The site was a 37th floor suite in the new Fairmont Hotel in Austin, Texas. William Hurley, aka whurley, had just delivered a SXSW keynote speech with the alluring title “The Endless Impossibilities of Quantum Computing” to a packed ballroom in the convention center across the street. When he walked into the room, I got the impression of a friendly, soft-spoken, teddy-bearish sort of man who just happens to be one of the smartest guys in any room. If I’d seen a picture of him without knowing who he was, I might guess he was a Swiss maker of hand-made cuckoo clocks.

The best description of whurley, professionally, though, might be to describe him as an accomplished technologist and serial entrepreneur. At one time he worked for IBM, with the title of Master Inventor. Since 2010, he has started three companies: Chaotic Moon Studios and Honest Dollar, both of which have since been acquired by larger entities, and Strangeworks, which formally made its debut at SXSW 2018 just a couple of hours after my talk with him. He’s an Eisenhower Fellow and chairs the IEEE Quantum Computing Standards Workgroup. He also co-authored the book Quantum Computing for Babies (with Chris Ferrie, 2018).

I was anxious to plunge into an interview, but before I got to the subject matter at hand, I just had to ask him something else. Why the small ‘w’ in his adopted name?

“Maybe,” I conjectured, “you’re channeling your inner e. e. cummings?”

Nope. It turns out, it’s just a Unix username. It looks like I flunked Geek 101, though he did say he just might use the e. e. cummings thing in the future.

Mark Sackler (left) interviewing whurley at this year’s SXSW in Austin Texas.

Bo Ewald talks about whurley

“What quantum computing needs is more smart people thinking about how to apply it and creating software tools for it. whurley certainly fits in the category of smart people.”

“In the world are probably twenty groups of people that can design quantum hardware. That’s not a lot of people. But once the hardware is available you need two [other] sets of people—those who have a problem to solve, so they want to act on their application, and those who can create software to access the quantum computer and create software to talk to it in your own language rather than having to talk to it in its language. The work that whurley is planning ties into all of that.”

Bo Ewald is president of D-Wave Systems, the first company ever to develop, sell and deliver a quantum computing system.

 

Mark Sackler: What is it in the last couple of years that created a passion for you about quantum computing?

whurley: I’ve been watching quantum computing for three to five years, and I’ve been really tracking it for the last couple of years. I always, as an entrepreneur, like to know the next two or three things that I might start a company to work on. And for me it was, robotics, biohacking and quantum computing.

I’ve been watching all of those and I decided, hey, I’m going to go out and do another startup. I looked at everything and I thought, you know, where I can make the most impact, where things are the most interesting intellectually . . . and where I think the timing is right in the market is quantum computing.

Mark Sackler: Your keynote speech at South by Southwest was entitled “The Endless Impossibilities of Quantum Computing”. I can’t figure out whether that’s redundant or an oxymoron or a little of both. What do you mean by the endless impossibilities?

whurley: What I mean is, there’s all of these things that we think of as impossible, right? That computers could do, you know, some people think AI isn’t possible. Some people think we’ll never be able to do certain things with the drug discovery and individualization of drugs and all these different things. So instead of saying, “These are all the possibilities,” I thought we can be kind of clever and tongue in cheek about it and say, “Here are all the impossible things that this could probably bring about.”

Mark Sackler: You said that we should all be fascinated with quantum computing. Why?

whurley: Because I think that this is a very special moment in time. If you think back to when the mainframe came to existence, the best example for me is the Homebrew Computer Club. If you think back to those days, I think the people in quantum state are kind of like the people that were in the Homebrew Computer Club back in the day. This is a movement. This is a very special moment in time where this new technology, that traces all the way back to the 1830s and Ada Lovelace, is finally at an inflection point where it’s going to become important.

This is a movement. This is a very special moment in time where this new technology, that traces all the way back to the 1830s and Ada Lovelace, is finally at an inflection point where it’s going to become important.

And in 20 years, in 30 years and 40 years, I think we’ll be reading stories about all the people I’m working with and were at the session today because then they’ll be the pioneers or the visionaries, the people who did cool stuff. Computing will change more in the next 10 years than it has in the last hundred.

Mark Sackler: Another thing you talked about in your talk today was humanizing quantum computing. What exactly does that mean?

whurley: If you think about back in the day when you learned how to program a computer, you had to be an electrical engineer because you had to understand the voltage between the gates. Then you have to understand the gates. Now, many of these developers don’t even know computers have gates.

Right now, you have to be a physicist to program a quantum computer. I want to take that to the next phase to where we can expand that circle to a lot wider audience, to a much larger group. To do that, I have to take this incredibly complex topic . . . remember, I’m not a physicist. I’m certainly not a theoretical physicist, or a theoretical mathematician. I’m not a discrete mathematician, and I have to take all these incredibly complex topics and find a way to get the masses of developers that have the ability to write software, to understand enough of them to start trying to write custom software.

Mark Sackler: And how do we do that? And how far away is it?

whurley: I’m starting a new company called Strangeworks to focus all of my time and attention on that. I hope it’s not too distant future; I think that’s a 3- to 5-year thing. We just announced today a deal with Stack Overflow, quantumcomputing.stackexchange.com, which is where all developers go to learn about coding and writing code. We’re creating a place where everybody can go and ask questions and get answers and start playing around with some of the tools that are available. So, hopefully, that will be the beginning of a movement over the next few years. We’ll grow from a few dozens of developers now into hundreds or hundreds of thousands of developers.

Mark Sackler: Considering the difficult hardware requirements—extreme cold and isolation to prevent decoherence—this is something that won’t ever be on a consumer’s desktop. Will consumers en masse ever be able to use it and benefit in some way?

whurley: Google will have quantum computers to improve searches and search results and deal with data. If you’re a user of Google, then you will indirectly be using those quantum computers, right? And that’s just one example. You may get customized drugs in the future, probably the product of some future quantum computing technology. So yeah, I do think it will touch consumers en masse and affect all of our lives, which is yet another reason to be kind of fascinated with it.

Mark Sackler: I’m going to challenge you here now. I’ve read recently, and Bo Ewald of D-Wave Systems confirmed this to me in a podcast I did earlier at SXSW, that we don’t really know everything yet that quantum computing will be able to do. You’re an imaginative guy. Is there anything you can imagine it doing now or in the next several years that nobody’s talking about right now?

whurley: I want to start by saying Bo is one of my best quantum buddies and I love that guy, and he’s been tremendously helpful in my quantum journey. He’s a super cool dude. And he’s absolutely right. We don’t know. And the answer is no. In fact, the whole purpose of starting Strangeworks, the whole purpose of what I’m doing is not to know. No, I don’t want to be the hero that comes up with a solution with quantum computing or the killer app.

I want to build the tools that empower in 10 years, a hundred years, a thousand, 100,000, a million people out there who will be at the intersections of these really cool big problems.

I want to build the tools that empower in 10 years, a hundred years, a thousand, 100,000, a million people out there who will be at the intersections of these really cool big problems.

Mark Sackler: Are there any questions about quantum computing that people should be asking, but aren’t?

whurley: I think people are asking questions, but maybe they’re asking the wrong questions. Things like, oh, it’s going to break encryption. How’s it going to break encryption? How is it going to break blockchain? I don’t think these are the right questions. I think you make the key length longer and have even more qubits. I think it’s far easier for you to make your key lengths longer than it is for me to go from 72 qubits to 200 qubits. Right? And security is a journey, not a destination. I think there’s a lot of questions asked about that. The questions I think people aren’t asking are: How do I interface? How do I interact? How do I learn more about this technology? Whether they’re from a consumer standpoint, whether they’re a developer—but especially developers or CIOs. I do not travel around the world seeing enough CIOs thinking about quantum computing.

And so let’s give you a scenario OK? Forget the encryption doomsday scenario, but a realistic, real-world scenario. All right. You’re in finance, CEO of some big bank. Remember Michael Lewis’s book Flash Boys, and how high-frequency trading back in the day was this strategic advantage? For a while people were heading off trades and making all this money. I think quantum will do that to finance synergy. Now, why aren’t people asking these questions? Why aren’t they thinking about it? That’s the real question.

Mark Sackler: How do you remedy that?

Written by experts, Quantum Computing for Babies is a colorfully simple introduction to the magical world of quantum computers. Purchase at The Book Depository.

whurley: What I’ve recently done is I joined an effort by IEEE and started the quantum computing standards work group to first do nomenclature standards so that people like you and I and can get an idea of, OK, this is what these terms mean, and now I can compare them. And then they move into benchmarking a standard so that you can have an objective third party way, so we can say, OK it is not a million times faster, but it is 100,000 times faster, or maybe it’s 100,000 times faster, but it costs 2,000,000 times as much. So maybe in that case you don’t want to use it. Right? But the question is, you know, again, to summarize your previous question, I don’t think enough CIOs, I don’t think enough people in technology and the business of technology are asking any questions, let alone the right questions.

You start realizing, hey, maybe this thing is taking off. Uh, and what’s gonna happen is quantum is not going to be something 20 years out. Quantum is going to start affecting people 3 to 5 years out, in my opinion, and it’s going to start affecting people in a way that happens seemingly overnight.

If you look at the trend lines I presented in my keynote today, you see slow movement in patents for years and then all of a sudden, a spike. And we showed investments, a slow-moving trend line and then suddenly a spike. We see this spike across patterns, across innovation labs, across universities, who have programs. You start realizing, hey, maybe this thing is taking off. Uh, and what’s gonna happen is quantum is not going to be something 20 years out. Quantum is going to start affecting people 3 to 5 years out, in my opinion, and it’s going to start affecting people in a way that happens seemingly overnight.

So you have, after Wayne Gretzky, this thing you need to be pointing not where the puck is that now but where it’s going, or else you’re going to be in a lot of trouble. OK?

Mark Sackler: What do you think we’re going to see from this technology in the next 10 years?

whurley: The next 10 years? I think you’ll see the holy grail, which is a general-purpose quantum computer. That means a quantum computer that works far more resiliently than ones today. Probably a circuit gate model which works more like a computer works today. That’s the foundation on which I think a world of new technologies and discoveries will be based.


Listen to the full interview between Mark Sackler and whurley at the Seeking Delphi Podcast

Find more on quantum computing from Age of Robots


Here’s the presentation by whurley at the last SXSW