Staff Researcher and Manager of Outreach,
Institute for Quantum Information and Matter (IQIM), Caltech
By David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project
February 2, 2022
DAVID ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It's February 2nd, 2022. I am delighted to be here with Dr. Spiros Michalakis. Spiros, it's great to be with you. Thank you for joining me today.
SPIROS MICHALAKIS: Thanks for having me.
ZIERLER: Spiros, to start, would you please tell me your title and affiliation here at Caltech?
MICHALAKIS: Sure thing, yes. I am a staff researcher and also the manager of outreach for the Institute for Quantum Information and Matter, IQIM, here at Caltech.
ZIERLER: That obviously means that you have a whole lot on your plate. What are your overall responsibilities at the IQIM?
MICHALAKIS: [laugh] Most of my days are split between working on research and quantum many-body physics as a mathematical physicist. The rest of the time is involved with outreach activities, everything from working with industrial partners on developing quantum games to working with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to try to get quantum into every school in the country.
ZIERLER: Let's start first with the research. Just as a snapshot in time, what are you currently working on?
MICHALAKIS: Currently, I am working on a couple of different things. Some of them have to do with earlier work that I started actually at Caltech about 10 years ago—have to do more with what are known as topological properties of quantum materials—is how exactly can we encode information in macroscopic quantum materials so that it is reliably accessed in the future? Also, that kind of got me down a different path which has to do more with the very foundations of physics and, actually, quantum gravity, that theory of everything. I've been working to understand how some of these principles, like from quantum information theory and quantum computing, such as quantum error correction, how they connect mathematically with, like, the very fabric of space and time.
ZIERLER: Staying on the research side, what aspects of your work do you see are devoted to the larger effort to create a quantum computer, and what are -- these are just very interesting physics problems to work on?
MICHALAKIS: That's what I love about this, that it seems to me these days that the two have almost become one, whereby trying to figure out the right way to create fault-tolerant and quantum error-corrected quantum devices, that we literally have to tackle with how the heck the universe itself, the most macroscopic aspect of every object in the world, is actually quantum, and how is it error correcting? How is it creating—can afford to have both a classical reality that we observe and we are part of without dispersing, but, also, foundationally being quantum in its very essence? The two come together all the time. I literally have to think about originally the ideas and the problems come from the quantum computing side, and then of course they turn into, like, a way to do this in the very language of the universe itself. So, understanding one helps you understand the other.
ZIERLER: With an educational trajectory more in mathematics than physics, in what ways does that shape your approach to the research?
MICHALAKIS: That's a great question. I think I'm a little bit unique and maybe a little crazy in how I—
MICHALAKIS: —at least more recently approach physics. I have seen some amazing interplay between mathematics and physics, not just because I'm a mathematical physicist but sometimes when you work at the intersection of mathematics and physics, you're neither doing cutting-edge mathematics nor physics; that you have the theoretical physicist like John, who is thinking with his students, "How can we model the interior of black holes? How can we go beyond what we have ever observed?" but within, like, using physical intuition and the theories of physics that we have access to already. But for a mathematical physicist, often you're kind of like lagging behind, and trying to make the previous crazy theories stand on their own as rigorous mathematical models.
But, again, almost like what's happening with Hollywood and science fiction these days, I think the kind of stuff we come up with, even the rigorous stuff, is so mind-blowing these days that they're trying to catch up to us. What I'm seeing, more personally from my own research, is that physics and mathematics may not actually be different from each other; just be, like, the physical realm is just a set of manifestations, emerging structures that come from just mathematical structures which themselves come from an epistemology, a way for us to know that thing that Plato called the thing in itself. Forget even about mathematics itself, and the assumptions we made to have the current structure of mathematical theories. Where do they come from? There seems to be a unification that goes beyond even the unification of the forces in physics from whatever I've seen so far where it's more about understanding whether assumptions you put into any system, any theory of knowledge, and then if you're general enough, you call it mathematics. If you start crystalizing some of them into something more useful, that these assumptions are part of our everyday life, then you get more specific structures, which then we'd call the laws of physics, constants of nature, and so on and so forth.
ZIERLER: Spiros, the concept that there's some deeper unification between physics and math immediately makes me think about string theory, and the ways that, currently, some physicists say string theory does not represent reality. There's nothing that you're doing that shows that this isn't just mathematics. Do you see advances in quantum information that might draw those deeper meanings of string theory, and make it physics?
MICHALAKIS: I do. Even though I am not a string theorist, I love string theory because, inadvertently, from going very deep into some very esoteric mathematics, it ended up opening the door through something that, over the past 20 years, we've been looking into much more heavily, known as this like AdS/CFT duality, this gauge/gravity, duality that the universe itself may be a hologram. From that point of view, you get to see a very strong connection for the first time between quantum gravity, which had to do more often with techniques from high-energy physics, and, again, some very esoteric string theory-type mathematics, with quantum computing and quantum information theory. Even John, who's been working on the high-energy physics, converting into quantum computing side, now finally brought himself back into this process because he's realizing, along with many others from Princeton and Harvard and Stanford, that the language of the universe really is that of like quantum computers. To truly understand how the physical universe works, stop thinking about fields and particles and background spacetime, and start thinking about how quantum entanglement can generate the substrate upon which all of these things that we took for granted as atoms of our universe emerge from.
ZIERLER: Because you've been thinking about these things for so long, and because the ideas can seem so esoteric at times, how do you process progress over time? How do you know that the field is working towards something where it's advancing in a way that it wasn't 5, 10, 15 years ago?
MICHALAKIS: It's really amazing to see every time, every year, we get new graduate students and postdocs, and to see the transition from, "I'm not quite sure what I should be working on, or maybe I should be working on something specific around quantum error-correction but with respect to engineering efforts or quantum computing," to more recently saying that, "Oh, no, I'm actually going to try to figure out the theory of everything, and I have the tools and the knowledge to do this." But, like, this is no longer a mirage, or like some of the smartest people, only the geniuses, who both understand very deeply the mathematics and the physics will ever have a chance, or that you have to be over 60 or 70 years old to be wise enough to have accumulated all of this wealth of knowledge before you can say something interesting. It's really cool to see how the young people are kind of taking over, and are leading the way. That's why I know we are going in the right direction because the older folks, they're very proud of how they fertilized the ground, almost inadvertently in some ways, for this new generation to kind of take over. I've seen again John Preskill, how excited he is to work with his students, and how proud he is that he's even on those papers. [laugh]
ZIERLER: [laugh] Spiros, let's move over to the outreach side. I can see how an outreach person for an institute like the IQIM might not be an expert in the field. They might have a communications or an external affairs background. What is the advantage for you, being a scholar in the field, bringing that perspective as you're pursuing all of these outside partnerships with the IQIM?
MICHALAKIS: I do think it gives me like an edge, and it's also so much more interesting for me to do outreach in a more nontraditional way, beyond just developing curriculum and things like that. I told John about 11 years ago now when he approached me, and he said, "Hey, would you be interested in helping us on the outreach component for IQIM, because it's actually important for the National Science Foundation" -- and I really appreciate that -- I said sure, but I honestly didn't know what I was going to do because any outreach I had done as a graduate student was on the mathematics side. I have a PhD in mathematics, not in physics, with like a concentration in mathematical physics and quantum stuff. Any of that stuff I had done was more for Math Olympiads and things like this. Programs I had created at UC Davis when I was a PhD student there, they were more umbrella mathematics programs for younger students. So, I just went with it.
With him as my mentor, I started creating everything from the Quantum Frontiers blog, where I was like, will it be a place for experts and others to discuss quantum things, and not just as experts but also as people, right, why did they get into it, how do they view these things in more layman's terms? Then, because I kind of know my stuff, kind of was an expert myself, when Hollywood came knocking—and I've been a consultant for Hollywood for years now—I could blow their minds in specific ways that was not just like, "Well, I don't know but maybe I can connect you with somebody else," that they kept coming back. It makes a difference to kind of be at the cutting edge, and to be able to explain these things in a clear enough way for them to say, "OK, this is fantastic. We don't just need a few more words from you. We want a whole conceptual map, like, for the plot."
ZIERLER: What does it say about where quantum information is now, thinking 20, 25 years ago, when it was just a very few theorists with some ideas that nobody really understood? Fast-forward to 2022, what does it say about the field that a place like IQIM needs somebody to do outreach?
MICHALAKIS: I think this is one of the things I'm most grateful to John for, that he didn't know like 20, 25 years ago that what he was doing back there, like, seeding the world with some of the greatest minds now in quantum computing, quantum information, everyone just passing through IQI, which then became IQIM about 12 years ago. Maybe he had a sense that he was doing something important. But it's pretty amazing what's happened. The fact that somebody like me has such a unique position, which I don't know if it exists anywhere else, where you can be both a research scientist and a manager of outreach. You don't have to choose one or the other. I really hope that there will be a lot more positions like this in the future because it is really fantastic to have the opportunity to take something so heavy and so, like, in many people's minds is just very esoteric, they could never understand it. But to go and have fun with it, and connect with the public, like, find them where they are instead of just bringing them, say, to Caltech, and showing them, giving tours of lasers and quantum dilution refrigerators, and stuff like that. Yeah, it's really great and I hope there will be a lot more of this in the future. It was all again seeded, like, two decades ago, because it became real. You always need something real to hang onto. It's not just the mind-blowing aspects of quantum physics. It's that we have quantum computing companies now everywhere. There's like maybe too much hype about all this stuff.
MICHALAKIS: But it really is exciting. I'm an optimist, and it's very exciting to see. I was just on a call literally just earlier today with the Executive Office of the President. We just announced yesterday a whole effort to educate most high school students or all high school students in the country, and even like middle school students, on quantum physics, concepts like quantum superposition, entanglement, interference, all that stuff. I've been working with Google and Quantum AI Lab, one of the companies working on quantum computing, for the past two years to develop quantum games with them. That would not, I mean, [laugh] we talk about it. No matter how important the policy officials are, all that stuff, we're all thinking like this is kind of like science fiction; that we're about to start teaching every child out there in the country, and then the world. I'm the US representative for World Quantum Day, and working with the other reps from around the world about quantum concepts. It's not just because we think it's cool. It's because we really see it as an enabling technology for the next, like, millennium. Everything like microchips made such a difference over the past 100 years. Quantum, if we know how to harness it properly, will just be a new color with which we can paint the world.
ZIERLER: Let's go into a little more detail about the most important strategic partners in your outreach efforts for IQIM. Let's start first with government. What are the government agencies and offices that you're working with on a regular basis?
MICHALAKIS: The one that I appreciate their support the most from the beginning is actually NSF, the National Science Foundation, obviously. It was the one to bet on Caltech and IQIM about, like, many years ago, but officially for IQIM 11 years ago. The fact that they require that anyone who gets grants from the National Science Foundation has to think carefully about the type of public impact and outreach that the research can have. This is also like how I got to the position that I have right now. That's, like, I think pretty important. But outside of the NSF, it's really nice to see again the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Executive Office of the President, to be pushing quantum forward, and to really, really care about equity and diversity in the field. We have an opportunity, and we're working hard on that front right now. Even though [laugh], in a very interesting way, quantum is at the intersection of some of the most hardcore STEM disciplines—mathematics, physics, engineering, chemistry—all these things where you don't have the representation you want to see. We have an opportunity to kickstart something where the students, they see themselves as quantum mechanics [laugh], but they don't need to worry about, like, oh, but then I have to be some math genius or some like physics nerd, or any of that stuff. They kind of fall in love with the potential for these quantum technologies, and then we get them like through the pipeline. I think that's fantastic.
ZIERLER: What do you see from the government's perspective in supporting quantum information because it's in the national interest, it's something good for the United States?
MICHALAKIS: Yes, they do believe that, and they also believe that it's important for the quantum workforce for the future. A lot of the jobs will be there, so that's obviously important for strategic purposes, national security, of course, because of the power of quantum computers in the future. But, honestly, for me, the reason why I'm doing this—and I tell them—is because I want everyone to have these quantum powers unlocked. It changes your perspective of how to even interact with other human beings. Forget how we can manipulate the universe itself to do our bidding. Quantum is not a theory of physics. There's been a misunderstanding from the beginning. It's a theory of knowledge. It's a theory of how we can interact with something outside of us. It says that we had a misunderstanding for a long time that there was only one way we could all interact, and it was that same way for all of us with the world outside of us, nature. Quantum comes in and says no. In fact, all the information, all the things that really matter is in this diverse point of view, this complementary point of view that you can occupy. Kind of like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, you're neither a particle nor a wave, and you don't have to say that only particles are correct in this universe, or only waves. There's this pluripotent nature to things. That aspect of empathy really resonates with me, and it is a big part of why I do outreach. Empathy is the ability to occupy almost an alien point of view without even knowing why you do that.
ZIERLER: Let's move on now to industry. Who are some of the key industrial partners that you work with at IQIM?
MICHALAKIS: I would absolutely say one of the biggest supporters has been Google so far. Just recently, the CEO of Alphabet, of the whole umbrella company, reached out to all 150,000 employees—I think it was just last week—to alert them to the work that Google has been doing with us for the past two years on Quantum Chess, which is a quantum game we're developing. That was really fantastic to see that so many of their employees, they're taking 20% of their time, and they're devoting it to help us develop these amazing educational games that can help future generations become acquainted with quantum. So, yes, for sure Google has been an important one. I have not worked closely with IBM but I think IBM also does an amazing job on the quantum education side of things. I would love to see more industrial partners. Specifically AWS that is actually now on campus, I would love to connect with them more, and see how we can work together to advance both research in quantum games but also the dissemination of these games, and outreach to nearby schools and students and also nationwide, because AWS is a pretty heavy hitter out there.
ZIERLER: Spiros, as you well know, all of these major technology corporations—Google, IBM, Honeywell, the list goes on and on—to the extent that they are in a race to achieve a proprietary technology because there's this idea that they're investing all of this money into it because there's value in it for who gets there first, how does a place like IQIM situate itself within this industrial race to quantum information and quantum computing?
MICHALAKIS: I think what is pretty fantastic about being part of IQIM is that we get to amplify and activate a lot of the powers and the breakthroughs that will happen, and we don't have to choose a particular horse in this race. We are, I guess, the horses. [laugh]
MICHALAKIS: The thing that I love about this is that, at least so far, there is a really nice community, a really nice environment within this whole ecosystem. I'm not just saying this to be nice to John. But I think a lot of it has to do with John and his work over the past two decades, because the leaders in many of these companies were all friends at some point [laugh] or knew each other passing through IQI and then IQIM. Now they have seeded some of the very best efforts in these companies. When we have conferences, we come together and have a drink, and we're talking about the past and also about the future. It is awkward sometimes when I talk to them that they really want to connect more but they may be like, "But I can't say more about this." But something like the Wednesday meeting, and there was one today also, that IQIM has a seminar in collaboration with AWS where we actually bring researchers to talk about their research not just between IQIM and AWS, but also from Google and Microsoft and IBM Q, all these different places. Again, we can afford to do that because they know that this is their home. They can be safe here, and they have other people who really want to know how they're doing and what they're working on.
ZIERLER: From an outsider's perspective, to the extent that these companies are pursuing quantum computation in different ways—for example, Microsoft has a very different approach from Google—what is your perspective in terms of how these different companies are going to get to the same place using different techniques?
MICHALAKIS: I am very happy that there's such a diversity in approaches—very, very happy. We know that this is the right way to do anything really in life, at least at a stage like this. You want to try different approaches, hybrid approaches. You want to pollinate all these different ideas. And honestly, even if one of them wins earlier on, that doesn't mean much for the future. Every single one of these technologies has its own strengths and weaknesses. I would say, like, I don't know if you've ever played Street Fighter as a kid—
MICHALAKIS: —but every player—there was no player that was the best player.
MICHALAKIS: You had a favorite player, but they each had their own little two-dimensional diagram of some strength here, some weakness over there, and all that stuff. More importantly, again, I keep seeing some of the researchers jumping between companies, and sending some of their expertise, seeding it from one company to the other, and then moving somewhere else. It's really good to see that. I think we are at the stage where everyone wants this to happen. How it will happen, we will learn from each other, even in the academic setting because, again, I'm outside of any of these efforts directly. It's really nice to see some of the more theoretical ideas really spur interest, and then being picked up, and become experimental projects that then become commercial successes. I hope that the ecosystem—that's my wish, I guess—that it remains not just friendly but the competition is one that's, like, of the very best kind—the kind that you have between two top Olympic athletes. They're rivals but they really are spurring each other towards success and new heights.
ZIERLER: Spiros, we talked about some really big tech companies. What about all of the small startups, all of the venture capital that is now demonstrating interest in quantum computing? Where is IQIM in all of these developments?
MICHALAKIS: We have students and researchers in most of these companies, actually, that have come through IQIM, and they're now either at PsiQuantum or Rigetti, like, many of these new companies. The other thing that I love about this ecosystem is we were just recently at Q2B. This is Quantum to Business. It's a conference, an annual one, that's been running for five years that QC Ware, one of these quantum startups, and more on the software side, has been putting together. This says everything, OK, that the keynote speaker every year—because, usually, you have different keynote speakers—for the past five years straight, since the inception of the conference, has been none other than John Preskill, the director of IQIM. They're very proud that they keep bringing back the same person—John—because he's not just a world-renowned expert, but he's also someone that everyone trusts. His opinion is very trusted, both as a technical expert and theoretical expert, but also someone who can set the right vision, and to try to reduce some of the hype because when a lot of money starts pouring into anything, then some of the safety guards that you have start releasing. It's really nice to have somebody like John. I remember when he became an AWS Scholar himself, just about a year ago, he came to me and he said, "There's only one thing that I am kind of worried about. That now that I am affiliated and associated with a specific horse in this race, what would happen to my reputation?" I said, "John, nothing will happen to your reputation. [laugh] The foundation is exactly the same. You're exactly the same human being, the same person. In fact, having someone like you enter the fray, and see how everyone else looks at you, and see how you respond, and how you actually deal with this conflict can be very inspirational to others, and it can give them guidance."
ZIERLER: What does it tell us at this stage in the game that really important and interesting work could be done at a tiny startup and a major operation like IBM that's been doing this for 30, 40 years?
MICHALAKIS: This is what's so amazing about quantum anything. It's almost like science fiction, and it's not just about industrial expertise. That can give you a leg up. Of course, the more money you have, you can attract maybe the best minds. But, honestly, at this level, it's almost like Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, they're in their own garage working together and having fun and all this stuff. That was it. You start small but you have a vision. It's a hard problem, trying to create a macroscopic version of the quantum realm that you can manipulate. The universe, again, is already quantum. But we cannot just tell it what to do in every possible way. To do that requires almost being philosophical, not just like an engineering mind, but philosophical in how you approach it. These different philosophies have become these different paradigms in how we are trying to attack the issue of building a fault-tolerant quantum computer.
ZIERLER: Well, Spiros, now let's take it back through some personal history. When you came to MIT, was that a move with your family from Greece, or you had come by yourself?
MICHALAKIS: I had come by myself. My parents are still in Greece—my mom and dad. My brother Nikos, my older brother Nikos—two years older—was the first one to leave Greece, and go to MIT. Then I followed him a year later. Then like two years later, my younger brother Mario showed up as well. That was weird. I mean, it's weird anyways.
MICHALAKIS: But it was even more weird because my parents—I think my mom is the one that had a bachelor's in political science. But in Greece at the time, when she met my dad, my dad said, "Listen, I'll take care of everything. You stay home, and take care of the kids, OK?" That was how things were done, I guess, back then. My dad worked with land, selling and buying land, real estate, stuff like that, but didn't even have a high school degree. He ended up getting a GED simply because my mom is like, "I'm not interested in going on a second date with you unless"—
MICHALAKIS: —"you value education the way I do." I remember one of my favorite stories from my mom is that when my brother Nikos brought his first report card back from first grade or something like that, and it was all A's, my dad was first confused. He was, like, out drinking wine with friends and all that stuff. He was first confused, like, "What is this?" Then, when he realized his son was a good student, he started crying. Indeed, my dad is not the kind of person to be emotional. After that, he became very proud of like, "Oh, my god, my son, he's a good student. Maybe he's smart." Then I came up [laugh] right after that, and then my younger brother. At some point, I think, they were just very overwhelmed because, like, "How are these people like smarter than us [laugh] and they can do all this math and physics?" But they supported us very, very much, which was really great.
ZIERLER: Now, as an undergraduate at MIT, were you aware that quantum information was a field? Did you know what was going on at all?
MICHALAKIS: I had no idea until literally the last three months of my time as a senior at MIT where I was talking to my advisor, Michael Sipser, who was until recently the head of the math department at MIT. I said to him, "Do you have any other research projects in mind?" Because I was working on a mathematical biology project, and how DNA folds and all that stuff at MIT. He's like, "Well, there is this thing about matroid theory." I was like, "Matroid what?" He's like, "It's connected to something called quantum computing." I was like, "Oh, that's interesting." But I had no idea about Peter Shor, Shor's algorithm. Peter Shor, in fact, two months after I left MIT—I graduated—he became a faculty member at MIT --- he was at Bell Labs, I think, up till that point. Again, it was just missed connections. Indeed, when I went to UC Davis for my PhD, I really had no idea what I was going to do. I thought of just continuing on mathematical biology. Then my advisor was not around. He was this famous evolutionary biologist at UC Davis. I was supposed to work with him, and I wanted somebody to sign my study guide, my coursework, before I could start even doing research as a graduate student. I went to the head of the math department, of course, because that's where I was, and I said, "I'm kind of struggling with this. Can you help me? Can you find somebody else? Can somebody sign this and say, yes, these are good classes. Go for it?" He sneakily said, "You know what? Actually, I've always wanted to work with you, and I was hoping you'd come visit." He's like, "I'll be your advisor." That was Bruno Nachtergaele, who is like one of the top mathematical physicists in the world, and because of him, I fell in love with mathematical physics and then quantum physics. But I had no background in quantum or physics before that. I mean, the last time I had taken physics was ninth grade.
MICHALAKIS: I think that's when it was, ninth grade.
ZIERLER: What was Bruno working on at that point? Was it specifically in quantum information?
MICHALAKIS: Oh, of course, of course. In fact, back then, because that was like—let me see—2003, 2004. That was a while ago; almost 20 years ago. It was, again, very nascent. The field was just—there was maybe a book we called the Quantum Bible by Michael Nielsen and Isaac Chuang. He just said, "You know what? Here, read this." It is a thick book, with no background information, nothing else. There was no class that was teaching that. Maybe there was one at Caltech because of John. But most universities did not have anything like that. It was just maybe some professor, who was a little bit interested, would have a seminar or something like this. Anyway, I ended up reading the book, and then I ended up teaching a bunch of the other graduate students [laugh] about this stuff, which was actually great because you cannot just go and do some research with some prestigious researcher who already knows everything, and you're just trying, struggling to understand things here and there. You have to deeply understand from the beginning the thing, and then teach it to others, so that helped a lot.
ZIERLER: What was the intellectual process developing what would become your thesis research?
MICHALAKIS: That was pretty interesting because in mathematical physics, one of the most hardcore fields is that of quantum many-body physics. Think of quantum being hard when you're trying to deal with like three or four electrons, and computers usually break when they're trying to figure out how they all interact with each other, entangled, and all that stuff. Then quantum many-body physics has to do with what is known as the thermodynamic limit. That is, when you have an infinite number of quantum things, infinitely connected, everything with everything else. You try to do it in your head because no computer can do anything at that point. Even quantum computers probably would give up. You try to come up with ideas and theories and symmetries and all that abstract stuff, and understand how classical properties and some robust quantum properties can emerge from this infinite dance of things, because they were looking individually at everything, like some universality of some of these properties. I thought to myself, like, how am I going to do this? At least, maybe with computers, I had a background also at MIT, I was a math and computer science major, so I could use the computers but they were useless for building intuition or anything like that. I started doing some papers here and there on some results that my advisor had some connection to, and there were some open conjectures. Some of that worked out, and I was able to actually use a little computer program I wrote just to get some intuition, and to figure out that one of the conjectures that some Italian researchers had come up with was actually wrong. It was something much stronger that was true, and that allowed me to prove the result, and get my first paper out there. But then after that, there was another ingenious mathematical physicist who became afterwards my advisor, my postdoc advisor, Matthew Hastings. Bruno kept telling me, like, "Hey, if you can decipher any of the work that this brilliant man has been doing, you're going to be set." Because he was having trouble, and he had postdocs he was working with at the time to try to decode some of these hieroglyphics. [laugh] They were very brilliant results, but nobody could really understand them. Again, they were having a lot of trouble—besides him, maybe. [laugh] Anyway, I started studying some of these things, and going deeper, and that paid off because my thesis ended up becoming a generalization of an important result that he had. Because of that, Matt was like, "I haven't had any students before. But why don't you come and work with me at Los Alamos National Labs?" That was my first postdoc, and it was pretty amazing. It was some of the highest highs and lowest lows of my life, I would say, during that time, these two years. I didn't know that at the time Matt was, for personal reasons, also looking to leave Los Alamos, and was thinking of taking me with him. But he had all this money that was still attached to him over there. He asked me, "Hey, do you want to stay here, and have the ability to just travel and do all this stuff using this grant money, or do you want to come with me? But it's kind of volatile right now. I don't know what I'm going to end up with." He was supposed to go to Duke. But then Microsoft, Station Q, the quantum effort of Microsoft, was like, "No, we really want you, and we'll do whatever it takes." Even Caltech tried to get him. But he was just way above everyone else kind of thing, so everyone was after him. And there I was, stuck, and he had given me literally an impossible—a Millennium Problem to work on in mathematical physics. I was like [laugh]—
MICHALAKIS: I thought we would be doing this together, you'd be around, and we'd do the Good Will Hunting thing where he's doing the hard stuff, and explaining to me, and I'm going and doing little calculations on the side. That's not how it worked, so I felt like, oh, my god, what am I doing here? I have a year to finish this, to do this, to show something because I know that if you have a two-year postdoc, you have to apply at the end of your first year to places like Caltech, and that's actually what I had to do. Again, this was a problem that was very deep, the quantum Hall effect is what it was known as, a very deep and technical problem in physics and condensed matter physics, something I had no background in, because it was not quantum information really and stuff like that. It was a completely new language. With some help from Matt but, honestly, just reading whatever I could find anywhere I could find, I started picking up some of the language, and then developing the theory, and it all worked out, which is great, and we solved the problem. But, oh, my god [laugh]—
MICHALAKIS: —it was not a done deal.
ZIERLER: Was there a larger quantum information effort at Los Alamos at that time?
MICHALAKIS: That's a good question. There was definitely at the time a pretty strong group but they were working on all kinds of different stuff. Nobody else was working on quantum Hall or things like that, as far as I know. They had things everywhere from quantum foundations of how does classical reality emerge from the quantum realm, kind of thing, very strong stuff there, and they had other things that were more technical but using computation and stuff like that. But, unfortunately, after Matt left—I left a year after that—I started seeing that they started losing a lot of other researchers as well to different places.
ZIERLER: Now, even from graduate school, was IQI on your radar? Were you aware of all the work that was happening there?
MICHALAKIS: You mean, right after Davis, did I even consider applying to IQI at Caltech? Man, that does bring me back [laugh] down memory lane. I'm trying to even remember if I applied anywhere else—
ZIERLER: I mean, in graduate school, did you know about people like John Preskill and Alexei Kitaev?
MICHALAKIS: Oh, yes, in graduate school, of course, because if you were working on quantum information, quantum computation, yes, that was the mecca. But I didn't think they would want me, so I felt lucky that even Matt said, "Hey, come on over here." I don't think I even applied. The first time I applied to Caltech, I did not apply as an undergraduate or a graduate student. But then, right after Los Alamos, I was like, hey, maybe solving this problem, now I'm good enough [laugh]—that's how I felt like—to maybe get a postdoc there.
ZIERLER: Tell me about your initial impressions when you got to Caltech.
MICHALAKIS: Actually, I will tell you when I [laugh]—this is a good story. I think this is a good—this is a true story. It's a good story. When I was putting the finishing touches on the proof of the quantum Hall effect, I was at UCSB at KITP. This is at UC Santa Barbara, and this is the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics, a really wonderful place. They have almost like—I don't know—every three months or so, they have new programs, three-month-long programs where they bring researchers from around the world to have a residency there, and to try to attack different problems. That was my first time there, and I was kind of a fish out of the water. I don't know other people. I knew Matt was there also, so that was really nice. But Matt was there because he had already transitioned. He was part of Station Q, Microsoft Station Q. The building that Microsoft had was right next to the building where this KITP conference was happening, and so I would see Matt every now and then but he was basically fully with Microsoft at that point, working on these topological quantum qubits and all that stuff. The last day, the very last day of that conference, I had heard a few months before while I was still at Los Alamos that "Hey, if you want to get a postdoc at Caltech, there is a magic trick." That was from a former postdoc who is now at Los Alamos—John Yard—and he's like, "Spiros, you just need to get yourself invited to give a talk. That's it." That's how naïve I was. "That's all you need to do. If John Preskill invites you to give a talk at IQI," the Tuesday talks they had, "then very likely for you to get a postdoc offer." But, of course, I hadn't heard anything. I had just applied because it was the end of the year, it was like December at the time, December 12th, if I'm not mistaken, the very last day of this conference. I had submitted my applications already to Yale and Caltech and a couple of other places. But I hadn't heard anything, and I didn't even know if John knew who I was, if I existed. The funny thing is that he had come into my office because we each had an office, and we had like office mates. My office mate was the head of quantum at Oxford University, from Britain, and he was a very senior researcher. Also, we had become friends. But, every now and then, John would come into the office. I would feel like I need to give them privacy or space or whatever, so I would leave, and then I didn't know whether John knew who I was; that he was probably like, "All right, who's this kid?" Sometimes, I would give him my chair so he could sit next to Andrew Briggs, who was my office mate, and I would just be on my knees, working on my laptop, working on that proof and all that stuff. It was 5 p.m., December 12th, if I'm not mistaken, and I had gone already a few days earlier to Matt, and said, "Could you make an introduction to John Preskill?" Matt was, like, he was scared of John.
MICHALAKIS: I was like, oh, my god, I'm not—oh, this man is a god; unapproachable. I can't go myself and make that—but this is probably the first time in my life that I did something so uncharacteristic where, as I was walking towards the exit, I look into John's office, and there he was. He was on the phone. I knock on the door, and I interrupt him. It seemed like he was kind of really into the phone call. It turned out he was on a call with his wife, Roberta. [laugh] He's like, "OK, I'm leaving now. Sorry I stayed too late, and all this stuff, but I'll be there in a few hours." I interrupt mid-phone call, and I was like, "Hi, I'm Spiros." He's like [laugh], "Yes, can I help you?" "I have this result on the quantum Hall effect." [laugh] I remember this like it was yesterday. He's like, "What? No. Anything else?" [laugh] I was like, "Do you have anything else?" Like, oh, my god, do I have anything else? [laugh]
I had worked, thankfully, the last few months on a different result that he was very interested in that I didn't even realize, on the stability of Alexei Kitaev's toric code. This is a quantum error-correcting code that has been very, very important now for all these quantum computing efforts. I had shown, with Matt and Sergey Bravyi from IBM at the time, that this was stable to physical perturbation, so it was kind of a big deal. But I was so into the quantum Hall effect thing, it was such a quick thing that I had done on the other one, I didn't realize he'd be interested. When I told him, "Well, I have this result," he's like, "That one. OK. Can you come next week? Come next week to Caltech." I was like, that's it. I made it. I gave a talk which I finished the proof five minutes before the talk—I had to give the talk—because the proof wasn't done yet. [laugh] I just finished it. Then Alexei Kitaev, who I had also not met, who was literally sitting right across from me as I was presenting, is right there. I was like, who is this really nice man, very soft-spoken, and all this stuff? There I am, talking about Kitaev's toric code, and all these things. He's just nodding like I'm an expert in all this stuff. He had a really nice question at the end. It's like, wow, this guy must know his stuff, like I don't know who he is. [laugh] Of course, I was introduced, and he was like, "Hi, I'm Alexei," I was like, oh. [laugh] Anyway, there've been some interesting situations on my onboarding at Caltech. But it was—I don't know—that's what I love about IQIM, and IQI at the time. They were just so low-key. Some of the greatest minds of all time, and then they're so down-to-earth. There's very few places I've seen this being true, and so consistently. The fact that they are who they are, they created almost this aura, this culture around them, where it can be OK to be yourself instead of just having to pretend you're the smartest person, and you have the cut-throat or whatever like maybe in other labs and stuff like that.
ZIERLER: Spiros, once you started to talk to people and get a sense of what was going on at IQI, what were the big ideas at the time you joined? What was really exciting at that point?
MICHALAKIS: There were a lot of exciting stuff. But [laugh] there's a very interesting connection. My PhD advisor, Bruno, had worked with Werner and Fannes, two other researchers from Europe, on something that was known as finitely correlated states. That was like something that was a bit mathematical for quantum information theorists at the time. But one of Werner's students, Frank Verstraete, who was a postdoc right before I arrived at IQI, he had taken his advisor's idea, and simplified it, dumbed it down in a way. But it ended up becoming one of the most important ideas of the last 20 years, for quantum gravity as well, what is known as matrix product states and tensor networks. That all came from there. Guiffre Vidal also, another postdoc. They were competing with Frank, created MERA, these multi-entanglement renormalization ansatz, which again became very important for quantum field theories and how they can emerge, right, space and time can emerge from networks of entanglement. This stuff was buzzing. It was everywhere. The amazing thing is that my very first paper back at Davis was actually an important result in that realm, but I had no idea anybody cared [laugh] because it was kind of too mathematical, and all this stuff. Who would care about this? But, sure enough, that became a very important thread that we're still pulling on to give us more results.
ZIERLER: What did you want to work on, and how was your previous research in graduate school and your first postdoc relevant for figuring that out?
MICHALAKIS: I would say that I continued working on the stability of quantum materials to understand --- that was pretty important both mathematically but also from an engineering point of view --- that if you were to build some of these synthetic materials with these interactions, quantum interactions, it's useless if you have to fine-tune everything down to infinite precision, or even like very, very, very close precision. What if the universe sneezes [laugh], and the whole thing goes, gone? You were doing something. You're never going to be perfect. How stable is it, and how useful can this be in the real world? I was able to show that for a very, very general class of like quantum systems, they're actually very, very stable. There was a very good reason behind it, which had to do also with quantum error-correction, and what became later known as like this holographic aspect of the universe itself.
It was the same reason why the universe itself was very, very stable, even if you were messing with a code at the edge of the universe where the bulk was a reflection of that. How come you don't break the universe one way or the other by locally doing something here, and then it affects things everywhere else? Because, again, you can think of every computation in a quantum computer just being its own little universe, from its own point of view. As you're running more and more circuits, you're changing the quantum state of that quantum computer. But if there is a small error over here, how come it doesn't just infect everything else, collapse it, change it qualitatively, and all that stuff? That became pretty important in my mind, and I worked on that. Then I had a bunch of other results that had to do with open quantum systems and all, making it more and more realistic as things kept going. But something else I kept working on was trying to simplify the proof of the quantum Hall effect, that result, that cursed result [laugh] from my Los Alamos days, because the researchers—and there were a lot of Noble Prize winners that were involved with this, and all that stuff, with this problem—they had trouble understanding the proof. They had waited for it. They had put it up there on the Institute for Advanced Study's website at Princeton as one of the top 13 problems you should work on in the next millennium. But when I came out of nowhere [laugh], both me and Matt in a way, and we have a solution here, they were like, "No, we don't get it. It's too technical. We don't understand. There is all this work that has been done. How does it connect with all this stuff?" I spent a couple of years, honestly, just rewriting the proof—a couple of years—like maybe about a year and a half, or something like that, simplifying everything, trying to connect it with other stuff. We had the solution by the end of 2009—that's when I met John also—or 2010, something like that. It wasn't until 2015 that it was published. Then it wasn't until 2019. I think it was right before the pandemic hit, where we finally got a phone call and an email from the person who had listed these problems, and said, "OK. We accept it now. It's solved, all done." It was almost 10 years later. That was part of the journey.
ZIERLER: Spiros, what was the research culture like at IQI when you first joined as a postdoc? In other words, who was collaborating with who? How would you share what you were finding?
MICHALAKIS: The amazing thing is that everyone was collaborating with everyone else. It was really fantastic. Again, when you have all these geniuses in one place, all these other geniuses in one place, you feel a bit intimidated. You're like, where do you fit in? There is, of course, all the quirks of personalities and all that stuff. It makes Feynman look like a kid, honestly, at that level. [laugh] It was interesting because there were strong personalities, in many ways. But, again, because the culture was so strongly connected to working with each other, instead of like, hey, we're trying to impress John—because John was just doing his thing, and maybe sometimes you could collaborate with him on stuff or not, so that wasn't really the thing—it was more about, like, what are the most interesting projects we can collaborate on, and who can I find to work with me on that project? It was very open, and I made lifelong friends actually from that time, even more so than over the past, like—I don't know—eight years or so. The nice thing, by the way, is a bunch of them are actually now back at AWS [laugh] too, which is really cool to see them on campus. It's like we're never going to go out.
ZIERLER: [laugh] Spiros, were you involved in any of the discussions that led to the creation of the IQIM with NSF support?
MICHALAKIS: I was not connected to that because I came to Caltech right after this happened, but I was there, literally, as it happened. I arrived basically right after. I think it was John, and Jeff Kimble, who were co-PIs, who were like, "Let's just do this. Let's put it together." John had created something very, very strong on the theoretical side with IQI. Let's add matter to it, like the experimental side to quantum things to prop up and strengthen the quantum experimental base here on campus. I think that's how the IQIM proposal came to be. But, literally, as they were building the plane, they were trying to fly it, and they were like, "We're missing a copilot for the outreach component, which is an important one for the proposal." They had somebody in mind, but that person was already somebody who was a luminary on educational aspects—Dr. Pine. But he was also almost 90 years old, so he didn't have time for this. He was kind of upset, and I think I see why; that just trying to outsource to somebody, who had done all this work through like the '30s of the last century, [laugh] to change curricula and all that stuff with respect to physics. To go to him and say, "Hey, we don't know how to deal with this outreach stuff. I don't know if we have time. Could you do it for us? Then bring somebody, and we'll, like, put some funding on the side for you to help us develop something." It was honestly because they couldn't get him to respond to emails or to come to a meeting before the National Science Foundation would actually visit after the first year of our existence in June of 2011, I think. They were kind of panicked. "We don't have anything to show, as far as outreach goes." I think it was April—March or April of that year, a few months before the NSF visit that John found me. Literally, I was just walking to go to my office. In the hallway, he stopped me. He was like, "Hey, you've done some like outreach stuff in the past, right? Would you mind being part of a meeting we have with Dr. Jerry Pine?" I think they had finally pinned him [laugh] to get one meeting from him. I said, "Sure. What is it about?" He's like, "Well, we have IQIM. This is this new physics frontier center, and we have an outreach component. But we don't have anything and, hopefully, you can help us with some ideas or just anything, like, just be there in the meeting, right, that he can tell you what to do, and maybe you can help with some of this stuff." I'm like, "Of course, sure."
Anyway, I ended up just taking over right after that meeting [laugh], and be like, "OK, no, I don't think we should do this." John's like, "What do you think we should do?" Then I created the whole presentation of all the things we would do. We had done none of them. To the NSF, I just sold them air when they showed up, and they were so excited, so ecstatic, with all the things we would be doing. Then we ended up doing a lot more than that, which was great. But I had no idea it was going to work out because, I told you earlier, I told John, "I know how to do maybe some math outreach because I went to the Math Olympiad when I was a kid myself, and I love these puzzles and all these things. But I have no idea what that means for physics or quantum physics."
ZIERLER: When it became IQIM, what did that mean, the fact that now matter is a part of the equation? What did that mean in terms of who could be affiliated with IQIM? What did that mean in terms of the research to pursue? What did that mean about getting one step closer to real quantum computation?
MICHALAKIS: This was actually a very visionary move. I'm just realizing now how important that "M" is at the end of "IQI" because, up to that point, because of John, IQI was one of the strongest, again, theoretical groups in the world, if not the strongest one—probably the strongest one in quantum information and quantum anything, really. All of a sudden, we attach "M"—matter—and it really mattered because it wasn't just that experimentalists started knocking on our door, and we started to have conversations with how you can implement certain things, and how you can convert some of the theories into experiments that then they could advance quantum computing or quantum metrology or quantum anything in the future. We actually started connecting a lot more with condensed matter theory as well. Basically, anyone else who had anything to say about quantum, or wanted to know about quantum—LIGO—we wouldn't be talking to LIGO and Rana Adhikari if it wasn't for IQIM. It became such a powerful nucleating force on campus where it's almost like it became its own physics division. I didn't know many physicists or many people who were part of physics or even mathematical physics or whatever who were not basically in one way or another associated with IQIM—quantum chemistry, EAS, engineering and applied sciences. It became a very strong nucleating force for so many different individuals. If you look at the roster even now, for the second iteration of IQIM, the second cycle we have, there's a pretty cool medley of people, again, from quantum chemistry to ion traps to theoretical quantum gravity side to condensed matter physics, topological this. It's pretty crazy. It's very powerful also because we have retreats that we do every year. Because of the pandemic, it's been hard to do one over this past year and a half. But to see them all come together, it's always weird when people say it's like a family [laugh], because it's work. But it really is. It's weird. It's kind of like a family. They actually bring their families and their kids, and then we have talks and all that stuff, and you get to learn what the person across campus is doing. It's getting to the point now—I'm sure you know—that because of IQIM, we finally could have a home, say, by 2025, this Center for Quantum Precision Measurement that wouldn't have happened otherwise. A lot of some of the most fun events in Caltech's history—public events—happened because also of IQIM, whether it was One Entangled Evening or Feynman 100. They were like, "What can we do?" We became kind of the division within campus—again, we're just an institute of people that are already within their own divisions—and we just make things happen.
ZIERLER: So I understand the timing correctly, the offer to become involved in outreach, did that happen before it would be time for you to consider next opportunities in moving beyond IQIM?
MICHALAKIS: It literally happened within seven months of me being at IQI, and then the offer—I mean, I didn't even know, as I said, that I was part of IQIM. Very few of us knew—unless you were part of the faculty that maybe this small cluster that was just like ramping up, and said, "Hey, we are part of this Physics Frontiers Center now." I thought I was still part of IQI. Then, it transitioned from there where I did, I guess, enough stuff that John is like, "You're not going anywhere. Do you want to stay here, and then you can do whatever you want to do, basically? [laugh] What do you want to do?" I'm like, "I want to do research. I want to do outreach in whatever way I want." He's like, "Done." I'm like, "OK." I remember they gave me also the green card. When they had to fill out the application—I think Caltech had to fill out the application because a Greek immigrating in the US and all this stuff—the Department of Labor was trying to figure out what my role was because it didn't exist anywhere else. [laugh] They were like, "Wait. Are you a manager of outreach? Are you a research scientist? You're kind of beyond the research faculty kind of thing or just doing—as you said—outreach beyond the educational side." They were like, "It's this." [laugh] Like, OK, this is what it is.
ZIERLER: In addition to having some misgivings about not being an expert in outreach as a field, what concerns did you have that this might pull you in a direction where you might not be able to continue on the research track?
MICHALAKIS: It's funny. I think John was more concerned about this than I was throughout this whole process. It was really nice that, I remember, we were visiting the National Science Foundation, along with the other top people from the different physics frontier centers—maybe four or five years ago now. We're having lunch at Chipotle right before the meeting. [laugh] We're just sitting across from each other. He said, "Spiros, I often worry that you may be a"—I don't know exactly how he worded it, but something to the effect like, "I'm worried that you may have misgivings or something, you may be upset or whatever that you're not like a professor who's fully doing research. Now, you've been pulled to do this outreach stuff." I said to him, "I feel like the luckiest person on Earth. I mean, think about this. I have the ability to work with any student I want, to do any research I want. It's up to me how much I do on the research side versus the outreach side. I love doing both because it gives me time to go very deep instead of—I don't have to publish papers every few months like I used to. I don't have to do curriculum and go to all these classes. It's up to me to make something that is going to add value to my life and to Caltech and IQIM. As long as I do that, everyone's happy." So far, I think they've been happy. But I thought to myself, this is amazing. I've substituted grading assignments [laugh], teaching heavy loads of other stuff with outreach. That's it, and I don't even have to work on grant writing. This is insane. I think there should be more jobs like this, to be honest, so I'm pretty happy with where I am.
ZIERLER: What has IQIM been able to achieve because it specifically has this unique position where, in you, there is both a scholar and now an expert in outreach and quantum?
MICHALAKIS: I don't want to toot my own horn. But I will say that every time the NSF would visit, and they would have all these—every two years, they would visit to check on us, and see how we're doing; if we need any advice —the thing that would impress them the most—and the only reason I'm saying this is because they would say it, and also John and the other faculty, because everyone would have to give a presentation, and I would also present some of the stuff. Sometimes, John would present my research for some highlight or things of my work, like, to say, hey, this was what we've done with outreach, some exciting stuff. They were always like, "How the hell do you do it?" Because some of these people were also coming from institutions where they were trying to do this, and they were like, "How are you doing this? From a funding perspective also, like, how can you do all this different stuff? How is he funded? [laugh] What's the magic here? How are you guys doing this?" I think, in the end, what makes the difference—it's not me—is the fact that you have somebody like John who believes in someone like me, and gives me free rein. Then, very importantly, a big part of this story is Marcia Brown, who has been the mastermind [laugh] behind how to keep everything running, and also has basically taken over and done so much. I'm the ideas man [laugh], just like, "Hey, Marcia, let's do this crazy thing." Like, "Sure, OK [laugh], and this is how we're going to operationalize it." She's basically like a COO for IQIM.
ZIERLER: I'm curious if France A. Córdova, with her deep Caltech roots, and leader of NSF, if that was relevant at all in NSF's support of IQIM over the years?
MICHALAKIS: That's a good question. I think they really fell in love with the outreach. Denise Caldwell, who was the director of the physics division at the NSF—I remember one of the first things during that year, the very first presentation I gave, they were already very happy at the end of it. I was surprised. But she came to me, and she said like—because I asked her, "Any advice you have? Honestly, I'm kind of like starting in this. Do you have any advice on the outreach front?" She's like, "Just focus on a few things that you can do. Don't do too many things." I didn't listen to that. But she said something else [laugh] that stuck with me, and I tried to listen to that, which is like, "As experts, you all have the ability to consult, and create the content. You don't have to be the creatives. You don't have to be the ones who, now, you have to create like two million subscribers to your channel or something so you disseminate all this stuff. Just be the ones that are the experts, and try to connect with others to do that other work." That's what I've been doing for the past [laugh] like 11 years.
ZIERLER: Spiros, over the years, what have been some of the partnerships that have been most exciting in terms of really pushing the field in areas that it might not otherwise have?
MICHALAKIS: I guess there is an answer to the research side of this, and then to the outreach side. I'll start with the outreach. Working with Marvel Studios has pushed the field like quantum awareness in the public in new directions. Just knowing that there's a movie whose title is Quantumania that is coming up in a year or so is kind of crazy. To know that you're kind of responsible for this, we literally injected the Marvel Cinematic Universe with the quantum realm, that's pretty cool. From that point of view, it wouldn't have happened otherwise. On the research side, as I said before, honestly, if it weren't for IQIM, I mean, I could just list things or components that you need in order for quantum computers to work, and to really work in the future, and solve very big problems. Basically, every single one of them [laugh] has like an IQIM or IQI signature right next to it, whether it's quantum error-correcting codes or so many other things like how the components work, even superconducting qubits. Postdocs took them to Yale, and then IBM pulled them up, and then we brought them back, and all this stuff. So many of these things started here, which is pretty crazy.
ZIERLER: You mentioned earlier that one of the signs of progress is that postdocs and graduate students now are doing really important work. Like what? What are you seeing right now that is suggestive of all of this amazingness?
MICHALAKIS: I will tell you this. Forget we're even talking in this capacity and all this stuff. Imagine we're both kids—I don't know—like 30-plus years in the past, and somebody tells you about a black hole. The very first thing, of course, they tell you back then—and Hawking worked on it, and all these super smart people, and it was Einstein's dream to figure this stuff out too. But they're like, "Hey, a black hole is black because nothing can escape. The gravitational field is so strong that not even light, which has no mass, can escape because spacetime itself curves and it falls in. It can't come out. So, because of that, you don't get to see anything. You just see like a black circle up in the sky." Then you will want to know, like, OK, what would it feel like to actually enter? I mean, space and time, whatever. There is nothing weird from the outside, it looks like. But if you fall in, you could just see ahead of you, and, like, what does it look like? What does it feel? So many science fiction movies' concepts are based on like how you may be stretched, spaghettified, you know. All this stuff. But nobody, we thought, would ever know. You can't escape, and so you cannot tell anyone else, and your doom is right in front of you at the singularity anyway. [laugh] Right now, we're trying to literally figure out what is inside of a black hole, and to really know, you know, that's the theory of everything we were discussing. It's happening. It will happen in our lifetime—guaranteed. Maybe not even that far from now that we will have like an understanding, and it's happening because of all the work we've been doing in separate tracks from everything from string theory, quantum foam, all this stuff, like the mathematical underpinnings. But they are all coming together within the framework of quantum information theory. It's like weird. Entanglement and tensor networks, at the start, we thought were just mathematical oddities, are literally how we are designing spacetimes. Then, as we kind of squint and coarse-grain, we're like, oh, and this is where space and time come from, kind of thing. We're like, wow, what? [laugh]
MICHALAKIS: Yeah, it's crazy.
ZIERLER: Spiros, we started our talk, discussing your current work. For the last part of our interview, I'd like to ask a few questions looking to the future. The one is, I wonder if you can reflect on some of the challenges in managing expectations about the time horizon we're looking at here. With all of this excitement, all of this partnership—industry, government, Hollywood—how important is it to manage expectations for anybody who might think, "Next year, a year from now, two years from now, we'll have a quantum computer. The revolution will already be here"? How do you manage that, being responsible for outreach?
MICHALAKIS: For me, the answer I will give you is the same one I give to everyone when they interview me about my role in Hollywood. When they're like, "How do you feel about when the movies don't get it right, when they don't get the science 100% right, and they have all these crazy ideas, futuristic this and that, mumbo jumbo, and all these things?" My answer is this. That if your heart is in the right place, everything is going to be fine. What do I mean by this? Something I didn't tell you is when I was at Davis, and I talked to Bruno, what he actually told me—that changed my life—was not like, "Hey, how would you like to work on quantum information theory or quantum physics, like this particle in a box thing, and all the way that they had discussed up to now?" He just said like, "There's this really cool theory about quantum teleportation. Would you like to know more about it?" Which is a real protocol that my friend, Charlie Bennett, had come up with, with another one of his friends back at IBM at the time. The only word I recognized was "teleportation" from Star Trek, and I hadn't even watched that much Star Trek in my life. It just was in the general—the public kind of knew, and I knew.
It was like this science fiction amazing concept that even though it was BS—obviously it didn't exist—and somebody could say like, "Oh, my god, you're trying to tell our children that there's teleportation devices and stuff like that," no, it was fake. But try to make it real, and find the right team of people, and you can make miracles happen. I am here now, and we're talking, because of this little phrase. Otherwise, I would've been like, "Well, no, I'm going to do something—I'm going to continue with mathematical biology, or whatever it is." It changed my life, and that was just like fake science in a very good show. I feel the same way about what's happening now. Of course, there's always going to be hype when there is money involved, pride, all that stuff. But as long as you have people who are truly curious to see it through, to see it actually work, who have known, whether there are applications in quantum computing or not, that this is something amazing and mind-blowing and life-changing, for all of humanity [laugh] going forward, I am not worried. That's what I tell them too. I was like, "Hey, the journey itself is so much more interesting than the destination. There's going to be many stations along the way of successes and breakthroughs and all this stuff. But that journey's so interesting." I tell the students, I tell like the heads of industry [laugh], like, "Don't worry. I know there's a lot of pressure. Every single one of these little steps you make, real steps, are huge. They have never been done before. You don't have to say, like, hey, we're going to do this in two years, and we're going to have this amazing thing, and all this stuff. Just relax. Enjoy the process. Remember that everyone else is on the same process as you, so you don't have to fake it. Everyone is as slow and as excited in some ways as you are." I think it's similar to how John thinks about this, which is also why he loves academia so much because that slow burn, a slow process, slow is smooth, and smooth is fast. [laugh] That's how it is.
ZIERLER: Now, slow in academia makes a lot of sense, Spiros. But for all of the managers in industry or in government, who worry about budgets, and think about quarterly reports and things like that, what's the challenge in making sure that they see the long game, and the value in supporting it over the long term?
MICHALAKIS: That's a very good question. I think of an accordion. If you look at an accordion, it looks like, initially, very compressed and very dense, and you just need to get from one side to the other one. What you need to do is open it up. I do the same thing with storytellers, whether they're like writers or producers or the authors themselves. I can blow your mind with something as simple as gravity right now—not quantum gravity—just where gravity itself comes from, over the next few minutes. You'll be like, "Oh, my god, I have never thought of it this way." It will just change your life, kind of thing, but it really is. I don't have to go fancy. In other words, if you zoom in to some of the things that seem obvious, but you look at them with new eyes, you can do that with anyone. You can tell them like, hey, if you zoom into the process of how to go from a regular like computer to a fault-tolerant, scalable quantum computer, and you zoom into the individual components, the different steps needed, every single one of them is so interesting that you can say, OK, this is what we need to focus our attention on. It is such an exciting thing itself before we're like, but we need to be here. We know also—both as engineers and as scientists—that, often, the journey again has so many more hidden treasures than we imagined when we just vaguely look at it from a zoomed-out perspective. Go slow does not mean like go small. It means zoom in, expand the full complexity, and try to enjoy the whole process of taking every slice as its own important step.
ZIERLER: Spiros, one aspect of outreach we didn't talk about yet—and I'm not sure if this is in your portfolio—but because IQIM is so interdisciplinary now, what opportunities are there to draw additionally on all of the brain power at Caltech for professors and scholars who might not think that they have something to add to the quantum research world but, in fact, they do?
MICHALAKIS: The nice thing about IQIM is that it's a nucleating force in a different way as well. Every two weeks, we have faculty lunches, and different faculty members discuss their research. The reason why we do that is specifically to answer that question, like, "Hey, is there something that you know that we don't know, and vice versa?" Somebody else may say, "Have you considered actually how you could use this to do this other thing?" Or, like, "We should collaborate." Most of the collaborations have come from that. All this time, this collaboration allows them to amplify their work, and say, "We can now take it, and apply it directly to technology." This has been really great. It's an emotional connection also with the rest of the community because you don't just feel isolated that I'm just going against my own little world and the top people from other universities. You start doing, like, synthetic science in that sense—interdisciplinary, as they call it—and it's really cool also because you learn so much of the secrets of your colleagues that make them so exceptional. I think that's the way we've tried to answer that to make sure we don't miss out on some of these connections.
ZIERLER: Finally, Spiros, one last question that has two components. What's the frontier for you? What's the work to be done, both on the outreach side and on your ongoing research interests?
MICHALAKIS: On the research interest, I will say, for me—and it has to do a lot with outreach as well—I want to find a way, maybe because I'm Greek, to try to explain some of the most important equations and ideas at the edge of quantum field theory and quantum physics but right before, say, the full quantum theory of everything, as if Ancient Greeks figured it out, basically just using simple ideas, concepts like the Pythagorean theorem and things like that that you may learn like in seventh grade, and explain it so deeply [laugh], break it down so deeply, that then conceptually, it can help both the cutting-edge researchers—because we have some trouble right now connecting, say, time to space and, hence, quantum gravity at the quantum level—but do it at such a simple level that you can write books about it, you can have videos about it, and you really get the public excited. That's the research but also connected to outreach. But also on the outreach side, I really want to see kids one day not far from now down the road to have the same kind of intuition they have about gravity, the same one with quantum. Because kids don't even know Newton's laws of gravitation. But they know what is going to happen if they throw a ball, and move around in space, and all that stuff. Intuitively, they get it. With quantum physics, they just haven't had any exposure—none of us has—with the quantum realm. You may see some stuff in the movies with CGI and whatnot, but that's not even—to grapple with some of these concepts, it is, I think, imperative to meet them where they are, again, with games and stories and stuff like that that are infused deeply with quantum mechanics within the game mechanic. That's why we've been developing this Quantum Chess and a bunch of other—like, there's a whole company now that is focusing just—Quantum Realm Games—just on quantum games, both for educational purposes but also as commercial great games that are going to be very exciting and fun to play. The next genre, a new genre of games, and playing them on quantum computers. That's what we're working on with Google and IBM and AWS, hopefully, to have the world playing a new type of games on quantum computers. Why not?
ZIERLER: Spiros, it sounds like the ultimate goal in this outreach is to provide access to these concepts because, when these young minds go into education, go into their graduate careers, who knows what they'll add to the research?
MICHALAKIS: Exactly, exactly. Again, it's amazing to me that someone like me, who had no background in physics, had no exposure even to science early on in life, ends up doing what I'm doing right now. I think, like, imagine the ones—just like the kids who are learning how to program when they're like in fifth grade and sixth grade already—imagine what they can do even like 10 years from now. That is really cool.
ZIERLER: Maybe that's the genius who will do the breakthrough that makes scalable quantum computing.
MICHALAKIS: [laugh] Yeah. To me, honestly, David, it's not even about that. Because, in the end, all of this stuff we are doing here, it's not about how we're going to solve the world's problems; it's the why. Why would anyone care? Even if they had the most powerful quantum computer in the world, why would they use it? To do what? As human beings, we are so basic in our needs. We want to be respected, loved, all these things, and to be able to access other points of view, and for somebody else to say, like, OK, you have a valid point of view, a new framework for the world, and no technology's ever going to solve this problem. We might end up like not surviving because of just narrowly thinking about solving the world's problems via technology. In my mind, quantum and this outreach that I'm doing is so much more important than any research any of us can do, I think, because it's like you're not teaching them how to do more quantum research. I believe if we do it right, we're going to teach them how to view the world from a multitude of new points of view, where they realize that every single one of them is as important as any other one. To unlock the true nature and essence of things, they have to learn how to jump between points of view like that. Just like a quantum computer has to be in that multiverse of possibilities, it has to be comfortable zooming in and out, to give you an answer but come up to try to like see the best way forward. I think that's going to be cool. It's a shift, both in the educational landscape but also emotionally as human beings. You don't have to choose between right and wrong anymore, like there's only my way or the highway.
ZIERLER: Well, Spiros, on that note, this has been a fantastic conversation, and you've provided such a unique insight into the magic of IQIM, so I'd like to thank you so much.
MICHALAKIS: Thank you so much for taking the time, David.