pon receiving my speaking assignments for the Tucson Festival of Books, I mentally raised my eyebrows. I’d be participating in a panel discussion with Mike Evans, the founder of Grubhub? But I hadn’t created an app that’s a household name. I hadn’t transformed 30 million people’s eating habits. I’m a theoretical physicist; I build universes in my head for a living. I could spend all day trying to prove a theorem and failing, and no stocks would tumble as a result.
Once the wave of incredulity had crested, I noticed that the panel was entitled “The Future of Tech.” Grubhub has transformed technology, I reasoned, and quantum computing is in the process of doing so. Fair enough.
Besides, my husband pointed out, the food industry requires fridges. Physicists building quantum computers from superconductors need fridges. The latter fridges require temperatures ten million times lower than restaurateurs do, but we still share an interest.
Very well, I thought. Game on.
Tucson hosts the third-largest book festival in the United States. And why shouldn’t it, as the festival takes place in early March, when much of the country is shivering and eyeing Arizona’s T-shirt temperatures with envy? If I had to visit any institution in the winter, I couldn’t object to the festival’s home, the University of Arizona.
The day before the festival, I presented a colloquium at the university, for the Arizona Quantum Alliance. The talk took place in the Wyant College of Optical Sciences, the home of an optical-instruments museum. Many of the instruments date to the 1800s and, built from brass and wood, smack of steampunk. I approved. Outside the optics building, workers were setting up tents to house the festival’s science activities.
The next day—a Saturday—dawned clear and bright. Late in the morning, I met Mike and our panel’s moderator, Bob Griffin, another startup veteran. We sat down at a table in the back of a broad tent, the tent filled up with listeners, and the conversation began.
I relished the conversation as I’d relished an early-morning ramble along the trails by my hotel at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains. I joined theoretical physics for the love of ideas, and this exchange of ideas offered an intellectual workout. One of Mike’s points resonated with me most: Grubhub didn’t advance technology much. He shifted consumers from ordering pizza via phone call to ordering pizza via computer, then to ordering pizza via apps on phones. Yet these small changes, accumulated across a population and encouraged by a pandemic, changed society. Food-delivery services exploded and helped establish the gig economy (despite Mike’s concerns about worker security). One small step for technology, adopted by tens of millions, can constitute one giant leap for commerce.
To me, Grubhub offered a foil for quantum computing, which offers a giant leap in technology: The physical laws best-suited to describing today’s computers can’t describe quantum computers. Some sources portray this advance as bound to transform all our lives in countless ways. This portrayal strikes some quantum scientists as hype that can endanger quality work.
Quantum computers will transform cybersecurity, being able to break the safeguards that secure our credit-card information when we order food via Grubhub. Yet most consumers don’t know what safeguards are protecting us. We simply trust that safeguards exist. How they look under the hood will change by the time large-scale quantum computers exist—will metamorphose perhaps as dramatically as did Gregor Samsa before he woke up as an insect. But consumers’ lives might not metamorphose.
Quantum scientists hope and anticipate that quantum computers will enable discoveries in chemistry, materials science, and pharmacology. Molecules are quantum, and many materials exhibit quantum properties. Simulating quantum systems takes classical (everyday) computers copious amounts of time and memory—in some cases, so much that a classical computer the size of the universe would take ages. Quantum computers will be able to simulate quantum subjects naturally. But how these simulations will impact everyday life remains a question.
For example, consider my favorite potential application of quantum computers: fertilizer production, as envisioned by Microsoft’s quantum team. Humanity spends about 3% of the world’s energy on producing fertilizer, using a technique developed in 1909. Bacteria accomplish the same goal far more efficiently. But those bacteria use a molecule—nitrogenase—too complicated for us to understand using classical computers. Being quantum, the molecule invites quantum computation. Quantum computers may crack the molecule’s secrets and transform fertilizer production and energy use. The planet and humanity would benefit. We might reduce famines or avert human-driven natural disasters. But would the quantum computation change my neighbor’s behavior as Grubhub has? I can’t say.
Finally, evidence suggests that quantum computers can assist with optimization problems. Imagine a company that needs to transport supplies to various places at various times. How can the company optimize this process—implement it most efficiently? Quantum computers seem likely to be able to help. The evidence isn’t watertight, however, and quantum computers might not solve optimization problems exactly. If the evidence winds up correct, industries will benefit. But would this advance change Jane Doe’s everyday habits? Or will she only receive pizza deliveries a few minutes more quickly?
Don’t get me wrong; quantum technology has transformed our lives. It’s enabled the most accurate, most precise clocks in the world, which form the infrastructure behind GPS. Quantum physics has awed us, enabling the detection of gravitational waves—ripples, predicted by Einstein, in spacetime. But large-scale quantum computers—the holy grail of quantum technology—don’t suit all problems, such as totting up the miles I traveled en route to Tucson; and consumers might not notice quantum computers’ transformation of cybersecurity. I expect quantum computing to change the world, but let’s think twice about whether quantum computing will change everyone’s life like a blockbuster app.
I’ve no idea how many people have made this pun about Mike’s work, but the panel discussion left me with food for thought. He earned his undergraduate degree at MIT, by the way; so scientifically inclined Quantum Frontiers readers might enjoy his memoir, Hangry. It conveys a strong voice and dishes on data and diligence through stories. (For the best predictor of whether you’ll enjoy a burrito, ignore the starred reviews. Check how many people have reordered the burrito.)
The festival made my week. After the panel, I signed books; participated in a discussion about why “The Future Is Quantum!” with law professor Jane Bambauer; and narrowly missed a talk by Lois Lowry, a Newbury Award winner who wrote novels that I read as a child. (The auditorium filled up before I reached the door, but I’m glad that it did; Lois Lowry deserves a packed house and then some.) I learned—as I’d wondered—that yes, there’s something magical to being an author at a book festival. And I learned about how the future of tech depends on more than tech.