Are You a
BDeliever? Science and religion have a difficult relationship, and sometimes they combine in the most obscure manner, such as when Scientology was conceived. The latter seems to have lost a lot of its appeal and followers, but it seems that another new religion is poised to grab the mantle.
That is, if one is willing to follow Scott Aaronson’s rationale that believing in the achievability of significant speed-up with D-Wave’s architecture is a matter of faith. Ironically Scott, who is teaching computer science at MIT, made this comment about the same time that the MIT Technology Review named D-Wave to its Top 50 Smartest Companies list. An illustrious selection, that any company would be delighted to be included in. The only quibble I have with this list is that it ranks Elon Musk’s SpaceX before D-Wave, my point being that quantum mechanics is harder than rocket science. After all, with the latter, everybody can decide if your spacecraft made it into orbit or not (classical mechanics is so straightforward). On the other hand, we still have the ongoing high profile battle over the question of how quantum D-Wave’s machine actually is (since Schroedinger the uncertainty of what’s in a box seems to be a constant in Quantum Mechanics).
Another paper buttresses the company’s claims that there is substantial entanglement present on their chip. This prompted Prof. Vazirani, who I experienced as a most delightful soft spoken academic when checking out his Quantum Computing MOC, to come out swinging. The New York Times quotes him as saying:
“What I think is going on here is that they didn’t model the ‘noise’ correctly. (….) One should have a little more respect with the truth.”
In academic parlance these are fighting words. And so the show goes on.
But I want to take a break from this for a moment, and focus on another question: How did a startup like D-Wave get to this point? Time magazine front page material, coverage in the New York Times, being named in the same breath as SpaceX. From a business perspective this is nothing but an amazing success story to have gotten to this point. And to me, the question of what makes successful entrepreneurship is of no less interest than science and technology.
Flying into Vancouver I imagined Geordie Rose to be a Steve Jobs-like character, about whom it was famously quipped that he was surrounded by his own reality distortion field, an invisible force that made others see the world like he did, and made them buy into his vision. And although I never had the pleasure of meeting Steve Jobs, I think it is safe to say that Geordie is nothing like him. If I had to describe him in one word, I’d say he is quintessentially “Canadian”, in terms of the positive attributes that we typically like to associate with our national character. (Full disclaimer: Technically I am not Canadian yet, just a permanent resident).
Given the amazing success that D-Wave has had, and the awards and accolades that he himself has received, I was impressed with his unassuming demeanor. Hard to imagine Geordie would ever park his car in a handicap spot, as Jobs was fond of doing, to shave a couple minutes off his commute.
D-Wave just moved to a new enlarged premises. In their old building Geordie occupied an interior office without windows. I naturally assumed that he would have upgraded that. So I was surprised to learn that his new workspace still doesn’t have any windows. His explanation was simple, it allows him to be close to his team.
My take away is that visionaries cannot be pigeon-holed, because when talking to Geordie it was quickly obvious that his focus and dedication to making his vision a reality is ironclad, and his excitement is infectious. So this is one key similarity to Steve Jobs after all, and then there is of course this, which goes without saying:
Prof. Vazirani must have picked up on D-Wave’s commitment to make Quantum Computing work, as the New York Times also quotes him as saying about D‑Wave that “after talking with them I feel a lot better about them. They are working hard to prove quantum computing.”
That Geordie picked an approach which is so abhorred by theorists, I attribute to yet another aspect that, in my mind, marks great entrepreneurship: An almost ruthless pragmatism. Focusing on the less proven quantum annealing on a chip, he managed in just seven years to turn out an entirely new computing platform. Meanwhile, the advances in superconducting foundry know-how that his company ushered in, will also benefit other approaches, such as the gate based implementation that UCSB’s John Martinis plans to scale up to 1000 qubits within five years.
To me, there is no doubt that the hurry to get something to the market is a net benefit to the entire quantum computing field, as I expect it will attract more private capital. And that is because Quantum Computing is now no longer perceived as something nebulous, something that just may happen 25 years down the road.
Game changers polarize. So if we pay heed to Scott Aaronson’s rhetorics Geordie clearly has a leg up over Steve Jobs. Where the latter had a cult following, Geordie’s on his way to having his own religion. Maybe that’ll explain the following recent exchange on D-Wave’s blog:
(h/t Rolf D. and commenter Copenhagen for pointing me to material for this post.)