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Stan Williams: a retrospective


stan yard.jpgStan (left) at the Alpine Inn in Portola ValleyBy Curt Hopkins, Managing Editor, Hewlett Packard Labs

June 29, 2018, was the last day for R. Stanley Williams, one of HPE’s two Senior Fellows and a leader in research both at Hewlett Packard Labs and in the area of computing research in general. Stan has tangibly influenced the direction of computing investigation and has inflected the nature and timbre of Labs in the 23 years he’s spent here.

It’s going to suck not having him here. But the things he’s planning to do are as exciting and intriguing as anything he’s done so far. I promise I’m not exaggerating.

The idea that Stan’s not going to spend the bulk of his time as a rocker jockey is surprising to exactly no one who knows him or is familiar with his history. After graduating college, he spent two years at AT&T’s Bell Labs and 15 years as a professor at UCLA before joining Labs. The next decade should prove as lively as any of the preceding ones.

What are your plans after retirement?

I’m retiring from HPE, not retiring intellectually. I plan to become a roaming scholar, a sort of “Will solve physics problems for food” type of thing. I’m going to visit centers of expertise around the world where I can contribute and where I can also learn. I’m looking forward to spending time without external demands to study more deeply, to talk with experts, and to evolve a new theory of computation.

My long-term goal is to stitch together areas of study that are somewhat separate but which I think should be unified, in order to make significant new progress in computing. These consist of four areas.

First is the theory of computation. Very little progress has made in the last 70 years but lots of interesting ideas that have popped up and I have identified similarities between these ideas. Many of these ideas have come up in the IEEE Rebooting Computing effort.

Once you have a theory, you have to ask, what is the practice? I believe it lies in non-linear dynamical electronics, taking inspiration from the brain, which is not a static linear systems. I want to go in a different direction from the CMOS circuit. Instead of avoiding non-linearity, I want to embrace it.  This is where the theory is made real, where we put flesh on the bones. Once you see how the math can be done you need to connect to the computation.

The next step will be building and testing devices and circuits that exhibit non-linear dynamics and perform the computations suggested by the theory as it is put into practice.

Finally, I want to delve into material sciences. It is unlikely that any device currently available will be able to perform these functions. I will be looking for the “Goldilocks zone” of this post-CMOS world. So I plan to collaborate in materials research and help guide materials scientists to an understanding of device physics.

These areas don’t cross too often, and they are not within the sphere of interest of most high-tech companies, so I’ve decided to take it upon myself to be a catalyst to stimulate and make bridges between fields.

My hero Leon Chua, now 82, retired from Berkeley 10 years ago, and since then has written 100 research papers. I would argue that within this decade, he has created an entire new area of research. It now requires someone else to figure out the physics of how to make that real, something I’ve done for his memristor.

What do you consider the high points of your career?

I am now considered by many to be a co-founder of nanotechnology. My work in this field gave me my original reputation and was part of the reason for my promotion to Senior Fellow in late Nineties. A lot of this work I did at Labs and it provided me a way to cross the bridge from physical chemist to someone thinking much more about computation and its theory. The set of documents I co-wrote became The National Nanotechnology Initiative. This has influenced the direction of the science and has served to amplify the funding for nanotechnology around the world. Total world investment in nanotechnology is now about $5 billion per year.

The second high point came after 15 years of searching. That investigation yielded the realization that memristor was not just a math oddity but actually exists in the physical universe. From there a huge and growing area of science engineering resulted. Since the paper I published in 2008, memristor has taken off as a separate field. Labs’ works on this technology has influenced how it has developed and there have been seven papers on this topic in top nature journals. Memristor is going to make a big difference, especially for AI.

Tell me about your work in quantum computing.

When I was hired at Labs I was given discretion regarding what I wanted to work on, as long as it would be important to the company within 20 years’ time. So I began to investigate quantum computing. I talked to the founders of the field and considered maybe what I should be starting was a quantum computing lab. However after a couple of years, I felt it would be at least 20 years, if not more, before quantum computing would be important. I figured I could come back and check on it and if things changed, we could start then. What’s happened is I have revisited the topic and my opinion has not changed.

In the past 6 months other high-tech companies, including IBM and Microsoft, have been making a lot of noise about, and spending a lot of money on, quantum computing. So I did another deep dive with my sources, the same founders of the field I first consulted with. I also spoke to Labs researchers like fellow Senior Fellow Ray Beausoleil. I came to the decision that in fact there is less reason to be doing quantum computing than there was 20 years ago. The reasons for doing it I felt were fading away.

That goes against a lot of the hype out there, so I tested the conclusion by giving a presentation on the road at Los Alamos National Lab and Sandia National Laboratories and several other places, and interestingly no one disagreed with me, so in the end I feel I’ve been validated. 20 years ago I believe I made the correct decision; other efforts are far more viable, including tech Labs is pursuing like the coherent Ising machine and the Hopfield network.

We believe that both of those have advantages over quantum computing, especially in the near term. They don’t require completely changing the paradigm of how computer software is written and they are far more cost efficient. The successful efforts by , Stanford, and MIT have, I believe, spelled the end of the D-wave computer.

What advice do you have for young and mid-career scientists?

I just finished midyear reviews at Labs and had the opportunity to talk about just that topic with the people who report to me. 10 years ago the San Francisco Examiner asked to me to write up my ideas of what would in 10 years. I tell them now what I wrote then: No job description will have more than a 10 year span. You must be continually reinventing yourself, watch developments in real time and get out in front of them. The type of person who used to be described as a “heads-down engineer” – someone who spent an entire career doing just one thing, and doing it very well – well, that era has ended, and people who desire to do that are going to make themselves obsolete.


Williams has personified the type of scientist who gets out in front of things and his retirement seems unlikely to be qualitatively different than his career at Labs. His example will provide guidance for those who have come up behind him.

Photo by Rebecca Lewington

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Managing Editor, Hewlett Packard Labs

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