If you are not a scientist or a techie, and perhaps even if you are, the word “quantum” might sound like something out of Star Trek. It’s futuristic, for sure, but it is not fiction. Quantum computers, and the genuinely revolutionary computational power it promises, may not be too far off at all. At the vanguard of quantum computing is a name you might not expect—Honeywell. While the company used to be known for its smart home products, such as thermostats or smoke alarms, the multinational conglomerate has more of its fingers in a lot more technology pies. Honeywell plays in four main areas: aerospace, performance materials and technologies, building technologies, and safety and productivity solutions. The industrial side of the business, through Honeywell Connected Enterprise, is creating momentum in the EPM (Enterprise Performance Management) category, with its industry-leading IoT platform, Honeywell Forge.
And, as we will go into today, one of the most radical, potentially world-changing technologies currently in development—quantum computing. Behind Honeywell’s push in advancing quantum is a man named Tony Uttley, the President of Honeywell’s Quantum Solutions unit. Moor Insights & Strategy has been following Honeywell’s efforts in this area closely, and I jumped at the recent opportunity to interview Uttley on his unit’s efforts and progress. Let’s dive into Honeywell and Uttley’s quantum journey.
What is quantum computing?
Before we get started, we should define what we’re talking about. Highly simplified, instead of using traditional computer bits (which operate on the binary of either on or off or 1 or 0), quantum computers utilize “qubits,” which possess the unique ability to be in both the 1 and 0 states simultaneously thanks to a property of quantum physics called “superposition.” Additionally, these computers can perform computations simultaneously, instead of sequentially (like traditional computing). It can do this due to entanglement, a quality of qubits that allows them to be joined together in a way that will enable each qubit to hold the information about all the others in the grouping (called a “register” in quantum jargon).
These qualities, combined, promise to blow the current most advanced supercomputers out of the water in terms of compute power and speed, with the potential to unlock technological advancements beyond what we can even fathom at this point.
While discussing the potential, Uttley shared a useful analogy: when classical computers were being developed, at the time, people thought there would only need to be a handful of them in the world. Sixty years later, and most people carry around their tiny computers in their pockets wherever they go. Computers have progressed and become more ubiquitous and profitable than anyone could have possibly imagined in the early days. And that’s where we are now with quantum computing—the early days.
Along came Tony
But let’s rewind a little bit because it’s worth knowing how the man at the helm of Honeywell’s Quantum Solutions division ended up there. Uttley got his career start at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, as the operations manager at NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory excited to apply his skills to the space program. He spent a decade at NASA, but at some point along the way realized that he was better at convincing “really, really smart people” to do things than actually doing them himself. This led to him transitioning to the world of strategy consulting, where he ended up working for the Boston Consulting Group for seven years, helping clients figure out how to achieve their business goals.
When he arrived at Honeywell, about a decade ago, he initially led global strategy and marketing for Honeywell’s largest division at the time, Automation & Control Solutions, an $18B portfolio of residential, commercial, and industrial controls. Following that role, Uttley led the company’s residential business within the Americas Region. There he was responsible for driving the upgrade of Honeywell’s legacy thermostats (the bread and butter for the company for nearly a century) into connected, app-based smart thermostats—a foray into the new world of the “smart home” that Honeywell had never attempted before. It was a big undertaking, but, as a guy with a penchant for strategizing big ideas into fruition, Uttley was the man for the job.
Honeywell’s “quantum leap”
Honeywell’s quantum exploration began with two Ph.D. researchers coming forward with an intriguing proposition: Honeywell’s broad scope of technology was already uniquely suited to take on building a quantum computer. The company was already a leading manufacturer of hardware and software control systems, advanced electronics and optics and photonics (lasers, fiber optics, modulators, cryogenics, and ultra-high vacuum environments), all of which you need to build a quantum computer. Despite thinking it was “the coolest thing ever,” Uttley admitted he was initially skeptical due to it still being the very early days of quantum computing at the time.
After discussing it with higher-ups, however, an agreement was reached that pursuing the ambitious goal of quantum computing was, in fact, in line with Honeywell’s strategic imperatives to be a technology leader. Additionally, since many of the underlying technologies were already in development at Honeywell, investing in them and advancing them would benefit the rest of Honeywell’s business simultaneously. Lastly, Honeywell is one of the world’s leading controls companies, and quantum computing is, at its heart, a controls problem. Honeywell made critical investments to pursue the idea further. The questions that needed to be answered, to push the project forward were:
a) Can Honeywell build something that is genuinely a differentiated Quantum computer?
b) How can Honeywell leverage quantum technology, at this early stage, to customers’ benefit—will anyone pay to use it?
After the company felt like it had developed a differentiated capability with real potential, it formed a full team around the project, employing atomic, molecular, and optical physicists and other scientists, technicians, and engineers with specializations in trapped-ion quantum computing.
Challenges ahead demand trust
Uttley stressed the importance of building trust with the ecosystem around Honeywell’s quantum computer. While currently, the results of algorithms run on quantum can be tested and validated against those that run on classical computers, once the company pushes past the barrier of what’s possible with classical computing, there will be nothing to cross-reference and validate results with. Honeywell will have to trust in its execution and be able to transfer that trust effectively to others to convince them to step into what Uttley called “the virtual unknown.” I suspect his knack for selling people on big ideas might come in handy there.
He went on to say that the scarcest resource right now, as quantum moves forward, is the lack of people. As he puts it, all the people who know how to do quantum computing have been “gobbled up” by companies such as Honeywell, startups, national labs, or academia. The next capacity constraint, according to Uttley, lies in the quantum computing systems themselves. Honeywell is only building a few systems because it knows the second generation will be coming down right behind it. Given the nature of quantum computing, it will potentially be 100,000 times better than the first. As he tells it, this could severely cut down the time to access the system itself. Because of this, Honeywell has been collaborating with companies that are not merely dabbling—it knows for a fact that quantum will profoundly impact its sector. These businesses want to take advantage of the learning opportunity and start building use cases that work on these limited-capacity early quantum systems to scale up as the quantum volume increases eventually.
We wrapped up our conversation on a topic that I believe was particularly illuminating in terms of understanding Tony and his past success, as well as having faith in his current quantum project. As he tells it, he watched the classic movie, “The Right Stuff,” as a kid, and from that point on, all he wanted to do was work for NASA. And so he did, eventually getting to work in the very place where NASA trains astronauts how to do spacewalks. NASA was his dream, he said, because “it’s like looking at the future.” It’s a mission, and people work hard and go the extra mile when they’ve got a mission they believe in.
In addition to informing his career trajectory, I believe that understanding makes him such an effective leader for teams to rally around. And now, he’s found a new mission in quantum computing and is entirely focused on pushing this technology forward for the future of humanity. His enthusiasm was evident in our interview, emphasizing that he has the “coolest job,” working on “the coolest topic…on the planet.” If he and his team maintain that passion and drive, it’s hard not to believe quantum computing success is within their reach. I’m not a betting man, but if I were, I wouldn’t bet against Tony.
Note: Moor Insights & Strategy writers and editors may have contributed to this article.