Who Cares About Quantum Computing?

What challenges does a visionary technology innovator face?

Posted Jul 23, 2019

In a conversation, how do most non-techie people typically react when theoretical physics and quantum mechanics are mentioned? Eyes glaze over. There’s a brief pause as everyone in the group struggles to remember what they might have read or heard somewhere. What do they remember? Someone will pipe up: “I’m not good at math (or abstract thinking), so I don’t understand what is going on.” General agreement, a few comments like “too complicated or nerdy,” then the topic quickly changes to something familiar.

How can we explore the universe of “unknown unknowns,” when we don’t even know how to frame meaningful questions to ask ourselves and others? How do we start?

Who likes to think about problems that can’t be solved because the tools aren’t available? How do you even begin thinking about complex situations when you don’t have the tools to define what the real problem to be solved is? Or when the existing tools (math and science) appear to be totally inadequate? An analogy would be to say that the “problem” NASA should focus on is sending rockets to explore other galaxies, beyond the Milky Way. That might be a powerful political sound bite, but what does that mean for today? Maybe, the challenge is to dream, and write science fiction that might inspire some bright young genius to develop some fundamental breakthroughs in our understanding, so that intermediate steps will be possible.

Conventional thinkers, even highly creative people, whose initial premise is: “What problems can be solved using existing technology,” are starting their search based on what they know. Since the world is full of unsolved problems that most of us recognize as important and valuable, isn’t there more than enough work (challenge) to do, enough opportunities to achieve fame and fortune? This is how we can feel productive and effective because the approach is very practical. The method works.

Visionaries, on the other hand, are motivated by their curiosity and their imagination. When they look at the world, what do they see? They seek possibilities that are, by definition, not constrained by their existing knowledge. They are not afraid to invent and discover new languages as well as new science and technology. The attitude is “Why not? and “What if”? We can all dream, can’t we?

Specifically, in the realm of quantum computing, I see a philosophical conundrum for visionaries. Skeptics of new technology often think: “Since I don’t understand it, how can it be good for anything?” Implicit in this attitude is the assumption that “I only see value in what I can understand”. For visionaries, just having the dream already has value.

For quantum computing (QC), there naturally is a requirement to create a new language that can accurately describe how QC works and what it can do.

The fundamental difference between a conventional computer, even a powerful supercomputer like IBM’s Watson running Artificial Intelligence algorithms, and a quantum computer is that the former makes calculations (“counts”) based on two specific electrical states we designate as “0” (zero) and “1” (one).  All information, all numbers, can be expressed as a combination of zeroes and ones. This is a binary system, in which the two states can be measured easily and precisely. Think of a light switch which can be turned “on” or “off.” 

A quantum computer, however, is designed to work with “probability states,” which are, by definition, abstract concepts that cannot be detected by or mapped to specific physical states. Can you feel the cloud of confusion creeping into your mind after reading just this brief description? What is a probability state and what does it represent? How does that reflect physical reality? These questions have been asked and answered for quantum mechanics. Still, most people have no feel for what these abstract concepts mean in everyday life.

Why are people and companies interested in developing QC technology? Aside from explorers and academics, who are driven to push the boundaries just for the sake of knowledge itself, who else cares? Especially when we can’t even understand why we should care?

The key value of QC is not just to accelerate tasks that are currently possible (but impractical) by classical computing. This is parallel to thinking of blockchain as a way to accelerate manual processing (“automating”) of information. While that kind of enhancement is useful and valuable, what is most interesting is being able to do what classical computers (or conventional databases, for blockchain) can’t do, due to inherent technological limitations of man and machine. An example is the task of managing complex, interactive data where the scale is greater by orders of magnitude, beyond the capability of the human mind to grasp and write a conventional software program for.

Is it surprising that so few near-term practical applications for QC are evident? Not really. Despite the hype, or perhaps because of it, many industry analysts and academics try to moderate expectations of any major breakthroughs within the next 5-10 years. People talk about Big Science Problems, like climate change, weather forecasting, combinatorial chemistry, areas which will require significant investments in research as well as computing. It’s difficult to extrapolate from these examples to see how a business can increase revenue and profit. Obviously, when I and my partners recently published a book, “Quantum Design Sprints,” our intention was exactly to inspire people to expand their thinking about how the technology can benefit their businesses. 

There is a paradox for visionary innovators here. The greater the vision, the more far-reaching, the farther it is from existing practical reality, so fewer people can or want to try to understand what it is and can be. So, visionaries mostly talk to each other, happily focusing on technical details in a newly invented language that only insiders can appreciate. But that exclusivity is counter-productive, as this feeds the resistance to innovation that comes from people who prefer to stay within the boundaries of their comfort zones. Different, more effective kinds of communication are clearly needed to encourage alignment and progress.

How can we, as individuals and businesses, accelerate the sense of urgency to tackle the world’s problems - that are exponentially increasing in number and severity? How can we develop the positive mindset needed for bold innovation? Young people, less burdened with legacy habits, can show the way forward.