John Martinis the head of Google’s Quantum Computing Hardware has resigned from the company after serving nearly six years at the tech giant. He was the one who led Google’s controversial effort to achieve so-called Quantum Supremacy last year which drew both praise and criticism.
Martinis says, he had been reassigned from a leadership position to an advisory one. Martinis tell that the change led to disagreements with Hartmut Neven, the longtime leader of Google’s quantum project.
“Since my professional goal is for someone to build a quantum computer, I think my resignation is the best course of action for everyone,” John Martinis said.
“At the time I was really worried about it,” he said, describing last year’s reshuffle. “And then over the nine months, I tried it out and it kind of wasn’t working for me, and I told management it wasn’t working for me.
But the young group had done very well with quantum supremacy, and Hartmut [Neven] really wanted them to lead the team, and that didn’t really work for me, and in the end, I felt I had to quit.”
Martinis said that three members of the team will be leading the hardware group going forward, though he wouldn’t say who. Hartmut Neven, Martinis’ now ex-boss who leads Google’s Quantum AI Lab and has been a key player in various other Google projects, will continue to oversee the whole team.
It was Neven who in 2012 pitched the idea of a quantum computing project to then-CEO Page. Page agreed to build a department to research & advance quantum computing, and Martinis joined the team in 2014. The division’s work hard and evolved but achieving quantum supremacy was by far its crowning achievement.
“One of the reasons to do quantum supremacy was to show Google executives that this quantum computing was real and not just some physics pipe dream,” said Martinis, who says management continued to give the team the resources and time they needed to make it happen.
“Google just kept supporting us,” he said. Martinis, who is still a professor at UC-Santa Barbara, also brought several of his students over to join Google’s quantum supergroup.
“What I appreciated was that Google wasn’t trying to get us to make a lot of money by selling quantum computer time or anything like that,” he said. “We were doing it to develop the industry and develop the ecosystem, but they weren’t pressuring us to do things in order to make a few million dollars.”
Martinis described himself as the “chief realist” and Neven as the “chief optimist” of the group. “I always thought it was a good combination because they’re almost two sides of how you want to think of things, and if you get together and talk about it you can come to good solutions,” he said.
“And that happened for a long time, but I would say over the past year or year and a half with these other problems and other things it wasn’t working out. And in the end, Hartman makes the decision, he’s my boss.”
According to Martinis, younger members of the team wanted to take leadership of the project. “That was the top criteria and we couldn’t figure out a way to fit me into this in a way that everyone else was comfortable with and I was comfortable with. It just happens.”
Martinis said that he would have remained at Google if he could have retained a leadership role, but discussions were management weren’t fruitful – resulting in the decision to walk away this year.
Google has a history of holding onto prized brains within the company to keep them away from rivals, sometimes paying them to effectively do very little. Google held discussions with Martinis to keep him at the company, but without the ability to steer the quantum ship he felt as though it was no longer a good fit.
“To build a quantum computer is really hard. And while I’m sure it’s going to be fine for the next few years when you think about on the 5- or 10-year scale, there are significant scientific and engineering challenges.”
“I felt that I needed to be in a leadership role and not in an advisory role to meet those challenges. Hartman had a different opinion on how to do things, so I tried it out for 9 months, then I made a decision to leave.
Martinis will continue to work at UC Santa Barbara, and although a lot of what he built under Google’s roof belongs to the company, he says he plans to continue his work in this field. His lab at UC Santa Barbara had maintained an extended record of breakthroughs in quantum computing over the course of 20 years.
“I knew there was some technology that needs to be improved, and I’m reading books and thinking about that, and inventing some things now that I think will be helpful for the field,” he said.
But Martinis said he was disappointed he couldn’t continue to pursue quantum computing for Google, where he worked for almost six years. “It’s hard for me, I’m very sad. But I’m happy for people because they get to have their own career, run their own project, & do their own thing now, and that’s good for them.”
“In some sense leaving Google was something I thought could help everyone because there was a lot of tension going on, and this way it’s better for me and better for the people at Google that they get to do what they want. Maybe it’s better for everyone.”
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