whurley. Photo by John Davidson

 

Is Computing Headed for Quantum Supremacy?

How whurley envisions the next digital revolution

By Susan Elizabeth Shepard

11/3/2017

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By March, says whurley (aka William Hurley), Austin-based entrepreneur and quantum computing expert, the subject of his SXSW keynote is going to be a huge topic. Quantum computing is poised to be a dramatic paradigm shift in computing. More so than the blockchain, it is an extraordinarily dense concept for those who barely grasp the concept of binary numbers and find a computing system based on quantum mechanics intimidating. But whurley has a way to explain it to anyone.

“Have you ever seen Chris Ferrie’s book series? Quantum Mechanics for Babies, Optical Physics for Babies?” he asks. “I got those books and then I ended up loving them, and I sent this guy a message, and we decided to team up and write Quantum Computing for Babies. What’s really funny is, the hardest thing I’ve done in this entire time with quantum computing, it’s been writing Quantum Computing for Babies.”

And that is coming from someone who has also written an entire adult book, Endless Impossibilities, about quantum computing that will come out at the same time. Not “for Babies,” but still a digestible introduction: “It [starts with] Quantum 101: How does quantum technology work? Into what are the possibilities? How qubits work, how it creates this exponential scale in the computing power,” explains whurley. “And the promises and applications, so, predictive modeling and data analysis and encryption and decryption and communication.”

The books are part of his multi-platform evangelizing about quantum computing, which includes a dedicated blog at superposition.com. Anyone who comes to see him at SXSW, he says, will walk out of his keynote knowing more than almost anyone about quantum computing. “You don’t know anything about quantum computing? When you leave that room you probably know as much as any expert,” he says. “That’s a big goal, but you’ll probably know more, because people either know the business of it, and there’s very few of them, or they know the physics of it, and there’s very few of them.”

First, though, you have to understand a little about quantum mechanics.

whurley at the me Convention in September

whurley at the me Convention in September. Photo by Daimler AG

 

“Unlike a bit, which is a simple state machine, a qubit is made from a part of an atom, a photon, an electron, whatever. It can be in any of those states at the same time. The physics are, you got this thing that is constantly spinning that can represent more than one state or multiple states,” he says. “Because of quantum entanglement, you have the ability to know what one qubit is set to by checking the other qubit. So in other words, instead of having to go through and measure everything in the system, we often only have to measure parts of the system to get the same results.”

“It [starts with] Quantum 101: How does quantum technology work? Into what are the possibilities? How qubits work, how it creates this exponential scale in the computing power …”

To put it very simply, it promises a massive leap forward in the speed and power of computing. Qubits increase in power exponentially when put together, and a (as-yet unrealized) 100-qubit computer would be more powerful than any existing supercomputer.

Here are some of the examples whurley wrote about in one of his superposition.com posts:

“For example, quantum computers can debug millions of lines of software code in seconds, making reliable aircraft, cars, MRI scanners, etc. more efficient to produce. Scientists are eager to use quantum computers to analyze microbes so they can create new vaccines, which quantum computers could then be used to optimize to reduce unwanted side effects. Some scientists believe that quantum computers are essential for achieving breakthrough preventative and treatments protocols for healthcare … Volkswagen is working on a quantum computing platform capable of alerting drivers to traffic jams, 45 minutes before they occur.”

This is not to mention its ability to push artificial intelligence forward. “Your brain works with a lot of gray areas, right? And a computer works in ones and zeros,” says whurley. “So we try to model your brain with this very inorganic mechanical system, whereas the quantum computer can spin up and spin down and we can represent a one or a zero or states in between and there’s a lot more probability. This obviously would make more sense to do an AI in. And there’s a lot of people that think that. Google’s invested a lot of money with NASA to build a quantum AI research center.”

 

Currently whurley is serving as chair of the IEEE Standards Quantum Computing Working Group, which is charged with establishing definitions for the field, which up until now has lacked uniform terms. “We’re trying to build a nomenclature so that everybody can speak the same language. There’s no performance benchmark that’s standardized,” he says. Once those are established, it will become easier to measure progress. “The ruler probably won’t be correct scientifically, but everybody will be measured by the same ruler,” he says.

Just within the last month, Intel fabricated a 17-qubit superconducting chip for testing, and IBM simulated a 56-qubit quantum computer. The latter has the interesting effect of both pushing forward quantum computing and raising the bar for quantum supremacy, which is the point at which a quantum computer can do something literally impossible by conventional computing means—the “Impossibilities” of whurley’s book title.

One certainty, at least, is that he’ll be urging everyone to pay attention. Possibly with a surprise announcement in March. “I’m gonna potentially [have] an actual super-inspirational example of how I’m gonna try to use it,” says whurley. “It’s a cool, cool project that I can’t say anything about yet!”

whurley is a 2018 SXSW Conference Keynote (Convergence). Browse all Startup & Tech Sectors track sessions.

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