Tacos and Burritos
About a week ago, quite accidentally, I stumbled across a documentary on Netflix called Silicon Cowboys. I thought I’d watch every tech documentary on Netflix, Amazon Prime and all other streaming service as well as for free on Youtube, so when this popped up on the Netflix recommendation algorithm I was pleasantly surprised. The documentary, about how Compaq competed with, and won against, IBM in the personal computer business in the early 1980s, was a revelation.
‘The world is moving so fast that it’s become change or die. Nobody knows that better than me.’
— Joseph R. “Rod” Canion
Of course, I’d heard about the history of Compaq and its CEO Rod Canion et al who left Texas Instruments of calculator fame to establish the startup back in ’81. That was not before, however, Canion, Bill Murto and Jim Harris had thought about starting up a chain of Mexican food restaurants in the Houston area.
Where’s my Burrito!
Thank goodness for destiny, though.
Compaq versus IBM
Compaq released its Compaq Portable PC onto the American market in the fall of 1982, and the rest is history, they say. Its winning formula, no doubt, was its compatibility with IBM’s PC, its portability and decent price point.
For over a decade David stood shoulder to shoulder with Goliath. Things only started to go belly up for Compaq when Dell became the major player in the PC market in the early 2000s. This led to its eventual acquisition by Hewlett-Packard until sadly, the name was retired in 2013.
This can’t detract, nevertheless, from the way Compaq conducted itself on the PC market and for a very long time was able to hold its own against companies like Apple and IBM.
Three cheers, I say.
This only serves as a warning to the big boys of the tech industry that no matter how much money you have, how much influence you possess on the market, innovation is free, and out there, somewhere lurking like a wolf in the night, there’s a clever person or two ready to steal your crown with such a gem of an idea, that they will disrupt the industry forever.
Over the last half a decade, ideas of how computers can change our lives have gone into different directions from the traditional binary system of ones and zeros. ‘Quantum’ is a new byword for tech progress, and quantum computing, the new industry sprouting up startup after startup. These embryonic companies, seeing a future where quantum theory and its applications will change the world of computing, industry, business, education and people’s lives, is here to stay.
First espoused by Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman and Russian mathematician Yuri Manin in the early 1980s — who believed a quantum computer had the potential to better simulate things than a classical computer could — quantum computing has become the go-to field for those interested in a world where the science of quantum mechanics could shape our future.
There’s a buzz on the streets of places like College Park, Maryland, Burnaby, Canada and Berkeley, California — home of IonQ, D-Wave and Rigetti, respectively, three of the industry’s smaller companies competing against the giants of the quantum world: IBM, Google, Intel, Microsoft and the dozen others on the market trying to vie for supremacy in quantum computers.
‘Nature isn’t classical, dammit, and if you want to make a simulation of nature, you’d better make it quantum mechanical.’
— Richard Feynman
One, though — IonQ, deserves special attention and reminds me of the brash and ballsy attitude of Compaq some forty years earlier.
Not just because of its tiny budget in comparison to the others, but additionally for its approach to quantum computer research. While in the main most of the other companies’ efforts are in the semi-conductor superconducting slant to quantum computing, IonQ believes trapped ion technology and how it can be harnessed effectively to build a quantum machine that is both more reliable and cost-effective in the long run has seen many experts in the fledgling industry claim their approach is too unrealistic.
The startup, established in 2015 by cofounders Christopher Monroe, Professor of Physics at the University of Maryland and Fellow of the Joint Quantum Institute, and Jungsang Kim, a professor at Duke University, is going against the grain of the ‘traditional’ approach to quantum computer theory.
Their claims the ion trapping system requires less error correction, and that entangling a greater number of qubits is far simpler than in the current systems employed by many of the other companies in the industry, and uses, as its base, atomic clock theory
The semi-conductor superconducting method, on the other hand, needs amongst other things dilution refrigerators and other costly equipment.
Not good for the bottom line.
IonQ’s developments are fairly new, and not everybody in the industry is on their side, though this has not stopped the startup from evangelizing their trapped ion architecture which they believe will surpass the semiconductor approach in the QC world practised by the big guns very soon.
An obstacle facing all the companies at the moment is the noise produced by quantum computers, this is especially prescient with the semiconductor-based superconducting method. To say they are noisy is an understatement. These loud machines demand formidable error correction procedures mainly in part to eradicate external noises, wayward electromagnetic fields, vibration, heat and any other outside influences that can destroy the very delicate qubits that are at the centre of the technology.
Once this is overcome, however, things can move forward. As of yet, though, the approach is still largely elementary.
But wasn’t it the same at the early stages of the classical computer era?
Whether IonQ’s remarkable achievements thus far come to fruition is open to debate. Yet, what they have accomplished must be applauded for its brave and innovative approach. Einstein once said:
‘Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.’
And this is true in IonQ’s case. Like Rigetti and D-Wave, the Maryland-based startup is courageous enough to make a go of it, even though the odds are stacked up against it a hundred-fold. With the resources of infinite money afforded to Google, Intel and IBM, the task ahead will surely be Sisyphean in both its struggle and complexity. Believing in their unique scientific approach to QC and how ion trapping can help the technology move onwards and upwards, will only improve the people working there.
Positively Mutated Intellects
Compaq, unfortunately, is no more, though its legacy lives on in the laptop and other mobile devices that have become part and parcel of our modern lives. People like Monroe and Kim are just 21st-century versions of Canion, Murto and Harris, with many of the same traits that all entrepreneurs who want to change the world have.
If, say, in ten years’ time IonQ is a name of the QC past, too, consigned to history as a company which tried to break the boundaries of science, I don’t think it will really matter that much. What they’re doing now, like all tech companies, and like all scientists in the history of the world have done, is moving scientific thought on, giving it fuel to surge forward in a quest for a better truth, a more realistic vision, of how we can be if we put our minds to it.
Barring Einstein and a few other geniuses in the history of the world with a positively mutated intellect, human achievements have largely been based on accumulated knowledge, a continuum of ideas that spread from one generation to another, quite seamlessly on the whole, but so very magical.
IonQ, then, like its long lost brother company Compaq, can be proud of its achievements. Whether they be today or tomorrow.
You see, the idea’s the thing.
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