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[Quantum Computing Don't Get No Respect]

We have failed to make the honest case for quantum computing—the case based on basic science—because we’ve underestimated the public. We’ve falsely believed that people would never support us if we told them the truth: that while the potential applications are wonderful cherries on the sundae, they’re not and have never been the main reason to build a quantum computer. The main reason is that we want to make absolutely manifest what quantum mechanics says about reality

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This weekend, Dana and I celebrated our third anniversary by going out to your typical sappy romantic movie: Particle Fever, a documentary about the Large Hadron Collider.  As it turns out, the movie was spectacularly good; anyone who reads this blog should go see it.  Or, to offer even higher praise:

If watching Particle Fever doesn’t cause you to feel in your bones the value of fundamental science—the thrill of discovery, unmotivated by any application—then you are not truly human.  You are a barnyard animal who happens to walk on its hind legs.

Indeed, I regard Particle Fever as one of the finest advertisements for science itself ever created.  It’s effective precisely because it doesn’t try to tell you why science is important (except for one scene, where an economist asks a physicist after a public talk about the “return on investment” of the LHC, and is given the standard correct answer, about “what was the return on investment of radio waves when they were first discovered?”).  Instead, the movie simply shows you the lives of particle physicists, of people who take for granted the urgency of knowing the truth about the basic constituents of reality.  And in showing you the scientists’ quest, it makes you feel as they feel.  Incidentally, the movie also shows footage of Congressmen ridiculing the uselessness of the Superconducting Supercollider, during the debates that led to the SSC’s cancellation.  So, gently, implicitly, you’re invited to choose: whose side are you on?

I do have a few, not quite criticisms of the movie, but points that any viewer should bear in mind while watching it.

First, it’s important not to come away with the impression that Particle Fever shows “what science is usually like.”  Sure, there are plenty of scenes that any scientist would find familiar: sleep-deprived postdocs; boisterous theorists correcting each other’s statements over Chinese food; a harried lab manager walking to the office oblivious to traffic.  On the other hand, the decades-long quest to find the Higgs boson, the agonizing drought of new data before the one big money shot, the need for an entire field to coalesce around a single machine, the whole careers hitched to specific speculative scenarios that this one machine could favor or disfavor—all of that is a profoundly abnormal situation in the history of science.  Particle physics didn’t used to be that way, and other parts of science are not that way today.  Of course, the fact that particle physics became that way makes it unusually suited for a suspenseful movie—a fact that the creators of Particle Fever understood perfectly and exploited to the hilt.

Second, the movie frames the importance of the Higgs search as follows: if the Higgs boson turned out to be relatively light, like 115 GeV, then that would favor supersymmetry, and hence an “elegant, orderly universe.”  If, on the other hand, the Higgs turned out to be relatively heavy, like 140 GeV, then that would favor anthropic multiverse scenarios (and hence a “messy, random universe”).  So the fact that the Higgs ended up being 125 GeV means the universe is coyly refusing to tell us whether it’s orderly or random, and more research is needed.

In my view, it’s entirely appropriate for a movie like this one to relate its subject matter to big, metaphysical questions, to the kinds of questions anyone can get curious about (in contrast to, say, “what is the mechanism of electroweak symmetry breaking?”) and that the scientists themselves talk about anyway.  But caution is needed here.  My lay understanding, which might be wrong, is as follows: while it’s true that a lighter Higgs would tend to favor supersymmetric models, the only way to argue that a heavier Higgs would “favor the multiverse,” is if you believe that a multiverse is automatically favored by a lack of better explanations.  More broadly, I wish the film had made clearer that the explanation for (some) apparent “fine-tunings” in the Standard Model might be neither supersymmetry, nor the multiverse, nor ”it’s just an inexplicable accident,” but simply some other explanation that no one has thought of yet, but that would emerge from a better understanding of quantum field theory.  As one example, on reading up on the subject after watching the film, I was surprised to learn that a very conservative-sounding idea—that of “asymptotically safe gravity”—was used in 2009 to predict the Higgs mass right on the nose, at 126.3 ± 2.2 GeV.  Of course, it’s possible that this was just a lucky guess (there were, after all, lots of Higgs mass predictions).  But as an outsider, I’d love to understand why possibilities like this don’t seem to get discussed more (there might, of course, be perfectly good reasons that I don’t know).

Third, for understandable dramatic reasons, the movie focuses almost entirely on the “younger generation,” from postdocs working on ATLAS and CMS detectors, to theorists like Nima Arkani-Hamed who are excited about the LHC because of its ability to test scenarios like supersymmetry.  From the movie’s perspective, the creation of the Standard Model itself, in the 60s and 70s, might as well be ancient history.  Indeed, when Peter Higgs finally appears near the end of the film, it’s as if Isaac Newton has walked onstage.  At several points, I found myself wishing that some of the original architects of the Standard Model, like Steven Weinberg or Sheldon Glashow, had been interviewed to provide their perspectives.  After all, their model is really the one that’s been vindicated at the LHC, not (so far) any of the newer ideas like supersymmetry or large extra dimensions.

OK, but let me come to the main point of this post.  I confess that my overwhelming emotion on watching Particle Fever was one of regret—regret that my own field, quantum computing, has never managed to make the case for itself the way particle physics and cosmology have, in terms of the human urge to explore the unknown.

See, from my perspective, there’s a lot to envy about the high-energy physicists.  Most importantly, they don’t perceive any need to justify what they do in terms of practical applications.  Sure, they happily point to “spinoffs,” like the fact that the Web was invented at CERN.  But any time they try to justify what they do, the unstated message is that if you don’t see the inherent value of understanding the universe, then the problem lies with you.

Now, no marketing consultant would ever in a trillion years endorse such an out-of-touch, elitist sales pitch.  But the remarkable fact is that the message has more-or-less worked.  While the cancellation of the SSC was a setback, the high-energy physicists did succeed in persuading the world to pony up the $11 billion needed to build the LHC, and to gain the information that the mass of the Higgs boson is about 125 GeV.

Now contrast that with quantum computing.  To hear the media tell it, a quantum computer would be a powerful new gizmo, sort of like existing computers except faster.  (Why would it be faster?  Something to do with trying both 0 and 1 at the same time.)  The reasons to build quantum computers are things that could make any buzzword-spouting dullard nod in recognition: cracking uncrackable encryption, finding bugs in aviation software, sifting through massive data sets, maybe even curing cancer, predicting the weather, or finding aliens.  And all of this could be yours in a few short years—or some say it’s even commercially available today.  So, if you check back in a few years and it’s still not on store shelves, probably it went the way of flying cars or moving sidewalks: another technological marvel that just failed to materialize for some reason.

Foolishly, shortsightedly, many academics in quantum computing have played along with this stunted vision of their field—because saying this sort of thing is the easiest way to get funding, because everyone else says the same stuff, and because after you’ve repeated something on enough grant applications you start to believe it yourself.  All in all, then, it’s just easier to go along with the “gizmo vision” of quantum computing than to ask pointed questions like:

What happens when it turns out that some of the most-hyped applications of quantum computers (e.g., optimization, machine learning, and Big Data) were based on wildly inflated hopes—that there simply isn’t much quantum speedup to be had for typical problems of that kind, that yes, quantum algorithms exist, but they aren’t much faster than the best classical randomized algorithms?  What happens when it turns out that the real applications of quantum computing—like breaking RSA and simulating quantum systems—are nice, but not important enough by themselves to justify the cost?  (E.g., when the imminent risk of a quantum computer simply causes people to switch from RSA to other cryptographic codes?  Or when the large polynomial overheads of quantum simulation algorithms limit their usefulness?)  Finally, what happens when it turns out that the promises of useful quantum computers in 5-10 years were wildly unrealistic?

I’ll tell you: when this happens, the spigots of funding that once flowed freely will dry up, and the techno-journalists and pointy-haired bosses who once sang our praises will turn to the next craze.  And they’re unlikely to be impressed when we protest, “no, look, the reasons we told you before for why you should support quantum computing were never the real reasons!  and the real reasons remain as valid as ever!”

In my view, we as a community have failed to make the honest case for quantum computing—the case based on basic science—because we’ve underestimated the public.  We’ve falsely believed that people would never support us if we told them the truth: that while the potential applications are wonderful cherries on the sundae, they’re not and have never been the main reason to build a quantum computer.  The main reason is that we want to make absolutely manifest what quantum mechanics says about the nature of reality.  We want to lift the enormity of Hilbert space out of the textbooks, and rub its full, linear, unmodified truth in the face of anyone who denies it.  Or if it isn’t the truth, then we want to discover what is the truth.

Many people would say it’s impossible to make the latter pitch, that funders and laypeople would never understand it or buy it.  But there’s an $11-billion, 17-mile ring under Geneva that speaks against their cynicism.

Anyway, let me end this “movie review” with an anecdote.  The other day a respected colleague of mine—someone who doesn’t normally follow such matters—asked me what I thought about D-Wave.  After I’d given my usual spiel, he smiled and said:

“See Scott, but you could imagine scientists of the 1400s saying the same things about Columbus!  He had no plan that could survive academic scrutiny.  He raised money under the false belief that he could reach India by sailing due west.  And he didn’t understand what he’d found even after he’d found it.  Yet for all that, it was Columbus, and not some academic critic on the sidelines, who discovered the new world.”

With this one analogy, my colleague had eloquently summarized the case for D-Wave, a case often leveled against me much more verbosely.  But I had an answer.

“I accept your analogy!” I replied.  ”But to me, Columbus and the other conquerors of the Americas weren’t heroes to be admired or emulated.  Motivated by gold and spices rather than knowledge, they spread disease, killed and enslaved millions in one of history’s greatest holocausts, and burned the priceless records of the Maya and Inca civilizations so that the world would never even understand what was lost.  I submit that, had it been undertaken by curious and careful scientists—or at least people with a scientific mindset—rather than by swashbucklers funded by greedy kings, the European exploration and colonization of the Americas could have been incalculably less tragic.”

The trouble is, when I say things like that, people just laugh at me knowingly.  There he goes again, the pie-in-the-sky complexity theorist, who has no idea what it takes to get anything done in the real world.  What an amusingly contrary perspective he has.

And that, in the end, is why I think Particle Fever is such an important movie.  Through the stories of the people who built the LHC, you’ll see how it really is possible to reach a new continent without the promise of gold or the allure of lies.