The Dizzying Potential of Quantum Computing


“After On” Audio Series: Episode 5 of 8

In-depth with venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson

Quantum computing is the wild card in technology’s deck

I recently recorded a wide-ranging conversation with venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson on the weird, even spooky topic of quantum computing. Steve is a long-serving board member at D-Wave Systems — the world’s oldest and largest quantum computing company. He and I go back a ways. We overlapped as undergrads at Stanford, then worked together in our first post-college jobs at Bain & Company. Our paths have crossed and re-crossed ever since, in and around the tech scene.

To access our interview at your leisure, either:

  1. Type “After On” into your podcast app’s search field, or . . .
  2. Click the “play” button at the top of this page.
  3. Click here, then click the blue “View on iTunes” button in the upper left corner of the page (requires iTunes, of course),

Quantum computing intrigues me as a writer because near-future science fiction rests on the conceit that next year could differ vastly from today. This is why alien invasions are so popular. Sure, it’s unlikely one will happen this afternoon. But if one does, there’s no limit to how weird shit could get by hockey season.

Options narrow if your story is earthbound and grounded in present-tense technology. I think of my new novel, After On, as happening nine seconds hence. Which is rather soon. Soon enough to rule out the rise of light-speed travel, world peace, or iOS 11. But it doesn’t (quite) rule out something crazy emerging from the cauldrons of quantum computing. And so I made this bizarre domain a key driver of my story.

You can only squeeze so much techsplaining into a novel without exhausting your readers — particularly with something as screwy and complex as quantum computing. And so I restrained myself (somewhat) from diving deeply into it in my book, figuring I could do that in some other forum after it came out. And so, here we are.

When Steve joined D-Wave’s board fifteen years ago, quantum computing was nascent, very fringe, and a darling of the military. It remains all of the above, frankly — and it’s unclear if it will ever graduate to center stage.

But the field’s boosters are enthralled by its potential to shatter precepts even more thoroughly than the microprocessor. Top theorists claim that a laptop-sized quantum system delivering on its outer-limits potential would outperform a classical computer incorporating all of the matter in the known universe. Of course, nothing that extreme will erupt from a secretive D-Wave competitor any time soon. But something falling many orders of magnitude short of the ideal would forever rewrite the rules of computing.

This probably won’t emerge next week. But it’s not (quite) entirely out of the question. The companies and teams pushing the envelope in quantum computing are small enough to hide in nooks (even D-Wave is just a hundred-ish people). And likely near-term breakthroughs go by consequence-dripping names like Quantum Supremacy. The field’s bizarreness also gives it great potential to shock even its deepest experts. And folks: this is good enough for science fiction.

Quantum computing’s superpower is an ability to inhabit multiple states simultaneously. So while a classical computer wrangling a 32-bit string will keep it in just one state at any given moment, a quantum computer could keep it in 4,294,967,296 states at once (a bit of an over-simplification, but bear with me). As strings lengthen, the number simultaneous states explode — eventually exceeding obnoxious milestones like the number of subatomic particles in the universe. Simultaneous states mean simultaneous calculations, and the speed advantages of that will be stunning, if everything actually works out (and there you have one of the larger ifs I’ve ever written).

How do quantum systems manage this trick? Some theorists believe they enlist sister computers in 4,294,967,295 parallel universes and share the work amongst them. As for the leading rival theory, it consists mainly of saying “I don’t want to think about it,” according to Steve. In our interview, he and I dive into all of this. And then the ideas start getting a bit weird. I hope you’ll give it a listen.

This is the fifth audio episode of eight that I previewed to Medium members and am now podcasting. They all add context to my novel After On — but it is NOT necessary to read the novel in order to listen to and learn from them! Significant discussion of the book is delayed until the very final section of the episode, when my cohost (Tom Merritt) and I do relate the interview to the storyline.

Leave a Reply