Station Q, headquarters of potentially world-changing quantum computing research, is located just past where the Pacific Ocean meets the sand, up through a grove of palm trees and across a bike path. (Do mind the shirtless college student zipping past on a skateboard wearing only a backpack and swim trunks.)
In some ways, Station Q is not at all what you’d expect from a hub for next-level computing research – there’s a strong California vibe, with world-renowned experts turning up for work in Hawaiian shirts and shorts, and even a nearby room with a shower, a clothes rack full of faded wetsuits and battered, loaner surf boards leaning in the corner for those who do their best thinking while hanging ten.
In other ways, Station Q’s surroundings are exactly what you’d think – equation-packed chalkboards hang in every office, meeting room and hallway; math and science comics taped outside office doors; and an academic air of silence (though there’s an underlying buzz to the place – a feeling of restlessness).
“Quantum computing could tackle problems that would take today’s computers eons to solve in the time it takes to grab a cup of coffee.”
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.
It’s not hard to picture him striding out of his sunny office, or returning from one of his long, contemplative walks on the beach, to utter Brody’s most famous line from the movie: “We’re going to need a bigger boat.”
Freedman’s central preoccupation for the last decade, quantum computing, could be a bigger computational boat than the world has ever known. It could tackle problems that would take today’s computers eons to solve in the time it takes to grab a cup of coffee. It could have wildest imagination-type applications in fields such as machine learning and medicine, chemistry and cryptography, materials science and engineering. It could allow humans to understand and control the very building blocks of the universe.
It’s no surprise, then, that when they discuss their work on quantum computing, top-notch mathematicians, physicists, computer scientists and researchers – types not typically prone to hyperbole – lean forward in their seats and use terms like “strange and unusual,” “mind-bending,” “exotic,” “magical,” “beyond science fiction” and “world-changing.”
“It could be as dramatic as anyone says,” Freedman said. “It could yield enormous computational consequences. The truth is, we don’t know yet.”
He paused. “But one couldn’t have a more exciting playground.”
So is there a relatively easy way to explain quantum computing?
“In short, no,” Freedman said. “There’s a famous quote that says, ‘Everything should be explained as simply as it can be, but not simpler.”
With apologies to both Freedman and Albert Einstein, who is long credited for the above quotation, we shall proceed. Rather simply.
Editor’s note: This is a post from Jennifer Warnick, a writer for microsoft.com/stories.