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IBM makes 20 qubit quantum computing machine available as a cloud service



IBM has been offering quantum computing as a cloud service since last year when it came out with a 5 qubit version of the advanced computers. Today, the company announced that it’s releasing 20-qubit quantum computers, quite a leap in just 18 months. A qubit is a single unit of quantum information.

The company also announced that IBM researchers had successfully built a 50 qubit prototype, which is the next milestone for quantum computing, but it’s unclear when we will see this commercially available.

While the earliest versions of IBM’s quantum computers were offered for free to build a community of users, and help educate people on programming and using these machines, today’s announcement is the first commercial offering. It will be available by the end of the year.

Quantum computing is a difficult area of technology to understand. Instead of being built on machines interpreting zeroes and ones in on/off states, quantum computers can live in multiple states. This creates all kinds of new programming possibilities and requires new software and systems to build programs that can work with this way of computing.

Dario Gil, IBM Research VP of AI and IBM Q, says the increased number qubits is only part of the story. The more Qubits you deal with, the more complex the qubit interactions become because they interact with one another in a process called entanglement. If you have more qubits, but there is a high error rate as they interact, then they might not be any more powerful than 5 qubit machine with a lower error rate. He says that IBM researchers have managed to achieve the higher qubit number with low error rates, making them highly useful to researchers. “We have more qubits and less errors, which is combined to solve more problems,” Gil said.

The other issue that comes into play when dealing with quantum states is that they tend to exist for a short period of time in a process known as coherence. It basically means that you only have a brief window of time before the qubits revert to a classical computing state of zeroes and ones. To give you a sense of how this coherence has been progressing, it was just a few nanoseconds when researchers started looking at this in the late 90s. Even as recently as last year, they were able to achieve coherence times of 47 and 50 microseconds for the 5 qubit machines. Today’s quantum machines are in the 90 microsecond range. While that doesn’t sound like much, it’s actually a huge leap forward.

All of these variables make it difficult for a programmer to build a quantum algorithm that can achieve something useful without errors and before it reverts to a classical state, but that doesn’t take away from just how far researchers have come in recent years, and how big today’s announcement is in the quantum computing world.

The ultimate goal of quantum computing is a fault tolerant universal system that automatically fixes errors and has unlimited coherence. “The holy grail is fault-tolerant universal quantum computing. Today, we are creating approximate universal, meaning it can perform arbitrary operations and programs, but it’s approximating so that I have to live with errors and a [limited] window of time to perform the operations,” Gil explained.

He sees this is an incremental process and today’s announcement is a step along along the path, but he believes that even what they can do today is quite powerful. With today’s release and the the improvements that IBM made to the QISKit, a software development kit (SDK) to help companies understand how to program quantum computers, they can continue to advance the technology. It’s not going to happen overnight, but companies, governments, universities and interested parties are undertaking research to see how this can work in practical application. (And of course, IBM isn’t the only company working on this problem.)

IBM sees applications for quantum computing in areas like medicine, drug discovery and materials science as this technology advances and becomes better understood. It is also trying to anticipate possible negative consequences of an advanced technology such as the ability to eventually be able to break encryption. Gil says they are working with standards bodies to try and  develop post-quantum computing encryption algorithms, and while they are a long way from achieving that, they certainly seem to understand the magnitude of the issues and are trying to mitigate them.


Payments startup iZettle raises $47M, reportedly at a $950M valuation



iZettle — the payments startup based out of Stockholm that competes against companies like Square, Paypal and SumUp to provide card transactions using smartphones and tablets as well as related accounting services — has raised another €40 million ($47 million), money that CEO and co-founder Jacob de Geer told TechCrunch would be used to expand into more markets beyond the 12 where it currently operates in Europe and Latin America.

The company declined to disclose its valuation, which last was at €500 million (about $584 million) in its Series D. “It’s absolutely an upround,” De Geer said in an interview. “We tend to have an internal saying that the valuation of the company is the sum of all the problems that we solved, and we’ve solved millions of those so the valuation should be in line with that.” Swedish publication Dagens Industri, which reported rumors of the funding yesterday, pegged the valuation at the time at $948 million (8 billion Swedish crowns).

“What you see right now is a proof point that the company is doing exceptionally well,” De Geer said. “In the last couple of months, we’ve had significant growth that led to taking the decision to accelerate the business.”

As for which countries it may tackle next, he said that Central and Eastern Europe were “absolutely” in iZettle’s sights alongside more growth in Latin America.

“It’s interesting to see how Poland, for example, is very well advanced in contactless payments,” which many see as a key driver to less cash use and more card use in general. “It’s a big market and very mature.”

This latest equity funding is led by previous backer Dawn Capital, and it also brings a new, solid institutional investor into the mix for iZettle, the Fourth Swedish National Pension Fund, alongside other existing (but unnamed) shareholders.

Past investors into iZettle have included the Spanish banking giant Grupo Santander (whose backing fuelled iZettle’s move into Mexico and Brazil), American Express, MasterCard, Intel, Index Ventures, Northzone, 83North and Creandum, among others. De Geer said that iZettle has raised around €200 million ($235 million) in equity funding to date.

De Geer declined to give any specific numbers on growth — citing the fact that iZettle will soon close accounts for the year and report numbers then in accordance with Swedish law. As a marker, however, the company noted a 60 percent rise in revenues in its last fiscal year and expected to narrow its loss year. In FY 2016 it had revenues of 643 million Swedish crowns ($76 million), up from SKr402 million in 2015; its net loss was SKr228 million versus SKr295 million in 2015.

De Geer said iZettle is strong in the UK in particular — which is notable not just because the UK is a large market for commerce, but because it’s also highly competitive, with Square choosing it earlier this year as its first point of European expansion.

De Geer said one key reason iZettle is growing so much is because it’s doing more than just payments for its primarily SMB customer base. “Our commercial and business platform gives us the possibility of cross-selling other solutions,” he noted.

Those other services include cash advances and invoicing, with more to come. iZettle has been investing this year in machine learning and other AI tech (partly by way of a loan from the European Investment Bank) and that is helping the company run risk assessment for cash advances and potentially will be used more for supplementary products down the line. 

“We are learning!” he said in reference to the company’s push into machine learning. One of the more interesting applications of AI has been in financial services, used to assess risk for loans (this is what another loans platform, Kabbage, has built its business on for example). Now iZettle is looking at how it can use its deep learning technology to develop other services it can cross-sell in areas like customer data and analytics. 

This expanded opportunity, in fact, was what attracted iZettle’s newest investor.

“We invest heavily in companies contributing to sustainable economic growth and are impressed by how iZettle has levelled the playing field for small businesses,” said Per Colleen, head of fundamental equities at The Fourth Swedish National Pension Fund. “We believe in iZettle’s long-term development opportunity through their data-rich technology platform, built for scalability combined with five years of unique insights about the needs of small businesses, which makes it an attractive investment case.”


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Box launches new consulting unit to help customers struggling with digital transformation



Box announced a new consulting organization today called Box Transform. It is designed to help companies understand that transformation requires a new way of working and thinking as an organization, beyond simply adopting new technologies like Box.

Box CEO Aaron Levie says that as his company has grown, they see their mission as more than selling software. It’s about helping change the entire way people work and interact with the content they use on a daily basis. Box wants to use its experience working with thousands of customers to help those companies that need an organizational push to get their transformation off the ground.

“From our experience, there is a tremendous amount of optimism around change, but challenges about where to get started. Instead of them shooting arrows in the dark, how do they get started on the most successful path to the fastest transformation we can [help] drive,” Levie told TechCrunch.

In the company’s earnings call at the end of last month, Levie described the new service as a deeper level of consulting than their current consulting offering. “Our customers are looking for us to be their trusted advisor to not only ensure they are incredibly successful in their Box adoption, but also to help them think through their digital transformation for content management and collaboration broadly.” Levie said during the call.

Levie says that the way organizations manage and govern information is going to be core to how they work in the digital age. With Box Transform they get both the Box technology and the deeper help when needed. This is building on top of the core consulting services that Box currently offers.

Those services tend to be more around nuts and bolts kind of implementation problems like moving content from legacy systems and getting Box to communicate with other internal enterprise systems. Box Transform goes beyond that to help companies undergoing a broader organizational shift.

If you are about to change the way you work, it requires more than the pure technology to make that happen, Levie said. He wouldn’t get into how big they intend to make this unit, but did say they will let the customers drive that and that Box will scale it to whatever level the business requires. The new service is available as of today.

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Iron Mountain acquires IO Data Centers’ US operations for $1.3 billion



Iron Mountain announced today that it’s acquiring the U.S. data center assets of IO Data Centers for a cool $1.3 billion — and the price tag could potentially go higher.

With today’s purchase, Iron Mountain gets some serious assets, including four state-of-the-art data centers in Phoenix and Scottsdale, Arizona; Edison, New Jersey; and Columbus, Ohio. The four buildings in total encompass 728,000 square feet of data center real estate with 68 megawatts of capacity. Iron Mountain also reported there is room for expansion at the Arizona and New Jersey facilities with the potential for an additional 77 megawatts of capacity.

Iron Mountain, which has mostly been known for digital and physical records management, including storing and shredding of physical documents, has been quietly expanding its business this year to include physical data centers. In fact, today’s news follows the acquisition of the Fortrust data center in September and the previously announced acquisition of two Credit Suisse data centers in London and Singapore, which are expected to close next year.

Iron Mountain president and CEO William L. Meaney said purchase is part of a strategy to move beyond its core records management business into the increasingly lucrative co-location facility market. Instead of using a public cloud service, a company could rent out space in a co-location facility and run dedicated servers inside the facility. The building owner provides cooling, power, bandwidth, physical security and overall management of the building.

“We continue to experience strong demand and growth in our data center business with a focus on establishing a presence in the largest global markets for colocation and enterprise customers. Our strategy includes organic expansion within our existing footprint, greenfield development in the largest U.S. markets such as our newly opened campus in Northern Virginia, and targeted acquisitions of properties with customer profiles that closely mirror our own,” he said in a statement.

The transaction is expected to close next month and could potentially include up to $60 million of potential additional payments, according to the company.
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