Bringing Quantum Computing to the Masses


Q&A with Whurley, Chair of IEEE Quantum Computing Working Group

1. What is your vision for how technology will benefit humanity?

I’m eternally optimistic about the positive effects technology will have on humanity. Too often people envision dystopian futures where technologies like artificial intelligence and quantum computing have hurt, rather than helped, humanity. I think we live in the greatest age. Think of the wonderful things that are possible today and the mind-blowing things that will be possible in the near future with the help of technology. I envision researchers using quantum computers to discover and tailor new drugs, find solutions to the causes and symptoms of climate change, and most of all to analyze the incredible amount of data we have sitting around which may contain solutions to some of the world’s greatest problems.

2. Can you give a quick description of what quantum computing is and its current state of development?

Quantum computers take advantage of quantum-mechanical phenomena like superposition and entanglement to (theoretically) execute certain tasks exponentially faster than today’s computers. 2017 was a significant year in the field of quantum computing. IBM simulated a 56-qubit (quantum bit) quantum processor (the previous record was 49) and then went on to demonstrate a 50-qubit quantum computer. Google apparently came close to demonstrating “quantum supremacy,” the point at which a quantum computer can outperform a classical computer at a given application. Microsoft released a preview of Visual Studio and Q#, a new programming language for quantum developers. Several countries announced significant new investments in quantum research and development. So I would characterize the current state of development as advancing rapidly.

3. From improving traffic to helping discover vaccines, there are a lot of applications of quantum computing. What application of quantum computing are you most excited about?

I’m excited about so many possibilities. If I had to pick my top three applications, I would say powering advanced artificial intelligence; meteorology, geoengineering, and battling climate change; and next-gen cryptography, specifically how quantum computing will impact things like blockchain and bitcoin.

4. When do you predict the consumer will see the impacts of quantum computing? What are the barriers to seeing these quantum computing applications?

That’s a hard call to make. In the next 5-10 years, applications like quantum machine learning may indirectly affect consumers. For example, quantum-optimized machine learning might improve anything from artificial intelligence to database searches, but consumers will just see great products that benefit from those advances without interacting directly with a quantum computer. Though the thought of a direct consumer-quantum interaction sounds super exciting to me personally. There are several challenges to overcome first, like quantum decoherence, error correction, and a general lack of software applications.

5. How does quantum computing intersect with other emerging technologies and scientific fields such as big data, smart cities, and medicine?

I’ve actually written about this before on my quantum computing blog. Depending on which website you trust and your faith in statistics, about 90% of all the data in the world was created in the last 2 years. That’s insane. We’re generating 2.5 quintillion bytes of data each day. At that pace, it’s no wonder we haven’t made much progress toward getting more out of this data deluge. We have more data; then we know what to do with, and almost no way to process it. The best part: our rate of data creation is growing almost exponentially. For example, in 2016 we sent a little more than 3.5 million text messages per minute. In 2017, we sent over 15 million texts per minute. 15 million!

I believe quantum computing will give us the ability to actually start making use of all of this data. Without its potential efficiencies, how can we possibly process these enormous data sets within a practical amount of time? In many ways, smart cities and the internet of things are just useful products of our ability to quickly and strategically gather, digest, and apply lessons learned from the data we’re gathering. Today medical researchers pay thousands of dollars for time on supercomputers to execute complex analyses on large data sets. They are sometimes limited by the number of variables they can account for when developing new drugs or targeting treatments. Quantum computing has the potential to change that.

6. What role might standards and IEEE have in bringing about the future of quantum computing?

I believe quantum computing is poised for significant growth and rapid advancement, but it is currently hindered by the lack of common nomenclature. So I’m thrilled to be leading the effort to address that problem on the recently approved IEEE P7130™ – Standard for Quantum Computing Definitions, as the chair of the IEEE Quantum Computing Working Group.

By standardizing terminology, we will reduce confusion for all stakeholders and help establish the foundation for the quantum computing industry. Developers, scientists, entrepreneurs, investors, and potential customers will all use one language to collaborate and innovate. We’re inching closer to the beginnings of that industry right now.

7. Your keynote for SXSW is an opportunity to cover quantum computing for the masses. What are you hoping the audience learns?

I’ve really been working hard on this material. I have two main goals. One, explain to the audience what quantum computing is, its history, where we’re at in its evolution, and why it’s important to them. Two, engage them directly in the field by providing educational resources, open source tools, etc. that they can use that same day to experiment and play with this amazing technology. I want people to leave with a solid understanding of quantum computing and the opportunity to get some hands-on experience.

8. As a veteran SXSW attendee, what are you most looking forward to this year?

I had an amazing SXSW 2016. I took SXSW 2017 off to support my son as he launched his first startup, Chilligence. 2018 is personally exciting, because it’s the first year I’ve actually made the schedule.

I’m stoked to be a part of the IEEE Tech for Humanity series once again — and to hear what Dean Kamen is going to share on biofabrication and regenerative medicine, along with Poppy Crum on Hearables and Hugh Herr’s Extreme Bionics panel. IEEE also throws a really party fun at the Driskill that I will emcee again this year.

I’m also super excited to see Sadiq Khan, Christiane Amanpour, the session with Jocelyn Conn, Akash Goyal, Ramin Hedayati, Hasan Minhaj, and Matt Negrin, everything in the Social Impact track, and obviously I want to be there live when Mark Cuban announces his candidacy for President of the United States.

Whurley has been announced as a keynote speaker at the annual SXSW Conference, March 9-18, 2018 in Austin. The session, The Endless Possibilities of Quantum Computing will be included as a part of the IEEE Tech for Humanity Series at SXSW.

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