The up-and-coming field of quantum computing, currently in a prototype phase, will probably be an innovation with exponential and wide-ranging impacts in the power and speed of information technology. There are some interesting parallels between the behavior of quantum computing particles, or qubits, and basic principles of Zen Buddhist philosophy. Like modern physics, this article employs a “space-time” concept of innovation, with implications for the process and intensity of new idea development within organizations.

Quantum Computing: A Holistic Revolution in Information Technology

In previous InnovationManagement articles applying Zen Buddhist (and related Daoist) philosophy to business innovation, I have stressed the importance of Zen’s holistic perspective towards natural phenomena. It is necessary to see the world of nature as it exists in all of its actual complexity. Such a perspective has been expanded over the centuries through major technological developments. Examples include the inventions of the telescope and microscope during the early 17th century. Today, in the 21st century, we stand at the threshold of another revolution in holistic vision—quantum computing.

In a notable interdisciplinary book, Matthieu Ricard and Trinh Xuan Thuan claim that there are “many ways in which science and Buddhism confirm and complement each other…” (The Quantum and the Lotus, 2001, 2004). You especially see this pattern in the quantum mechanics that underlie quantum information technology. The latter is being used “…to develop new kinds of computers and communications networks, and sensors for imaging and measuring things in novel ways” (Jeanne Whalen, “Seven Basic Questions About Quantum Technology, Answered,” The Washington Post, August 18, 2019).

Space-Time in Quantum Physics and Buddhism

The behavior of energy and matter within the atomic and subatomic realm defies traditional equations of Newtonian physics. For instance, quantum particles can occupy multiple states simultaneously, a condition known as “superposition”. Particles can also be separated by a large spatial distance yet be intricately, inescapably connected and mirror each other precisely. This phenomenon is called “entanglement”, which Albert Einstein characterized as “spooky action at a distance” (Jeanne Whalen, The Washington Post).

These features of quantum physics challenge our classical notions about the relationship between space and time—“space-time”—a fundamental construct in any uber-holistic worldview. (See Gary Davis, “Zen Philosophy for Stretching Innovation Space-Time,” February 14, 2019.)

Quantum particle behaviors such as superposition and entanglement parallel the Buddhist principle of interpenetration: All phenomena are understood not as discrete entities but as interpenetrating—as “the coincidence of interdependent conditions” (M. Ricard and T. X. Thuan, The Quantum and the Lotus).

Another Buddhist principle consistent with quantum physics is impermanence, stressed by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. Change is everywhere; nothing stays the same. Most quantum particles are very unstable, which presents a problem for computing applications. They often change energy states or decay into other types of particles within a span of microseconds or less.

The Power of Quantum Computing and the Intensification of Innovation Space-Time

The computers of today work in a sequential fashion, generally processing and transmitting long electrical or optical bit-streams, with each information pulse standing for a one or zero. Quantum computers, now in a prototype phase, would work with qubits—quantum bits. Qubits are flexible enough to execute numerous computations at the same time because they can be in states of one and zero simultaneously. Qubits can be likened to a coin that is both heads and tails at the same time while spinning (Jeanne Whalen, The Washington Post).

The behavior of qubits suggests parallels with the process of idea development itself. Instead of considering new business/technical ideas in a slow, sequential process, an organization should create a cross-functional, time-intensive (and employee- and team-intensive) “learning space” or study environment for evaluating all new ideas and associated problems at the same time, i.e., an intensification of innovation space-time. Employees would then be in a better position to identify connections, complementarities and convergences—even patterned networks—between different ideas, thus creating more potentially innovative concepts.

One can posit a hypothesis that, as in quantum mechanics, the more fundamental the rearrangement of space-time, the greater is the opportunity for an exponential increase in corresponding innovation across a broad technological spectrum. Innovations of processing power and speed in quantum computing are likely to pull along and spur disruptive change in other business sectors intimately dependent on information technology. A fourth or even fifth industrial, i.e., “quantum supremacy” revolution is in the offing.

About the author

Gary Davis is an economist working in Washington, D. C. He has published articles on Eastern philosophy for business innovation in several management journals, including Innovation Management. In 2009-2010, he published an article, “Contexts for Innovation,” in magazines in both the U. S. and Malaysia. The article recommends a synthesis of Eastern and Western strategies for business teams. He has studied innovation processes in connection with a position as research team leader. Gary Davis has presented economics papers at seminars and national conferences (e.g., of the Southern Economics Association and Society of Government Economists). He also gave a presentation on innovation to a U. S. Federal government seminar. He holds Master’s degrees in Economics and Public Administration and a Doctorate in Public Administration from George Mason University, Virginia.