5 questions for Alan Baratz

Hello, and welcome to this week’s edition of The Future in Five Questions. We’re catching up on quantum tech right now, and this week I spoke with Alan Baratz, a tech industry veteran who serves as the CEO of D-Wave, one of the most prominent companies providing commercial applications for quantum computers. We talked about why he thinks government and industry alike are being too tentative with the technology, his skepticism about generative AI, and the enduring appeal of “Rocky.”

An edited and condensed version of the conversation follows:

What’s one underrated big idea?

It’s more of a misunderstood big idea, but quantum. Unfortunately, most people believe that quantum is years away from being able to deliver value. The reason for that is that, frankly, big tech has adopted an approach to quantum that is years away, and they’ve convinced academics and government officials of it and that they need to invest in long-term research.

That’s just not reality. There are approaches to quantum that are real today … and the government should be focused on those technologies and getting their near-term value.

What’s a technology you think is overhyped?

Generative AI is way overhyped. AI and machine learning are just about pattern matching, and so long as the future looks like the past, you’re going to get some benefit out of it. But really, what generative AI is about is about pulling out relevant information from a large body of data by doing pattern matching, so in my view it’s nothing more than another productivity tool. It’s a good productivity tool, but it’s another productivity tool. All the hype around how totally transformative it’s going to be is just that, a lot of hype.

What book most shaped your conception of the future?

I don’t generally have time to read books for pleasure so I’ll give you a movie.

“Rocky” — what does that have to do with my conception of the future? It was kind of the first point in time at which it became very real for me that it’s not about the big established players, and that a lot of important innovation and new ideas come from smaller, less well-established, more aggressive, less well-funded entities. As a result, I’ve always been very open-minded toward new approaches, new companies, new ideas and then young people. To me, that’s where the future is really created.

What could government be doing regarding tech that it isn’t?

I think the U.S. government is just totally biased in the way it looks at quantum technology. It listens to IBM, and Google, and big tech in general, that the gate model is the only way to go and that you need to fund a lot of long-term research before we’re going to get there. They’re missing the fact that there’s more than one approach to quantum. There’s more than one system out there, and it’s possible to get real benefits today. The U.S. government needs to be far more focused on near-term applications and being inclusive of all quantum technologies.

Other countries are starting to do it. In Australia, the government of New South Wales is working with us on optimizing transportation systems. The Australian Army also did some work on resupply, the Japanese government with tsunami evacuation, but also how to reduce CO2 emissions through vehicles. The U.S. government just needs to get with it, and they must reauthorize the National Quantum Initiative Act and expand it to include near-term applications and to be inclusive of all forms of quantum.

What has surprised you most this year?

Global instability. I think governments in general, including the U.S. government, are encouraging, rather than mitigating, divisiveness. A big part of the reason is because they’re misinformed. The people that are supposed to be the experts are not providing accurate information to government officials so that they can make well-informed decisions.

I’ll give you an example close to home. I listened to some hearings on quantum, and I was shocked at what I heard some of the folks from the National Quantum Coordination Office saying to Congress about what the hard problems are that need to be solved in quantum. They were just totally off-base. We need smarter, more well-informed people advising government officials, and then we need to be making more well-informed decisions.

A lobbying battle going on in Washington’s shadows might shape the future of AI policy.

ICYMI, POLITICO’s Brendan Bordelon delivered an eye-opening investigation today on Open Philanthropy, an organization behind everything from high-level executive conversations about AI policy to funding congressional tech staffers’ salaries — something government watchdogs say poses a major risk for conflict of interest.

The organization, mostly backed by billionaire Facebook co-founder and Asana CEO Dustin Moskovitz and his wife, Cari Tuna, has close ties to the effective altruism movement and is promoting concerns about the long-term threats AI poses to humanity.

That’s raising alarm bells among some AI researchers and activists who warn that Open Philanthropy’s narrow focus distracts from here-and-now harms, and that building the licensing regime advocated for by some big AI firms will squeeze out smaller actors.

“There’s a push being made that the only thing we should care about is long-term risk because ‘It’s going to take over the world, Terminator, blah blah blah,’” Suresh Venkatasubramanian, a professor of computer science at Brown University who co-authored last year’s White House Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights, told Brendan. “I think it’s important to ask, what is the basis for these claims? What is the likelihood of these claims coming to pass? And how certain are we about all this?”

How does the conflict in Israel and Gaza overlap with the world of crypto?

POLITICO’s Jasper Goodman reported this morning on Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) efforts to crack down on Hamas’ use of cryptocurrency to fund its terrorist attacks while sidestepping the traditional banking system. The conflict has provided new fuel for the push behind Warren’s proposed bill that would strengthen anti-money laundering laws to specifically target crypto.

“From a crypto skeptic’s perspective, right now, [money laundering is] the most potent argument that they have,” Lee Reiners, a fellow at Duke University, told Jasper. “This is sort of another black eye for crypto.”

Hamas, notably, was an early adopter of the technology, collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in cryptocurrency dating back to 2019.