and my married name for my personal life, and so it made sense to me that I would have a professional account and a personal account.

But before I really got going with Facebook, I started using Twitter for professional postings, so the Facebook account associated with my work email just gathered digital dust. For years and years.

A couple of weeks ago, however, I started getting notices via email from Facebook pointing out that the account hadn’t been updated in a while. I thought that was odd; why would Facebook suddenly care about this old account? Is it really that desperate for traffic? And I also started getting notices whenever a friend on that account (which at that point was only me, that is, my other account) posted anything new. That was annoying, and given I’d never gotten these notices before, I was pretty sure “updates on your friends” was not something for which I had created an email alert. I tried to log on to my old work-related account to turn the notices off, but the password failed. I wrote that off to bad recordkeeping on my part and I didn’t have the time to fiddle with it, so I moved on to other things.

Then last week, the notification emails started referring to me as Martha. Huh? And alerted me that I had changed my profile picture. And then came more, noting that I’d added two friends—one in the Ukraine, one in Tanzania—and suggesting a long list of possible friends, most of whom were tagged in Cyrillic. It looked like my dusty little Facebook account was turning into a Russian troll. (Ironically, my actual first name is of Russian origin—but I guess you can’t have a Russian troll with a Russian name.)

I dug through all of Facebook’s reporting mechanisms—there wasn’t any option for “I’m a troll.” I couldn’t report my own profile for abuse, only report someone else’s profile, or posts someone else had made. The online menus sent me through circle after circle.

Finally, I deactivated my account, giving “privacy concerns” as a reason. But I wonder how many other people who have dusty accounts—particularly people who once upon a time set up a Facebook account (or perhaps their children set it up for them)—but didn’t select activity alerts. Without those coming through, I would have had no idea that I had been Martha, a Russian troll.

A Facebook spokesperson indicated that anyone who faces this situation should go to Facebook.com/hacked to report it, but declined to respond to more detailed questions. I’m still in the dark regarding: why—and how often—this happens; how the hackers carry it out; and, if the hacker had changed my alert email, how I would have ever found out that one of my online personalities had been hijacked.

So, if you get an alert on an old account, don’t ignore it, it could be the start of something really wrong.

And finally, a word to Facebook: Your reporting mechanisms stink! Users shouldn’t have to dig through countless menus to find reporting options, and then figure out what exact category of trouble might be close to the problem. The Facebook.com/hacked site offered nothing in the ballpark. Here’s a suggestion: One menu option should be “I believe my identity is being used by a Russian troll.”

Participants at the 2018 Superposition hackathon

Hackathons Are Usually Dominated by Men; This One Was Just for Girls

“HeartOnSleeve,” “Too Tired to be Tired,” “Moodchanger,” “Food for Less Thought.” If these apps sound like something a teen girl would love, that’s because they were designed by teen girls—and that’s a good thing for the future of women in tech.

These were just a few of the winning apps that came out of last month’s Superposition II, a 24-hour hackathon in San Francisco for middle, high school, and college students who identify as female. It drew 150 hackers along with 39 mentors and 12 judges. The hackers formed 33 project teams—some ahead of time on Facebook, some on the spot.

Areeta Wong, a student from San Mateo High School, started holding these events last year, after attending the Girls Who Code Summer Immersion Program.

Says Wong, “Females shouldn’t shy from a field—like I originally did—because of social norms. Although Girls Who Code had opportunities, they required long-term commitments; I wanted to help females access opportunities quicker and easier, just a weekend of freedom to learn computer science and build a product. I also wanted to show students different fields that could merge with computer science.”

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An image of dice and poker chips to illustrate a gamble.

Is it Time for Quantum Computing Startups? Maybe

IBM is betting on quantum computing, but it can’t win without the help of startups. And how long it will take for the bet to pay off is anybody’s guess.

That was the message of the Q Summit, a one-day meeting of quantum-computing researchers, investors, and entrepreneurs hosted by IBM in Menlo Park, Calif., last week.

“We need startups in the quantum space,” said Joe Raffa, director of IBM Ventures. “There’s a huge amount of work to do,” he said, to cross the “long revenue desert.”

The potential is big, but the risks are huge.

“There are really only 15 or 20 people in the world” who will make or break quantum computing, said Matt Johnson, CEO of QC Ware, a startup that is building a commercial software package for quantum computing.

Quantum computing was 10 years away 20 years ago, said Vijay Pande, general partner at Andreessen Horowitz, and it still is. But eventually, he said, it will make a leap and take the computing world by surprise.

“For generation after generation, the quantum computer will be way slower than the classic machine,” he said. But its rate of evolution is “hyper exponential, so suddenly, in some ‘n’ years, it will jump over the classic machine. The real question is when will this transition happen.”

He had some predictions along that 10-year timeline. Within 10 years, for certain limited disciplines, he says, quantum computers will dominate. New algorithms will be developed to use them—algorithms that aren’t currently being developed for classic computers because it would be pointless to run them. Why? They would be just too slow.

But, he said, this all makes it very difficult to address quantum computing as a venture capitalist. “It’s hard to talk about the market if I don’t even know what the algorithms are.” 

Bill Coughran, a Sequoia Capital partner and former senior vice president of engineering at Google, said that, as an investor, “I’ve struggled with the question whether quantum computing is development or still research. VC firms think [along] a 10-year time horizon, not 20 or 30 years. Are we on the cusp of a breakthrough?”

The question, he says, “is still open.”

Startups have formed, however, with venture money behind them. Johnson’s software startup, QC Ware, is betting “that the people building the hardware will get it [to the point] that our software is useful.”

Christopher Savoie, CEO of startup Zapata Computing, is betting that chemistry will be the first field to benefit from quantum computing, and is developing algorithms for drug discovery and chemical design.

These two, and six more startups, are part of the IBM Q Network, an organization launched in late 2017 to accelerate the development of practical applications for quantum computing.

And Sequoia has made an investment in a quantum startup, Quantum Circuits, just in case the answer to Coughran’s question about whether quantum computing is on the cusp of a breakthrough is yes. But Coughran has still another concern.

“Most prominent teams today,” he said, “are built around people with strong academic track records, but those are not always the ideal teams with which to build real companies.”

IBM’s Anthony Annunziata, leader of the IBM Q Network, admitted that, to date, there are no commercial applications of quantum computing that beat conventional computing. “We are at the point of getting quantum ready. We like to think that we are on the cusp of emerging, of moving out of pure science,” he said. “The era of the quantum advantage is still a few years out; it’s hard to see how many.”

It’s not the right time “to go all in, to put tens of millions of dollars into this,” Annunziata continued. “But it’s exciting enough. Things are progressing well enough that [every tech organization] should have at least one person who is your quantum person, who can learn the basics and take it from there.”

Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang on stage at the GTC 2018 conference

Move Over, Moore’s Law: Make Way for Huang’s Law

An exuberant Jensen Huang, who gave a keynote and popped up on stage during various events at Nvidia’s 2018 GPU Technology Conference (GTC) held in San Jose, Calif., last week, repeatedly made the point that due to extreme advances in technology, graphics processing units (GPUs) are governed by a law of their own.

“There’s a new law going on,” he says, “a supercharged law.”

Huang, who is CEO of Nvidia, didn’t call it Huang’s Law; I’m guessing he’ll leave that to others. After all, Gordon Moore wasn’t the one who gave Moore’s Law its now-famous moniker. (Moore’s Law—Moore himself called it an observation—refers to the regular doubling of the number of components per integrated circuit that drove a dramatic reduction in the cost of computing power.)

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Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang on stage at the GTC 2018 conferenc

Jensen Huang on the Uber Tragedy and Why Nvidia Suspended Testing

The Uber tragedy earlier this month sent a shudder throughout the autonomous vehicle industry. Some of the companies working on the technology paused testing. Nvidia was one of them.

“We suspended because there is obviously a new data point as a result of the accident,” said Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang. “As good engineers, we should simply wait to see if we can learn something from that experience. We don’t know that we would do anything different, but we should give ourselves time to see if we can learn from that incident. It won’t take long.”

Huang made that remark during a press briefing at the 2018 GPU Technology Conference (GTC). In an earlier keynote address he discussed Nvidia’s role in developing autonomous driving technology—and a new product. His inner engineer shining through, Huang rattled off numbers to make his case.

“Civilization drives about 10 trillion miles a year,” he said. “In the U.S., 770 accidents happen per 1 billion miles. [Automotive] safety work in the U.S. has reduced the number of accidents, so now you have to drive a billion miles to produce 770 accidents.”

That means, he said, “You have to ask yourself how confident you are when your fleet of 20 test cars has driven 1 million miles.”

Autonomous cars need a lot more miles under their wheels than that, he indicated, to gain enough experience under a variety of conditions so that their designers can fine-tune—and then prove—their safety. The answer, Huang said, is doing the bulk of the testing in virtual reality.

“That’s where Nvidia can shine. We know how to build VR worlds. We could have thousands of these worlds with thousands of scenarios running, with our AI car driving itself through these worlds. If something happens, it could send us an email and we can jump in and figure out what was going on.”

“We could use VR to create extreme-corner rare scenarios that are completely repeatable,” he indicated, “so engineers can debug these systems.”

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Composite photographs of Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang and co-founder Chris Malachowsky.

Nvidia Co-founders Remember Their Startup Roller Coaster Ride

A startup competition at Nvidia’s GPU Technology Conference (GTC) held in San Jose this week sent Jensen Huang and his Nvidia co-founder Chris Malachowsky on a trip down memory lane.

On stage to introduce winners of Nvidia’s Inception Awards, an AI startup competition with a million dollars in prize money at stake, Huang and Malachowsky talked about their own startup journey.

“I was in this position 25 years ago,” Huang said. So “I can’t help but reminisce about the past.”

Although, he pointed out, “We never won anything.”

Huang and Malachowsky recalled what they did—and didn’t do—on the eventual path to success.

For one, they never did come up with a business plan.  “I didn’t know how to write a business plan and never did finish one,” said Huang. “It’s not like school; you don’t have to turn it in.”

It’s not that they weren’t asked for one. Malachowsky recalled the question specifically coming up at an early meeting with venture capitalists. “Jensen [Huang] told them ‘I worked on it last night, but didn’t finish it.’ [The VCs] said ‘That’s OK, we wouldn’t have believed it anyway.’”

And that disbelief would have been appropriate, Huang indicated, because “no business plan could have predicted any of the past 25 years.”

Huang and Malachowsky credited their success with their ability to move on when things didn’t turn out as they expected.

“’Move on’ is simple to say, but hard to do,” said Huang. “We competed against [founders of] 100 companies. We all had the same backgrounds, were all clever, and we all worked hard.”

Nvidia succeeded where others failed, Huang indicated, because “we had the ability to pivot, to acknowledge that things were different. When we were plain wrong, we dealt with it with intellectual honesty and just moved on.”

In addition, said Malachowsky, “We surrounded ourselves with people who also weren’t afraid to be wrong. They wanted to succeed in the end game,” but were willing to let what they were doing at the time go if necessary. They didn’t “have lot of ego.”

In the beginning, recalled Huang, “We had this idea that computer graphics was going to be the driving force of technology and [its] fuel would be videogames.”

But, he said, “a year and a half later, we nearly went out of business—the technology was wrong, the market strategy was wrong, architecture was wrong, and the execution wasn’t good.”

One particular embarrassment, he said, had to do with the company’s first graphics processor, the NV1. “We taped it out,” he recalls, “it came back, and 90 percent [didn’t] work. But we were so excited this was back, we took it to Computex. People were blown away by what we showed even though 90 percent didn’t work.”

“Then went to the same conference a year later, and showed the same thing,” he continued. “If you go to a conference twice and show the same demo, it’s not good. We almost went out of business” as a result.

But the most heart-stopping moment on the startup rollercoaster, Huang recalled, was after Nvidia’s RIVA 128 came out. “It was a raging success,” Huang said. “Then Intel showed up and said they were going to build a graphics chip. Meanwhile, we were about to go public.”

Customers quickly backed away and sales plummeted, Huang recalled. “We went from days away from going public to days away from going out of business. That’s what it’s like to be a startup.”

“It’s so good!” Malachowsky chimed in.

“The glory, the tragedy, the glory, the tragedy….” Huang responded.

The winners of the 2018 Inception Awards, hoping their story ends in glory rather than tragedy, were: Subtle Medical, a company using AI to improve the quality, lower the cost, and increase the speed of medical imaging; AiFi, a company aiming to take the Amazon Go checkout-free retail model and expand it to a wider variety of stores; and Kinema Systems, a company designing plug-and-play robots to automate some basic industrial tasks, like loading and unloading pallets.

People walk in a blur past an IBM sign

ProPublica/Mother Jones Investigation Confirms IBM Layoffs Targeted Older Workers

IBM’s layoffs: it’s been a frustrating story to cover—and I’ve been trying since 2015. So I was thrilled today when ProPublica and Mother Jones jointly released the results of their own investigation of IBM layoffs.

That investigation showed that IBM has systematically used layoffs to reduce the age of its workforce, targeting “people with layoffs and firings with techniques that tilted against older workers” and attempting to “sharply increase hiring of people born after 1980.”

The report also indicated that IBM laid off U.S. workers as part of an effort to move jobs overseas and that it “told some older employees being laid off that their skills were out of date, but then brought them back as contract workers, often for the same work at lower pay and fewer benefits.”

Yes, yes, and yes. In my 2015 story, I reported that IBM was reportedly wielding a massive ax through its workforce, with older employees hit the hardest. The evidence was anecdotal—long-time employees, typically in their 50s, suddenly found themselves without a job, and with minimal severance benefits.

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View From the Valley

IEEE Spectrum’s blog featuring the people, places, and passions of the world of technologists in Silicon Valley and its environs.
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Tekla Perry
Palo Alto, Calif.
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