One of quantum computing’s foremost advocates brought a coin and a children’s book to GEOINT 2019 to make his case for the technology’s possibilities.
Strangeworks, Inc., founder and CEO William Hurley—who goes by “whurley”—described quantum computing as both a breakthrough technology and one still being born in his GEOINT Foreword keynote Sunday morning.
He took care throughout his remarks to note that quantum computing remains subject to a lot of hype-driven misunderstanding. So, he started by taking out a coin to explain the basics.
In classical computing, whurley said, the coin is either heads or tails. But flip it in the air, as he did on stage, and it enters a state of “superposition” when it’s not just heads or tails but is both.
That’s how the “qubit” of a quantum computer differs from the one-or-zero bit of a traditional computer.
While the concept may be straightforward—or perhaps simple enough to convey to readers under five years old, as whurley and Chris Ferrie did when they wrote Quantum Computing for Babies—building computers that can perform these calculations by managing individual atoms is intensely difficult.
“Quantum computing is a trip to Mars to save the species, not a trip to Vegas for the weekend, okay?,” whurley explained. “It requires a lot of resources to build these machines, it takes a lot of brainpower.”
A recent rush of progress in quantum-computing hardware—since 2017, the number of qubits a quantum computer can host has grown from 17 to 160—runs the risk of raising expectations that can’t be fulfilled inside the desired time frames of Silicon Valley investors.
“This creates the potential for a quantum winter,” whurley warned, noting that China has put more than $25 billion toward quantum computing. “If we go around and we promise everybody in the room that these machines are going to cure cancer and solve all your geospatial information problems, etc.—it’s a little too early for that.”
In the U.S., meanwhile, the National Quantum Initiative Act of 2018 authorized $1.2 billion in federal funding, but Congress has yet to appropriate that money.
Unsurprisingly, the first question whurley took from the audience was about quantum computing’s potential to break existing encryption. His advice: Don’t panic.
“You need to be thinking about this, but you don’t need to be scared about it,” he said.
Stronger encryption can still impose a difficult-to-impossible time penalty to crack cryptography with quantum computing. And quantum computers could enable forms of encryption implausible with classical computing.
“There’s no reason to fear quantum computing, and there’s actually reasons to embrace it,” he continued.
In the second half of his talk, whurley emphasized the importance of collaboration and setting realistic expectations when determining an organization’s approach to quantum computing.
As he put it: “There are a lot of people competing in this space right now, and those people are all competing over a piece of pie. But they’re standing in a kitchen where the ingredients are just spread all over the place, and there’s no cook, the oven doesn’t have gas, and none of the water is hooked up yet.”
Instead, whurley pointed to such models of collaboration as a quantum-computing forum established last year, and sponsored by Strangeworks, at the programming Q&A site Stack Exchange.
He also invited GEOINT 2019 attendees to join the private beta of Strangeworks’ quantum-computing development platform, which he noted enables developers to experiment with five different development coding frameworks: IBM’s Qiskit, Microsoft’s Q#, Rigetti’s Forest, the Google-developed Cirq, and D-Wave’s Leap.
Developing for quantum-computing machines—which whurley said don’t rank as functional computers just yet and are better described as “really, really extremely fascinating lab equipment for exploring the quantum universe”—demands a deeper level of scientific knowledge.
“You can’t take a software developer from your organization and make them a quantum-computing developer,” whurley warned. “To program a quantum computer, you need to be a physicist or have an extremely deep knowledge of physics.”
Quantum development will also require an absence of egotism: “I’m not going to write the next great quantum application, and neither are you, but several of you working together probably are.”
He forecast a future in which quantum computing doesn’t take over classical computing but instead makes currently impossible problems possible, just as airplanes enabled fast travel over oceans but did not render trains obsolete for shorter distances.
“And now we need quantum computers to kind of be the air travel of computing,” he said.
But whurley didn’t go into detail about what quantum computing could do for GEOINT or similar computationally-intense fields.
“It’s definitely going to revolutionize science,” he said. “There’s cures for diseases that will probably be discovered, custom drug discovery, obviously things like climate change and weather will be affected.”
But those advances won’t transpire without allowing time and space for discovery that isn’t often permitted by traditional funding cycles. And just as people viewed early-generation personal computers as tools to run spreadsheet apps, not ways to communicate across the internet, it will be the unexpected and even unimagined possibilities of quantum computing that make the biggest dents in the universe.
“There’s no killer app for quantum right now,” whurley concluded. “But there will be.”