Broken federal government procurement comes under spotlight. Hashtag Trending, Wednesday June 4, 2024

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Firefox uses AI to increase accessibility, Microsoft is cutting more jobs, Intel plays catch up with its new product announcement and Canada’s government procurement crisis questions value for money spent on an international consulting company.

These stories and more on this “where’s the beef” edition of Hashtag Trending. I’m your host Jim Love, let’s get into it.

This is a great example of using AI in a practical and focused way to solve an actual accessibility problem.  Mozilla is implementing AI in Firefox to automatically generate alt-text image descriptions, which are critical for users who rely on screen readers.  But these descriptions are often missing as in many cases they have to be manually entered and when you are in a hurry – guilty as charged.

There are two ways you could handle this. Instead of a cloud-based model that would raise privacy concerns, Firefox will run a lightweight, open-source machine learning model locally on the user’s device.

This local model approach provides several benefits – improved privacy by keeping image data on-device, better resource efficiency even on less powerful hardware, transparency into what model is used, lower carbon emissions from avoiding large cloud models, and ability to frequently update the model.

While not as powerful as the latest massive language models, the focused model will provide concise single-sentence captions like “A group celebrating with a birthday cake” – which fit the specific use case and are probably as good as you would get from what an actual person would enter.

The initial rollout in Firefox 130 will be for generating alt-text in PDFs using this approach before likely expanding to web images.

This is a great example of using AI capabilities and applying them in a targeted, practical way to genuinely solve a problem – enhancing accessibility and the user experience – while prioritizing privacy, efficiency and transparency.

There’s a lesson that we can all learn from this. When we focus on solving real world and often less than sexy problems, we can find real benefits from AI and other technologies.

Sources include:

Microsoft is reportedly cutting more jobs from its Azure cloud computing division, according to industry sources. The layoffs are reportedly focused on Azure for Operators and Mission Engineering.

One source estimates the cuts to the Azure for Operators team alone could involve around 1,500 job losses. These teams are part of Microsoft’s Strategic Missions and Technologies organization, created in 2021 to house cutting-edge initiatives like quantum computing alongside the company’s government cloud business.

The latest Azure layoffs come after Microsoft announced plans last year to eliminate 10,000 roles company-wide in the first few months of 2023. While Microsoft regularly trims some staff as it transitions to a new fiscal year after June 30th, the frequency and scale of job cuts has escalated over the past few years.

Microsoft has conducted multiple rounds of layoffs since the beginning of 2023 as it looks to reduce expenses and refocus resources. The cuts to its Azure cloud unit suggest Microsoft may be retrenching some exploratory and futuristic projects originally housed under that umbrella as it doubles down on nearer-term priorities.

With AI now a key focus following its OpenAI partnership, Microsoft may be attempting to streamline parts of its cloud business to reallocate investment into areas like generative AI perceived as having greater commercial potential.

Sources include:  Business Insider

Intel had some announcements to make at Computex this week about its Lunar Lake processors as it attempts to regain some ground against rising competition.

Given the amount of attention to its much smaller competitor AMD and the new giant Nvidia, it’s easy to forget that Intel still has about 80% of the market share for PC desktop processor and overall close to 70% of the CPU market.

But the company has certainly had some issues keeping up with it’s competition. It’s foundry business reportedly lost close to 7 billion dollars in 2023. At least part of that loss is attributed to fact that it had fallen behind its competitors in key areas of manufacturing.

So with Nvidia and AMD making announcements, it was critical that Intel join in with some new products of its own.

Set to arrive in Q3 2024, Intel’s will introduce Lunar Lake to surpass its Meteor Lake chips. These new names seem a little strange to those of us who were used to hearing names like i5, i7 or Pentium II but surprisingly, the code names of many Intel processors used we named something Lake.

Lunar Lake seems to more interested in competing with customer turned competitor Apple. It will integrate RAM directly into the CPU package, something Apple also does with its M-series silicon. Intel claims this on-package memory consumes 40% less power.

Performance-wise, Lunar Lake’s CPU cores see moderate gains, though the high-end versions will have fewer cores than Meteor Lake. But the integrated GPU based on Intel’s new “Battlemage” architecture promises up to 1.5x better performance.

Intel is also coming to market with new neural processors and looking to get a boost in performance to 48 trillion operations per second, meeting Microsoft’s requirements for advanced AI capabilities in Windows 11.

While still trailing Apple’s leading M-series chips, Lunar Lake represents Intel’s effort to pack more performance and efficiency into a conventional design as it looks to fend off AMD, Qualcomm and others nipping at its CPU dominance.

And amazingly, since it has announced a strategy to become a chip foundry for even its competition, the new chips are produced not at Intel facilities, but built by TMSU, the Taiwan giant.

Sources include: Ars Techica

McKinsey, the influential consulting firm, is facing intense parliamentary scrutiny in Canada over $100 million-plus in federal government contracts. But the firm’s legal woes extend far beyond just Ottawa’s spend.

McKinsey is also under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice over its alleged role fueling the devastating opioid crisis. Prosecutors are examining if McKinsey conspired with pharmaceutical firms like Purdue Pharma on marketing tactics to unlawfully boost prescription opioid sales, contributing to widespread addiction and deaths.

The criminal probe is also looking at potential healthcare fraud violations, as well as accusations McKinsey obstructed justice by ousting partners who raised concerns over deleting documents related to its opioid advisory work.

But back in Canada, opposition MPs are demanding accountability for the Liberal government’s ballooning, soaring consulting contracts with the firm, up over 1700% since 2017.  The opposition also claims that public services staff maintain that the services provided were of little or no value.

As someone who worked as a consultant for over 20 years, I’ve made no secret of my belief that procurement is broken in the federal government, but it’s not a liberal or conservative thing. It’s a question of how we procure services and how we ensure we get value.

Unfortunately, this little scandal won’t solve the problem – but it does raise awareness of how our governments from both major parties have wasted, not a hundred million, but potentially billions because of our broken procurement systems.

I’m going to do a replay of a show we did recently on procurement for this weekend’s edition. This is something that we need to fix.

Source: CTV News

And that’s it for today’s show. Remember that you can get us on Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. We’re available on YouTube in both audio and video format.

Show notes are on Tech Newsday dot com or dot ca. Take your pick.

I’m your host Jim Love, have a Wonderful Wednesday


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