April 15, 2024

Why Google transformed a quantum computing lab into an artistic oasis


Disclaimer: Transcripts are machine- and human-generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: High-tech labs are not places where you are likely to find much creative artistic expression, much less color. But a scientist and an artist have joined forces to help inspire the development of the next generation of computing at Google’s quantum AI lab.

Special correspondent Mike Cerre reports from California for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Mike Cerre: Your typical sterile tech office park building, until a scientist and an artist collaborated to convert this high-tech lab to build the next generation of computing into an art museum to help inspire innovation.

Forest Stearns, resident artist: We have created a space where there is no border between the hardware, the art, the architecture, the scientist and nature itself through the windows.

Mike Cerre: Forest Stearns, a Google artist-in-residence, and Erik Lucero, the Google engineer tasked with developing its first quantum AI computer, have a mutual fascination with art and science.

Erik Lucero, director, Google Quantum AI Lab: I think a lot of the work I’ve done throughout my career has been trying to capture what I think are beautiful things that we do in electrical engineering and physics.

Mike Cerre: Lucero, an accomplished photographer and scientist, offered Stearns and the artist a residency at Google Quantum AI after seeing Stearns’ Draweverywhere work printed on satellites in space.

Forest Stearns: Having figured out how to make the biggest art display in space, turn on the lightbulb of let’s put art into tech stuff to amplify humanity.

So you asked him: what is quantum computing?

Forest Stearns: I asked Erik, what is quantum computing? And instead of sending me a white paper, he sent me his gorgeous portfolio of photographs of quantum computers.

Mike Cerre: Since this next generation of computing is based more on nature physics than mathematical calculation, like existing computers, quantum computing’s connection to nature became the unifying theme of art everywhere , from the sculptures in the lobby of some of the hardware and 3-D in the company cafeteria to wrapping the quantum computers themselves in art.

Forest Stearns: To me, the quantum computer looked like a keg of beer.


Erik Lucero: We start with Yosemite. So it’s lovely to experience flatness, and then it’s a completely different experience when you see it adorning a quantum computer. I feel like that was when… I don’t know, I get chills thinking about having all these machines embraced by this art.

Mike Cerre: Cold is the operative term here, since the chandelier-like innards of the quantum computer must be kept running at more than 400 degrees below zero inside these refrigerated containers called cryostats.

Forest Stearns: We have 16 artists internationally. Some of them are traditional oil painters. Some of them are digital artists. We have artisans who work in metal and we have sculptors who work in 3-D.

Ravis Henry, Park Ranger, Canyon de Chelly National Monument: My name is Ravis Henry. I am a park ranger at Canyon de Chelly National Monument.

Mike Cerre: Ranger Ravis Henry is also an accomplished Navajo artist and jeweler. Stearns and Lucero discovered him and his work while they were in the Southwest exploring national parks for the creative exchange of the art project.

Forest Stearns: He does his work in metal crafts. It is silver and copper. And we take this piece and it goes from your local materials to a quantum cryostat wrapped up within the scientific endeavor.

Erik Lucero: In fact I had the opportunity to paint this mural that you see behind us. I basically finished my day working in the lab, put on my painting clothes, picked up a brush with Forest, and finished the mural.

Forest Stearns: Art is a very experiential experience and we are creating an experience here where people are inspired to show up and be great.

JACOB AGUILAR, Google Technician: I mean, everything that has vibrant colors here really helps, I think, express our creative side here, and really keeps the lab in a creative thinking space, just because, when things get too technical , and it’s just basic black and white, it really closes your mind.

Mike Cerre: Would you hang the Galapagos in your living room?

William Giang, Google Technician: Yes, definitely…


William Giang: …on the kitchen table. Yes, we requested… if we could actually have one and any of them… or a copy of it.

Erik Lucero: It’s important to note that there are real humans working on these projects and we care deeply about the places we live, where we come from, and the planet we live on. And I believe these research tools are what will help us stay here and protect our Earth.

Mike Cerre: The intersection of art and technology is as old and rich as Leonardo da Vinci and as American as the 19th century painter Samuel Morse. In addition to anatomical portraits of him, he developed the first telegraph and Morse code. His first email, “What has God done?”

Sometimes a love-hate relationship is perceived between art, science and technology. Do you think that is misinterpreted?

Erik Lucero: I would question whether it exists.

Mike Cerre: In what way?

Erik Lucero: I see a lot about how those things to me are the same. When you have the opportunity to do great science, there is simply the opportunity to look at it with a particular perspective that can make it appear artistic.

Forest Stearns: I’m celebrating the fact that quantum physics is difficult and very advanced. And when something is very far from here, it takes art to bring it back here.

Mike Cerre: For “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Mike Cerre in Goleta, California.

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