Talking about the Strange World of the Smallest Particles – My TED@IBM Experience

How does one talk about Quantum Physics to a broad audience of different backgrounds? Dr. Jerry M. Chow took on this challenge at last year’s TED@IBM. In this blog, he shares some of the things he learned from the experience.

Dr. Jerry M. Chow, Manager of Experimental Quantum Computing at IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center, is IBM’s primary investigator for IARPA’s Logical Qubits Program.

Last October 2015, I had the wonderful opportunity to speak at TED@IBM. It was a tremendous honor and I was privy to one of the most dynamic and engaging events in which IBM partakes. The end-to-end experience of drafting, re-writing, getting coached, and then live performing has been personally rewarding and impactful on how I publically present the rather complicated subject of IBM’s research efforts on quantum computing.

Before the TED@IBM event, I have had multiple occasions to speak publically, but typically in academic and purely research-audience settings. With the broad outreach of a venue such as TED, it was a chance to construct a story about quantum computing that was apt for telling at a cocktail party: consumable by those without quantum physics background, and yet complex and mysterious enough to achieve delight and wonder.

Finessing a story to capture this delicate balance was aided through the support of an awesome team of dedicated coaches that I had the chance to work with through the TED@IBM process. Over Skype meetings, we chiseled away at the script, removing unnecessary technical jargon while also bringing in natural and personal touches that helped focus the passion which I have for the topic into words to resonate with an audience. Besides polishing the script and message, the coaching helped with my delivery and stage presence. Learning how and where to stand, what tone to aim for, and even picking up tricks for memorization and improvisation, it felt like learning how to drive again, but at the helm of a Ferrari. The experience has certainly influenced how I approach and prepare for public speaking opportunities, and in turn I am actively encouraging many of these techniques with my own team and close colleagues.

On the TED@IBM event day, the most memorable experience was to meet and get to know the other speakers. Like a seasoned chef, you could watch the TED production staff put this amazing menu of talks together, each one with a character and message unique to the speaker. Chilling (or freaking out) together in the green room back stage before going live, we the speakers pumped one another up and cheered as one after the other, we knocked our talks out of the park.

The social reach of an event such as TED@IBM is immeasurable. From the immediate feedback I received from technologists in the audience at the convention hall, to the LinkedIn messages from aspiring students months after, I was tremendously humbled by the broad impact such a talk could bring. The experience has taught me also that in today’s social-media driven and online video age, the consumption of new ideas and thought provoking ideas can be fantastically absorbed in 10-12 minute chunks. How to direct one’s message and story, no matter how complex into such a short segment, is hence a critical ability to have.

Even though it was over a year ago, I often find myself thinking back to all the details of the experience from that day. It’s so exciting to have these opportunities at IBM, and I’m looking forward to this year’s event and a new crop of exciting and engaging stories.

The future of supercomputers? A quantum chip colder than outer space
Chow taps into the strange world of the smallest particles, where the rules of ordinary reality don’t apply and shares how to harness their mind-boggling potential.


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