Month: October 2019

The GoPro MAX is the ultimate pocketable travel vlogging camera

GoPro’s first foray into the 360-degree action was the GoPro Fusion, and while it was a strong first offering, the new GoPro MAX ($499) is a very different – and much improved – immersive action camera that has a lot to offer experienced videographers and voices alike. To be sure, the MAX has trade-offs, but taken together, it presents arguably the best overall combination of features and value for travel and adventure vloggers who don’t want to break the bank or haul a huge amount of kit while they get out and explore.

It’s hip to be square

The new GoPro MAX’s form factor is both familiar and different for fans of the company’s Hero line. It’s almost like you stacked two Heros on top of each other, with a square box instead of a small rectangle as a result. The design helps accommodate both the dual optics that GoPro uses to achieve its 360-degree capture, as well as the built-in touchscreen display that can be used as a selfie viewfinder, too, when operating in Hero mode.

The ruggedized case can survive submersion in water up to 16 feet deep, and it’s splash proof as well. There are additional protective lenses for the two dome-shamed cameras in the box, as well, which GoPro advises you use in potentially messy environments to protect the optics. Both front and back sides of the camera also feature grills for microphones, which can capture 360 immersive audio when the camera is operating in 360 mode, or act as truly impressive directional shotgun mics when vlogging or working in Hero mode.

GoPro MAX 3Like the new Hero 8, the MAX has built-in GoPro accessory mounts, that fold out of the body on the bottom. This ensure you won’t have to pack the MAX in an external cage to attach it to the wide range of available GoPro mounts that exist out there, cutting down on bulk and the amount of stuff you need to pack when you take it out on the road.

The rubberized coating ensures you can keep a firm grip on the camera when you’re using it without any accessories, and GoPro’s easy to access and prominently placed external buttons mean that you can control shutter and power while you’re using it in even the messiest circumstances. Removable batteries mean you can charge and keep a few on hand to ensure you don’t miss an opportunity to get some great footage.

360 or not to 360

The MAX is a very capable 360-degree camera, on par with some of the best in the market. It handles stitching automatically, and when paired with the MAX Grip + Tripod, it’ll even get rid of any awkward stitch lines where you’re gripping the camera. Using their software, you can then use the 360 footage to create a lot of compelling effects during edits, including panning and transitioning between views, zooming in and out, and basically pulling off final edits that you wouldn’t even be able to get with a few different cameras and shooters all going at once.

That said, there are some limits to the 360 shooting: You can see where GoPro’s software has stitched together its two wide angle captures to achieve the effect, for instance, even if only slightly. And while the tools that GoPro provides for stringing together edits are surprisingly user-friendly, you will need to spend some time with it in order to make the most of the tools available – novices can easily create somewhat disorienting cuts before they get there bearings.

The beauty of the MAX, however, is that 360 is just one of the capabilities it offers – and in fact, that provides the basis for much more interesting things that most users will get plenty more value out of. Foremost among these is HyperSmooth, which, when combined with MAX’s exclusive horizon levelling feature, makes for some of the smoothest, best quality stabilized video footage you can get with any camera without a gimbal.

By default, horizon levelling on the MAX will work in both landscape and portrait modes, and switch between those orientations when you turn the camera 90 degrees. But if you lock the orientation to landscape, you can rotate the MAX freely and the horizon stays level, with footage staying smooth and stable – to an almost spooky degree.

There can sometimes be a slightly noticeable fuzziness when you pivot from one orientation to the other in captured footage, but it’s barely detectable, and it only happens if you rotate fully 90 degrees. Otherwise, the horizon stays look and footage stays smooth, regardless of how much movement, bounce or jitters you have holding the camera. It’s amazing, and should be experienced in person to truly appreciate how much tech went into this.

The perfect run-and-gun mix

That is one reason that this is the camera you want with you when you’re out and about. But it’s not all the MAX offers in this regard. GoPro has made use of the 360 capture to implement so-called ‘Digital Lenses,’ which change the field of view, and adjust distortion to get at final results that can really change the look and feel of the video you capture. There’s a new ‘Narrow’ mode that’s even more constrained than the typical ‘Linear’ mode GoPro offers, and a new Max SuperView mode that pushes wide beyond previous limits for a really dramatic look.

Because the camera is capturing 360 content at 6K, you don’t get 4K resolution when it’s cropped down to Hero mode. But you do get up to 1440p as well as 1080p options, which are plenty for most vlogging and travel log purposes. This is one area where there’s a compromise to be made in exchange for some of the flexibility and convenience you get from the MAX, but in my opinion it’s a worthwhile trade-off.

As mentioned, you also get a ruggedized camera that can even snorkel with you in the MAX 360, as well as a selfie screen and highly capable microphones built-in (in the video above you’ll notice that there is some deterioration in sound when it detects water). It really seems like GoPro did everything they could to ensure that if you wanted to, you could easily just grab the MAX and get out there, without worrying about packing any accessories beyond maybe their Shorty tripod or that MAX grip I mentioned.

GoPro MAX 2Bottom Line

GoPro’s Fusion was a compelling camera for a specific set of users, but the MAX feels like it might be flipping the script on the whole GoPro lineup. In short, the MAX seems like a great default option for anyone new to action cameras or looking for a comprehensive all-arounder that’s easy to learn, but becomes more powerful in time.

The MAX’s amazing stabilization is also probably better suited to vlogging and social video than it is to the actual action camera set, because it’s so smooth and refined. You can alter to what extent it triggers, of course, but overall MAX just seems like a device that can do magic with its built in software for aspiring content creators who would rather leave the DSLR and the gimbal at one – or who never thought to pick one up in the first place.

The 11 Best Halloween Episodes and Where to Stream Them

Halloween is an irresistible subject for TV producers – it lets them get their characters out of their comfort zone and provides much-needed visual excitement with crazy costumes. In the olden days, you used to have to wait until Halloween week to catch these shows, or shell out cash for DVD box sets, but with the advent of streaming we can play them whenever we want. Here’s our list of the absolute best Halloween episodes ever aired, and where you can stream them right now.

The Hauntening

The Hauntening

Bob’s Burgers is one of the smartest animated shows in TV history, taking its basic premise and elevating it into increasingly interesting places year after year. The season 6 Halloween episode revolves around Louise, the prickliest and most self-assured Belcher, and her inability to be scared. When the family goes to yet another haunted house, Louise thinks it’s going to be the same old song, but things quickly go out of control and get legitimately freaky fast. We won’t spoil the final twist, but this is a great episode that leans hard on well-defined characters reacting to totally bizarre situations.

Stream it on: Hulu

Who Got Dee Pregnant?

Who Got Dee Pregnant?

The ridiculous longevity of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia comes as a surprise to just about everybody. Somehow, the gang of idiots and creeps at Paddy’s Pub have anchored one of the longest-running comedies on the air today. The Season 6 episode “Who Got Dee Pregnant” doesn’t start on Halloween, but instead visits it with a series of flashbacks as the crew tries to figure out who the father of Dee’s baby is. There are so many great weird gags in this one as it plays both with the absurdity of solving a mystery while everybody is wearing a costume as well as the innate fallibility of memory. The payoff of the ostrich gag is absolutely perfect.

Stream it on Hulu



Sure, this season 2 Buffy The Vampire Slayer episode could have been titled more imaginatively, but it’s a great stand-alone episode that gave us insight into the show’s cast and introduced a new villain. When Giles’ old running buddy Ethan Rayne opens a costume shop in Sunnyvale, it’s all part of a ritual that transforms everybody wearing one into their disguise – so Buffy becomes a helpless 18th century bimbo, Xander a gun-toting soldier, and Willow an intangible ghost. Everything works out in the end but we got an interesting inversion of the series’ traditional power dynamics and a bunch of groundwork laid for the future. It’s a solid gimmick that works very well as the show found its footing.

Stream it on: Hulu

Trick Or Treat

Trick Or Treat

Halloween can bring out the worst in people, and when you’re a walking ball of neuroses like Larry David, that worst is pretty bad. The absolutely brilliant Curb Your Enthusiasm second season episode “Trick or Treat” sees Larry open the door to a pair of 13 year old girls on Halloween night not wearing costumes. Naturally, he refuses to give them candy despite their protests, and this naturally results in the “trick” portion of the holiday coming into play with the girls spray-painting “Bald Asshole” on his door. The episode’s other plots, about the invention of the Cobb salad and anti-semitism, are also great, but Larry’s Halloween apoplexy is irresistible.

Stream it on: Amazon Prime



South Park has aired a number of all-time great Halloween episodes, but we have to go all the way back to the first season to find our favorites. In “Pinkeye,” Kenny is killed once again, but instead of returning as good as new next week he is re-animated as a flesh-hungry zombie. After the epidemic of the undead is misdiagnosed as pinkeye, chaos breaks out and a gory chainsaw massacre of many of the town’s inhabitants results. It’s fun to go back and watch these early episodes to see how much of the show’s humor was fully formed right out of the gate, and this one still holds up.

Stream it on: Hulu

Rock Devil Rock

Rock Devil Rock

80s kids have a soft spot for C.H.I.P.S, the goofy drama that starred Erik Estrada and Larry Wilcox as a pair of California motorcycle cops who solved all sorts of crimes. The show’s sixth and final season saw it going off the rails in numerous amusing ways, and brought us one of the all-time great Halloween episodes with “Rock Devil Rock.” Starring Donny Most from Happy Days as an Alice Cooper-esque goth rocker named “Moloch” who is convinced he’s under a curse, Ponch and Hot Dog (Jon’s last-season replacement) must protect him on Halloween. Extra bonus points for a guest spot by Elvira!

Stream it on: Amazon Prime

Halloween III

Halloween III

Brooklyn Nine-Nine has quietly established itself as one of the most consistently funny shows on television, and their annual Halloween episodes give the show a chance to boost the surreal factor a little bit. Each year the precinct sees the Halloween Heist, where officers attempt to swipe an object to prove that they are the Ultimate Detective. Our favorite came in the third season, as Peralta and Holt go face-to-face for the first time to break the tie for “amazing detective/genius.” Any one of the Halloween Heists could have made this list, but the third one perfectly combines ridiculous plot contrivances, great character work, and an extremely satisfying ending.

Stream it on: Hulu



At its best, Community was simply untouchable. Few sitcoms packed as much into each episode, with rapid-fire gags melding with high-concept plotlines to create something that just got better the more you watched. Season 2’s Halloween episode, “Epidemiology,” has a dynamite premise: after Dean Pelton serves tainted taco meat that he bought at an Army surplus store, it turns into a zombie apocalypse that can only be averted with air conditioning. This one is a riot from start to finish, with tons of great character material and subplots including Troy and Abed’s brilliant Aliens costumes.

Stream it on: Hulu



Roseanne had a bunch of classic Halloween episodes, but our favorite is probably the first one. When Dan and Roseanne get competitive to see who can bring the scares hardest, things naturally escalate into some pretty hilarious moments. The Conners also set up a haunted house for neighborhood children, including the iconic “Tunnel of Terror.” This is probably the most grounded Halloween episode on this list, which is the reason that America fell in love with Roseanne in the first place. If you really want a shock, compare it with the utterly bizarre Season 9 episode that features Arianna Huffington as a witch.

Stream it on: Amazon Prime

Halloween (1 & 2)

Halloween (1 & 2)

Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story might have a hard time keeping momentum – and making sense – through each season, but the high points are always very worth watching. The first season, “Murder House,” boasted a two-part Halloween episode that not only delivered the hardcore scares but also served as a pivot for the overarching narrative. When the Harmon family are visited by the ghosts of the gay couple that owned their house, they mistake them for interior decorators. Halloween is the one night of the year when the spirits trapped there can leave into the real world, and they take great advantage of it.

Stream it on: Netflix

Treehouse Of Horror V

Treehouse Of Horror V

You know we had to make room for the series that has done more Halloween episodes than any other. Since 1990, every single Simpsons season has contained a Treehouse of Horror episode, presenting short tales of the macabre starring your Springfield favorites and inspired by those good and gruesome EC Comics classics. Picking just one was a hell of a job, but eventually we settled on the installment that gave us Principal Skinner eating kids, Homer going nuts, and producer David Mirkin putting in more gore to piss off the censors. It manages to be both hilarious and legitimately disturbing at the same time.

Stream it on: FXX

Asteroid Hygiea Could Be the Smallest Dwarf Planet in the Solar System

A new SPHERE/VLT image of Hygiea, which could be the solar system’s smallest dwarf planet yet. (Photo Credit: ESO / P. Vernazza et al. / MISTRAL algorithm – ONERA / CNRS)

Move over, Ceres: Astronomers using an ESO telescope revealed that asteroid Hygiea may be classified as the tiniest dwarf planet in our solar system.

Asteroid Hygiea, which was observed using ESO’s SPHERE instrument at the Very Large Telescope (VLT), is the fourth largest object in the asteroid belt after Ceres, Vesta, and Pallas, ESO said in a press release.

For the first time, astronomers analyzed asteroid Hygiea’s surface, shape, and size, which they detailed in a study published in Nature Astronomy on Oct. 28. The team determined that asteroid Hygiea is spherical and it may steal the smallest dwarf planet title from Ceres.

Here’s why asteroid Hygiea makes the cut: It meets three of the four requirements to be classified as a dwarf planet, because it orbits around the sun, is not a moon, and unlike a typical planet, it has not cleared the area around its orbit. The last requirement is that it has enough mass, so it’s own gravity can pull it into a spherical-like shape and the telescope’s observations have revealed this qualification.

“Thanks to the unique capability of the SPHERE instrument on the VLT, which is one of the most powerful imaging systems in the world, we could resolve [asteroid] Hygiea’s shape, which turns out to be nearly spherical,” says lead researcher Pierre Vernazza from the Laboratoire d’Astrophysique de Marseille in France. “Thanks to these images, [asteroid] Hygiea may be reclassified as a dwarf planet, so far the smallest in the solar system.”

The SPHERE observations revealed that asteroid Hygiea is small in size: its diameter is a little over 430 km (about 267 miles), which is tinier compared to Pluto (approximately 1,491 miles) and Ceres (roughly 590 miles).

Observations also showed that asteroid Hygiea doesn’t have the enormous impact crater that was expected to be seen on its surface, according to the study. Asteroid Hygiea is the main member of one of the biggest asteroid families, with close to 7,000 members that all came from the same parent body. Astronomers believe that the event that led to the formation of this mega-family impacted asteroid Hygiea.

“Neither of these two craters could have been caused by the impact that originated the Hygiea family of asteroids whose volume is comparable to that of a 100 km-sized object,” explains study co-author Miroslav Brož of the Astronomical Institute of Charles University in Prague. “They are too small.”

Astronomers used numerical simulations to conclude that asteroid Hygiea’s spherical shape and big asteroid family were likely formed from a head-on collision with a large projectile between 75 and 150 km (about 47 to 93 miles) in diameter. Simulations demonstrated this event, which is thought to have occurred roughly 2 billion years ago. It completely shattered the parent body and once left-over fragments were put together again, they provided asteroid Hygiea’s round shape and asteroid neighbors.

More on

Apple releases iOS 13.2 with Deep Fusion

Apple has released iOS 13.2 and iPadOS 13.2 for the iPhone and iPad. This update features the usual bug fixes and security improvements. But Apple is also adding a handful of new features to its operating system.

First, iOS 13.2 brings a ton of new emojis. The company now officially supports Unicode 12.0. You can now create all possible combinations of handholding-couple emojis regardless of gender or skin tone. There are new accessibility-focused emojis, such as a service dog, people using wheelchairs, prosthetic arms and legs, a person with a white cane and more. There also are new animals, a yawning face and new food options.

If you have an iPhone 11 or iPhone 11 Pro, iOS 13.2 enables Deep Fusion, an image-processing feature that should make your photos look better thanks to machine learning-enabled processing.

It’s also worth mentioning that you can now change the resolution and frame rate of your videos in the Camera app directly.

With iOS 13.2, you can opt out of sharing Siri recordings with Apple employees and delete your Siri and dictation history. Go to Settings > Privacy > Analytics and Improvements to opt out at any time.

Finally, iOS 13.2 enables HomeKit‌ Secure Video for HomeKit-enabled cameras and adds support for the newly announced AirPods Pro.

Before updating to iOS 13.2, back up your device. Make sure your iCloud backup is up to date by opening the Settings app on your iPhone or iPad and tapping on your account information at the top and then on your device name. Additionally, you can plug your iOS device into your computer to do a manual backup in iTunes.

Don’t forget to encrypt your backup in iTunes. It is much safer if somebody hacks your computer. And encrypted backups include saved passwords and health data. This way, you don’t have to reconnect to all your online accounts.

Once this is done, you should go to Settings as soon as possible to get in the queue. Navigate to ‘Settings,’ then ‘General’ and then ‘Software Update.’ Then you should see ‘Update Requested…’ It will then automatically start downloading once the download is available.

Apple announces AirPods Pro with noise cancellation

Apple just announced a new device today, the AirPods Pro. The company issued a press release to announce the new device. As the name suggests, the AirPods Pro are wireless earbuds with additional features compared to the AirPods.

In particular, the AirPods Pro features active noise cancellation — this feature is particularly popular in headphones designed for airplanes, such as the Bose 700 and Sony WH-1000XM3.

Apple has integrated two microphones in each earbud to listen to background noise and actively cancel sound around you. One of the microphones is inward-facing and listens to the sound inside your ears. The company has also integrated adaptive EQ to tune the low- and mid-fequencies in real time depending on the shape of your ears.

You can switch between active noice cancellation and something called Transparency mode in order to block background noise or let background noise go through your earbuds. You can control that from your device or squeeze the bottom of the earbuds between your fingertips.

Apple AirPods Pro Expanded 102819

The design of the AirPods Pro is slightly different from the AirPods. They look like in-ear earbuds with flexible silicone ear tips. You’ll be able to swap those ear tips as there are three different sizes in the box. The AirPods Pro are also sweat and water resistant.

Behind the scene, the AirPods Pro work with an Apple-designed chip called the H1. This chip handles everything from real-time noise cancelation, audio processing, and the ability to respond to “Hey Siri” requests.

Apple says that you can expect the same battery life that you’d get with regular AirPods — four and half hours of listening time with active noise cancellation and up to 24 hours of listening time with the charging case.

The charging case also looks slightly different — it is now rectangular-shaped. It features a Lightning port and wireless charging.

The AirPods Pro will be available for $249 starting on October 30. You can order them on Apple’s website starting today. Regular AirPods remain available for the same price of $159 to $199, depending on whether you get the wireless charging case.

Apple AirPods Pro iPhone11 Pro 102819

Quantum computing’s ‘Hello World’ moment

Does quantum computing really exist? It’s fitting that for decades this field has been haunted by the fundamental uncertainty of whether it would, eventually, prove to be a wild goose chase. But Google has collapsed this nagging superposition with research not just demonstrating what’s called “quantum supremacy,” but more importantly showing that this also is only the very beginning of what quantum computers will eventually be capable of.

This is by all indications an important point in computing, but it is also very esoteric and technical in many ways. Consider, however, that in the 60s, the decision to build computers with electronic transistors must have seemed rather an esoteric point as well. Yet that was in a way the catalyst for the entire Information Age.

Most of us were not lucky enough to be involved with that decision or to understand why it was important at the time. We are lucky enough to be here now — but understanding takes a bit of explanation. The best place to start is perhaps with computing and physics pioneers Alan Turing and Richard Feynman.

‘Because nature isn’t classical, dammit’

The universal computing machine envisioned by Turing and others of his generation was brought to fruition during and after World War II, progressing from vacuum tubes to hand-built transistors to the densely packed chips we have today. With it evolved an idea of computing that essentially said: If it can be represented by numbers, we can simulate it.

That meant that cloud formation, object recognition, voice synthesis, 3D geometry, complex mathematics — all that and more could, with enough computing power, be accomplished on the standard processor-RAM-storage machines that had become the standard.

But there were exceptions. And although some were obscure things like mathematical paradoxes, it became clear as the field of quantum physics evolved that it may be one of them. It was Feynman who proposed in the early 80s that if you want to simulate a quantum system, you’ll need a quantum system to do it with.

“I’m not happy with all the analyses that go with just the classical theory, because nature isn’t classical, dammit, and if you want to make a simulation of nature, you’d better make it quantum mechanical,” he concluded, in his inimitable way. Classical computers, as he deemed what everyone else just called computers, were insufficient to the task.

GettyImages feynman

Richard Feynman made the right call, it turns out.

The problem? There was no such thing as a quantum computer, and no one had the slightest idea how to build one. But the gauntlet had been thrown, and it was like catnip to theorists and computer scientists, who since then have vied over the idea.

Could it be that with enough ordinary computing power, power on a scale Feynman could hardly imagine — data centers with yottabytes of storage and exaflops of processing — we can in fact simulate nature down to its smallest, spookiest levels?

Or could it be that with some types of problems you hit a wall, and that you can put every computer on Earth to a task and the progress bar will only tick forward a percentage point in a million years, if that?

And, if that’s the case, is it even possible to create a working computer that can solve that problem in a reasonable amount of time?

In order to prove Feynman correct, you would have to answer all of these questions. You’d have to show that there exists a problem that is not merely difficult for ordinary computers, but that is effectively impossible for them to solve even at incredible levels of power. And you would have to not just theorize but create a new computer that not just can but does solve that same problem.

By doing so you would not just prove a theory, you would open up an entirely new class of problem-solving, of theories that can be tested. It would be a moment when an entirely new field of computing first successfully printed “hello world” and was opened up for everyone in the world to use. And that is what the researchers at Google and NASA claim to have accomplished.

In which we skip over how it all actually works

google quantum team

One of the quantum computers in question. I talked with that fellow in the shorts about microwave amps and attenuators for a while.

Much has already been written on how quantum computing differs from traditional computing, and I’ll be publishing another story soon detailing Google’s approach. But some basics bear mentioning here.

Classical computers are built around transistors that, by holding or vacating a charge, signify either a 1 or a 0. By linking these transistors together into more complex formations they can represent data, or transform and combine it through logic gates like AND and NOR. With a complex language specific to digital computers that has evolved for decades, we can make them do all kinds of interesting things.

Quantum computers are actually quite similar in that they have a base unit that they perform logic on to perform various tasks. The difference is that the unit is more complex: a qubit, which represents a much more complex mathematical space than simply 0 or 1. Instead you may think of their state may be thought of as a location on a sphere, a point in 3D space. The logic is also more complicated, but still relatively basic (and helpfully still called gates): That point can be adjusted, flipped, and so on. Yet the qubit when observed is also digital, providing what amounts to either a 0 or 1 value.

By virtue of representing a value in a richer mathematical space, these qubits and manipulations thereof can perform new and interesting tasks, including some which, as Google shows, we had no ability to do before.

A quantum of contrivance

In order to accomplish the tripartite task summarized above, first the team had to find a task that classical computers found difficult but that should be relatively easy for a quantum computer to do. The problem they settled on is in a way laughably contrived: Being a quantum computer.

In a way it makes you want to just stop reading, right? Of course a quantum computer is going to be better at being itself than an ordinary computer will be. But it’s not actually that simple.

Think of a cool old piece of electronics — an Atari 800. Sure, it’s very good at being itself and running its programs and so on. But any modern computer can simulate an Atari 800 so well that it could run those programs in orders of magnitude less time. For that matter, a modern computer can be simulated by a supercomputer in much the same way.

Furthermore, there are already ways of simulating quantum computers — they were developed in tandem with real quantum hardware so performance could be compared to theory. These simulators and the hardware they simulate differ widely, and have been greatly improved in recent years as quantum computing became more than a hobby for major companies and research institutions.

qubit lattice

This shows the “lattice” of qubits as they were connected during the experiment (colored by the amount of error they contributed, which you don’t need to know about.)

To be specific, the problem was simulating the output of a random sequence of gates and qubits in a quantum computer. Briefly stated, when a circuit of qubits does something, the result is, like other computers, a sequence of 0s and 1s. If it isn’t calculating something in particular, those numbers will be random — but crucially, they are “random” in a very specific, predictable way.

Think of a pachinko ball falling through its gauntlet of pins, holes and ramps. The path it takes is random in a way, but if you drop 10,000 balls from the exact same position into the exact same maze, there will be patterns in where they come out at the bottom — a spread of probabilities, perhaps more at the center and less at the edges. If you were to simulate that pachinko machine on a computer, you could test whether your simulation is accurate by comparing the output of 10,000 virtual drops with 10,000 real ones.

It’s the same with simulating a quantum computer, though of course rather more complex. Ultimately however the computer is doing the same thing: simulating a physical process and predicting the results. And like the pachinko simulator, its accuracy can be tested by running the real thing and comparing those results.

But just as it is easier to simulate a simple pachinko machine than a complex one, it’s easier to simulate a handful of qubits than a lot of them. After all, qubits are already complex. And when you get into questions of interference, slight errors and which direction they’d go, etc. — there are, in fact, so many factors that Feynman decided at some point you wouldn’t be able to account for them all. And at that point you would have entered the realm where only a quantum computer can do so — the realm of “quantum supremacy.”

Exponential please, and make it a double

After 1,400 words, there’s the phrase everyone else put right in the headline. Why? Because quantum supremacy may sound grand, but it’s only a small part of what was accomplished, and in fact this result in particular may not last forever as an example of having reached those lofty heights. But to continue.

Google’s setup, then, was simple. Set up randomly created circuits of qubits, both in its quantum computer and in the simulator. Start simple with a few qubits doing a handful of operational cycles and compare the time it takes to produce results.

Bear in mind that the simulator is not running on a laptop next to the fridge-sized quantum computer, but on Summit — a supercomputer at Oak Ridge National Lab currently rated as the most powerful single processing system in the world, and not by a little. It has 2.4 million processing cores, a little under 3 petabytes of memory, and hits about 150 petaflops.

At these early stages, the simulator and the quantum computer happily agreed — the numbers they spat out, the probability spreads, were the same, over and over.

But as more qubits and more complexity got added to the system, the time the simulator took to produce its prediction increased. That’s to be expected, just like a bigger pachinko machine. At first the times for actually executing the calculation and simulating it may have been comparable — a matter of seconds or minutes. But those numbers soon grew hour by hour as they worked their way up to 54 qubits.

When it got to the point where it took the simulator five hours to verify the quantum computer’s result, Google changed its tack. Because more qubits isn’t the only way quantum computing gets more complex (and besides, they couldn’t add any more to their current hardware). Instead, they started performing more rounds of operations with a given circuit, which adds all kinds of complexity to the simulation for a lot of reasons that I couldn’t possibly explain.

For the quantum computer, doing another round of calculations takes a fraction of a second, and even multiplied by thousands of times to get the required number of runs to produce usable probability numbers, it only ended up taking the machine several extra seconds.

schroed feyn chart

You know it’s real because there’s a chart. The dotted line (added by me) is the approximate path the team took, first adding qubits (x-axis) and then complexity (y-axis).

For the simulator, verifying these results took a week — a week, on the most powerful computer in the world.

At that point the team had to stop doing the actual simulator testing, since it was so time-consuming and expensive. Yet even so, no one really claimed that they had achieved “quantum supremacy.” After all, it may have taken the biggest classical computer ever created thousands of times longer, but it was still getting done.

So they cranked the dial up another couple notches. 54 qubits, doing 25 cycles, took Google’s Sycamore system 200 seconds. Extrapolating from its earlier results, the team estimated that it would take Summit 10,000 years.

What happened is what the team called double exponential increase. It turns out that adding qubits and cycles to a quantum computer adds a few microseconds or seconds every time — a linear increase. But every qubit you add to a simulated system makes that simulation exponentially more costly to run, and it’s the same story with cycles.

Imagine if you had to do whatever number of push-ups I did, squared, then squared again. If I did 1, you would do 1. If I did 2, you’d do 16. So far no problem. But by the time I get to 10, I’d be waiting for weeks while you finish your 10,000 push-ups. It’s not exactly analogous to Sycamore and Summit, since adding qubits and cycles had different and varying exponential difficulty increases, but you get the idea. At some point you can have to call it. And Google called it when the most powerful computer in the world would still be working on something when in all likelihood this planet will be a smoking ruin.

It’s worth mentioning here that this result does in a way depend on the current state of supercomputers and simulation techniques, which could very well improve. In fact IBM published a paper just before Google’s announcement suggesting that theoretically it could reduce the time necessary for the task described significantly. But it seems unlikely that they’re going to improve by multiple orders of magnitude and threaten quantum supremacy again. After all, if you add a few more qubits or cycles, it gets multiple orders of magnitude harder again. Even so, advances on the classical front are both welcome and necessary for further quantum development.

‘Sputnik didn’t do much, either’

So the quantum computer beat the classical one soundly on the most contrived, lopsided task imaginable, like pitting an apple versus an orange in a “best citrus” competition. So what?

Well, as founder of Google’s Quantum AI lab Hartmut Neven pointed out, “Sputnik didn’t do much either. It just circled the Earth and beeped.” And yet we always talk about an industry having its “Sputnik moment” — because that was when something went from theory to reality, and began the long march from reality to banality.

2019 SB Google 0781

The ritual passing of the quantum computing core.

That seemed to be the attitude of the others on the team I talked with at Google’s quantum computing ground zero near Santa Barbara. Quantum superiority is nice, they said, but it’s what they learned in the process that mattered, by confirming that what they were doing wasn’t pointless.

Basically it’s possible that a result like theirs could be achieved whether or not quantum computing really has a future. Pointing to one of the dozens of nearly incomprehensible graphs and diagrams I was treated to that day, hardware lead and longtime quantum theorist John Martines explained one crucial result: The quantum computer wasn’t doing anything weird and unexpected.

This is very important when doing something completely new. It was entirely possible that in the process of connecting dozens of qubits and forcing them to dance to the tune of the control systems, flipping, entangling, disengaging, and so on — well, something might happen.

Maybe it would turn out that systems with more than 14 entangled qubits in the circuit produce a large amount of interference that breaks the operation. Maybe some unknown force would cause sequential qubit photons to affect one another. Maybe sequential gates of certain types would cause the qubit to decohere and break the circuit. It’s these unknown unknowns that have caused so much doubt over whether, as asked at the beginning, quantum computing really exists as anything more than a parlor trick.

Imagine if they discovered that in digital computers, if you linked too many transistors together, they all spontaneously lost their charge and went to 0. That would put a huge limitation on what a transistor-based digital computer was capable of doing. Until now, no one knew if such a limitation existed for quantum computers.

“There’s no new physics out there that will cause this to fail. That’s a big takeaway,” said Martines. “We see the same errors whether we have a simple circuit or complex one, meaning the errors are not dependent on computational complexity or entanglement — which means the complex quantum computing going on doesn’t have fragility to it because you’re doing a complex computation.”

They operated a quantum computer at complexities higher than ever before, and nothing weird happens. And based on their observations and tests, they found that there’s no reason to believe they can’t take this same scheme up to, say, a thousand qubits and even greater complexity.

Hello world

That is the true accomplishment of the work the research team did. They found out, in the process of achieving the rather overhyped milestone of quantum superiority, that quantum computers are something that can continue to get better and to achieve more than simply an interesting experimental results.

This was by no means a given — like everything else in the world, quantum or classical, it’s all theoretical until you test it.

It means that sometime soonish, though no one can really say when, quantum computers will be something people will use to accomplish real tasks. From here on out, it’s a matter of getting better, not proving the possibility; of writing code, not theorizing whether code can be executed.

It’s going from Feynman’s proposal that a quantum computer will be needed to using a quantum computer for whatever you need it for. It’s the “hello world” moment for quantum computing.

Feynman, by the way, would probably not be surprised. He knew he was right.

Google’s paper describing their work was published in the journal Nature. You can read it here.

Untangling the Terminator Franchise Timeline

‘Terminator Genisys’ (Photo Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon / Paramount Pictures)

When your entire franchise uses time travel as a cornerstone, things are bound to get confusing. James Cameron didn’t make the first Terminator movie knowing it would spawn a line of sequels and spin-offs, so he obviously didn’t think too hard about the time paradoxes that would result from sending an unstoppable murder robot into the past. And the more Skynet (and the human rebels) meddle with the timeline, the worse it gets.

With Terminator: Dark Fate hitting theaters next week, we thought we’d go back to the very beginning and try to reconcile all of these paradoxes into one coherent timeline. We’ll be back.

The Terminator (1984)

The Terminator

‘The Terminator’ (Photo Credit: Orion Pictures)

Movie takes place in: 1984
Terminator sent back from: 2029
Skynet becomes self-aware: Not specifically said

When malevolent artificial intelligence Skynet sends a T-800 Terminator back in time to murder Sarah Connor before she can give birth to her son, resistance leader John, he’s followed by rebel Kyle Reese. Connor and Reese manage to stop the implacable robot killing machine with the aid of pipe bombs and a hydraulic press. Reese is killed, but not before knocking Connor up and fathering John himself.

Paradox Level: Medium. Skynet’s plan is a failure on multiple levels. Not only is the T-800’s mission stymied, but Kyle Reese heading into the past to stop it is directly responsible for John Connor being born in the first place. One would think that by the time 2029 rolled around, the AI would have realized this and tried something different. This is explained by the concept of a “predestination paradox,” where any time travel will simply reinforce events that were supposed to happen.

Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)

Terminator 2: Judgement Day

‘Terminator 2: Judgement Day’ (Photo Credit: TriStar Pictures)

Movie takes place in: 1995
Terminator sent back from: 2029
Skynet becomes self-aware: 1997

John Connor is now a ten-year-old juvenile delinquent with a mother in a mental hospital. When a new Terminator made of liquid metal is sent back to end his life, his only hope is a reprogrammed T-800. Outgunned by the morphing powers of the latest model, the old robot sacrifices its life to stop it, but not before we learn that Skynet was spawned by analyzing a chip left behind in the arm of the antagonist from the first Terminator.

Paradox Level: Medium. The revelation that the original Terminator’s arm was used to create Skynet brings the first film’s mission into clearer focus. Even though Sarah Connor wasn’t killed, the time jump laid the groundwork for the machines to take over. With the arm destroyed, viewers were left to wonder if the dark future was going to happen at all. Surprise! It was!

Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines (2003)

Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines

‘Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines’ (Photo Credit: Warner Bros.)

Movie takes place in: 2005
Terminator sent back from: 2032
Skynet becomes self-aware: 2005

James Cameron had no involvement with the Terminator franchise after the second film, and after the rights were sold off Rise Of The Machines was made for $187 million, the most expensive movie ever made to that point. The basic premise is the same: both bad robots and good ones are sent back to the past, but because we’re now after the 1997 deadline we learn that Judgement Day only delayed Skynet, it didn’t stop it. In fact, the real Judgement Day is… right now, as the AI has escaped its physical hosting and uploaded itself into the cloud as nuclear missiles start to fall. It’s a downer of an ending but it wasn’t enough to kill the franchise.

Paradox Level: Low. Skynet is online, John Connor is the leader of the burgeoning resistance and all is right in the world. Aside from the typical questions of “if you knew it wouldn’t work in the future, why would you still do it,” the Terminator universe is stable on a quantum level for the first time. It won’t last.

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008)

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles

‘Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles’ (Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Television)

Show takes place in: 2007
Terminator sent back from: 2029
Skynet becomes self-aware: Unknown

The two-season Fox show drew big audiences but couldn’t survive losing momentum after the WGA strike and was swiftly canceled after two seasons. Sarah and John Connor get sent forward to 2007 from 1998, joined by a female terminator named Cameron. Once there, they contend with both additional robots sent back to ruin their day, but also modern attempts to develop Skynet. Because it’s a TV show, Chronicles has lots of time to play with its ideas, for better or for worse.

Paradox Level: Medium. Pushing the Connors forward in time sort of goofs up their ages for the other movies, and of course, the introduction of all these other Terminators with different abilities muddles the tactics that Skynet brings to the table. It doesn’t do any major twists until the last episode, where we get to the future to discover nobody has ever heard of John Connor.

Terminator Salvation (2009)

Terminator Salvation

‘Terminator Salvation’ (Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures)

Movie takes place in: 2018
Terminator sent back from: 2029
Skynet becomes self-aware: Unknown, possibly 2005

With the last movie bringing the two timelines together, the producers of Terminator Salvation had a hard decision to make. The fourth film in the franchise was intended to launch a second trilogy taking place after the nuclear holocaust, but after critical and commercial response was poor, that idea was scrapped. With Schwarzenegger unavailable because he was governing California, his likeness had to be CGI superimposed on bodybuilder Roland Kickinger.

Paradox Level: Medium. No time travel anywhere in this movie means the timeline remains mostly stable. However, one glaring issue is how John Connor is back in action despite the Sarah Connor Chronicles finale writing him out of existence just a month before.

Terminator Genisys (2015)

‘TerminatorGenisys’ (Photo Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon / Paramount Pictures)

Movie takes place in: 1984, 2017
Terminator sent back from: 2029
Skynet becomes self-aware: 2017

Legal issues with the franchise’s ownership prevented another film from being made for some time. It eventually wound up at Annapurna Pictures, which opted to ignore Salvation entirely and concentrate on rebooting the franchise to get back to the basics. As such, Genisys plays like a Greatest Hits album, taking us to the moment in 2029 when Skynet sends that first Terminator back for Sarah Connor and starts making things messy, following him with a T-1000 and then bringing 1980s Sarah Connor (played by Emilia Clarke now) forward in time, because apparently, we can do that now. Throw in a John Connor from the future controlled by nanomachines and it all ends the day before Skynet goes online.

Paradox Level: High. Attempting to reconcile all of the criss-crossing in the timeline makes this movie nearly impossible to follow. Skynet is now called “Genisys,” for some reason, its creation myth is totally changed, and there are more different Terminator types than ever before. Nothing in this one makes sense and it’s not surprising that it was critically panned.

Terminator: Dark Fate

‘Terminator: Dark Fate’ (Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures)

Movie takes place in: 2020
Terminator sent back from: 2042
Skynet becomes self-aware: Unknown

The latest Terminator movie sees James Cameron return to the franchise as a producer and immediately tosses out everything that’s gone before. Linda Hamilton is back as Sarah Connor, Arnold is back as the T-800, but the plot works to finally introduce some new blood into the saga, with a cyborg woman sent back to protect her younger self from Terminators. We’ll stop the spoilers there.

Paradox Level: Medium. A lot of superficial changes, but the general theme remains the same. Skynet is nowhere to be found, replaced by “Legion” as the artificial intelligence that wipes out humanity. For the first time, human soldiers are cybernetically augmented as well. But instead of pissing you off, these changes are incorporated in a way that fleshes out the endless possibilities of time travel instead of negating what came before.

The next major milestone in the Terminator franchise is 2029, when the original T-800 was sent back to hunt Sarah Connor. Given the series’ general rate of release, we should see at least one other film before then. We’ll see if producers stick with the updated Dark Fate timeline or if they push Skynet’s activation even further down the line.

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