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Digital world-beater Arm needs a helping hand from Boris Johnson | Arm

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Last September, Nvidia, the American manufacturer of graphics processing chips, and the Japanese company SoftBank announced an agreement under which Nvidia would acquire the British chip designer Arm from SoftBank for $40bn. Since SoftBank had acquired Arm in 2016 for $32bn, you could say that a 25% profit on a five-year investment isn’t to be sneezed at, especially if industry mutterings about SoftBank’s crackpot investment strategy and Arm’s internal difficulties with its China-based operation are to be believed.

But even if one were foolish enough to sympathise with SoftBank’s desire to climb out of the hole it had dug for itself, the idea that Arm should be sold to a US chip manufacturer is so daft that even Boris Johnson’s administration had begun to smell a rat. And so on Monday it announced that the secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport was “intervening in the sale on national security grounds”, based on advice received “from officials across the investment security community”. To which decision the only possible response is: what took him so long?

To fully appreciate the idiocy of allowing the Nvidia deal to go ahead, some technical background might be helpful. Arm is a remarkable Cambridge-based company that emerged from the UK’s early lead in microcomputers in the 1980s, triggered by the BBC’s digital literacy project and the emergence of the BBC Micro. This famous machine was designed by Acorn, a Cambridge startup, and it provided the platform on which a generation of programmers and game designers first learned the basics of their craft.

After the success of the BBC machine, the question for Acorn’s founders was: what next? Their answer was to design a new kind of processor called a Risc (reduced instruction set computer) machine that had the potential for faster, cheaper and more energy-efficient computing. The company they set up to develop this idea was originally called Acorn Risc Machines, hence the acronym Arm, though it eventually became Advanced Risc Machines.

Arm was based on a clever idea from the outset, but the real stroke of genius was its co-founders’ invention of a novel business model. The company would not manufacture chips, but merely design processors to exploit Risc architecture and license the designs to anyone who wanted to actually manufacture the chips while paying royalties to Arm for the use of its intellectual property. This was astute because chip manufacturing is a hugely capital-intensive business feasible only for big companies with very deep pockets and an appetite for risk.

The key to Arm’s extraordinary growth was the smartphone revolution kicked off by the Apple iPhone in 2007. Suddenly, the world shifted to everyone wanting a powerful handhold computer that could access the internet. And all those little computers needed processors that were small, powerful and – most importantly – consumed as little power as possible. In other words, Arm designs. The result: something like 95% of all the mobile devices in the world now run on Arm-designed processors. That’s a British success story on an unimaginable scale.

But here’s the critical bit: Arm doesn’t make chips – that business is left to what are called “silicon foundries”, ie semiconductor fabrication plants. If you need a processor for your new phone or tablet or other gizmo and you’re willing to pay the royalty, you can use an Arm design. And so can your competitors. Arm can – and does – license its designs to all-comers because it’s not involved in their business! It doesn’t compete with its customers.

Nvidia, however, does make processors. Its graphics processing units (GPUs) are the wonders of the silicon world. Originally dominant in the areas of computer gaming, graphics processing and film animation, it turned out that they are also terrific for building machine-learning systems and neural networks – all stuff that happens on desktop computers or in large racks of servers in datacentres. And as the feeding frenzy over machine learning has become frenetic, Nvidia is booming, because it’s surfing a tsunami.

But it doesn’t really have a serious foothold in the mobile computing world, which is why it was hooked when SoftBank decided to dispose of Arm. In the crazed world of corporate mergers and acquisition it probably looks like a smart purchase. But in the long run it’s a way of crippling Arm (or perhaps even destroying it) because all chip manufacturers are, ultimately, competitors of Nvidia. They’re in the same business and in that racket only the paranoid survive.

If the Johnson administration is really serious about the UK continuing to have some real clout in the global digital economy, then letting the country’s one genuinely world-beating company go to a US firm (which is subject to US government rules about technology exports to China) would be certifiable lunacy. And the annoying thing is that an obvious solution exists: the government should take a 51% stake in Arm to protect it from corporate raiders and let it get on with what it does best.

What I’ve been reading

About face
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Free for all
A sharp piece by James Ball in the New European about the real scandal of the David Cameron affair.

Location, location
A thoughtful meditation by Drew Austin on his Kneeling Bus blog about what the internet is doing to our sense of place.

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Globalization Partners to create 160 new jobs at Galway EMEA office

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Recruitment tech company Globalization Partners is doubling its staff headcount in Galway to 320 in 2022 to aid its continuing growth.

Recruitment technology company Globalization Partners has announced plans to create 160 new jobs at its Irish base in Galway. The jobs boost will see the company double its Galway staff headcount to 320 in 2022. Jobs will be available across the board at the company’s Galway office, which serves as its EMEA centre of excellence.

The announcement comes following a major funding injection for the international firm. Globalization Partners recently raised $200m in funding from Vista Credit Partners, an organisation focused on the enterprise software, data and technology markets. The investment now values Globalization Partners at $4.2bn.

While its Galway facility will benefit from a major jobs boost, the company plans to continue to expand its share in the global remote working market. As well as the Galway growth, the company will also be expanding its teams in other locations.

Click here to check out the top sci-tech employers hiring right now.

Globalization Partners provides tech to other remote-first teams all over the world. Its platform simplifies and automates entity access, payroll, time and expense management, benefits, data and reporting, performance management, employee status changes and locally compliant contract generation. Its customer base includes CoinDesk, TaylorMade and Chime. The company’s new customer acquisition increased two-and-a-half fold from 2020 to 2021.

“Globalization Partners is uniquely positioned to capitalise on the massive opportunity we see ahead of us,” said Nicole Sahin, the company’s CEO and founder.

Sahin said her company’s combination of tech with its global team of HR, legal and customer service experts “who understand the local customs, regulatory and legal requirements in each geography we serve” were key to its success.

David Flannery, president of Vista Credit Partners said that the company’s role “in transforming the remote work industry has been truly remarkable.”

Flannery said that as a customer of Globalization Partners, his organisation had “witnessed first-hand” the company’s “best-in-class legal compliance, the quality of the user experience, and the deep expertise and support they provide,”

He added that the two companies would work to “further capitalise” on the “untapped” global remote working market, expanding their platform to new customers in new markets.

“Over the past decade, we have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in our business, building our global presence and technology platform to support the evolving and complex talent needs of growing companies,” said Bob Cahill, president of Globalization Partners. “With Vista as our investment partner, we will be able to drive further growth and continue building innovative products to meet the increasing needs of our customers at scale.”

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How to speed up your broadband internet | Wifi

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Do a speed check

Find out the speed you are getting using a computer connected to your router via an ethernet network cable. Many routers and other devices come with one, or they cost about £5 separately.

You may also need a USB ethernet adapter (about £10) if your computer does not have a port built-in.

If you can’t connect via ethernet, use a modern phone, laptop or tablet on wifi as close to your router as possible with a clear line of sight.

Ookla’s Speedtest.net and Netflix’s Fast.com are reliable speed-testing services.

Some more advanced routers have speed testing services built into them, too. They are typically accessible via a router’s settings pages in your browser or a companion app, if they have one.

Woman setting up home office connection
Connecting your device to the router with an ethernet cable can improve speeds. Photograph: Tetra Images/Getty Images/Tetra images RF

If your broadband is slow at the router, it might be time to switch providers. Some fixed-line ISPs offer speeds in excess of 200Mbps in certain areas, while 4G/5G home broadband is an alternative.

If you are not getting near the speed your ISP advertises, you may be able to get a discount, or switch to a plan with higher speeds.

Work out what you need

When it comes to broadband the faster the better, particularly with multiple people and devices using the internet at once. However, the minimum speed needed for most online activities is fairly slow.

Video calling services, such as Zoom, typically need up to 4Mbps upload and download.

Online gaming services, such as Xbox Live, need at least 3Mbps down and 0.5Mbps up, while game streaming services need a minimum of 10Mbps down.

Video streaming, such as Netflix, needs at least 5Mbps for HD or 25Mbps for 4K content.

The median broadband speed in the UK is 50.4Mbps down and 9.8Mbps up, according to data from Ofcom in March 2021. That means that the majority of connections should be able to handle most popular services.

But bear in mind that with more than one device, or person, using your connection simultaneously, including updates and downloads when idle, slower broadband packages can quickly get choked.

Reposition your router

If your broadband connection is fast enough but your wifi is weak, there are things you can do. If possible, move the router closer to the centre of the house, or towards the rooms in which you need the strongest signal. Keep it in the open, not in a cabinet, and away from solid and metallic objects.

And try to position it away from dense walls, particularly those made out of concrete blockwork or with pipes and wires running through them.

Check your settings

Most modern routers will automatically select the best settings for your home, but you can manually check using the web interface of your router accessed through a browser on a computer. Consult the help pages for your ISP’s router for how to do so.

Wifi operating at 2.4GHz uses a range of frequency “channels”, only some of which do not overlap with each other. To reduce interference from your neighbours’ wifi, switch to channel 1, 6 or 11, which do not overlap, and therefore are less likely to cause or suffer interference.

If you have a connection under 200Mbps, enabling prioritisation or “quality of service” for your key devices, might help. This stops other things from sucking up all the available bandwidth – it will prevent a game download on an Xbox cutting off a video call on your laptop, for instance.

Set a strong wifi password using at least WPA2 security, not the lowest WEP option. This will make sure no wifi thieves can log on to your network and steal your bandwidth.

Check your devices

An internet slowdown may be down to your devices rather than your router. For older computers, upgrading the wifi adapter may help. USB wifi 5 adapters cost under £15, while the latest wifi 6 models cost about £50, but you will need a compatible router to take advantage of the extra speed.

For a non-portable device, such as a media streamer or a console, use an ethernet cable if it is close to the router, as this will be faster and more reliable than wifi.

If you have about 40 devices connected at once, consider disconnecting unnecessary ones to help provide more bandwidth for those you need most.

Weaker routers struggle with lots of devices connected at once.

Extend the wifi reach

If your wifi can’t reach parts of your house you can extend the signal of your current router with add-on gadgets.

Powerline networking devices use your home’s power cables to transmit data. They typically cost between £20 and £70. They plug into standard electrical sockets with one connected to the router via an ethernet cable, and others placed about the home providing ethernet ports and/or wifi for your devices. The speed you get through them is dependent on the condition of your electrical wiring.

Wifi extenders (£25-70) do a similar thing, but simply connect to your router via wifi, then rebroadcast it for other devices.

A network switch (under £20) can add more ethernet ports to your router if you need to connect more devices.

Upgrade to a better router

Mesh wifi systems
Mesh wifi systems come in various shapes and sizes, spreading your broadband all over your home using a series of wirelessly interconnected satellite units. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

Replacing your existing router is often the most effective way to improve your wifi, but is also the most costly. Before committing to a third-party router, speak to your ISP as it may be able to provide you with a more modern one for free. Virgin and other ISPs are currently rolling out more powerful wifi 6-capable routers.

Otherwise, there are broadly two options: a beefy single router with much more powerful wifi broadcasting ability than the cheap one provided by your ISP, or a mesh system, which uses a series of satellites dotted about your home to blanket it in wifi.

Both typically use your existing router as a modem and then broadcast their own more robust wifi network.

Single unit wifi 6 routers start at about £60 but can reach the hundreds for powerful gaming-orientated devices. They connect to your old ISP box via ethernet cable, which means they are often easier to place in a more central area of your home. Running a long ethernet cable under floorboards, carpets, behind skirting boards or picture rails, or just under furniture can help keep things neat.

Good wifi 5 mesh systems start at under £100 for a triple pack of satellites, which should be enough for most homes with connections under 200Mbps. For those with faster broadband, good tri-band wifi 6 models cost about £300.

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IBM finally finds someone willing to buy Watson • The Register

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In-brief IBM has offloaded healthcare data and analytics assets from its Watson Health business, with private equity firm Francisco Partners hand over around $1bn for the privilege.

The takeover “is a clear next step as IBM becomes even more focused on our platform-based hybrid cloud and AI strategy,” Tom Rosamilia, senior vice president, IBM Software, told newswire Bloomberg. “IBM remains committed to Watson, our broader AI business, and to the clients and partners we support in healthcare IT.”

Launched in 2015, IBM Watson Health hasn’t been able to turn a profit despite the company spending $4bn in acquisitions to grow the business and its capabilities.

IBM has tried to whittle down its Watson Health division for a while, after struggling to sign hospitals as clients.

Algorithms are improving poker players’ skills but are they ruining the game?

Professional poker players are increasingly consulting specialized poker software programs to boost their chances of winning, but some believe it has made the game less fun and encourages cheating online.

PioSOLVER, available for purchase starting from $249, allows players to recreate game scenarios and calculates the optimal strategy that should be played given the cards available. Some professional poker players, described by the New York Times, use the software to replay their games to see if they played their cards correctly, others boot up PioSOLVER to learn and memorize new strategies.

Poker is seen as a mostly-solved problem in computer science. Libratus, an AI model, beat the top players in a no limit heads-up no-limit Texas competition in 2017. At the time, Tuomas Sandholm, one of Libratus’ creators, said it was unlikely people could run the complex software to cheat. But some claim that PioSOLVER is now helping mediocre poker players to rack up wins.

It’s unclear if PioSOLVER relies on similar machine learning techniques as Libratus, as little information is available about the algorithms it employs.

Doug Polk, a notable semi-retired poker player, said: “I feel like it kind of killed the soul of the game.” The game has turned from “who can be the most creative problem-solver to who can memorize the most stuff and apply it.”

PioSOLVER’s creator, Piotrek Lopusiewicz, however, said similar poker-solving programs have been available for a while and that his software is merely the latest advance in the field.

Rent a robot for less than the cost of human labour

There’s a robot that presses metal to make things like hinges or locks, and it’s cheaper to hire than human workers.

Built a company named Formic, the machine is pretty much one long mechanical arm. Its job is to pick up bits of metal and put them into a press for shaping. It can work without any breaks for its employer, Polar Hardware Manufacturing, and costs about $8 per hour – less than the minimum wage of $15 in Chicago, Wired first reported.

Companies like Formic help industrial factories recruit robot workers without having to pay for the whole machine. Customers can, instead, rent the company’s metal arms to perform simple, repetitive tasks whenever they want. Its cheaper, and they don’t have to faff around with things like software or maintenance.

“Anything that can help reduce labor count or the need for labor is obviously a plus at this particular time,” said Steve Chmura, chief operating officer at Georgia Nut, a confectionery company in Illinois that also rents robots from Formic. Chmura has been able to staff up with robot workers during the pandemic; these machines can take over if human employees quit or get sick. ®

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