If I hear about one more precocious 20-something making millions by creating yet another killer app, I’m going to start banging my head against my desk. To many, programming a smartphone to hail taxis or track flights is the height of modern innovation, but honestly? It bores me to tears.
If you want to see real innovation at work, take a look at Mike Lazaridis, founder of Research In Motion (now BlackBerry). Lazaridis didn’t just invent a new app, he—along with co-CEO Jim Balsillie and a team of engineers—invented the modern smartphone. BlackBerry has had a rough time lately and endured a lot of criticism, some of it from this magazine. But his accomplishments in both the engineering and business worlds are still, to me, awe-inspiring.
Now semi-retired from BlackBerry (he retires completely as of May 1), Lazaridis has hardly retreated to his study to build model ships. Instead, he founded a group of science institutes primed to produce amazing innovations—inventions, really—that will make the smartphone look like an ’80s digital watch.
Lazaridis most recently announced that he’s joining forces with Doug Fregin, one of the original BlackBerry founders, to create a $100-million private fund to commercialize breakthroughs resulting from the quest for a quantum computer. Specifically, the Quantum Valley Investments fund, based in Waterloo, Ont., will help to develop practical applications for the research being conducted at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, the Waterloo Institute for Nano Technology and the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC).
What can we expect from the likes of the IQC? According to the institute’s mission statement, no less than “harnessing the quantum laws of nature to develop powerful new technologies that will transform information technology and drive the 21st century economy.”
To appreciate the significance of their mission, it helps to delve into the science, just a bit. Consider that regular microprocessors, the kind that lie at the heart of your iPhone or desktop computer, represent data in binary format, as a series of ones and zeros, via transistors that can be either “on” or “off.” Quantum computers, on the other hand, use quantum bits (called “qubits”) that can be simultaneously both on and off. This allows the machines to perform two calculations at the same time, which theoretically means they could run through every possible solution to a problem at once. With just 300 qubits at its disposal, a quantum computer could run more calculations in an instant than there are atoms in the universe, estimates Scientific American. Consider the ramifications: quantum computers could solve problems that current computers could never solve, no matter how powerful they are. As Mike Lazaridis himself recently said, “Nothing has prepared you for what we are about to see.”
The fact that Canada is developing one of the most advanced quantum computing institutes in the world is exciting. This is the kind of innovation that should make self-important app developers blush. It will result in inventions we can’t even conceive of that will change the world forever, much like the laser, the MRI and, well, the transistor did. So as BlackBerry is battered by the competition, and we wring our hands wondering where the country’s next Research In Motion will come from, look to Mike. Because the way things are going, Canada’s next RIM could very well come from the same guy who brought us the first one.
Duncan Hood is editor of Canadian Business