Being Editor in Chief of CODE Magazine is cool but the story you’re about to read about has reached 11 on a 10 scale. Typically, my editorials, from idea to page, have a gestation time of a few days to a few weeks (sometimes it’s just a few hours. You know the drill, "If it wasn’t for the last minute, nothing would get done"). Well, the piece you’re about to read has by far the longest gestation time for any of my articles or editorials. By the time you read this article, over 18 months will have passed. What you’re about to read is a love story. It’s a love story where two of my favorite worlds, film and software, collided in an epic way.

Figure 1: The quantum computer of the future (Copyright 2020, FX Networks. All rights reserved. Miya Mizuno/FX.)

First, a Little Explanation

Quantum computing is technology based on the principles of quantum theory, which explains the nature of energy and matter on the atomic and subatomic level. It relies on the existence of mind-bending quantum-mechanical phenomena, such as superposition and entanglement. This gets complicated, so I asked William Hurley (better known as Whurley), founder of https://quantumcomputing.com/, to help explain. He wrote this definition.

Erwin Schrödinger’s famous 1930s thought experiment involving a cat that was both dead and alive at the same time was intended to highlight the apparent absurdity of superposition, the principle that quantum systems can exist in multiple states simultaneously until observed or measured. Today, quantum computers contain dozens of qubits (quantum bits), which take advantage of that very principle. Each qubit exists in a superposition of zero and one (i.e., has non-zero probabilities to be a zero or a one) until measured. The development of qubits has implications for dealing with massive amounts of data and achieving previously unattainable levels of computing efficiency that are the tantalizing potential of quantum computing.

Various parties are taking different approaches to quantum computing, so a single explanation of how it works would be subjective. But one principle may help readers get their arms around the difference between classical computing and quantum computing. Classical computers are binary. That is, they depend on the fact that every bit can exist only in one of two states, either 0 or 1. Schrödinger’s cat merely illustrated that subatomic particles could exhibit innumerable states at the same time. If you envision a sphere, a binary state would be if the north pole, say, was 0, and the south pole was 1. In a qubit, the entire sphere can hold innumerable other states and relating those states between qubits enables certain correlations that make quantum computing well-suited for a variety of specific tasks that classical computing can’t accomplish. Creating qubits and maintaining their existence long enough to accomplish quantum computing tasks is an ongoing challenge.

Quantum computers will be useful in advancing solutions to challenges in diverse fields such as energy, finance, healthcare, and aerospace, among others. Their capabilities will help us cure diseases, improve global financial markets, detangle traffic, combat climate change, and more. For instance, quantum computing has the potential to speed up pharmaceutical discovery and development, and to improve the accuracy of the atmospheric models used to track and explain climate change and its adverse effects.

Pretty cool, huh? Well, here’s where it gets even cooler.

Here’s My Story

In September of 2018, Jim Duffy, the marketing director for CODE Magazine, received an inquiry about using copies of CODE Magazine as props for a new television show being developed by FX called "Devs." As an offhanded comment, I said to Duffy, "Hey you should see if you could set up a set visit." After I explained what a set visit was, Duffy made the inquiry for me, and after 30+ e-mails, an NDA, and conspicuous usage of hotel points and frequent flyer miles, I was off to London for a set visit.

Figure 2: The "Devs" team at work on the set (Copyright 2020, FX Networks. All rights reserved. Raymond Liu/FX.)

After recovering from jet lag, I took the Tube to the suburb of Ealing in London where I soon found myself at Ealing Studios, the oldest continuously operating film studio in the UK and the world. I was ushered into a room where I waited to have interviews with members of the cast, Nick Offerman and Alison Pill. After meeting with them, I was granted an interview with creator-writer-director Alex Garland. Alex is one of my favorite writer-directors, having penned films like "28 Days Later" and "Never Let Me Go" and later writing and directing films like "Ex Machina" and "Annihilation." I also got to visit the set and watch them film a couple of scenes. This all occurred back in Jan of 2019 and it was a real delight.

Fast-forward to Jan 2020 and here we are. I managed to binge all eight episodes of "Devs" before a follow up interview with Alex Garland—I was lucky to have the opportunity to screen all episodes over two days. You, kind reader, will need to be a bit more patient and watch this show starting with a double episode on March 5 (in the US on FX on Hulu), and then one episode each week. You can also check out more info on their website: https://www.fxnetworks.com/shows/devs

Now for the cool part. Here are excerpts from my interview with Alex Garland:

Rod:Literally an hour ago, I finished watching your show. I watched it all the way through—half of it last night—and I'm glad I had enough time to finish it today.

Alex:Holy shit. So you got all the way to the end of episode eight?

Rod:Yeah, it's bad ass. I love your show. It's really great. I couldn't stop watching it. How did this project originate?

Alex:From two areas, I would say. One is just that you and I, and everybody, live in a world where tech casts a very, very long shadow and it's getting only longer, and so we live in a world of very, very powerful tech companies and a very complex kind of social dynamics that arise from the tech companies, and enormous power residing with the tech companies. That also means enormous power within machines and within people. None of this is news. None of this is new insight. We all know it, but it's the world we live in, so on some level, just from a writing point of view, I just react to it. So that would then include things about the slightly cult-y feel of some tech companies, and the messianic qualities of some tech companies, and the way in which tech companies make you feel often like a lot of people are drinking the Kool-Aid and that.

Rod:I hear you.

Alex:And then on the other end, I just got really, really interested in the idea of whether we do or don't live in a deterministic universe, and what the implications are for us about that. I approached these kinds of things as an atheist. I don't believe in God, so I start with a premise that we live in a physical universe, a sort of non-magical universe, and the more I read about it, the harder I found it to locate what you would be able to call free will. It's easy to locate what you could call an illusion of free will, but actual free will, that felt very hard to find. On the way to this free will, you'd need to find a bit of cause-and-effect that don't directly line up with each other.

Rod:Interesting.

Alex:You can find some of that stuff in quantum mechanics, because that acts in a probabilistic way, but even that doesn't lead you to free will, because it would be like driving a car down the street and rolling the dice about whether you turn left and right, and so you roll a six and you turn left or you roll one to five and you turn right, the other direction. That still wasn't a decision that was made, that was a consequence of a bit of sort of probabilistic guide. So if you really take that idea onboard that maybe you really don't have free will, that's also a very interesting area for a story and an interesting set of tools, so I hope it’s an interesting set of tools. Then it becomes literally the way those two ideas connect, the sort of the philosophical idea on one side and I guess the political idea on the other.

Rod:Okay. Wow. So in the process when you were doing this, how did quantum computing end up in the story?

Alex:Well two reasons. One is because quantum computing, in comparison to binary computing, has this incredible sort of exponential amount of power attached to it the more qubits you get running together. It allows for things that would not be possible in classical computing terms. But the main thing is that a quantum computer works according to quantum mechanics, and the universe we live in also works according to quantum mechanics. Instead of using classical computing to model our world, which is quantum mechanical, you use a quantum mechanical system to model the quantum mechanical world, and so you get something truer. You're not really able to fully model a quantum mechanical world in a classical way, so if you're going to do it, you kind of need a quantum computer, or that was my reasoning anyway. Maybe someone who knows more about it would take issue with that, but that's the underlying principle.

You use a quantum mechanical system to model the quantum mechanical world.

Rod:Okay. Yeah. I was just reading up on it and all the discussions of Schrodinger's cat and Heisenberg, and it's like, "does quantum exist?" because if you observe it, it's different. I'm a software developer by trade, and it's a weird concept to me, because I'm so used to, if-else, right? Those kinds of conditions that we deal with all the time, and then it's like this, "if-else, but maybe". It's the whole "but maybe" thing that's weird.

Alex:It's exactly the "but maybe." But also, it's not just that. The whole way the system, the quantum mechanical system, works is just completely at odds with our intuitive sense of how the world works. There's nothing in our day-to-day life that would make us instinctively think that any physical object, any piece of matter could have a superposition. Like the idea that quantum particles have superpositions is deeply alien. It's really, really strange, and, in a way, I can imagine that it's not just in conflict with your experience as a software engineer, it’s in conflict with everybody.

Rod:Yeah. I'm trying to wrap my head around how to even use this technology in the future and it's so early in it, in terms of how it really works.

Alex:Yeah.

Rod:Yeah. There's lots of things that have happened. It's been amazing in terms of technology and kind of leading back to your point about power in these tech companies. It seems like lots and lots of very potentially hazardous technology has been put out into the world, things like deepfakes; the New York Times had an article last week about facial recognition software.

Alex: Yeah.

Rod:...and all these technologies, yeah, and Instagram and all that. Do you think we've kind of crossed the Rubicon? Can we put this genie back in the bottle? What do you think, even though in just the last month, so many things have come out of the woodwork?

Figure 3: Sonoya Mizuno and Alex Garland think about stardust. (Copyright 2020, FX Networks. All rights reserved. Miya Mizuno/FX.)

Alex:I don't see us putting any genies back in any bottles. No. I think our best hope is that we speed up our thinking about how to deal with these issues, and we also just improve our thinking, so not just we think faster, but we think better about it. I think we need to be more honest about it. The tech companies need to be more honest, and politicians need to be more honest, and also the users need to be more honest, and make more of an effort to see it for what it is. So, the genie doesn't get back in the bottle. We just need to adapt better to the genie, in other words.

The genie doesn’t get back into the bottle. We just need to adapt better to the genie.

Alex:The way I often think about it is to do with when the world, or in fact your country, when your country decided to reject the monarchy, and instead set up a system of democracy, there was a lot of wisdom employed at that point, and it was like recognizing what was bad about monarchy, and what and how important a system of checks and balances was. I mean, of course, it's more complicated than this. It comes from many places, but to some extent, what America did was create this beautiful system of checks and balances between the executive and the legislature and the judiciary, and it was very smart and it's worked pretty well. It's working less well at the moment, but certainly for a long time it worked extremely well. It seems to me that the right thing to do is to recognize that we're at a point in time that is a bit like the American Revolution; we need a system of careful, well-structured checks and balances—they're not there to remove power, but they're there to make sure power is dealt with properly.

Rod: How do the checks and balances relate to "Devs"?

Alex:I feel like that's the thing that's missing. The problem is that the tech companies exist within the capitalist marketplace, that there is an ideology that's rather powerful at the moment that says that marketplace must be kept free. And the question is whether something that powerful should be kept free or not, and increasingly I think anything powerful, anything, I don't care where, it needs limitations on its power. And it just doesn't feel right to set up a new kind of monarchy where you have kings and queens, but a tech company. (See Figure 2 for a glimpse at the stars in action)

Figure 4 : Alison Pill and Nick Offerman, stars of "Devs" (Copyright 2020, FX Networks. All rights reserved. Raymond Liu/FX.)

Rod:These are very heavy questions. So let's ask a couple of light questions, and there's an area of this that I'm actually really very curious about. One of the things that I felt you got very right in this story is programmers and geeks/programmer culture. How did you get that so right? Because I mean the one thing that really stuck out to me, and it's going to seem silly, is every single laptop I've owned for the last 15 years, it's loaded with stickers, and I have like a box of them for the next laptop when it shows up, because it's like, oh, new sticker, new sticker laptop, right? And the way they dress, the way they talk, the way they, how did you pull that off? Because I notice very few people get it right.

Alex:Well, look, part of the answer to that is I worked with a big team of people, and so what you're seeing is the sort of result of a den of hive thinking. Lots of people are involved; for example, the visual effects supervisor, Andrew Whitehurst, he talks about stickers and laptops. Andrew's an incredibly talented coder, although he would immediately [say] that he's not, but he is, and I remember him talking about stickers on laptops. So, it partly comes from stuff like that. And I think the other place it comes from is possibly, maybe, or I hope I have some kind of personal connection with that world, in as much as that when I'm talking to people in that world, I often feel like although we have different areas, like screenwriting or coding, there's a weird amount of crossover interest, so we're sort of talking the same language in a way. I think I sort of, maybe I get it because there's a large part of me that is like that, right?

Rod:There's a lot of truth to that. Actually, a year, a year and a half ago, I wrote parallels of how our two industries work the same. We have our pre-visualization for building mockups of stuff, and then we have the coding, and we have the testing and the refinement, and we go back and forth, so being a film nut and a computer guy, the crossovers have been pretty amazing. Well, you did a good job on making it pretty accurate for how we act, and the culture that we have.

Alex:Thanks.

Figure 5: Lily Chan (played by Sonoya Mizuno) contemplates her next step. (Copyright 2020, FX Networks. All rights reserved. Raymond Liu/FX.)

Rod:I think I'll wrap it up with just one general question. One of the problems that I've had, and it's not a problem with the show, it's like how do you classify this show? Because it seems like you’ve done a mashup of mystery, thriller, horror, sci-fi, and time travel. You've thrown it all in and melded it together very well. If you're describing this at a dinner party to people who don't watch it, how do you describe this to people? How do you classify this yourself?

Alex:Yeah, it's a good question. It's sort of tricky, but I know that it's also, yeah, it's like a good thing to do, because it gives people a shorthand of how to approach it. The way I see it in my head is that it's a sci-fi tech thriller. So in a way, in the definition, I'd do the mashup you're talking about, because you could say it's a thriller, you could say it's a tech movie, you could say sci-fi, but really, this is a sci-fi tech thriller.

Really, this is a sci-fi tech thriller.

Remember to check out "Devs" on FX on Hulu. See if you can find CODE Magazine on the show. You can also follow breaking news about "Devs" using the following social media info:

@Devs_FXonHulu
#Devs
#FXonHulu

Figure 6 : Any well-dressed coffee table includes a copy of CODE Magazine (Copyright 2020, FX Networks. All rights reserved. Courtesy of FX Networks).