5/24/2018Community

Quantum Computing Is Coming, and This Guy Is Making the Leap

by Mark Sullivan

When IBM wanted to accelerate its development of quantum computing, the next generation of computers experts says will be exponentially faster and smarter than anything we have today, it turned to an entrepreneur who admits that he isn’t an expert in the field. He isn’t a physicist or a mathematician — in fact, he learned everything he knows from reading every book he could find on the topic over the past two years.

IBM, one of half a dozen or so industry giants competing to prove the viability of this potentially game-changing but still unproven technology, has partnered with William Hurley, an Austin-based entrepreneur whose quantum computing software company Strangeworks was unveiled a little over a month ago.

Hurley — known to everyone in the industry as whurley — is a relative newcomer to the field, and his company hasn’t produced anything. What makes IBM so impressed with him that it gave him access to some of the world’s most advanced technology?

whurley 2“I believe that quantum computing is another paradigm shift in computing,” says whurley.

First, he has a proven track record. His first two startups, a mobile app developer and a retirement benefits software firm, were snapped up by large corporations.

Second, he has put together a tight-knit team of people who fill in any gaps of knowledge he might have. Most have worked with him at those other companies.

And third, he’s whurley. He can be very persuasive. Take a look at his keynote address at South by Southwest in March, which was part sales pitch, part pep rally, and part Physics 101 lecture.

“I believe that quantum computing is another paradigm shift in computing,” he told the crowd. “I think it can change what we think of as computing more in the next 10 to 15 years than computers have evolved in the last hundred years.”

During the rapid-fire question-and-answer session afterward, he answered questions (yes, quantum computing will help us cure diseases and maybe even find a solution to climate change) and allayed fears (no, it won’t suddenly give thieves access to all our encrypted data online), but mostly he created a we’re-all-in-this-together feeling in the audience.

“As a computer scientist, I’m so excited about this,” he said. “But I can’t go it alone. I need a physicist to explain all the quantum mechanics to me. I need a discrete mathematician to work through all the math with me. This is going to be something that takes a lot of diversity in thought and experience to create algorithms, to create useful algorithms.”

Becoming whurley

William Hurley hasn’t always been whurley. The 47-year-old native of Manassas, Virginia, remembers that a friend from his days on the research and development team at Apple more than 20 years ago “teased me mercilessly” with the nickname, which started out as his username on a UNIX system. With his retro eyeglasses and salt-and-pepper chinstrap beard, the moniker seems to fit.

Barack Obama thanked whurley after the president delivered the keynote address at South by Southwest in 2016, and after that everyone started referring to him by that name: friends, colleagues, even his mother-in-law.

By then whurley had become more than just his name. It was his brand. It stood for something fun, something unexpected, something outside the box.

whurley 1“I believe this technology will change the world," says whurley. "That’s something I can get very excited for.”

His first startup was Chaotic Moon Studios, which built attention-grabbing products like a mind-controlled skateboard and a security drone with a built-in flamethrower. Almost a decade later, people still ask him about the time his company’s battlebot jumped a curb and barreled toward a crowd of onlookers. The fighting robot was intended to get publicity, and it succeeded beyond what anyone hoped.

Chaotic Moon was profitable from the day it was founded in 2010, creating software and mobile apps for companies like Starbucks, Best Buy, and the Discovery Channel. The company was savvy enough to realize that an app to help you order from Pizza Hut wasn’t going to get headlines. But a drone shooting an 80,000-volt stun gun at an intern would.

Then whurley then moved in a completely different direction, founding an online retirements benefits startup called Honest Dollar in 2015. It was a head-scratcher for some of the people who knew whurley from his Chaotic Moon days. But he spoke passionately about serving the millions of self-employed workers whom the industry was ignoring, convincing skeptics that he was revolutionizing retirement.

Turns out those first two companies had something important in common: Big corporations wanted in on the action. Chaotic Moon was bought by Accenture in 2015, while Honest Dollar was acquired by Goldman Sachs in 2016 when it was barely a year old.

And now comes Strangeworks, which whurley announced during his most recent appearance at SXSW. What’s the connection to his previous companies?

“Well, Chaotic Moon, Honest Dollar, and Strangeworks all share a common thread,” he says. “I like applying systems theory to potential areas I might start a new venture in. So while they seem extremely different, they have more in common than one might expect.”

Around the time he sold Honest Dollar, whurley began reading up on the principles behind quantum computing. Concepts like superposition and entanglement (more on those later) weren’t always easy to grasp.

“At first I was like, ‘This is great. Next week I’ll be an expert,’” whurley says. “It’s been a couple of years, and I’m not even remotely an expert. This is very, very cutting-edge stuff.”

But he learned enough to realize that quantum computers were the next big thing. And he wanted to be a part of it.

“I have been watching this new field from the sidelines for years now with growing excitement,” he says. “I believe this technology will change the world. That’s something I can get very excited for.”

He’s not the only one excited about it. Strangeworks just announced it has received $4 million in seed funding led by Lightspeed Venture Partners. Not bad for a company that was flying under the radar until a few months ago.

"Their approach to building a business around quantum and other forms of unconventional computing is the most audacious and forward-thinking I've seen," said Adam Goldberg, a partner at Lightspeed.

And then there are the folks from IBM, which invited Strangeworks to join in the IBM Q Network, a collaboration between a dozen Fortune 500 companies (including JPMorgan Chase and Honda), academic institutions (Oxford University and the University of Melbourne), and research labs (Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Lab).

One of just a handful of startups invited to join the network in April, Strangeworks was — not surprisingly — the youngest. It now has access to prototype quantum computers, and will be able to run experiments on them and confer with IBM researchers and technicians.

"The mission of the IBM Q Network of startups, Fortune 500 companies, and research institutions is to develop and deliver practical applications of quantum computing for business and science,” says Anthony Annunziata, leader of the IBM Q Network.”We are excited about our collaboration with Strangeworks and look forward to working with them to help grow the ecosystem of quantum computing developers, which is essential to this mission."

That gives Strangeworks a leg up in what’s already becoming a crowded field of startups looking to capitalize on quantum computing.

A leap into quantum

Backing up a bit: What’s a quantum computer, anyway? The biggest difference is that classical computers stores information with bits, which exist at the opposite ends of two poles, 0 and 1. (Hence all those screens filled with glowing green numerals in The Matrix.)

Quantum computers use quantum bits, or qubits. They can exist as 0 or 1, or somewhere in between. If you imagine a sphere, a qubit can exist anywhere inside. This is called superposition, and it’s why quantum computers can store exponentially more data than classical computers.

Giving that a boost is the idea of entanglement, where two (or more) qubits move in perfect unison. That means you can measure one and know the position of the other. Taken together, superposition and entanglement are why quantum computers can process a vast amount of information simultaneously. That why experts think they might do things beyond the reach of current computers, like helping to cure diseases or finding a solution to global warming.

Quantum computers won’t work on their own. They need a classical computer to program them.

“Quantum computers won’t make fail videos on the internet faster, but they will help augment classical computers to make some incredible things happen,” says whurley. “Think of them less of a computer and more of a co-processor for incredibly difficult tasks — things like modeling a caffeine molecule, for example.”

There are two things you need to know about quantum computing. One is that it’s very complicated. The second is it might not even work. Experts like Gil Kalai, a mathematician at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, say that companies like IBM, Microsoft, and Google will never be able to solve the biggest problems with quantum computers, such as the “noise” that corrupts results.

Right now researchers reduce this noise — caused by things like tiny fluctuations in temperature — by encasing the tubes and wires in a shell that is cooled to close to absolute zero. And programmers are looking for ways to predict this noise and correct for it.

All this means that despite all the hype from computing companies like D-Wave, nobody has created a quantum computer that can perform calculations beyond the capabilities of the fastest traditional computer.

“Currently, a true large-scale quantum computer does not exist,” says whurley. “It’s not yet a reality in terms of its anticipated and potential use. That being said, large companies do already have access to quantum technology. For example, NASA is using D-Wave’s 2000Q for robotics missions in space.”

Judging from the rush to sell quantum computing’s future, whurley believes, companies don’t seem to be concerned by the current lack of a functional machine. In recent months IBM announced it had created a 50-qubit processor, and Google upped the ante by announcing a 72-qubit processor.

So how long before commercial quantum computers are on the market?

“That’s a tough question,” says whurley. “IBM has publicly said five years, Intel 10-plus years. I sit closer to the IBM side of that. I believe that in three to five years you’ll see more and more quantum computers in use. But again, I see them in the role of co-processor more than a stand-alone machine. Many people don’t understand this, but in short you need a classical computer to work with a quantum computer. So in that respect I see them as an augmentation, and not a replacement.”

The future of computing

Get ready for the headlines. Before the end of the year, one of the tech giants like Google or Microsoft is likely to announce that they have achieved “quantum supremacy,” claiming that their quantum computer can outpace the fastest traditional computer.

The whole idea of quantum supremacy gets an eye roll from whurley, who sides with experts who say that the benchmark is basically meaningless. (How, for example, will they be able to test the results?)

But whurley believes that there will be some serious advances in quantum computing in the coming year. He says the amount of interest in the field is skyrocketing.

“If you look at the number of patents in the area over the years, and then amount of investment, the amount of funding, and several other indicators, everything really hit an inflection point within the last year or so,” he says. “When you consider this along with the fact that we started 2017 with 17 qubits and are starting 2018 with 72 qubits — after years of two- to seven-qubit machines in the lab — then I think quantum computing is about to take its place in the field.”

So whurley and his team are hard at work in their office, located in Austin’s WeWork Congress. His son Brooks, CEO of a due diligence software company called Chilligence, has an office in the same building, but he doesn’t share his father’s passion for quantum computing.

“He’s not following in my footsteps,” says whurley. “He’s clearly his own man.”

Strangeworks is currently designing software for computers that don’t yet exist — a challenge that whurley clearly loves.

“We have access to simulators, and yes, actual quantum computers,” whurley says. “We are designing our software in sync with the development of the hardware. It’s not easy, but we have the right team, at the right moment in time, to make something incredibly impactful.”

And although the average person will probably never have a quantum computer in their home, let alone their pocket, whurley thinks everyone will benefit.

“I truly believe this technology will make the world better for our children, and our children’s children,” says whurley, who has already written a children’s book called Quantum Computing for Babies. “Quantum computing will help us cure diseases, improve global financial markets, and combat climate change. It will empower faster internet searches, custom drugs for illnesses, and more efficient autonomous vehicles. So many things can be positively affected by this technology, so it’s hard for me not to get excited about it.”