Roll up! Roll up! Don’t miss out on Swan’s quantum soap box
30 Sep 2021
Wondering how the introduction of potential errors through unstable qubits can improve upon the accuracy of binary computing, Russ Swan considers the hype surrounding the awesome power of the quantum realm and wonders if we’re being sold soap?
‘Quantum’ promises to solve the most intractable of mathematical problems in a short time, as long as a few wrinkles can be sorted out
It can’t be long now. The end of science is upon us, because soon there will be nothing left to learn. All hidden secrets will be laid bare, leading to an eternal era of bliss and contentment.
Followers of science history, or indeed of this column, might think that we've been here before. Back in the late Victoriolithic, Lord Kelvin is reputed to have told the British Association for the Advancement of Science that there was - even then – ‘nothing new to be discovered in physics, other than increasingly precise measurement’.
Such shortsightedness from a former president of the Royal Society is often cited as a prime example of hubris. Within a decade, the corner of the quantum curtain was being peeled back and the first hints of relativity were being discerned. How could such an enlightened person even think such a thing? Of course, the words so often assigned to him were almost certainly never said, at least not in the form usually repeated. But this time it is different, apparently. This time humanity can harness that awesome power of which Kelvin was ignorant – ‘quantum’. According to the news releases and academic papers that flow across my desk with increasing frequency, quantum computing will solve 'all the mysteries of the universe'.
Now, anybody who knows anything about it is fooling themselves. We all know the basics – instead of reducing values to a series of 1s and 0s, in a quantum computer intermediate values can also be used. To my old-fashioned mind this seems a little like analogue rather than digital but, like everybody else (including quantum computing specialists), I don’t really understand it. ‘Quantum’ promises to solve the most intractable of mathematical problems in a short time, as long as a few wrinkles can be sorted out. One problem is the stability of qubits used in place of conventional binary digits. The difficulty in generating enough stable qubits is one of the main reasons why quantum computers are so prone to errors.
Wait, what? Errors? One thing we know for certain about binary computing is that it is reliable and accurate. Provided the data is good and the algorithm bug-free, the results are endlessly repeatable and can be trusted. In the quantum realm, everything is a bit messy. I don't know about you, but the idea that the new generation of computers could be about as reliable as a 1970’s Morris Marina gives me the heebie-jeebies.
Nevertheless, like every innovation before it, this is flagged as the one true answer. Forget boring old digital computing. Forget artificial intelligence - at least until we have working quantum AI. Forget blockchain and crypto and all the other fabulous new innovations that promised to change everything. Is quantum just another example of soap powder marketing? "Remember last year when we told you that new Splatt was the best cleaning product in the world? When we told you it would change your life and you'd become richer and better looking? Yeah… forget all that. We were lying. But don't despair, because now we bring you SuperSplatt. Wash your underwear in SuperSplatt and your teeth will be whiter, your dandruff will disappear, and you are guaranteed to get that promotion. Which you won't need, because you will also win the lottery. Trust us, it's great. Honest.”
Which gives me an idea. Excuse me while I build the first artificially intelligent quantum blockchain laundry soap. It'll be the best thing ever, at least until the next best thing.