Questioning Quantum? Flirt with Fiction

Shuya Gong
Feb 26 · 7 min read

Every once in a while, a new technology takes the world by storm and it’s all anyone can ever talk about. Some re-engineer how we interact with each other. Some re-architect how we transact with each other. And some…well, some re-define how we understand the entire universe. At IDEO CoLab, we use design to see how technology can change human lives, but quantum gives us a whole new lens for looking at our universe.

For this, we need to change our design approach and make our own research tools. We landed on a card deck that helps designers look at quantum computing on an interactive timeline…and surprisingly ended up helping quantum researchers as well. Here’s how we got there!

Not a team, but the “A-Team”. It’s best never to go at it alone, so with six weeks dedicated to immersing ourselves in quantum computing, we put together the A-team of 2 computer scientists, 1 mechanical engineer, and 1 new media artist to dive down the rabbit hole. You’ll notice there aren’t any quantum computing experts on that team—this is no mistake, for two reasons. First: they’re a rarity. Second: sometimes having an expert with you all the time allows you to be a little bit lazy in understanding an emerging technology, because they’re always there for any questions you might have. Don’t worry, our journey was soon blessed with experts from many corners of the industry

Not desk research, but design research. Okay, we did start with some desk research. Turns out if you’re not a PhD in quantum theory, it’s pretty darn hard to decipher even “the basics” because half of it is in an alphabet you know, arranged into a mathematical language you don’t understand. This quickly put us in our place: Our job as designers here was not to become experts in quantum computing; our job was to understand the experts in quantum computing. This is design research — with a twist. Instead of using the design research process to deeply understand other humans, we were using it to deeply understand how some very smart humans understood the universe.

Not science facts, but science fiction. How do you ask a quantum researcher to identify the most accurate theories about quantum computing, a field that’s been widely debated for decades…without jeopardizing their own reputation? Thankfully, science fiction is a well established medium for semi-serious thought experiments about the future, grounded in reality. Science fiction inspires, builds worlds, formulates thought experiments, and provokes us to think about our future. We held a quick brainstorm. The prompt: what is possible if in 2050, humans are still alive and we have the technology to travel to Mars? Some mundane stuff came out: “Umm…better batteries.” Some crazy stuff: “What if it was like lotion that would change temperature on your skin?” By this time, the team had some background knowledge of quantum computing, but mostly made up the science. This sounds like a terrifying amount of ambiguity for anything scientific, but remember — this was a part of a design process, and we were completely expecting to be dead wrong. It just needed to be a line in the sand, like when someone says they have no opinions about where to eat for dinner…until you suggest an option, and they tell you they’re not into it. This was the design research equivalent.

Huge shoutout to the Zapata Computing team for not only being willing guinea pigs with our quantum fictions card deck, but also for writing a few themselves! Highly recommend this process with a team of experts.

Not interviews, but nerd sessions. Equipped with visions of the future, some hand-wavy science, and and our imaginations, we headed into conversations with some of the most well respected researchers in this field to get some feedback. Much to our surprise, we beat Vegas odds with our predictions of the future. Our expert researchers chuckled at some of our concepts (“stomach bug pets? I don’t know why you would but I supposed you could”) and genuinely took time to pause and reflect with others. There were some that they didn’t even want to touch (“Hmm. This one is about consciousness. I don’t like thinking about that”) and some they hotly shot down (“are you KIDDING me no if that happened it would be a MIRACLE”). After a couple of iterations of feedback and brainstorming, we had a pretty well curated set of quantum fictions — concepts that were bordering on science fiction, but one day feasibly could become real. On the side, we were picking up new terms and vocabulary all the time (“dope diamond” and “Magic State Distillation” remain favorites).

Not what’s there, but what’s missing. The real magic happened when we had the good fortune of interviewing a team of quantum experts as a group. Zapata Computing was just down the street when we started this project and they were awesome enough to come down to the studio as a team and try some experiments with us a few times. We printed our concepts on cards and presented them with minimal instructions. They took the concepts seriously, along with our casual suggestion to sort them on a timeline along with a set of “quantum milestone” cards we’d developed to give us a chronological history (and future) of quantum computing. The punchline of the entire session came when they looked at their timeline (which was only put together after MUCH heated debate about some fundamentals of quantum physics) and declared that while they were confident about what would happen within the next 50 years of quantum computing, we knew very little of what might happen in the next 5. All of the current or near term concepts were incredibly technical, all of the long-term future ones fully practical. This surfaced a need for another kind of design fiction — something that was more near term. We had found a gap to jump into, an opportunity ripe for design. Rather than writing short vignettes, our next steps would be to build initial proofs of concept or venture pitch decks; design fiction mediums that are more suitable for nearer term futures.

Not competition, but (pre-competitive) collaboration. While companies do have their patents and intellectual property, a lot of the work being done around quantum computing in academia looks a lot like the work being done in industry. Hardware and software need to be developed hand-in-hand at this stage, so engineers and programmers aren’t working in siloed companies, but rather giving each other constant feedback. Countries are sharing research across institutions because the data alone from any one entity isn’t enough. We’re at a technological puberty stage where everything is so awkward that the only way to mature as an industry is to share, yet everyone also wants to be the first and biggest. This intensely collaborative-competitive nature of the current industry means that its people are extremely curious and generative, and as designers, we were so lucky with our timing. They’re also looking at the entire universe in an entirely new and fresh way—a stage of technological adolescence that craves ways to explain quantum phenomenon, for people to “get” quantum computing, through art, music, culture — in the same way that people understand how the internet works.

Flirting with fiction to arrive at art

As we chatted with our expert team about how to develop an intuitive sense for what quantum computing could do in the near term, it came up that an easier way to understand the fundamental workings inside of the machine, was to be inside a quantum computer. A week later, our team had developed a VR game that shrunk you down to qubit size and put you inside a quantum computer, where you had to manage gates, and do a temple run to beat the clock of instability.

One of our researchers tested it out and at the end asked, “wait is this what the inside of a quantum computer looks like?” We laughed, immediately realizing that, of course, nobody really knew what the inside of a quantum computer looked like. Sometimes, learning about a new technology might push you towards an abstract artistic interpretation, and that’s okay. Sometimes making art, writing design fiction, and crafting metaphors are some of the best ways we can start to humanize technology. Sometimes the final step in understanding emerging tech is to realize that there are some answers nobody knows the answer to, and then make some art to go explore it.

At the end of one of our design research sessions, one of the researchers asked as they were leaving “hey, could we actually get a copy of those cards? They really help us think of new use cases.” We sent them a few packs of the finished product. Turns out that the design research activity of creating quantum fiction not only helped us understand some brilliant people, it helped some brilliant people, discover a little more of the universe.

We’re just getting started in our quantum experiments, helping each other develop an intuitive understanding around quantum computing and what it could do. Have you had to change your tried-and-true process to wrap your head around a new area of intrigue? Tell us about it at!

Special thanks to 2019 CoLab Fellows: Jason Zhao, Daniel Sabio, and Ryan Sheehan

Shuya Gong

Written by

Designer @ IDEO CoLab. Harvard 2017. Percussionist, mechanical engineering, design. @ohmygong


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