Dec 13, 2018

Axios Future

By Bryan Walsh
Bryan Walsh

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1 big thing: Seeking a killer quantum app

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Attracted by promising advances, high-profile companies like BMW and Goldman Sachs are pouring investment money into quantum technology or hiring their own talent in a long-shot bet that the field will be big.

Writes Axios' Kaveh Waddell: Quantum computing is unproven, and even if it can be made to work at the levels experts think is possible, no one knows just how it might be used in business.

  • But big companies are disregarding the massive uncertainties — for the first time putting down stakes, fearful of being left behind if quantum becomes the next big thing.

Driving the news: For three days this week, quantum nerds and businesspeople from 17 countries packed into the Computing History Museum — blocks from Google in Mountain View, CA — for the second-ever Quantum for Business conference.

  • Their objective: to network and, through panels, tutorials and technical workshops, find out what is on the field’s cutting edge.
  • "It is like preparing for a 100-meter run, if you do not know where it will go or when it will [begin]," said Oliver Wick, quantum computing lead at BMW. "But you have to be prepared in order to start at the beginning."

The conference comes at a new stage for the field. Scientists studying the unusual properties of tiny particles have paved the way for early quantum computers developed by IBM, Google and other companies. These large, sometimes wacky-looking machines use lasers, supercooling and other tech to manipulate and measure these particles' behavior — the equivalent of how classical computers work with 1's and 0's.

  • These computers could theoretically solve problems too complex for classical computers.
  • This hasn’t happened. Researchers still must solve intractable technical problems and find the right problems for the machines — ones that are "classically hard but quantumly easy," says Caltech professor John Preskill.

But even early proofs-of-concept, and hybrid machines that marry quantum and classical computers, have prodded companies to nervously dole out cash to stay in the loop.

  • "Even though it's hard to see a practical effect in the next two to three years, this is when we need to think about our [intellectual property] in this area," said Paul Burchard, head of R&D at Goldman Sachs.
  • Gen. William Cooley, commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory, said his program has invested more than $5 billion into quantum technologies. "We see potential applications for future military capabilities" in several areas, he said.
  • "Pessimists say quantum is 20 years out. Optimists say it’s 3. The realists are preparing today," William Hurley, CEO of quantum computing startup Strangeworks, told Axios.

What's going on now:

  • D-Wave, a leading quantum computing company, has helped businesses run more than 100 experiments on their machines, hoping to highlight possible applications.
  • Booz Allen Hamilton used it to figure out where to fly satellites to maximize coverage; Germany’s space agency analyzed air traffic over the North Atlantic; and Ocado, an online grocery giant, optimized its robots’ paths through enormous warehouses.

Despite the business interest, an uncomfortable worry hovered over the conference. Several speakers fearfully invoked the artificial intelligence winter of the 1970s, when investment withered because AI didn’t live up to its promise.

  • "We are here at the beginning of the valley of death, the most difficult part of the journey to commercialization," said Alan Ho of Google’s quantum lab, referring to the unsteady period between research investment and industry pickup.
  • To avoid winter, someone needs to develop a killer quantum application, said Airbus R&D head Thierry Botter. "That's likely to open the floodgates."
2. Leonardo in the quantum world
Left: Apic/Getty; Right: Kaveh Waddell/Axios

Since early, room-sized mainframes with whirling tape drives, computers have become more complex — while looking less remarkable by the year.

The exception: early quantum computers.

Kaveh writes: They look like something Leonardo da Vinci might have sketched in 15th century Florence and Milan.

  • On the left, above: da Vinci’s drawing of a flying machine.
  • On the right: a model of an IBM quantum computer, on display at the Quantum to Business conference (described above).

Usually, these complex machines are hidden inside enclosures that shield them from interference and help keep them at temperatures hundreds of degrees below zero.

  • Each level of the assembly, which Gizmodo’s Nick Summers described as a "steampunk chandelier," is colder than the level above, approaching absolute zero.
  • The coiled wires conduct signals down into the chip located inside the silver tube at the bottom.

Go deeper: Gizmodo has more photos

3. Big schmig (Part II)

Photo Illustration: Axios Visuals

In 2000, when the Clinton administration was intent on breaking up Microsoft, CEO Bill Gates said his company only looked unassailable. Microsoft, he said, was actually vulnerable to being toppled by any number of as-yet-unseen Davids. Government antitrust lawyers — and much of the country — scoffed.

Just a few years later, in walked Google, writes Axios' Erica Pandey.

The big picture: Now Google seems unassailable and, against fierce criticism that it is far too big, CEO Sundar Pichai is arguing much the same as Gates — that his company only seems impregnable.

"There’s a lot of competition amongst big companies. ... For the first time, I think there is more international competition than ever before, and I think that’s going to hold true."
— Pichai, to Axios

Background: Bigness in corporate America is under increasing scrutiny by regulators and scholars who link it to stagnant wages and anti-competition. Together, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and Alphabet, Google's parent, make up 1% of the companies in the S&P 500, but nearly 15% of the wealth.

But in interviews this week, when Axios asked Pichai and Gates how they are reckoning with the backlash against bigness, they defended it.

  • As we reported yesterday, Gates warned against slamming bigness for its own sake. No big company in the U.S. — in fact, no industry — merits antitrust action, he argued.
  • Pichai offered a patriotic defense: "There are some advantages of big companies, which is we do invest for the long term in foundational technologies," he said. "Areas like AI or quantum computing, all this will no doubt ... end up being big drivers of U.S. leadership, economic growth."
4. Worthy of your time

NASA’s Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The future of work during the age of Web 3.0 (Peter Diamandis — Tech blog)

Voyager 2 is in interstellar space — with intact sensors (Andrew Freedman — Axios)

A world wide web in space (The Economist)

Small countries grapple with Russian interference (David Shimer — New Yorker)

Harvard is buying up California vineyards — and water (Russell Gold — WSJ)

5. 1 delicious thing: Streets paved with chocolate

Photo: Sebastian Gollnow/picture alliance/Getty

It was a scene out of a children's movie: A storage tank containing tons and tons of liquified chocolate at the DreiMeister chocolate factory in the German city of Westoennen broke — and out poured enough sweet deliciousness to pave the streets of the small town, Erica writes.

What followed was not as idyllic, reports AP. In the cold German winter, the melted chocolate instantly hardened, and cleanup crews had to scrape it off with shovels. The pesky bits that dripped into cracks in the pavement had to be melted with torches and then hosed away.

There is no word if Westoennen's children got any.

Bryan Walsh