Here’s the line of poetry Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella says best describes the future

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella at the 2017 GeekWire Summit. (Photo by Dan DeLong for GeekWire)

When he isn’t reimagining Microsoft’s culture and direction, Satya Nadella is a man of many varied interests, from cricket to poetry.

At the 2017 GeekWire Summit, The Microsoft CEO was asked to cite a poem or line that he thought best described the future, both in general and for Microsoft. Fitting with his self-characterization as a “Microsoft insider” who has been with the company for more than 25 years, he went with something related to one of the company’s big future bets: quantum computing.

He cited a line from Vijay Seshadri’s Imaginary Number, which reads: “The soul, like the square root of minus one, is an impossibility that has its uses.”

“I think it just captures a lot, that force created within us that seeks out the unimaginable, that gets us up to solve the impossible, so there is poetry behind square roots of imaginary numbers,” Nadella said.

But wait: How is that related to quantum computing? As the company was getting ready to reveal its quantum computing push at this year’s Microsoft Ignite conference, Nadella was talking with Microsoft mathematician Michael Freedman, and the subject of square roots came out.

“I was not a great student, but I know square roots. He says, ‘do you know square roots of imaginary numbers?’ I didn’t know where he was going, but it turns out that the square roots of the imaginary numbers have a lot to do with quantum computers,” Nadella said.

Imaginary numbers are the square roots of negative numbers. The real number 1 has two square roots: +1 and a negative number, –1. But what’s the square root of –1? That question is unanswerable using real numbers, so mathematicians have to employ imaginary numbers. The answers are +i and –i.

We don’t run across imaginary numbers in our classical perception of the real world, but they have to be included in the equations that describe the weird world of quantum mechanics. And they have square roots as well, which incorporate real numbers as well as imaginary numbers. That’s the mind-bending math that led Seshadri (and Nadella) to wax poetic.