50 years ago, a small technology device was created. This device was called the transistor. Only a small group of dreamers and visionaries had the courage to imagine what the future would be like when this technology would reach its full potential. So far, apart from a few misfits, every generation has thought they live at a time in history where most things worth discovering are already discovered. Yet, revolutionary new technologies continue to surprise us if we work hard and have the courage to imagine what a new, better world would look like.
Technology is the application of science, engineering, imagination and industrial organization to create a human build world.
Since we share the future together, it is important that we have the ability to dream together. However, if a large portion of us thinks only outside the realm of technology, we might pass up a large part of our potential as a society.
What could be done to avoid this pitfall and simultaneously involve the non-technical of us in discussing what we hope our society should look like in 10 or even 100 years’ time? I believe we should tell more captivating stories. The best stories have the power to teach us better than any school ever could and make complex issues easy to understand. In this post I share my thoughts on why telling stories of the future and of the past help us understand the potential of technology, and why it’s imperative for our democracy that we understand the most potential big levers that determine our future prosperity.
Technology and progress
We decide how to allocate our limited assets across investments that we believe will yield the biggest returns for us. We have collectively countless important things to invest our limited time and money into including healthcare, education, infrastructure, housing, culture, arts. The list is long.
Long-term impacts from investments in science and technology can be hard to quantify. However, we should collectively try to understand what the investments are that will drive long-term growth and help our societies prosper. The uncertainty makes decision-makers antsy for a good reason. Uncertain bets are hard to build a case for -especially when there’s a good chance one could get it wrong. Playing it safe and avoiding risky bets in other areas of life might be the way to go but we might terribly miss out if we don’t take enough risks when it comes to investments in science and technology. They are the gun powder for progress.
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 civilized 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. The trio shared the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics for their achievement. A pioneering 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 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 4B 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. Small satellites continuously measure the health of our planet while sensors allow whole buildings to interact with the outside world. Wearables are changing how we ourselves collect data about our own health and robotics 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.
No wonder British science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke is famous for stating that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Many times it really does feel like 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. If these technologies would not have been born or even been delayed by say 30 years the world we are today living in would look very different. It terms of the people alive today, it was crucial that the technology got the attention it did at the time it did. So, what could be the transistor of our time?
Quantum computing -the transistor of our time
Quantum computing is one of the technologies that could benefit from storytelling to help us understand its potential, possibly even guide its development and most importantly get the public to see why it’s important to invest in the technology.
Google just recently announced that their efforts in developing quantum computing achieved ‘quantum supremacy’ for the first time and 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 has been regarding the technology’s long-term potential.
To better understand what we’re looking at when we talk about quantum computing, I talked with Jan Goetz and Mikko Möttönen. These two quantum computing pioneers that 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.
If you know the story of the transistor, you can see how companies like IQM potentially could be in the same place as Intel was in the 60s and 70s. This gives you an idea of the potential embedded in this complex 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, financial portfolios (combinatorial optimization),
(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 (differential equations),
(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 (linear algebra),
(4) decryption and code-breaking in cryptography and computer security (factorization).
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 consequences across society just as happened with the transistor. We could tell a story about the world where we can 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 tell 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. This is an area where consultancies and industry analysts are notoriously bad at. Predicting the long-term implications of a powerful new technology is hard for anyone, and rarely obvious but I argue it’s still worth all the guesswork regardless of how uncertain it might be. Combine the future visions with the story of the technology history and a picture starts to emerge. We start to understand how imagination has been the driving force of progress, technology the tool it uses and that progress is possible in almost any field when we invest accordingly. We can discover another transistor-like technology that propels the world forward and not just in the field of information technology but in any field we decide to invest in.
Narratives to guide the path ahead
Long term technology bets are an area where science fiction writers have historically had more luck in predicting how a technology might change our society than industry analysts. Similarly, historians can teach us about how we got here and what drove the march of progress. These narratives can be powerful in helping us understand the world we live in and the possibilities we have open for ourselves. The stories get the rest of us on board who don't have the deep technical understanding that's required to understand new emerging technologies in detail.
Just like the story of how the transistor helps to see how quantum computing could impact our lives, stories like it help us to picture how technology will shape the bigger story of our civilization.
To live long and prosper
Technology can be our most powerful change agent. Technology is also amoral and looks to us for guidance to be used for good and avoid the bad. Hence we should understand how the technology bets compare when we decide between different future paths and allocate our budgets by voting in our elections. If we don’t understand technology’s potential, we don’t know what futures are available for us. That would be a shame.
Technology can propel the world forward perhaps more than ever before as long as we take an interest in it and gently guide it where it benefits us the most. There are a number of technologies with incredible potential to change our lives for the better just as the transistor has done. Quantum computing alone could potentially create as much value as classical computing did and maybe even help us uncover the ultimate source code, the blueprint of reality. Such a prospect should give us all hope and get us excited about our future. Just as the best stories do.
References and Links
Quantum Supremacy Using a Programmable Superconducting Processor https://ai.googleblog.com/2019/10/quantum-supremacy-using-programmable.html
Google CEO Sundar Pichai on achieving quantum supremacy https://www.technologyreview.com/s/614608/google-ceo-quantum-supremacy-interview-with-sundar-pichai/
Where Will Quantum Computers Create Value—and When?https://www.bcg.com/publications/2019/quantum-computers-create-value-when.aspx
The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/21856367-the-innovators
The Dream Machine: J.C.R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/722412.The_Dream_Machine
What’s Next in Computing? https://cdixon.org/2016/02/21/what-s-next-in-computing