Whurley is a special guy. Of course, anybody whose nickname is the combination of his first initial and last name has already got something going for him!
Combine that with an outstanding career in technology development and management, and you have a recognized authority on new technologies demonstrated not only with his ideas, but also with his actions. So, when Whurley says, “In 10 years, you will see a general purpose quantum computer,” people take notice; and they should.
But is that prediction guaranteed? Of course not. Remember, “You can’t predict the future.” “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.” Et cetera. And if not, how are we to deal with it? What should we make of Whurley’s prediction?
In the foresight business, Whurley’s statement is called an Expected future. Lots of talented people at Google, IBM, Microsoft and other places are working to make quantum computing a practical reality. But expected technological developments have failed before. Can anyone spell ‘flying car’?
Nuclear power was expected to become “too cheap to meter” in the 1950s. So, what happened? Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima. The public’s fear of radiation. Intense regulation. Long lead times. High cost. The persistence of fossil fuels. All combined to lay to rest the expectation that nuclear power would be the best way to produce electricity in the future.
Was the prediction of nuclear power wrong? Yes, but it played a role in our understanding of the future anyway. And even as it does today, although the expectation has changed. Expectations are fine, and Whurley’s prediction is more likely to come true than not, but we need to put expectations into the context of what might happened instead.
When we unpack an expectation, we realize that it rests on evidence backed by assumptions. The assumptions that nuclear power would be the fuel of the future were 1) that regulations would be easy to satisfy, 2) people would get over their fear of radiation, 3) costs would be lower than fossil fuels, etc. Those were good assumptions at the time, but they were not guaranteed to be true over the long-term.
So, the take-away? Whurley’s expectations for quantum computing are exciting and probably accurate. But we should always put those expectations in the larger context that includes a number of assumptions.
- Might there be a physical limit to the number of qubits that can be entangled? We are still learning a lot about quantum mechanics so such a limit might be out there.
- Will the cost of maintaining quantum coherence for a large number of qubits prevent it from becoming practical for any but the most exotic and expensive applications?
- Will the possibility that a quantum computer might become the general artificial intelligence machine that many people want, but that others fear?
Whurley indirectly referred to the second assumption by saying, “Maybe a quantum computers 100,000 times faster [than classical computers], but they cost 2 million times as much so no one uses them.” Thinking like a futurist, William!
I for one accept his view for what it is – a reasoned expectation from a noted authority. But I also know that it’s not guaranteed despite his belief that it will.
That is the way futurists and foresight professionals deal with the future. That is the way we should all think about the many predictions we come across every day. And that’s the way we should be teaching our students to think about the future, while they are still in school.
Teach the Future!