Spreading the Word About Quantum Computing
Mark Jackson is a man on a mission. As Quantinuum’s senior quantum evangelist, Mark’s job is to create awareness and understanding about quantum computing and its world-changing potential. Based in New York, Mark holds a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Columbia University with a background in mathematical modeling and computational physics. In 2017 he joined Cambridge Quantum, which combined with Honeywell Quantum Solutions to form Quantinuum in 2021. He has an academic background and remains an adjunct faculty member at Singularity University. He sat down earlier this month to talk about his unique job and the future of quantum computing.
Senior Quantum Evangelist is such a unique title. What does your job entail?
A lot of my job is speaking at conferences, doing interviews, participating in podcasts, and posting on social media. I focus on creating awareness and excitement for quantum computing, letting people know what we do at Quantinuum, and educating them about the ways this amazing technology will help solve complex problems and improve people’s lives.
Most people just don’t know much about quantum computing, or they have misunderstandings or reservations about the technology and its potential impact on society.
Half the people don’t believe quantum computers really exist yet. They think it’s some sort of science fiction idea that we’ve cooked up and, if it happens at all, it’ll be 20 years from now. They just can’t believe we have these computers today. The other half think quantum computers are just really fast computers. They believe we can take all our existing software and run it on a quantum computer, and it will be a million times faster. Neither is true, and it’s my job to educate people about what quantum computers can actually do to make the world better.
Over the past few years my role at Quantinuum has evolved a bit, and about a year ago they changed my title to “evangelist.” Technically, I’m now the “senior evangelist” because we recently added several other people to the team, which will help us do an even better job of spreading the word.
How will the use of quantum computers benefit society?
We anticipate we’re only 3–5 years away from being able to do things on a quantum computer that are truly valuable to society. That time will pass very quickly, which is why we’re encouraging companies to work with us right now to develop projects so that in a few years, when technology catches up, they’ll be in a good position to take advantage of opportunities.
The two nearest-term commercial applications for quantum computers are in chemistry and optimization, such as supply chain and logistics.
In chemistry, we have known the equations for 100 years. If you give me a molecule, I know exactly what the molecule is made of — I know how many electrons, protons and neutrons are in it, and I know the equations governing all their interactions. But, solving those equations and actually figuring out the behavior of the molecule is very difficult because, as a molecule gets bigger, there are so many interactions that tracking them quickly overwhelms a conventional computer. Quantum computers are expected to one day solve these chemical equations easier and faster.
For example, pharmaceutical companies could use this technology to design medicine. Right now, there is a lot of guesswork in developing a drug. Scientists can do a little preliminary work on a computer, but then they must synthesize a lot of trial drugs followed by testing on humans.
Developing drugs this way is expensive, time consuming, and risky. In general, it takes about 10 years and $1 billion dollars to bring a drug to market. It would be ideal if scientists could do more work on a computer up front, which will save time and money and be less risky for patients.
Additionally, quantum computing will be invaluable for the machine-learning industry. Artificial intelligence is used everywhere. Your Netflix recommendations use AI machine-learning, and while this may not be lifechanging, advanced autopilot technology on an airplane or in a driverless car will be. Quantum computers one day could have the power, speed, and capacity to take machine-learning to a whole new level.
How did you end up working for Quantinuum?
I started hearing about quantum computing in 2017 and thought it sounded amazing. This field of study didn’t even exist when I was a student.
My background is in theoretical physics. For 15 years I worked in string theory and cosmology. Several years ago, I decided to leave academia and pursue other interests. I was very fortunate to be introduced to Ilyas Khan, founder of Cambridge Quantum and now CEO of Quantinuum, and he asked me to join the team about five years ago.
I was the first American hire at Cambridge Quantum, which was then a small start-up company with only about 30 people. The organization was comprised of all scientists until I joined. I was the first person to be hired whose main objective was business development.
Why is your job as an evangelist important to Quantinuum?
We can have the most amazing technology in the world, but if no one knows about it, then it doesn’t do anyone much good. There is a lot of misunderstanding and unfamiliarity that surrounds this industry currently, which is why my job of creating awareness is so important.
I get to talk to university students and researchers and let them know we have software they can use for free to help them code better. I am very lucky to have an academic background in physics because when I speak at these universities, the professors sometimes let me take over the class for a day. I don’t think they would grant the same access to a salesperson. I love to talk about the cool things we have done and are doing with these students and share ways we can partner and collaborate both now and in the future.
We want to build our hiring pipeline with the smartest and most creative young minds available. Hiring is a top priority, and job candidates may not know there are such amazing job opportunities at Quantinuum and throughout this exciting industry.
How has the industry changed in the last five years?
When I started, there were 8–10 credible quantum computing startups, including us. We were all pretty small with just a few dozen employees at the time.
Now, it seems like there’s a new company forming, a new investment, or a technical breakthrough in hardware or software every week. There are quantum information sciences degrees and programs in college now including quantum computing and closely related sciences. It’s dizzying to keep up with everything.
Today, there are roughly 400 quantum companies, building quantum products all over the world. Companies are also increasing in size. Our company currently has 400 employees, but we’re hiring like crazy and anticipate adding 200 people in 2022.
The U.S. government also is investing. During the last administration, they had a Quantum Initiative Act (QIA) where $1.2 billion was allocated for quantum funding. Other countries also are investing. China, for example, has spent at least $30 billion in quantum technology over the last few years.