As we share the journey toward scalable quantum computing, the Microsoft team dedicates this blog to Burton Smith. A leader, visionary, mentor, and dear friend, Burton truly exemplified the heart, soul, and vision of quantum computing at Microsoft. He will be dearly missed.
An icon of the supercomputing industry
Regarded by many as a “titan of the industry,” Burton J. Smith was renowned for his expertise in computer architecture and high-performance computing. Having co-founded Seattle-based Tera Computing and serving as chairman at Tera and later at Cray, Inc., Burton helped create iconic powerhouses in supercomputing, which were among the fastest computers in the world for many years.
Says Craig Mundie, “Supercomputing was a good field for Burton because the things that had to be done ranged very broadly in many domains including computer architecture, software, algorithms, physics, electronics, thermodynamics, electrical engineering and mechanical engineering. These things have to all come together in creative ways to make a supercomputer. Few people have the dynamic range of knowledge and disciplines that is required. Burton was one of the few people who really had that capability.”
Doug Kelley remembers joining Burton to tour the cryo-plant facilities of a supplier, “I was surprised at how many people were involved in our visit; they were all jumping at the opportunity to have a question and answer session with Burton. They hung on his every word about the future of computing and how it applied to various scientific developments.”
Burton was indeed a supercomputing luminary. Another long-time colleague, Dave Wecker, remembers attending a SuperComputing conference with Burton, “We couldn’t go 20 feet without someone coming up and shaking his hand to thank him for everything he had done.”
“Burton was a national resource,” says Michael Freedman. “A lot of people depended on him to both expose nonsense and to find a creative solution.”
A true polymath
Profoundly gifted, Burton was known for his deep skill in a wide range of subjects—a true polymath. Craig Mundie shares, “In computing, Burton was like the biggest Swiss Army Knife you could have in your pocket. He had more surprising tools packed in that one brain than one would ever expect.”
Burton was known to have a mind like an encyclopedia. Krysta Svore and Martin Roetteler remember asking Burton about a shift register implementation and a polynomial to satisfy their requirements, “He smiled and said, ‘I know just the polynomial. It’s on page 73 of this book on my shelf. Let’s go get it.’ [They] ventured to his office, dusted off the book which he then said he had not opened since the 70s, and voila! On the exact page Burton quoted was the polynomial we needed.”
“He was an amazing man with hidden talents,” says Doug Kelley. “Not only was he an icon in the computer industry, but he was in a choir, loved the arts, and his interests had no bounds. I often used him as a walking Wikipedia, and you could ask him almost any question under the sun and he would have some knowledge of the subject.”
In 2005, Burton came to Microsoft as a technical fellow to share his expertise in parallel and high-performance computing. “Microsoft was increasing its investment in server-class system and higher performance computing, and I convinced Burton to join me at Microsoft to bring his experience and creativity to bear on those challenges,” remembers Craig Mundie.
Together with Krysta Svore and Michael Freedman, who championed quantum computing at Microsoft from the early 2000s, Burton became a founding member of the Microsoft Quantum Architectures and Computations group in 2012.
A quantum computing visionary
Known for keeping everyone honest—but quick to lend a hand, a new perspective, or share encouragement—Burton was a stickler for doing things right. He was a problem-solver, a builder, an engineer, but most importantly, he was a visionary. As an expert in computer architecture, Burton knew that building a quantum processor would not be enough.
Craig Mundie recalls, “While the qubits themselves get a lot of the attention, especially these days, in fact, building a quantum computer that could scale up and do useful work is a more extreme system engineering problem than even the biggest supercomputers were, or are today in their present incarnations. Burton had the physics and math background to engage with the Freedman team at Station Q, but he had experiences that none of them had when it came to thinking-through the myriad issues that would have to be confronted in order to make a complete quantum computer.”
Burton’s ideas would later become the cornerstone of the Microsoft quantum effort: the full stack. His vision was to build a scalable, end-to-end system that includes quantum devices, classical hardware to control the quantum plane, a runtime to operate the entire system, and finally a software stack that can map abstract algorithms into assembly code that the quantum computing processor can understand and execute.
“In those early years, more than anyone else, Burton was the overall system architect,” says Craig Mundie. “One by one, he broke the challenge down into a family of activities, bootstrapped small teams of great people, and fostered partnerships beyond Microsoft, that have each, in their own ways, done world-class inventing and engineering to craft the fabric of ‘the rest’ of the quantum computer.”
Adds Dave Wecker, “he was instrumental in converting our quantum research program into a full engineering effort with the vision of a commercial quantum computer.”
One of the challenges in getting a quantum computer to scale is the interface between quantum systems and their specialized classical control and readout hardware. Burton’s ingenuity inspired a crucial part of the quantum system: cryogenic classical hardware that controls the quantum computer.
While Burton was deeply involved in each of the Microsoft quantum labs, he worked closely with David Reilly and the team at Microsoft Sydney to explore the engineering challenges involved in making his vision a reality.
The heart and soul of quantum computing at Microsoft
Burton was a luminary in his field doing landmark work for generations to come, but those who knew him speak of the person he was. “I will always remember Burton as kind, gracious, and encouraging,” says Clancy Hatleberg.
Burton was a supportive mentor, always fighting for the right thing and doing everything in his power to help others succeed.
Remembers Nathan Wiebe, “I always appreciated the time he would take explaining superconducting engineering, exotic computing architectures or any number of optimization methods to me and others in the break room.”
“He was always willing to help and give advice with his deep knowledge,” adds Mattias Troyer.
Todd Holmdahl describes him as a person with “a big brain and an even bigger heart. He could converse on any topic in detail but when he started talking about his friends and co-workers, his eyes would light up even more and he would go on and on about them.”
Burton’s passion and mentorship were instrumental in what makes this team not just coworkers, but family.
Says Dave Wecker, “Burton hated injustice (along with gratuitous bureaucracy) and never stood on the side when someone needed his help. He fought hard for the solutions (and people) he believed in trying to make the end-product the best it could possibly be. Much of the of the heart and soul of the Microsoft quantum computing effort comes from Burton.”
A lasting impact and a legacy that lives on
Colleagues all echo the same sentiment: Burton made a lasting impact. Says Krysta Svore, “Burton has been an undeniable force in my career at Microsoft and will forever remain in my heart as one of the great influencers in my life. There are few people who have truly impacted the directions I’ve taken in such a profound way.”
“It has been my great good fortune to get to work with him, learn from him, and be inspired by his passion,” adds Dave Probert.
Says Craig Mundie, “It makes me sad to think that, as these fantastical quantum supercomputing systems arrive on the scene, Burton won’t be physically present to savor that. But, at least for me, I won’t forget Burton and all that he contributed to help me personally in this quest and to prepare us technically for that eventuality. Microsoft is better prepared to explore and lead in this unknown place due to his contributions.”
In Redmond, Santa Barbara, West Lafayette, Copenhagen, Delft, and Sydney—the Microsoft quantum team continues the journey to build a scalable quantum computer. Burton’s legacy will live on, not only inspiring those he knew, but future generations to come.
Capturing the sentiment of many colleagues and friends, Krysta Svore closes with a heartfelt tribute,
“Thank you, Burton, for lending your ear and sharing your brilliance, for questioning the truths and for pushing the boundaries. May your soul and spirit continue to inspire us all to bring great innovations, friendships, and triumphs to this world.”
The memorial services for Burton Smith will be held on May 19 at 2 p.m. at University Congregational Church in Seattle, 4515 16th Ave NE. Flowers and donations may be sent to the church.
Honoring Burton Smith, a creative visionary in computing