James Dargan

@JimDargan

From Space Invaders to Quantum Computers

Quantum computers are slowly creeping into mainstream thinking. But to take that big step, from the laboratory to universal application, may take more than quantum supremacy. Geniuses change the world, and a new Nolan Bushnell, of Atari fame, could be such a model needed to take quantum architectural systems to the next level

Photo by Leslie Jones on Unsplash

Creating Value, Solving Problems

In all honesty, there aren’t many people fit for the life of an entrepreneur, never mind one that is working in one of the most demanding sectors, tech. You’ve got to be a special kind of person. Calm and laid back but with enough curiosity on how the world is developing to ask serious questions about the direction and reason for it.

Creating value and solving problems. That’s a tech entrepreneur, in a nutshell.

Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari and one of the greatest tech entrepreneurs in history, once said:

‘Everyone who has ever taken a shower has had an idea. It’s the person who gets out of the shower, dries off, and does something about it that makes a difference.’

And, Jeewiz, ainy’t that true. Whether it’s the 1970s. Or today. It doesn’t matter.

From Pong to Kong

When Atari brought out Pong in 1972, it was ahead of its time. Now, the pixelated 8-bit blocks don’t look like much, and the game, as well as other pioneers in video games, Space Invaders, from Taito, and Nintendo’s Donkey Kong— at least in the eyes of my eleven-year-old daughter — are a collective embarrassment, but they were revolutionary for their era and the beginning of a computer and gaming revolution.

Atari Guy, Nolan Bushnell. Source: Wikipedia

All down to, in a sense, Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney, Bushnell’s sidekick and first engineer of the early tech giant.

When you think of quantum computers, what comes to mind?

Squiggly Symbols

For most of you, I guess, just hearing the term ‘quantum’ probably scares the shit out of you. The fear of the unknown, of squiggly symbols on a blackboard, undecipherable to everyone but those smart enough to understand their remarkable meaning.

And that’s natural.

What I see today is very much like Bushnell and all the other Atari hippies that started off in the early 1970s. They had a vision, a dream for the future that was so very different from anything that had preceded it. They were heading into uncharted waters and they didn’t know if they were going to fall off the edge of the world or not.

Source: imgflip

But they tried. They tried, made mistakes and finally made something that made them legends, Hall of Famers in the annals of tech history.

So what will the history books say about those working in quantum computing today, those early adopters of an industry who are surely going to dominate in the years to come?

As of yet, nobody knows, though I’m sure it is only a matter of time.

High-Calibre People

High-calibre people like physicist Chad Rigetti, CEO and founder of Rigetti Computing. Or Dr. Alan Baratz, senior vice president of software and applications at D-Wave. These are ideas men, thinkers that can intellectualize way outside the box, know which direction to take and how to get there.

Oh, and how could I forget William Hurley, AKA ‘whurley’, as close a clone to Bushnell as they come (minus the cocaine, weed, alcohol and orgies), and a serial entrepreneur, tech geek, inventor and founder of quantum computer software company Strangeworks, Inc., one of the innovators in the field.

Casting Types

We can usually divide innovators into two categories in tech companies. Those good with the technology, design and coding skills; and the second group, the marketers, the sellers, those able to present the product in the best light so it goes on to sell like hot cakes.

Strangeworks, Inc., Whurley’s QC startup.

Steve Wozniak and Dabney are examples of the first kind. Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos, excellent instances of the second variety.

Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Philip Don Estridge and Nolan Bushnell straddle the line of having the abilities of both groups, but what sets Bushnell apart, maybe, is he was the first to see a niche in the market, and to capitalize on that niche. Notwithstanding his personality and crazy lifestyle, Atari co-founder Bushnell — who is often cited as being ‘father of the video game industry’ with the creation of the game ‘Computer Space’ — was the first rock star of the industry, a pure ideas man, not too disciplined in his lifestyle habits with his cocaine parties and hot tub orgies with female coworkers, and in an era of #metoo and women’s lib his name doesn’t sit well for many people in the industry.

But let’s think about it for a second: we need people like him, we need their valid inspiration as well as the fortitude they possess to go ahead with their ideas, their babies, their visions that have germinated technological revolutions.

As of yet, however, we haven’t had a Bushnell in the quantum computer scene. Well, a true one.

Will that ever change?

Loadsamoney

It’s okay to say Elon Musk, Gates or Zuckerberg will come in with their infinitely deep pockets and invest in quantum computers. And in Gate’s case, it has already happened with Microsoft’s development of its ‘Quantum Development Kit’ and their Q# programming language. But we’re missing the point completely. All these behemoths of the tech industry along with IBM, Google, Intel etc have the resources to just buy the best minds in the world.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash
Headhunt them, if you will.

Headhunters and the Headhunted

Just a few weeks ago, scientists from British startup PsiQ decided to move to Silicon Valley, seeing it as the only way for them to raise capital for their venture.

I see this in two ways:

One, it shows the UK — and Europe, in general — has an inability to keep its best scientists. Competing with the United States is impossible. Even though the British government has promised £150m in development funds in quantum computing in the coming years, pecuniary motives aside, the pull of America, and California in particular, offers these startups magnificent seed funding, the best facilities on earth and an overall atmosphere of innovation.

Who can blame them, then?

And two, it proves that there are people out there, physicists, engineers, marketing men and women, who want to succeed in this difficult scientific discipline and business decisions, and that they have enough knowledge and bravery to start up on their own, just like Rigetti did. IonQ, too. Black Opal and ColdQuanta.

These are just a few. More startups are out there.

The Chosen Ones

However, what we have yet to see is a visionary(s), a single person, duo or group with enough knowledge and foresight to strategize quantum technological system’s next move.

Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace and Alan Turing did it for computers (or maybe the Poles will be angry with that last assumption).

As already mentioned, Bushnell and Dabney did it for video games.

Jobs and Wozniak for the PC.

Bill Gates for software.

Tim Berners-Lee for the Internet.

James Gosling for computer programming language.

The Zuck, for well, stealing an idea that changed the world.

And finally, Mr Bezos, for creating a bookstore that morphed into something else, making him the richest man on the planet in the process.

Flower Power

We are now at the very beginning of our journey. Quantum computer systems (QTS), just like the classical model in the 1940s, have a long way to go before they reach what many scientists and thought leaders in the industry call ‘quantum supremacy’, a definition which details a time when quantum computers can solve a problem that classical models cannot.

Yet, maybe we are overstepping ourselves, trying to reach out to the stars when there’s a beautiful flower in front of our eyes. Quantum Advantage, by using Noisy Intermediate-Scale Quantum (NISC) or other achievable quantum process systems as a solution, seems like it should be where we want to go.

Forget about D-Waves promise of the 5000-qubit computer by 2020, though Hartmut Neven, a German physicist working for Google, believes Quantum Supremacy will occur very soon.

With a Nolan Bushnell waiting in the wings, though, this could happen sooner than we think.
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