Google recently announced that they made a breakthrough in quantum computing. Sundar Pichai, Google CEO, compared it to Wright’s Brother’s first 12 second flight in 1903 in its significance but that’s about as accurate as anyone I have heard has been regarding quantum computing’s long-term potential.
For some time I have told myself that quantum computing is a technology that holds a lot of promise and that it could change our society profoundly. But I haven’t quite understood how it might do so despite reading a number of fairly technical books on the topic.
To dig deeper and better understand quantum computing promise, I talked with Jan Goetz and Mikko Möttönen. The two quantum computing pioneers founded IQM, a Finnish company building scalable hardware for universal quantum computers. In the podcast below, Jan and Mikko explain many aspects of quantum computing in terms that even the non-technical of us can understand. While talking to them, I realized that for me the best way to understand the importance of companies like IQM, and the potential impact of quantum computing in general, is to compare it to the emergence of classical computing. That rough analogy gave me an idea of the potential arch of progress that I could then work with in trying to imagine all the incredible potential that quantum computing holds. I got excited.
I wanted to accompany the podcast with a brief history of classical computing hoping it could help others like it helped me in understanding the promise of quantum computing. I also wanted to explain why such stories are such an important lens when we want to inspire others for action and communicate the progress we'd like to see in the world.
Transistor and integrated circuit
Today we are fortunate to have access to extremely powerful technology like the modern smartphone and the Internet. More than in any other field advancements in information technology during the past 50 years have shown that big leaps of progress are possible. How did we get here in just a few decades? The powerful devices we now hold in our hands can all be attributed to the transistor.
The transistor has turned out to be one of the most powerful technologies shaping the modern world. It was the technology that kickstarted the current information revolution and still sits at the heart of every computing device. The magnitude of change that computing technology has had on society is hard to grasp since it’s everywhere around us and we’re used to having access to all the downstream benefits of computing like the Internet, mobile phones and countless online services like Google Search that we use every day.
The invention of the transistor and the integrated circuit were also responsible for the birth of what we today know as Silicon Valley. It’s a fascinating story of visionary rebels but it’s the transistor and the integrated circuit that are the true stars of the story.
A transistor is a semiconductor device used to amplify or switch electronic signals and electrical power.
An integrated circuit, in turn, is a small chip that can function as an amplifier, oscillator, timer, microprocessor, or computer memory. An integrated circuit is usually made of silicon, that can hold anywhere from hundreds to millions of transistors.
The first working transistor was invented in 1947 by John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley at Bell Labs in Murray Hill, New Jersey. The trio shared the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics for their achievement. A pioneering American company, Fairchild Semiconductor invented the first integrated circuit in 1959 that marked the beginning of microprocessor history. In 1968, Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce resigned from the Fairchild and founded Intel Corporation. In 1971, the first microprocessor, Intel 4004 was invented. Little they knew how far-reaching implications their invention and the start of the industry they sparked into life would have.
Today computing is everywhere. The computing revolution started with mainframe computers in the 1950s, followed by the personal computer in the 1970s that gradually evolved into the technology product that defines our era in history, the smartphone. Today about 4 billion people have smartphones. 80% of the global population over 15 years of age has one. Computers have completely changed how we work, communicate, create art, consume entertainment and share information. Digital watches and sleep tracking rings are changing how we collect data about our own health, while robotics are changing how we conduct surgeries when we get sick. AR is enabling us to augment the world around us with computer-generated objects appearing around us while VR opens up a door to a completely new artificial world by projecting images on our retina. While we get access to new worlds created with a computer, machine learning and artificial intelligence give cars a vision and enable them to drive themselves in the physical world around us. Small satellites continuously measure the health of our planet while sensors allow whole buildings to interact with the outside world.
No wonder British science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke is famous for stating that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
All these incredible products and services that we can today access resulted from the invention and commercialization of the transistor and the integrated circuit.
Quantum computing -the transistor of our time?
If you know the story of the transistor, you can see how quantum computing companies like IQM could potentially be in the same place as Intel was in the 60s and 70s. This gives you an idea of the potential embedded in this fascinating technology.
Quantum computing differs from classical computing in that it can handle calculations that are very large in size and in complexity. It is built on the principles of quantum mechanics, which describes nature at a very small scale. Because of this, quantum computers are very good at simulating the behavior of atoms and molecules.
Potential industry-specific applications of quantum computing that we can anticipate include (1) solving optimization problems such as finding the most efficient allocation of resources or finding the shortest route for network optimization, supply chains, logistics and financial portfolios, (2) model the behavior of complex systems involving the fundamental laws of physics in fluid dynamic simulations for car and airplane designs and molecular simulation for special materials and drug discovery, (3) using machine learning involving matrix diagonalization for clustering and pattern matching for risk management in quantitative finance, DNA sequencing classification and customer segmentation for fields like marketing, and finally (4) decryption and code-breaking in cryptography and computer security.
That’s an impressive list of areas where we can apply the increased computing muscle, but I believe the most interesting impact of the advances in quantum computing will be unintended long-term future consequences across society just as happened with the transistor.
Along with historical accounts I would love to see stories of all the future progress we ought to make. Bold long-term visions that are still grounded on the realities of today. Real world utopias. We could tell a story about the world where quantum computing enables us to re-engineer the photosynthesis so trees and plants will automatically adjust the level of carbon dioxide they consume through photosynthesis to keep the global atmosphere in an ideal temperature range for life. Or a story when new drug discovery is so fast and efficient that we can create new drugs to cure our ills with a blender like a device as easy as we blend smoothies in the morning. A world where quantum computing is as ubiquitous as classical computing today. Science fiction writers have historically had more luck in predicting how a technology could impact our society than experts or industry analysts. Neal Stephenson, a prominent science fiction author, started Project Hieroglyph, an initiative to spur exactly such hopeful long-term thinking. Predicting the long-term implications of a powerful new technology is difficult and rarely obvious but I argue it’s still worth all the guesswork regardless of how uncertain it might be.
Stories - past and future - help us understand how technology could shape the bigger story of our civilization. These stories not only help us understand the world-changing technologies but give us all hope and get us excited about our future. That is also what I’m attempting here. In the future episodes of the podcast I will interview people with such visions and let them tell the stories of the progress they envision. This will include stories of technology driven progress but also visions of cultural, institutional, scientific and organisational progress that would propel the world forward. Equally important I will talk to individuals about the leaps of progress we have made in the past 200 years and what we should learn from those forward jumps so we can do it again.