Quantum Is Coming: Caltech and Amazon’s New Computing Site is Open

Keerthi Vedantam

Keerthi Vedantam is a bioscience reporter at dot.LA. She cut her teeth covering everything from cloud computing to 5G in San Francisco and Seattle. Before she covered tech, Keerthi reported on tribal lands and congressional policy in Washington, D.C. Connect with her on Twitter, Clubhouse (@keerthivedantam) or Signal at 408-470-0776.

Caltech and Amazon’s New Computing Site

In 2019, Caltech announced a partnership with Amazon Web Services to resurrect a 21,000-square-foot building as a shrine to quantum computing. Inside, researchers from MIT, Stanford, Harvard and more are planning to build out quantum computers that may look more like the giant IBM computers from the 50s than our current laptops.

Now, the building has officially opened.

Simply put (without getting into Scrodinger's cat), quantum computing has the ability to take a problem with several variables, generate millions of permutations or outcomes and pick the best or most efficient one.

This kind of technology has the power to transform industries that need to take a lot of risk into account. For instance, it could help pharmaceutical companies create more effective drugs without having to experiment as much. It could help doctors deliver personalized medicine by leveraging the human genome sequence. It could also help the financial sector sift through data projections of different companies to understand the risk of an investment or an acquisition. It could help delivery companies find the most efficient route in a matter of minutes.

Fernando Brand\u00e3o

Fernando Brandão, a professor of theoretical physics

The systems that power cell phones and laptops don't have the ability to process large, complex problems that could sift through millions of permutations to calculate the best solutions.

In a landmark study for quantum computing in 2019, Google said it was able to feed a problem through a quantum computer and get results in minutes. That same problem would have taken a normal computer 10,000 years to complete.

The Caltech building is one of many quantum computing projects in Amazon's portfolio. The company previously unveiled a cloud-based quantum computer called Amazon Bracket to rival Azure's quantum offering in the never ending cloud wars between the two companies.

We sat down with Fernando Brandão, a professor of theoretical physics who is co-leading the AWS Center for Quantum Computing.

How did this partnership between AWS and Caltech come about?

A lot of computing probably started 40 years ago. It was actually Caltech's Richard Feynman, who was a professor here back then, that had this idea that, on a fundamental level, nature is quantum mechanical. We need to build our computers out of something right out of quantum mechanical systems then actually quantum mechanics has some pretty different problems from the physics we learn at school, and therefore, there is an opportunity for building a better kind of computer using quantum mechanics. For 40 years, he had been developing this idea, and Caltech had played a major role.

But if you really move to the next step and scale up the technology and build a quantum computer at a scale that can be useful for society and for people, then you need very serious engineering effort and special investments; this is not something cheap to do. We need a big player, either in government or industry, to do that. Caltech can bring all the scientific expertise. And Amazon can bring other expertise in engineering and all the investment necessary to really go to the next step.

What is quantum computing?

You want to make a company that has to optimize the routes to deliver some product to a customer. What is the best route to deliver this product? This question is challenging because there are so many different possibilities. So quantum computation is exploring all of the options at the same time.

But it is not like parallel computing. There's a second step where you have to find a clever way to make the solution interfere in a way that only gives you one of the options. So Quantum computation will not speed up every problem. There are particular problems for which it gives an advantage. So the problem has to have the right structure. And a lot of the research in quantum computing is to find out which problems have the right structure so we can explore them to give better quantum solutions.

What sectors will have the first or most immediate impact of quantum computing?

This goes back to the vision of Richard Feynman from 40 years ago, where he said, "Look, let's actually build this quantum computer for nothing else than just simulating very complicated quantum mechanical systems."

I've seen industries where the bottleneck to making progress is to simulate very large quantum mechanical systems. For example, we know in pharmaceuticals we want to understand the quantum structure of molecules to make new drugs. But it's very easy to get complicated molecules [that are] out of reach for the computers that we have today.

In material science for people who are looking at batteries, for example, we have to model how these batteries work on a quantum level, and it can get very complicated, very quickly. So it would be a lot of R&D research for companies that work in energy or in pharmaceuticals or in chemistry. I think they would find quantum computation very useful.

Then at some point if you had even better machines, faster machines, bigger machines, you might end up in applications for optimization problems for logistics, currency, finance.The issue there is quantum can give an advantage, but it is a small advantage than for these simulation problems like pharmaceuticals or material science. So you need a more sophisticated machine to get there.

What are some of the bottlenecks here? What's preventing us from building this quantum computer and deploying it for pharmaceutical companies everywhere within the next year?

In a quantum mechanical system, they are very fragile, unlike the systems that we experience in our everyday life. So there is a rule of quantum mechanics that whenever you go and see how the system is, you've disturbed the system.

So what this means is that all kinds of information like the magnetic field of the environment or the temperature of some particles in the environment all affect your quantum system, so it's very hard to isolate your quantum system from these detrimental effects of the environment. And that's the challenge of quantum computers. If you don't isolate them, then there is noise in our quantum computer and this noise will spoil our operations.

At the same time we want one qubit [a unit of information in quantum computers] to interact very strongly with the other qubit to do the operation.

So you have two conflicting requirements. You want to completely isolate your qubits in the quantum computer from the environment, and that's very hard for quantum mechanical systems. But at the same time, you want [the qubits] to couple very strongly. So making these two things happen at the same time and at the scale that we need for a large number of qubits, we think that's possible. We don't see any roadblock, but it's just that it is very ambitious scientific engineering.

Where will quantum computing be in, let's say, 10 years?

I'm hoping within the next decade or so, we start getting to this stage of quantum computers where they start impacting society in a meaningful way. It's an ambitious goal, but I think we are well-positioned. So by the end of the decade, we may start having quantum machines that can solve problems of society that cannot be solved on our current computers.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.


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How the 'Thrift Haul' Trend Boosted the Secondhand Ecommerce

Lon Harris
Lon Harris is a contributor to dot.LA. His work has also appeared on ScreenJunkies, RottenTomatoes and Inside Streaming.
How the 'Thrift Haul' Trend Boosted the Secondhand Ecommerce
Evan Xie

If you can believe it, it’s been more than a decade since rapper Macklemore extolled the virtues of thrift shopping in a viral music video. But while scouring the ranks of vintage clothing stores looking for the ultimate come-up may have waned in popularity since 2012, the online version of this activity is apparently thriving.

According to a new trend story from CNBC, interest in “reselling” platforms like Etsy-owned Depop and Poshmark has exploded in the years since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown. In an article that spends a frankly surprising amount of time focused on sellers receiving death threats before concluding that they’re “not the norm,” the network cites the usual belt-tightening ecommerce suspects – housebound individuals doing more of their shopping online coupled with inflation woes and recession fears – as the causes behind the uptick.

As for data, there’s a survey from Depop themselves, finding that 53% of respondents in the UK are more inclined to shop secondhand as living costs continue to rise. Additional research from Advance Market Analytics confirms the trend, citing not just increased demand for cheap clothes but the pressing need for a sustainable alternative to recycling clothing materials at its core.

The major popularity of “thrift haul” videos across social media platforms like YouTube and TikTok has also boosted the visibility of vintage clothes shopping and hunting for buried treasures. Teenage TikToker Jacklyn Wells scores millions of views on her thrift haul videos, only to get routinely mass-accused of greed for ratching up the Depop resell prices for her coolest finds and discoveries. Nonetheless, viral clips like Wells’ have helped to embed secondhand shopping apps more generally within online fashion culture. Fashion and beauty magazine Hunger now features a regular list of the hottest items on the re-sale market, with a focus on how to use them to recreate hot runway looks.

As with a lot of consumer and technology trends, the sudden surge of interest in second-hand clothing retailers was only partly organic. According to The Drum, ecommerce apps Vinted, eBay, and Depop have collectively spent around $120 million on advertising throughout the last few years, promoting the recent vintage shopping boom and helping to normalize second-hand shopping. This includes conventional advertising, of course, but also deals with online influencers to post content like “thrift haul” videos, along with shoutouts for where to track down the best finds.

Reselling platforms have naturally responded to the increase in visibility with new features (as well as a predictable hike in transaction fees). Poshmark recently introduced livestreamed “Posh Shows” during which sellers can host auctions or provide deeper insight into their inventory. Depop, meanwhile, has introduced a “Make Offer” option to fully integrate the bartering and negotiation process into the app, rather than forcing buyers and sellers to text or Direct Message one another elsewhere. (The platform formerly had a comments section on product pages, but shut this option down after finding that it led to arguments, and wasn’t particularly helpful in making purchase decisions.)

Now that it’s clear there’s money to be made in online thrift stores, larger and more established brands and retailers are also pushing their way into the space. H&M and Target have both partnered with online thrift store ThredUp on featured collections of previously-worn clothing. A new “curated” resale collection from Tommy Hilfiger – featuring minorly damaged items that were returned to its retail stores – was developed and promoted through a partnership with Depop, which has also teamed with Kellogg’s on a line of Pop-Tarts-inspired wear. J.Crew is even bringing back its classic ‘80s Rollneck Sweater in a nod to the renewed interest in all things vintage.

Still, with any surge of popularity and visibility, there must also come an accompanying backlash. In a sharp editorial this week for Arizona University’s Daily Wildcat, thrift shopping enthusiast Luke Lawson makes the case that sites like Depop are “gentrifying fashion,” stripping communities of local thrift stores that provide a valuable public service, particularly for members of low-income communities. As well, UK tabloids are routinely filled with secondhand shopping horror stories these days, another evidence point as to their increased visibility among British consumers specifically, not to mention the general dangers of buying personal items from strangers you met over the internet. - Lon Harris

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How to Startup: Mission Acquisition

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Spencer Rascoff serves as executive chairman of dot.LA. He is an entrepreneur and company leader who co-founded Zillow, Hotwire, dot.LA, Pacaso and Supernova, and who served as Zillow's CEO for a decade. During Spencer's time as CEO, Zillow won dozens of "best places to work" awards as it grew to over 4,500 employees, $3 billion in revenue, and $10 billion in market capitalization. Prior to Zillow, Spencer co-founded and was VP Corporate Development of Hotwire, which was sold to Expedia for $685 million in 2003. Through his startup studio and venture capital firm, 75 & Sunny, Spencer is an active angel investor in over 100 companies and is incubating several more.

How to Startup: Mission Acquisition

Numbers don’t lie, but often they don’t tell the whole story. If you look at the facts and figures alone, launching a startup seems like a daunting enterprise. It seems like a miracle anyone makes it out the other side.

  • 90% of startups around the world fail.
  • On average, it takes startups 2-3 years to turn a profit. (Venture funded startups take far longer.)
  • Post-seed round, fewer than 10% of startups go on to successfully raise a Series A investment.
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Spencer Rascoff

Spencer Rascoff serves as executive chairman of dot.LA. He is an entrepreneur and company leader who co-founded Zillow, Hotwire, dot.LA, Pacaso and Supernova, and who served as Zillow's CEO for a decade. During Spencer's time as CEO, Zillow won dozens of "best places to work" awards as it grew to over 4,500 employees, $3 billion in revenue, and $10 billion in market capitalization. Prior to Zillow, Spencer co-founded and was VP Corporate Development of Hotwire, which was sold to Expedia for $685 million in 2003. Through his startup studio and venture capital firm, 75 & Sunny, Spencer is an active angel investor in over 100 companies and is incubating several more.

Bill Gurley in a blue suit
Bill Gurley

This interview was originally published on December of 2020, and was recorded at the inaugural dot.LA Summit held October 27th & 28th.

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