Quantum Computing And The Value Of Storytelling In Science


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In Santa Barbara, Microsoft is working on the future of computing. Station Q is a Microsoft Research post staffed with some of the brightest mathematicians and researchers on the planet, working to solve the basic questions of quantum computing.

It makes for an interesting story.

On Thursday, Microsoft published an compelling tale on how its researchers and scientists are forging ahead in the race to answer the questions of quantum mechanics and eventually, build a stable quantum computer.

See also: How Researchers Map The Future Of Innovation

In a story titled “Station Q” written by Jennifer Warnick, Microsoft Stories presents an account of the scientists working in its Santa Barbara facility and how they are tackling the next evolution of computing.

It is an important chronicle, not just because it teaches people about the basics of quantum computing, but also because companies like Microsoft are in a race with other research facilities, universities and companies to draw as many of the top talented minds to their research efforts as possible.

A Story Of Quantum Computing

How much do you really know about quantum computing? If someone were to ask you what a qubit actually is and what it does, could you give a simple and well-reasoned answer?

Only a very small portion of mathematicians and computers scientists can.

Herein lays a problem. Quantum computing is the most important burgeoning field of computer science and research that could have the most profound evolutionary effect on the human race of any technology ever discovered. But most people have no idea what it is, what the challenges are or what researchers are doing to solve its most basic problems.

See also: The Futurists’ Cheat Sheet: Quantum Computing

Part of the problem is that quantum mechanics is such a dense field that even the most astute scientists have trouble followings its scope. It is an extremely hard story to tell.

So, what is a qubit? Qubits are “quantum bits” and are the basis of quantum computing.

As Microsoft’s explains:

Quantum computers run on quantum bits, or qubits. Because of the bizarre properties of a quantum state, like superposition, a qubit can be a 1 or a 0 – or it can operate as both a 1 and a 0 at the same time. If one qubit, as both a 1 and a 0, can do two calculations at once, then two qubits can do four, and things get exponential pretty quickly.

Director of Microsoft Research Peter Lee explains how much more information processing quantum computing can generate compared to today’s binary systems based solely on 1s and 0s.

“It’s like that old story problem from math in school where you offer kids a thousand dollars right now, or to give them one penny today, two pennies tomorrow, and continue to double that every day for 30 days,” said Lee in “Story Q.”


The Value Of Storytelling In Science

A fundamental conundrum exists in in the realm of scientific research: those that know how to tell the stories of their work are heard (and subsequently funded) while those who are poor at storytelling are often forgotten and neglected, regardless of the quality of their work.

“I believe that scientists, in order to tell a good story, to capture the emotional acceptance of their findings in the community, is to start with that creativity,” said Hamid Ghanadan, a biochemist and science marketer at a TedxCambridge event earlier this year.

Ghanadan tells a story about the race to discover and present the basic principles of DNA between an American scientist named Linus Pauling and two English researchers, James Watson and Francis Crick. Of the groups, Pauling was the superior storyteller, at one point dropping seven “definitive” research papers on the scientific community at once, giving him prominence in the field and international recognition. The problem was, part of Pauling’s findings were wrong.

Watson and Crick’s research—which proved to be the foundation of much of modern biochemistry—ultimately was accepted into the mainstream scientific community. But Pauling’s creativity and storytelling prowess gave him and early lead.

A similar story plays out between Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla in the “War of Currents” in the 1880s. Edison championed direct current (DC) electricity, while his former employee Tesla touted alternative current (AC) power. Edison took the early lead in the War of Currents because of his supreme storytelling ability and talents as a marketer and a salesman (and the money of J.P Morgan). Ultimately, Tesla won the War of Currents with his own charismatic storytelling capabilities (and the money of George Westinghouse) by winning the coveted contract to be the standard for power at the new hydroelectric plant at Niagara Falls.


Director of Microsoft Research Peter Lee at the Microsoft New England Research & Development (by Dan Rowinski)

For scientists, storytelling is almost an evolutionary trait. The better story tellers get their message out there which means that their work will receive more scrutiny (and hence, validation if they are right) than lesser storytellers. Ghanadan notes that the creative mind then leads itself to the scientific method, helping scientist create and confirm hypothesis.

Microsoft’s Quantum Story

The story of Station Q on Microsoft Stories is an interesting one. But we can really boil it down to one basic principle: marketing.

Microsoft wants everyone to know how hard it is working on quantum computing and how quantum computing can be the next greatest thing in the history of technology and human evolution. Microsoft wants its name firmly attached to the future of computing, be it the current trends of clouds and devices or the opaque future of a quantum world.

Hence, it makes a lot of sense for Microsoft to come out with the Station Q story in the most attractive and compelling way possible, as overwrought and overwritten as the piece actually is.

Michael Freedman, Station Q’s director, is stately, fit, and well-tanned. He looks a bit like heroic police chief Martin Brody from the movie “Jaws” (played by actor Roy Scheider) who saves a small coastal town from a man-eating shark. At Station Q, located on the campus of the University of California, Santa Barbara, Freedman and his colleagues from all over the world, both inside and outside of Microsoft, explore the exciting, mysterious, difficult and downright strange space where computer science meets quantum physics.

The point for Microsoft do tell this story is precisely because storytelling matters. Station Q is going to want the brightest minds, the most inquisitive and talented researchers. The story of Station Q is essentially a recruiting document.

The battle for talent extremely competitive and bitter in the entire technological industry. Especially when the topic is the extremely rare realm of top notch quantum physicists.

IBM, Google, institutions and universities, the U.S. military (through DARPA) and other top research organizations all compete for top the top physicists on the planet. The organization that reach out to the bastions of that talent will be the ones that succeed in the future.

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