December 11, 2021
Welcome to Axios Future, where I have some news: I'll be leaving Axios at the end of the year.
- For the last few editions, I'm going to look at the major emerging trends shaping the coming decades.
- As an Axios Future subscriber, you'll start to receive Axios What's Next in the new year, a daily newsletter that explores the future of how we work, play and get around. I think you'll enjoy it!
Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,780 words or about 7 minutes.
1 big thing: Quantum computing nears a quantum leap
A new class of powerful computers is on the brink of doing something important: actual useful work.
Why it matters: Quantum computers have the potential to solve unsolvable problems and break unbreakable encryption, but getting them to the point of reliability remains an enormous engineering challenge.
- But the companies — and countries — that figure out quantum will take the lead in a new era of computing.
What's happening: Quantum computers — which harness the weird and difficult physics of the quantum world — have experienced a number of notable improvements in recent weeks.
- In November, IBM unveiled its Eagle quantum processor, which packs 127 qubits — the quantum equivalent of the bits that drive classical computing — making it the first to break the 100-qubit barrier.
- This week, Quantinuum — a new quantum computing company created by the merger of software maker Cambridge Quantum and hardware manufacturer Honeywell Quantum Solutions — announced the world's first commercial product created solely by a quantum computer: a powerful encryption key generator.
- On Dec. 8, quantum computer maker IonQ — one of the few companies in the space to go public — announced plans to use barium ions as qubits in its systems, which president and CEO Peter Chapman says will improve the stability and reliability of its quantum computers.
By the numbers: The global quantum computing market is currently valued at $490 million, with 21.9% annual growth, and is projected to be worth nearly $1 billion by 2024, according to Bob Sorensen, chief analyst for quantum computing at Hyperion Research.
- "Hardware is hard, and it takes time for the engineering to advance from fundamental devices to useful devices," said William Oliver, director of the Center for Quantum Engineering at MIT, at this week's Q2B Practical Quantum Computing Conference.
- "But that is happening as quantum transitions from lab curiosity to technical reality."
How it works: Classical computers, from the smallest device to the most powerful supercomputer, do their calculations through the binary manipulation of bits, which can be in only two states: on or off, 1 or 0.
- Quantum computers use the quantum state of an object to produce qubits. The complex math behind these qubits can be plugged into special algorithms to do calculations that would be practically impossible for a classical computer to perform — a quality known as quantum advantage or supremacy.
- A working quantum computer could theoretically break the internet's most secure cryptography, solve impossibly complex logistical and optimization challenges, or simulate matter and chemistry on an incredibly precise scale.
The catch: More qubits should mean more powerful quantum computers, which is why hardware makers frequently tout the qubit totals on their latest models. For the machines to do useful work, they need to keep those qubits in a particular quantum state called a superposition as long as possible.
- But qubits are "highly sensitive," says IBM''s Jerry Chow, and slight variations of temperature or vibrations can cause them to lose their quantum state in a process called decoherence, turning qubits into boring old bits.
- Oliver compared the current state of quantum computers to the Wright Brothers' first plane. "It was a key milestone in flight," he said, "but it wasn't like the next day we all went out and bought airplane tickets."
2. Running the international quantum race
The race for quantum supremacy isn't just between tech companies, but between nation-states as well.
Why it matters: The first country to produce effective, working quantum computers will have a key advantage in economics, defense and cybersecurity — and the U.S., China, and Europe are all competing.
What's happening: Last month, the Commerce Department added a dozen Chinese companies to a trade blacklist in an effort to prevent emerging U.S. technologies from being used for quantum computing efforts that would boost Beijing's military.
- "The United States is quite a ways ahead in many areas [of quantum] and we have a lot of talent," says Laura Thomas, a former CIA case officer and the director of national security solutions for ColdQuanta.
- "But China is catching up in closing that gap very quickly," she says.
The big picture: One of the clearest uses of quantum computing is to eventually break the complex mathematical problems used to encrypt information of all kinds on the internet, including sensitive government data.
- That's not yet possible with today's quantum computers, but it could well be within a decade or less. In the meantime, nations are likely intercepting and storing data now with the expectation that they'll be able to decrypt it in the future.
Between the lines: While U.S. companies generally have the lead on building better quantum computers, China has invested massively in the industry, including an $11 billion national laboratory for quantum information sciences.
- Chinese researchers have made breakthroughs on quantum communications, including via satellite, and Chinese companies dominate patent applications for quantum cryptography.
3. Charting an ethical path for quantum computing
As quantum computing matures, industry experts are calling for ethics to be taken into account as early as possible.
Why it matters: Previous technological development in social media and AI took place before their makers fully grappled with the ethical considerations.
- The early stage of quantum computing means there's still time to better shape its development.
What's happening: From total decryption to more powerful AI, quantum computing could eventually affect nearly every corner of life — which is why now is the time to think about what the technology should and shouldn't do, experts say.
- Earlier this year, a group of quantum computing insiders released a video meant to raise awareness about the ethical questions that society will face in the coming quantum age.
- Quantum computers could superpower AI, potentially worsening the negative effects of that technology, while quantum algorithms could help financial firms game the market, increasing income inequality.
- "Like any technology, it can be used as a force for good and it can also be used as a force for not so good," said Ilana Wisby, CEO of Oxford Quantum Circuits, in the video.
Between the lines: The fact that quantum computing is still in such an early stage of development means that its potentially negative effects could be forestalled before they impact large groups of people.
- One way is to ensure that — unlike many earlier technological leaps — is involving a more diverse group of people in actually designing quantum computing, says Eliška Greplová, a quantum expert at the Delft University of Technology.
- The catch: While the overall quantum workforce is still tiny — giving it room to diversify as it grows — women and Black and Hispanic students are highly underrepresented in quantum-related disciplines like physics and computer sciences.
4. An AI can inspire intimacy (with a little human help)
The AI startup Primer has harnessed a natural language processing (NLP) model to generate conversation-provoking questions for team building.
Why it matters: The exercise shows how AI, properly trained by experts, can "help humans be more humans," as Primer director of science John Bohannon puts it.
- But it also illustrates the very human work that still needs to be done to ensure such models produce meaningful content.
How it works: Bohannon first wrote a numbered list of some 20 example deep talk questions — such as "What animal would you be for a day?" — and then fed those prompts into a language model called GPT-J-6B, a smaller, open-source version of OpenAI's GPT-3 text-generating system.
- In just a few seconds, the model took those training prompts and began spitting out deep talk questions in the same style — hundreds of them.
- In the end, Bohannon had 365 deep talk questions — like "What do you think of when you think of Earth?" or "What is the difference between loving and being loved?" — that he considered good enough to use with his team.
- "I got my 365 questions, and it did it vastly faster and better than I could have done it on my own," says Bohannon. "It came up with stuff I never would have thought of."
The catch: While what he calls “Deep Talk” was easier than writing his own 365 questions, Bohannon still had to shape the right prompts and manually select the final questions from the ones generated by the model, discarding questions that were repetitive or, in his words, "not safe for work."
5. Worthy of your time
Techno-optimism for 2022 (Noah Smith — Noahpinion)
- From renewable energy and fusion to biotech, next year could bring advances in technology that actually make the world a better place.
Ghost kitchens are proving to be a messy business, as Reef Global shows (Eliot Brown — Wall Street Journal)
- The promise of "ghost kitchens" — off-restaurant facilities that make food for delivery — is running into hard reality.
The dark side of 15-minute grocery delivery (Lev Kushner and Greg Lindsay — Bloomberg CityLab)
- Pro: Your groceries will get to you faster. Con: It might just destroy the fabric of your city.
South Korea cuts human interaction to build "untact" society (Raphael Rashid — The Guardian)
- South Korea — which entirely coincidentally has the world's lowest fertility rate — is on a kamikaze mission to use technology to remove human contact from daily life.
6. 1 good thing: The return of "the Big Oyster"
11.2 million juvenile oysters have been added to New York Harbor over the past six months, part of a large-scale habitat restoration.
Why it matters: The oysters are a sign of a steady return to life for the long-polluted waterway and a reminder that environmental progress can and is being made even under the shadow of climate change.
What's happening: The restoration is part of the Billion Oyster Project, a nonprofit that aims to add the bivalves in an effort to fully clean up New York Harbor.
- The young oysters are attached to subtidal habitats, including mesh cages, and dropped in a section of the Hudson River off lower Manhattan.
- Altogether, 75 million oysters have been added to the harbor since Billion Oyster Project began in 2014.
How it works: Though the oysters can't be eaten — the waters are still too polluted — they actively filter the water, create marine habitats for other species, and may eventually help protect the city's shoreline from storm surges.
- But over-harvesting reduced oyster numbers and industrial pollution eventually left the harbor inhospitable to oysters and most other marine life until cleanup and restoration efforts began.
The bottom line: Environmental news can feel unremittingly grim, but the sight of fresh oysters in New York Harbor shows us that some things do get better.
- Which is a good thing to remember for the future.