Hype vs Reality

Let’s Talk Quantum

Quantum Computing is becoming a hot topic, gaining popularity and hype.  So it’s time to dig in and see what is really going on.  Conveniently, one of my best friends, Professor Andy Geraci, is a quantum researcher and teaches graduate quantum physics at Northwestern University.  He loves the theoretical, and I love to figure out what’s practical.  I initiated an intense science discussion, and have created a window into one of our classic “scientist meets engineer” moments.  For your sanity, I will provide an abbreviated transcript.  Following that, I’ll leave you with a great link to more quantum education, and my thoughts and takeaways for pragmatists. 

Some insights into the science of quantum, with Professor Andy Geraci:

NOTE: For simplicity, I’m “A” and Professor Geraci is “X” throughout this conversation. 

A:  Let’s start simple.  What is Quantum Computing?  

X:  Let’s go back to what computing is in general – a system where you can encode some information, in bits, classically in ones and zeros.  Through manipulation of the system, you can flip those ones and zeros.  The Quantum version replaces those bits with new bits.  These new bits, called qubits, can be ones, zeros, or they can have some component of both states at the same time.  These qubits can become correlated, or entangled, which allows for a massively parallel operation that can do many calculations at the same time.  To control the qubits you’ll need a universal set of control gates. 

A:  OK, tell me more about this mysterious third state.  I’ve heard people say that in this third state, the qubit is simultaneously both zero and one, but that’s not precisely true, is it?  You said “some component of both.”  Can it really be both, or are we getting probabilistic here? 

X:  You’re right.  It’s more like a continuum.  Imagine a sphere, where zero corresponds to the north pole and one corresponds to the south pole.  When you are measuring the qubit, it is always a zero or a one.  But otherwise, it has the chance of existing anywhere within that sphere between the one and zero.  There is a lot of linear algebra involved in calculating, if you want –

A:  Maybe we’ll save that math for another day.  Hmm…so when I’m looking at the qubits, they fall into place at zero or one.  But when I turn my back on them, they could be anywhere…

measuring qubits

A:  I understand there is some fancy measuring going on in order to catch the qubits in action, or at least infer their action, since looking directly at them does not work.  For simplicity here, we’ll just assume that there are ways, like lasers, to do that.  You know, as I think about this, I’m getting some flashbacks to undergrad.  This sounds like Schrödinger’s cat.  The cat inside a box that has an equal probability of being alive or dead, until you open the box and know for sure.  Theoretically, of course.  Are qubits just Schrödinger cat boxes?

X:  Yes.  If you string them together in some way, so they correlate or entangle.

A:  OK, so if I take a bunch of Schrödinger cat boxes…Connect them with a super tiny version of those strands of holiday lights that always tangle up…Voila, a quantum system. 

X:  Uh, yeah. 

quantum computer cats

A:  Got it.  Now how do I control my cat boxes (or qubits)?

X:  Usually using some kind of radiation: if it is a superconducting qubit, you might use microwave radiation.  If its an ion, you might use an optical laser.  Sometimes you are performing single manipulations on the state of a qubit.  And sometimes you are entangling them.  There are different strategies for how you perform a computation. 

A: Let’s talk entanglement.  What’s the deal?

X:  Unlike normal bits, qubits become correlated or entangled together.  Which means that a measurement of one part of the system implies something about another part of the system.  For instance, if you have 2 entangled particles, then if one particle is behaving a certain way, then based on that, the second particle is behaving in a predictable way.  This is what allows parallelism.  Which enables fast calculations.

What can Quantum Computing really do for me?

A:  Fast calculations, you say. That sounds interesting and potentially applicable.  Parallel calculations, fast computing – in theory, this is useful.  But what can I actually do with quantum computers, that I can’t do with classic computers?

X:  That’s a very good question.  There are only a handful of things right now that quantum is believed to be able to do better.  Grover’s search algorithm.  Shor’s algorithm.  Quantum computers are fast.  Somewhat scalable.  But highly susceptible to noise, such as vibration and artifacts in the materials.  There are challenges right now in achieving a large number of qubits and in achieving high fidelity (low errors). 

A:  So there is a lot of noise in the system.  It is clear that quantum computing is still far from a commercial use.  Speaking of noise, let’s talk hype.  There is a lot of hype in advanced technology.  For instance, “AI” is touted as a cure-all and shows up everywhere.  For a while “blockchain” was everywhere.  Do you know of any “Quantum Computing” out there that isn’t actually using quantum?  Is this a problem yet for quantum? 

X:  Everything is quantum mechanical at some level.  So there could be a lot of latitude for when it is appropriate to say something is using quantum principles.  Then there are some quantum effects like entanglement, that have no classical analog.  There is potential for abuse of the term “quantum,” but it is unlikely right now as most quantum funding is provided by governments and foundations that rely on peer-reviewed research.   

A:  So right now it is fairly legit, though there will definitely be some hype in the future to detangle.  Good to know.  Let’s get into the engineering side of this. 

Where do Qubits come from?

A:  Can I make a qubit out of anything? 

X:  Good question.  Yes, but certain materials are a lot easier to work with. 

A:  Cool.  What about light, photons?

X:  Yes, but light moves really fast…you know, at the speed of light?  Light is good for transporting.  It is hard to trap and hold photons.    

Could I build a Quantum computer in my basement?

A:  Suppose I wanted to build a quantum computer in my basement.  What would I need?

X:  How many qubits?  And it depends on the type of quantum computer.  If you’re talking superconductors, you would need a dilution refrigerator. 

A:  Let’s keep it simple.  Since there isn’t a clear business application at this point.

X:  For a laser trapped ion quantum computer: Lasers, optics, mirrors, lenses, vacuum chambers, photo detectors, cameras, equipment to control and stabilize the lasers… $500-600K and you’re all set. 

A:  What about vibration?  You said it would be susceptible to noise, artifacts in materials… Why are there quantum computing startups in earthquake-prone California?

X:  Floating table.

A:  Nice.  I’ll add that to the list.  Like an air hockey table? 

X:  No, the table itself is floating on air.  Not the stuff floating on the table. 

A:  Does it need to be really cold?  And does it emit anything – heat, radiation? 

X:  No, for this setup you’ll use laser cooling.  Other than eye protection, to make sure you don’t get blinded, it’s pretty safe. 

A:  Excellent.  Thanks for sharing some of your expertise, Professor Geraci. If someone wanted to learn more, or take one of your classes, where should they look? 


For more quantum education:

Andy shared some of the basics with us, but if you want more on how it works, there is a great video on the IBM site by Dr. Talia Gershon here:

What’s the Takeaway? (for non-scientists)

From my research, and those insights provided by Andy, here is my take on what has been going on in the science community:

Different environments are still being experimented with (#1), with the real focus today resting heavily on #2 and #3, with different companies and researchers using a variety of materials to create qubits.  The race appears to be who can create the largest qubit computer, followed by improving error resolution.  By the way, those things are interconnected – introducing more qubits introduces more noise.  So whoever has the most qubits is not necessarily the coolest.  Don’t be fooled. 

It is probably becoming clear to you that quantum computing is still in the lab.  Every quantum computer is custom built, prone to errors, and has a relatively small number of qubits corralled.  This technology is early in its evolution.  As the science evolves, there will be hardware and middleware built to form reproduceable quantum computers.  When you see that happen, it will be time to pay attention. 

What really needs a quantum computer?

Note that “Figure out what to calculate that really needs a quantum computer,” is last on the list.  You will hear people talk about trying to break RSA encryption, and you’ll hear about Shor’s algorithm, and Grover’s algorithm.  But unless you are a physicist, all of that is pretty esoteric.    

In the next 3 years, it is highly unlikely that quantum computing will become useful.  I believe that we are early in the hype phase, and will see a lot more hype in the coming years, before the science moves away from theory and pure experimentation, and firmly into practice.  Which may take a very long time.  Big tech companies like IBM and Microsoft are making big bets on this.  But that is their job.  Quantum definitely has the potential to play a big role in the next frontier of tech, it just has a ways to go.   

That being said, even though you cannot use it for something practical yet, it can still be fun science.  But for business folks, there is no need to invest in a quantum lab yet.  Instead, if you want to spend time thinking about quantum computing, help the scientists with #4: Figure out what to calculate that really needs a quantum computer.

Until next time,

– A.

quantum experiment cat bird
Product Innovation

Who Doesn’t Need a Pocket Microscope?

Product innovation involves digging deep, beneath “the way we’ve always done it,” to uncover the essential core of function and value. It involves reimagining how to deliver that core, and tirelessly testing and learning, until a compelling new value proposition comes to life.

Last time I told you I bought one thing at CES.  What I bought is a powerful example of product innovation, with far-reaching implications. Called a Foldscope, it was created a few years ago, executed a very successful kickstarter campaign, and a million Foldscopes have now been distributed around the world.

To understand why this is such a meaningful innovation, a brief history is required. Then we’ll assemble mine to see what it’s all about.

An extremely abridged history of the microscope

Long, long ago, humans realized that looking through a piece of clear crystal could make something appear larger when the crystal was thicker in the middle than at the edges. 

Fast forward many centuries.  Lenses are placed in tubes around 1600.  This tube/lens combo is a winner, and evolves into microscopes (and telescopes, but we don’t care about those right now).  These microscopes attract investors.  They improve.  Features are added.  They gain popularity. Garner millions of likes and followers.  They are welcomed into labs worldwide, to perform on a daily basis.  And they become a critical tool for science and health care, one that we can’t live without.

And yet, unlike the dramatic evolution of telephony, the basic lab microscope is still rockin’ it like it’s the 1800s.  Unapologetically solid.  Bulky.  Heavy. Quite difficult to carry around in your pocket.  Which is, obviously, something we all want to be able to do.

microscopes. not pocket-friendly.

Have you ever thought, “I can fit a magnifying glass in my pocket, why can’t I do the same with a microscope?”  No?  Huh.

How about, “I have a pocket-friendly phone that solves my need for omnipresent social interaction. Now I really wish I had a pocket-friendly scope so I can study water quality and bacteria on-the-go?”  No?  OK, fine, so no one really thinks that.  Well, almost no one. But I bet you’ll be thinking it by the time we’re done. 

Really, the world DOES need a pocket microscope

Not long ago, some people thought really hard about this unfortunate situation. In particular, they thought that if cheap, compact, lightweight microscopy existed, then microorganisms could be studied anywhere. And—here’s the punchline—you could significantly improve diagnosis of diseases, like malaria, in rural areas.

I’m talking about Manu Prakash and Jim Cybulski, the scientists who set out to deliver the essential capabilities of a microscope, in a totally new form factor, resulting in the Foldscope. To learn more about their vision and innovation journey as they developed it, I recommend either the Stanford School of Medicine video, or the TED talk. Because Manu is a professor and Jim was a PhD student, there is of course also a research paper, which I don’t recommend, as it is esoteric and convoluted like most academic research papers, masking the fact that the brilliance lies in the simplicity of the device.

The bottom line is that they succeeded. Lightweight? Check. Portable? Check. Fits the need? Absolutely. And what about cost? Utilizing simple mass produced components, they were able to drive the manufacturing cost to less than a dollar each.

And now anyone can acquire and assemble their own pocket microscope. 

So, of course, I bought one.  Let’s check it out.

inside the box: tools and slides for sample collection, foldscope parts, LED light

Up close and personal with a Foldscope

You can buy these by the hundred at a ridiculously cheap price, which is great if you’re a health organization, teacher, or have 99 close personal friends who also love science.

Or you may choose to splurge on the deluxe individual kit, which comes in a nice metal box and includes the scope components plus everything you could need for specimen collecting and slide creation.  I bought the deluxe kit (sorry friends!). The kit comes with a bunch of fun-looking stuff I’m sure I’ll want later, but let’s dive right into assembling the scope.

Assembly Required

the paper components
the lens
assembly in process

I punch out some paper shapes, insert a couple magnets into pre-cut slots, snap on the lens (which also has a magnet) and do some folding.  The Foldscope is described as an origami microscope. Given that, if your origami swans often resemble disgruntled ducklings, you might outsource the folding to an 8-year-old.  If you don’t have one, I’m sure a friend will loan you theirs.

fully assembled!

Check out the assembled scope. All told, we’re looking at 4 pre-cut pieces of paper, 3 magnets, 1 lens, and some folding, to produce a complete and functional Foldscope. Ingenious!

That’s the scope. Now for some science.

Now, what to study?

So, when you’re not out diagnosing malaria, what could you do with a Foldscope?  Well, if you still have that 8-year-old around, you could perform random acts of science: study microorganisms in water, magnify pollen, check out hairy bug legs.  (Bugs are awesome.)  If you’re into that kind of thing, you might also check out the foldscope community site to see what others use their scope for, or share your research.

But who am I kidding?  No one needs an 8-year-old in order to justify performing random acts of science.  Own it, people.

Putting the scope to work

It’s time to conduct some research and see how this scope really works.  I need something to study.  Aha!  Stray feathers. The perfect specimen.  OK, let’s see what else comes in this kit: tweezers, scissors, sample jars, strainers, pipettes, slides, LED light, and more.  There are both glass and paper slides.  I decide to go as low-tech (and pocket-friendly) as possible, using paper slides plus clear stickers to build my feather specimens. Then I slot my paper slide into the foldscope.

sample creation – paper slide
inserting the slide into the scope

Looking through the scope directly with my eye works surprisingly well, but it’s not easy to share what I’m seeing. Then I try a phone, attaching it with the magnet provided:

scope attached to phone
photo taken with phone

The phone option is obviously convenient – it’s already in your pocket and you can take pictures. But not everyone in the world has a smartphone. So I try the third and final option. Using the LED light and magnet included in the kit, I attach it to the scope with a magnet, turn off the lights, and project it onto a wall…

using the LED light to project the magnified specimen onto a wall

…now that is pretty cool. Just think, for less than a dollar, this can happen anywhere in the world.

Still don’t think you want a pocket scope? 

Let’s suppose science isn’t really your thing (What?!  How is this even possible?).  Even so, haven’t you ever wondered about the water in that fountain at work?  Pocket microscope time!  Or have you been on a plane, and thought, “I’d really like to see what’s living on this tray table?”  Pocket microscope! 

Admit it, the next time you are on a plane, you’ll be thinking about this…or maybe you’ll just bust out your Foldscope and find out! 

Until next time!


pocket microscope time!

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Tech Trends

CES 2020: So what’d you miss?

So you didn’t make it to CES this year. You could have hung out with me and 170,000 of your newest friends, navigating 4500 exhibitors. No? Maybe you stayed home and caught some highlights online or on television. Either way, it was tough to cut through all the noise and the hype. What are the trends, really? Is 5G really here? Are those gadgets in the “news” really just paid placements (I always wonder)? So hard to tell.

ZF demonstrates all the components of an autonomous vehicle

So why do I go? CES is a great place to open yourself to what is possible. And it is a place where you can find people working the booths who really know their sh*t. I love to roam the exhibits and talk to the people who built the technology. The Ph.Ds, the founders, the inventors. Find out what something really does. How it works. Why they think it matters. Really dig in to where hype and reality meet up.

So, what’d you miss?

Here’s the rapid rundown of what I learned this year, summed up in 6 tech trend takeaways.

1. Internet of Everything. Ever expanding.

Sensors – so tiny
Connected home
Earthquake sensor

First, internet-of-everything. Sensors are getting super cheap and tiny, computing power continues to improve, and people are generally receptive to the tradeoffs. So internet-of-everything is growing and will continue to do so. Connected cities, connected home, connected car, connected humans, connected pets. That smartband or smartwatch you love is totally tracking you like a biologist tracks migratory birds. Just like you are tracking your kids. And your pets. And it’s nowhere near done yet. Homes and cities are the big focus, with an ever-expanding set of products.

And because this creates serious security and privacy issues, we’re finally starting to see significant work in that space, with tools to apply security to our interconnected world.

2. When “tested on animals” is a good thing.

Robots for pets!
Techie pet training
Connected pet

Speaking of connected pets, pet tech in particular is on the rise. What dog or cat doesn’t need their own robot friend? Expect to see a lot more gadgetry targeted toward your pet hitting the mainstream. While you’re at work, your pet can play with its own robot, watch on-demand online obedience training, or interact with you via remote cameras (while you’re on break, I’m sure). But what’s really emerging right now is health tech for pets. Think health tech for humans, like heart rate monitors, but now packaged and designed for pets.

3. Autonomous & electrified transportation, of course.

What’s one of the biggest concepts driving all that internet-of-everything work? The promise of autonomous vehicles. Those guys need better connected infrastructure and lower latency before they can multiply and take over. Which is also why, almost every time you hear about 5G, you hear autonomous vehicles mentioned. While 5G will certainly become reality one day, it is still a lot of hype right now. So for now just admire all the design concepts and check out the VTOLs.

bell nexus
Toyota concept-i
Hyundai Uber eVTOL

What’s a VTOL? VTOL = Vertical Take-Off and Landing vehicles (electric if there is an “e” at the front). Think of them as large, human-transporting drones. This year the Bell Nexus and the Hyundai Uber VTOLs were present.

4. Live in harmony with robots. Or become one.


A little quieter this year around autonomous robots. Lots of talk about human-robot collaboration. It felt like corporations were carefully skirting concerns of robotics leading to job loss. But if you want to become a robot, I continue to see great advances there. There is augmented and virtual reality, of course. Gaming gear galore. AR is starting to hit its groove, especially for training, while VR still needs some work. You’ll be happy to know that exoskeletons got some love this year, which are a must-have for every aspiring cyborg. But more seriously, exoskeletons help people repeatedly lift hundreds of pounds (airline workers, firefighters, welders, etc), and can help people with disabilities be more mobile.

5. Scan an object, print an object.

3D printers
3D scanning made easy

3D printing continues to evolve. Printers are cheaper and better at integrating any material you want, from traditional plastics to liquid metals. Notable this year was the focus on advanced scanning to automatically build the 3D design. Which suggests that 3D printing has outrun the design stage, and now technology is catching up to enable rapid scanning of items you want to clone with your printer. Which could come in handy if you need to print a replacement part for your dog’s robot, a robot now mysteriously surrounded by plastic crumbs.

6. Makers Rejoice! Build it yourself

Build your own IoT device from a kit, rapidly increasing speed to market

What’s cooler than watching tech? Building your own tech! OK, so maybe not for everyone. However, both corporate tech watchers and DIY makers alike should be avidly watching how the basic building blocks of technology are becoming more and more accessible. The ability to buy modules and kits that make it easy to rapidly prototype new products. Or build your own personal ones. For you corporate types thinking “why do I care?” well, let me put it to you this way: what if you could take 9 months of product development down to 1? Better yet, what if your competitors can?

Think about it.

And that’s a wrap.

Want to see more photos and video from my trip? Check it out here.

So much cool stuff. Tempting to buy so many things…
I bought one thing. Just one. Because of how innovative it is. I’ll tell you about that next time.

Until next time!


LIDAR selfie!