Dr. Robert Wisnieff — CTO Quantum Computing, IBM Research

Quantum computing was easily the most exciting thing for me at the THINK 2019 conference. My excitement for the advances in quantum was topped only by getting the chance interview IBM's Chief Technology Officer for Quantum Computing, Dr. Robert Wisnieff. Or just Bob, as he prefers. Sounds a far less intimidating. Bob was an integral member of the team who invented the very first ThinkPad! He has truly seen first hand the transformative process that IBM has undergone from hardware to software. Bob is now CTO in - as far as I am concerned - the most exciting field in technology today. You can really hear the passion in his voice and I found myself feeling the exact same way during this interview. Bob is the embodiment of saying "Do what you love and love what you do". Enjoy the podcast!

Contents

🎧 Listen In

📖 Read Along

💡 Key Messages

🎧 Listen In

Here is the podcast.

📖 Read Along

As usual, the footnotes like you see here 1 will contain fun extra notes. I have also included some of the raw speech-to-text bloopers which are by far greater than the real content itself. These footnotes are slightly more boring 1 and will contain definitions and additional information.

Dr. Robert Wisnieff, thank you so much for meeting with me. To get this right and I may have went through your LinkedIn, you first graduated from Yale?
Yes I got my PhD from Yale
And you are now the CTO for quantum computing in IBM Research, based in Yorktown Heights, New York. Going back to when you were studying, what made you decide that you wanted to do a PhD?
So it was in solid state physics. So this is the route I started in 1980, getting my PhD and I wanted to do something in microelectronics and solid state physics. And my thought was that at that time there were no cell phones. Microelectronics was a far less capable thing and you could see that if microelectronics could continue improving on what the first steps showed that it would be transformative. And so I thought that would be a fun thing to do and work in. So I worked on making very small CMOS2 devices for my thesis and actually the goal of it was to show quantisation effects of low temperature inside the CMOS devices to look at the transport. And they came to work at IBM and found this little group of people that had it as their mission that, see the IBM PC had just come out. It was the old box on top of the desk and so there was a group and research that was saying “well that's that's not the future, it's not that box on the desk, it’s gonna be a tablet”. And we had these little pieces of plastic that we had taped pictures too and we said “this is what a tablet of the future is going to be like”. And it was basically an iPad
What year was this?
So we thought it's gonna be liquid crystal and it's gotta have transistors all over it. So we need to figure out how to make those transistors and make the displays and we did research, we made little tiny ones and we then convinced the company to do a joint venture with Toshiba. We did manufacturing in Japan and by the early 90s we were shipping stuff. It was it was an amazing ride
Wow. And that was your first role coming into IBM?
That was my first role
At what point did you know that research is what you really wanted to do? Was that something that you knew when you started your PhD, was it something you were sure about when you finished your PhD? Was it something that happened after you started at the IBM research lab? At what point did you figure out that IBM research is what you wanted to do
Increasingly I think that I don’t tend to do pure research. I do very much applied research3. So there's this sort of continuum between pure research to applied research to development to product development and I think I've worked across most of that spectrum over the years and it's fun to be able to follow the project through the layers as it matures. Because what what you think you're doing when you start the project and what you wind up doing at the end tend to be very different. I mean we we started out making tablets, we were sure that that had to be the future, had to be a tablet, maybe with a pen. And the think-pad came out, this notebook computer with a keyboard because whenever we would do tests with people they would say I can't do this without a keyboard. haha, I’m not touching it
Haha wow
And so the early notebooks all had keyboards. Yeah and once that started the OSs were written to it the GUIs were written to it and it took many many many tries on apples part to find the right combination to make a tablet a success. So if you look in history throughout the 90s there were many attempts at tablets and all of them absolute disasters
How long was that that venture and at what point did you move on from tablets?
So I in the late 90s I did a study for Lou Gerstner and the question that was asked by the board was “what will happen over the next 10 years with flat panel displays?”. Because it had grown from notebooks to desktops and things over the course of the 90s and they were wondering what came next and we came back and said “by 2005 a 1 meter diagonal HDTV will sell for a thousand U.S. dollars”
How did that prediction fair?
Spot on. It was spot on
Could have a side business in predicting the future
All this, it was not hard to do, but IBM didn't want to get into making TV sets. So they said OK. We need to figure out how we exit this business. So at that point we sold our display business. We kept the PCs for a while but it was emotionally difficult to let go of that project because you've taken literally from birth and now it's a huge thing
So you were very much involved in IBM’s transition from the hardware space to the software space that that it is today, you lived through that
Yes. Oh and multiple times. So I went on to do semi conductors and the specialised way that we package the semiconductors to get very high performance. And then more recently moved into a quantum computing. And so if you think about our quantum Computing Program, it's really enabled fundamentally by our ability to make qubits. And that that allowed us to make a little 5 qubit machine that led to the software development on top of that to give the quantum experience and now as much of the program is about the software stack as it is about the hardware. And in many respects the software stack is going to be the powerful part of quantum computing for IBM
And does in the Yorktown Heights focus more on the hardware or the software?4
We have more people doing software now in Yorktown than we do doing hardware. And worldwide, there is the team in Melbourne working on it as well, and Zurich and Tokyo. So we've got this worldwide team working it, and it makes sense If you think about quantum computing. To me the likely thing to keep happening over the next 5, 10, 15 years is that we will see disruptive technological innovation occur. If we if we can correctly build a software stack in the field we can begin to pull this off, putting the the technological innovations into our stack and allow people to use all of everything they've done before and incorporate the new capabilities as they come along. That's something that the world wants, and they're looking to somebody like IBM to provide it to them
How far do you think quantum is away from being able to disrupt the market or the world?
So there is if you think about noisy intermediate scale quantum computing 2, the era we're in right now. As Dario said in his talk, by the time you get to around 100 qubits, your you're able to make a machine that for the length of time that the fabric is coherent we'll be able to do computations that are effectively impossible by any other means. And so you have to estimate well how long will it take us to get to that kind of capability? And we'll get there over the next 5-ish years I would guess
And then the second piece is how do you commercialise
Well and then where is the first spot is going to effect and how. That's why we've got the Q Network to let the community talk to us. Because if we have to make 100 percent correct guesses in order to make this a success, the chance of success is really low. If we have lots of people telling us and then participating with us to do it, our chance of success goes up dramatically
Is there particular use case that you think will probably be used for quantum?
The most natural one is to do quantum simulation of quantum systems. So you use a quantum computer to emulate a quantum system. And it's instructive to us to do that because in general we know a lot of the answers. So we can we can do problems that we know the answers to, we can sort of manipulate the system in ways that that the system can prove to us is doing the correct work
You know how to validate
Yeah, I can do validation and the verification of correct results. When I get into machine learning or AI or optimization, I think we're going to face a more difficult challenge of trying to supplant the existing techniques that people do. There isn't a one to one mapping of the solutions space onto quantum in a natural way. So I think having started in someplace elsewhere you can show that you've gotten something good and that's gonna be difficult and building machines that will get to that level of performance is literally one of the hardest things humans have ever done
Wow, It's exciting
And to think you know we've got we've got as good a chance, in fact a better chance than anybody else on the planet to do it
Yeah its amazing
I mean, what better reason to go to work
Well that leads to my next question, what makes you get out of bed in the morning haha. So obviously quantum is really exciting, there's a lot a lot going on, here at THINK but also other research labs in AI and all the other fields. Is there a particular field outside of quantum that fascinates you or has made you curious lately?
So in general I am an amateur radio operator. To me there's an interesting evolution in amateur radio that's occurred in the recent 10 years, which is that when you use things like digital signal processing and the Internet and the network connectivity, you can use radio in ways you had never anticipated before. This sort of stodgy old hobby of tuning up and doing Morse code with someone halfway around the world, actually becomes a way of digitally communicating. You can use a lot of the information processing techniques that we've learned in the last decades in order to do things that 20, 30 years ago people would have thought impossible. And you can do it in your own home without spending much money
And this is a side hobby of yours?
Yes
Oh wow
So yeah there's a guy Joe Taylor at Princeton University. He won the Nobel Prize for the pulsar. He has written sets of software that does all kinds of error correction. So that with very very low power you can communicate very very long distance
Wow thats awesome
So, I love to do that. My personal record is from my house in Ridgefield Connecticut, I have made it as far as Germany on how half a Watt of power. So it's just nothing
Wow thats so cool. That Ability to communicate with everybody in the world with essentially no overhead
Nowadays there are ways of digitally predicting where you can talk to a different frequencies and years ago none of this existed. So It's amazing to me how technology continues to transform almost every aspect of what we do, in ways that honestly I would never expect which makes the right a lot more fun
Totally agree. So I suppose thinking a bit more out there. They're predicting over the next 50 plus years we're going to see revolutions not just an AI, but virtual reality, we will able to book a holiday to Mars, our grandchildren are going to say to us "what you just... Hoped you had a good baby?" You know you didn't genetically modify and produce the most optimal baby. There's so much that is being predicted that we're gonna see on our horizon now and this sort of process really started, you know less than 200 years ago we we're still firing cannonballs and looking at where we've gotten to today and how we are now ont that elbow of the exponential curve in technology. Is there something that particularly excites you that might be a bit far off for now but that that really excites you for what we might see as a human civilization?
I honestly believe that quantum computation probably is the most transformative technology that we are likely to see for some time to come. It Will transform society. I think the way digital computers did in the 50s, 60s and 70s. Field after field will be transformed and it's difficult to anticipate how that transformation will occur. It's not a linear process at all. But when when you can create new materials in different ways. The way in which our clothes, our food, everything about our lives will change and finding the way to do that in the best possible way for everyone is I the big challenge we have I think
That's awesome that what you most excited about is what you're working on. I think it's like a privilege and not everyone gets to do so that's awesome. Couple more questions. I was just going to ask when the day comes, and I'm already anticipating what your answer might be, when you when your career is over and you're looking back on it what would be the one thing that you'd want to say that you did, that you were able to do?
So That it was a day in 1993, a Saturday morning. And I was on my way back to Japan. Working with Toshiba on flat panel displays and the previous day we had announced the first IBM product. And in the United Airlines lounge in JFK, there was a customer that had a brand new ThinkPad 700C and the entire room was gathered around this guy staring at his notebook computer and just oohing and ahhing and I wanted time to freeze. Because It was the first time that I could see that what I have done, can literally change the lives of lots of other people
And amaze people, that power...
And you know that's something everybody should strive to have that happen in their lives
If you could talk to a younger version of yourself, would there be anything that you would tell yourself when you started out in your career if you could go with the perspective you have now the experiences you have now?
Don't be afraid. Make bold moves. You will fail. There are really terrible days. But don't be afraid to make the bold moves. If you think it's the right thing to do, do it. It is much better to face failure and recovery than to face the thought "I really should have"
If you could recommend one book to somebody what would it be?
Oh I actually just finished a very interesting book called The Perfectionists. It's about the development of precision technology. And it shows the impact of how over the last 100, 150 years, the development of precision technology starting from England. Really gives a view of waves of transformative impact on society
Awesome.Thank you so much. Its been a pleasure, really awesome to meet you and hear your story
Thank you!

💡 Key Messages

Here are my key takeaways from the podcast.

  • Everybody should strive to change the lives of others - Obviously Bob's ability to change the world and lives of others may not be shared by everyone, but I agree that we can all strive to positively impact others, even if it is simply just our friends and family
  • Don't be afraid and make bold moves - Bob believes that it is much better to face failure and recovery than to face the thought "I really should have". Fear is temporary, regret is permanent
  • Quantum computing will transform everything as computers did - Bob strongly believes that quantum computing will be at least - if not more - transformative than the original computers were and that it is about 5-ish years away
  • Get involved with quantum through the Q Network - The Q Network is an online community that helps the IBM Q team in pushing forward the movement of quantum computing. Anyone can keep up to date and have access to IBM's online quantum computer through the IBM Q Experience
  • Read The Perfectionists - A book on "How precision engineers changed the world"