A conversation with Whurley, innovator and thought leader on emerging tech. In this episode, we explore the topic of sustainable innovation in business. While there are many potential applications for quantum computing, the conversation wouldn’t be complete without addressing the ways in which we incorporate these innovative ideas into the foundations of our organizations.
[00:00] Welcome to Season 2 of It’s Worth Doing Right. I’m your host, Olivia Hayes; passionate pragmatist, and the Head of Product Strategy at Accomplice. In our first season, we explored the intersection of creativity and data with some of the best in industry. In Season 2, we’ll keep that focus, but venture into specifics a bit to explore the concept of the connected consumer. From devices to social media, today’s consumers are interwoven into the digital space in ways that weren’t previously possible. In this season, we’ll explore how that connectedness impact will be built for them, from cities to sofas. In the land of innovation and technology, quantum computing is a concept that’s been getting a lot of airtime recently. And why not? It’s futuristic-sounding: both space-age and scientific. Anchored in technology and computing, but with a physics professor’s edge. And while there are many potential applications for quantum computing, the conversation wouldn’t be complete without addressing the ways in which we incorporate these innovative ideas into the foundations of our organizations. To give us a primer on quantum computing and sustainable innovation, we spoke with someone who’s made a bit of a name for himself in both arenas.
[01:07] My name is William Hurley. Most people call me Whurley. And I’m the founder and CEO of Strangeworks.
[01:13] So let’s start with a basic question: in layman’s terms, what exactly is quantum computing?
[01:19] Quantum computers are computers that take advantage of quantum mechanics, and by doing so, are exponentially faster at certain tasks than what we call “today’s computers” (which are classical computers).
[01:31] Quantum computing is certainly a buzzy topic of technological innovation right now, but what kind of practical applications do we currently have for it? And what are some emerging opportunities?
[01:40] Well, so this is the funny part: if you go out and you talk to most people that are in the quantum space, there’s a lot of argument of, “do we actually have an application for this technology?” So a lot of people are like, well, this is an amazing potential advance in compute power, but what do we use it for? So some obvious things come up. You get the fear that it being used to break encryption. You get the view of oh, it’ll only be good in very hard sciences. The quantum computer is not going to make your cat videos on the internet any faster, but it is going to make your ability to find that cat video potentially faster. I’m approaching this from the standpoint of this massive amount of data that we really just can’t even use – it’s just too much – and how could quantum computing be applied to that to provide new answers to everything, from global warming to how your business works.
[02:35] As with all evolution, technological advances have a direct impact on human behavior. We can see those shifts over time as we look back. So how does that affect how we consider future behaviors?
[02:45] We’re on the edge of this next evolution in compute power that will dramatically affect humanity if applied right. It’s incredibly exciting to be around.
[02:57] That analogy makes a lot of sense to me, because back then, I think people were like, “well, why would individuals need a personal computer?” Because it didn’t match with what their current behaviors were, but it created a whole new universe of behaviors that now everyone does.
[03:10] Way back when, mobile phones already existed, app stores already existed. All of this existed. The iPhone comes along, and then of course, Android, and it changes everything. And now there are people that are addicted to their phones, and there’s different behaviors, and there’s different social behaviors. You would have never sat on your phone while you were talking to somebody. And now you do it all the time even if you’re not trying to be rude.
[03:33] Whenever we have these advances in technology, there’s these effects on society and on social behavior. But in this case, this provides an immense amount of compute power to an organization or a country or a set of people who will be able to use that in ways we can’t even imagine. I mean, one of the things that people have been comparing this to – and I’ve been guilty of making this comparison as well – is the space race. Even Vladimir Putin came out and said whatever country wins in quantum will be the dominant force in the geopolitical sphere for years to come. This is a really exciting, world-changing technology that I think a lot more people should be following a lot closer than they are.
[04:16] So a lot of companies are looking to adopt artificial intelligence or machine learning right now. How can quantum computing actually improve on that?
[04:23] For all the fear of Facebook bots talking to each other and taking over the world, and all of these things, we’re probably a little further away from what we think is artificial intelligence – or what we envision and what we see in television, in the movies versus where we’re at now. Quantum computing, however, may bring that into reality. And the reason is because of things like superposition, because of entanglement concepts where we can be more than a one or a zero when we’re calculating, and situations where we can measure things without having to measure everything? Not only will there be an increase in speed, but there will be an increase in what you can do programmatically. And I believe that that’ll be the underpinnings of the first real, true AI.
[05:10] Even with calculation-heavy innovations like quantum computing, we can’t underestimate the importance of creativity and applying these solutions. So what role does creativity play in incorporating innovations like quantum computing, especially into data-driven companies?
[05:24] I like to think of myself as “sort of” a creative. Just like I’m “sort of” an engineer – because I know real creatives and real engineers, and would never want to bring them down to my level. But when you think about it, people who are creative are naturally curious. They’re naturally explorers. When you’re looking at something like quantum computing and you’re coming from a hard physics/discrete math/genetics background, whatever it is? A lot of times, you can get caught in the rules that you’ve been taught, and in the limitations of the math or the limitations of the science. And you often don’t ask “why not?” So I think that becomes incredibly powerful. Especially in quantum computing, because we’re going to need these creatives, we’re going to need these people who are building and designing applications, who are coming up with new ideas, and who are saying, “well, why couldn’t we use a quantum computer to make a cat video faster?”
[06:22] I would tell you right now you can’t, but who knows. Maybe in the future, you can. And we need those people asking those questions. So I think that natural exploration does give them an inherent advantage in really being innovators. Innovation isn’t about building something new. It’s not invention. We’re not doing a bunch of research. Going back to the iPhone example, Nokia already had an app store. Palm had an app store. We already had phones and cellular networks. We even had touchscreens. The iPhone shouldn’t have been Time’s Invention of the Year. There was no invention. But it was an incredible innovation. And innovation is taking all of these things that are out there together – some of which look like they go together, some of which don’t – and putting them together in a unique, new, and novel way that provides a value. And I think we’re going to really need a lot of creatives involved in the quantum computing space.
[07:10] I love your quote, “innovation is not invention.” I think that often times, people will conflate the two. What is the biggest thing that companies often miss when they’re thinking about innovation?
[07:22] A lot of times, I go and I talk to companies about innovation, and I see the same thing all the time. Different people have said a million reasons why companies don’t innovate, and they become myopically focused on the quarterly number, and they become less tolerant of risk – and so therefore, you don’t want to do risky things. You know your market’s going to die, but you don’t want to be the one to kill it because you’re still making money. There’s a bunch of reasons, but I boil it down to one reason and one reason only: companies don’t innovate because the people in the companies don’t innovate. And the people in the companies don’t innovate because they don’t have permission. Many times when I went in and I’d consult, when I’d go in and do stuff, it was all about just getting people to realize it’s okay for them to do it. That literally was the biggest obstacle. Creating a safe space where they could really come up with crazy ideas and moonshots and things of that nature, and allowing them to to use that space effectively was the most important tool.
[08:21] What are some ways that organizations can do that? Is it more of a cultural thing they need to work out, or is it something more practical? Like what Google does, where 20 percent of your time is spent on new ideas?
[08:33] There’s arguments for each. I believe that it’s primarily cultural. I’ve never seen culture not be a part of impeding innovation, even at innovative companies. At some part in the culture, there’s that. But when you look at what Google’s doing, maybe other companies should really take note of that. Think about it this way, like you were the most capitalistic, ridiculously monopolistic company. I’ve got all these employees. They’re in an industry, software, where they’re probably going to leave in three years or so, and that’s probably going to be because they have some new, original, creative idea. Well, why don’t I give them a chance to do that idea here? And then I can participate in that idea in some way. I can invest in it through G-Ventures, or whatever. I can make it part of a product. I can do things. So it’s actually very smart of Google to do that because in a way, they could take ideas that employee had that could be competitive, and ended up building them instead of buying them for billions of dollars. They give the employee a raise, and they integrate in the product. The standard Google “do no evil” question is like, is that REALLY great for employees? Because they’re not saying spend 20 percent of your time, and then go out and get funding and leave us. They’re saying, hey, we know you’re going to have these ideas out of band. Let’s give you the bandwidth to work on them here. They could be important, and maybe we can integrate them. Which I think is a great idea. I think it’s a great model for companies in general to really glom onto and take seriously.
[10:04] Think about Apple. When I worked at Apple in the 90s, no one would have told you, oh my God, look how innovative Apple is. At all. The stock was down, everything was happening. Then Jobs came back, and there was this hope that they would become innovative. Then the iPhone came out, and they became the most innovative company, right? How did we judge that innovation? Okay, well, they’re providing new products that were obviously innovative, but they also had a market dominance. Well, now fast-forward years later. Apple stock is down today. A lot of people have written pretty harsh reviews of the latest iPhone. It’s like, oh great, it’s another iPhone. The Apple Watch hasn’t really taken off, so they’ve kind of lost that image of being so innovative.
[10:53] Meanwhile, Microsoft – totally not seen as innovative, and was doing great business-wise for all those years. Couldn’t come out with a phone, just not somebody you would think as of innovative. Now Microsoft has gone into this underdog position, and they’re the ones with the Hololens. They’re the ones with the development language for quantum computing. They’re doing all these cool, somewhat risky, innovative things. So the point of that is that innovation isn’t an end goal for a company. It’s a continual process. It’s like being kind. You’re not like, “oh, I was kind once, I’m done.” Or that person did one kind thing, they were great! Innovation is like being a rockstar, or movie star, and you get judged based on the success of your last product, your album, your movie or show. And if you’re on a crappy series, or you turned out a crappy album, guess what? Somebody else takes that spot. And so I think that’s the thing. Even if you look at the culture, even if you look at everything, the problem is that companies still approach innovation as this goal. We have this goal to be innovative. And once they do that, they’re already taking a foot on the wrong path. Because they’re already looking at it as like, “oh, we do these steps and then click! We’re innovative. Double gun, two thumbs up.” And it’s not that. It’s constantly evaluating and reevaluating what you’re producing. Constantly looking at yourself, spinning off little tiger-teams that can act competitively against your own interests – I mean, why would YOU not be want to be the one to discover something that could be damaging to your market?
[12:35] You have a lot of things going on right now: a lot of new projects, a lot of exciting things. What are some of the things that you’re working on right now?
[12:43] I’ve just launched Strangeworks. We’re focused on quantum computing. Specifically, we’re focused on software for quantum computing in the data science area. It’s super exciting. As part of that, we’re participating in a number of open source projects that are super cool, and a lot of community-based projects. So we’ve got quantumcomputing.com, which is like a Q&A style, StackOverflow website for anybody – not just for developers – interested in the space, but also for developers who want to add this to their repertoire, and who want to learn how to use some of these toolkits and do some of these things.
[13:17] That is really exciting. You’ve been blogging about quantum computing as well, yes?
[13:21] I have been. I’ve got a blog – it’s superposition.com. It’s not for the math and science geeks, although we do interview a lot of them on there. It’s for anybody.
[13:31] Yeah. That was one of the things I noticed about it. I was expecting to understand a lot less than I did when I read through it. I was like, well, I don’t know a lot about this. But the way in which it’s set up, and those kinds of interviews, where you’re actually talking to people who are used to explaining these concepts to people who maybe are not physicists, made it a lot more accessible than I was expecting. That is really exciting. And also exciting is the fact that you are a keynote for SXSW!
[13:59] Yes. I’m a keynote, and I will be discussing quantum computing. It’ll be based on my new book, Endless Impossibilities, which is all about the different things that could come out of this technology. There’s a little bit of history, and a little bit of the funding environment. I’m going to basically try to, within an hour’s time, take everyone from knowing nothing of quantum computing to leaving the room being very, very excited, and maybe going out and downloading some open source tools, or readings some research reports, or just doing some Google searches. So the idea will hopefully be inspirational in nature, and I couldn’t be more honored. I’ve participated in SXSW for many years, and when I got the call to be a keynote, I will tell you, that is one of my big bucket list things – and I could not be more excited. Especially to be keynoting on this specific topic.
[14:51] Quantum computing is just the most recent in a series of innovative ideas that the tech industry is excited to capitalize on. But Whurley’s point is important. Innovation is a way of doing business. It’s a cultural company touchstone, or an integrated process – not an equation used to spit out a result. So we may be talking specifically about what could be in store for quantum computing, but your company benefits most from having at least a sense of how to vet potential new technological solutions for use within your own organization. Find a sustainable path toward innovation that works with your company ethos. Apply your most entrepreneurial minds to a solution, and don’t let fear or lack of fortitude cause stagnation. Capitalize on new ideas in a way that highlights the strengths of your organizations.
[15:33] Thanks for joining us for today’s conversation. If you’d like to learn more about our family of agencies or leave us feedback, please visit us at itsworthdoingright.com, or drop us an email at email@example.com. And remember: if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.