What DNA, Diversity, and Netflix Have in Common
Facebook’s latest engineering conference for techies on Thursday covered a lot of ground.
Facebook described how it overhauled the underlying software for its social network. Meanwhile, Google and Microsoft revealed their latest advancements in hot areas of data crunching involving artificial intelligence technologies like machine learning.
Some of the discussions at the event, held in San Jose, seemed like science fiction such as storing digital data in DNA. Other topics like the problems of diversity in tech were more practical amid recent discrimination and harassment allegations in Silicon Valley at companies like Uber.
Here’s a roundup of some of the most fascinating items from Facebook’s Scale conference.
1. Storage drives of the future may be built with DNA
It turns out there may be another use for DNA besides serving as blueprints for humans.
University of Washington computer science professor and Microsoft researcher Luis Ceze discussed how experts are looking into how DNA could be used to store huge amounts of digital data, more so than any current technology like spinning discs or flash drives.
Ceze explained the progress his university and Microsoft (MSFT) have made in storing things like music videos, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and literature from the Project Gutenberg archive initiative into manufactured DNA. Some of DNA’s advantages over conventional storage are that it won’t become obsolete, like the old floppy discs of the past, he said.
However, researchers have a lot more work to do. As of now, it takes about a week to transfer 10 megabits of data from DNA, which Ceze said is the equivalent of the speed of old modems from the 1970’s.
2. It takes a lot of computing power to make Netflix run
Millions of people visit Netflix (NFLX) daily to binge watch House of Cards and Daredevil. But it takes a lot of computing power to make sure that those videos don’t stutter or crash.
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Netflix senior software engineer Frank San Miguel said that on a “good day,” the video streaming service is powered by roughly 300,000 CPUs running in Amazon’s data centers. Those thousands of servers are not only responsible for delivering video to people, but they also power the 100 apps Netflix built that handle tasks like audio processing, subtitles, and other post-production services.
3. Google’s big efforts to translate languages
Google’s interest in using artificial intelligence to quickly translate languages became clearer. Barak Turovsky, a Google (GOOG) executive overseeing machine learning and language translation, said that 95% of people using Google to translate text are not based in the U.S. In fact, residents in Brazil, India, Thailand, and Indonesia are the biggest users.
One reason for its popularity overseas is that half of all Internet content is written in English, Turovsky said, a consequence of the English-speaking world being able to afford the computers to access the Internet. But the rise of smartphones and increasingly improved wireless infrastructure in developing countries has led to non-English speakers getting online—and needing to use Google’s translation service to read online content.
“There’s a huge population of people who speak Indian languages, but they can’t find content created in their language,” Turovsky said.
4. Nest and Slack executives talk hiring and diversity
Although Facebook’s conference focused on cutting-edge technology, several executives from companies like workplace messaging service Slack and Google’s Nest home automation business talked about the challenges of hiring workers. You can’t build technology without a savvy workforce, after all.
Julia Grace, Slack’s head of infrastructure engineering, discussed the problems companies with diversity problems (ie. most tech companies) face when recruiting. For instance, if someone walks into a job interview and only sees people who look the same in terms of gender and ethnicity or some other characteristic, they may question their chances of succeeding at the company.
“What happens if you never see anyone who looks like you?” Grace asked the audience of techies. “You, from day one, will ask ‘do I belong here? Can I be successful here?’”
Nest senior director of e-commerce and security Julie Pearl explained that because Nest builds technology for everyday consumers, it must also ensure that those web-connected thermostats and other gadgets are built to accommodate people from diverse backgrounds. For this, Nest needs more workers with different cultural backgrounds to build its products, she explained.
“We talk about certain types of diversity with hiring,” said Pearl. “Now I’m really starting to think about how does that come out in the products that we are building.”