The Turing movie

December 16th, 2014

Last week I finally saw The Imitation Game, the movie with Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing.

OK, so for those who haven’t yet seen it: should you?  Here’s my one paragraph summary: imagine that you told the story of Alan Turing—one greatest triumphs and tragedies of human history, needing no embellishment whatsoever—to someone who only sort-of understood it, and who filled in the gaps with weird fabrications and Hollywood clichés.  And imagine that person retold the story to a second person, who understood even less, and that that person retold it to a third, who understood least of all, but who was charged with making the movie that would bring Turing’s story before the largest audience it’s ever had.  And yet, imagine that enough of the enormity of the original story made it through this noisy channel, that the final product was still pretty good.  (Except, imagine how much better it could’ve been!)

The fabrications were especially frustrating to me, because we know it’s possible to bring Alan Turing’s story to life in a way that fully honors the true science and history.  We know that, because Hugh Whitemore’s 1986 play Breaking the Code did it.  The producers of The Imitation Game would’ve done better just to junk their script, and remake Breaking the Code into a Hollywood blockbuster.  (Note that there is a 1996 BBC adaptation of Breaking the Code, with Derek Jacobi as Turing.)

Anyway, the movie focuses mostly on Turing’s codebreaking work at Bletchley Park, but also jumps around in time to his childhood at Sherborne School, and to his arrest for “homosexual indecency” and its aftermath.  Turing’s two world-changing papers—On Computable Numbers and Computing Machinery and Intelligence—are both mentioned, though strangely, his paper about computing zeroes of the Riemann zeta function is entirely overlooked.

Here are my miscellaneous comments:

  • The boastful, trash-talking, humor-impaired badass-nerd of the movie seems a lot closer to The Big Bang Theory‘s Sheldon Cooper, or to some other Hollywood concept of “why smart people are so annoying,” than to the historical Alan Turing.  (At least in Sheldon’s case, the archetype is used for laughs, not drama or veracity.)  As portrayed in the definitive biography (Andrew Hodges’ Alan Turing: The Enigma), Turing was eccentric, sure, and fiercely individualistic (e.g., holding up his pants with pieces of string), but he didn’t get off on insulting the intelligence of the people around him.
  • In the movie, Turing is pretty much singlehandedly responsible for designing, building, and operating the Bombes (the codebreaking machines), which he does over the strenuous objections of his superiors.  This, of course, is absurd: Bletchley employed about 10,000 people at its height.  Turing may have been the single most important cog in the operation, but he was still a cog.  And by November 1942, the operation was already running smoothly enough that Turing could set sail for the US (in waters that were now much safer, thanks to Bletchley!), to consult on other cryptographic projects at Bell Labs.
  • But perhaps the movie’s zaniest conceit is that Turing was also in charge of deciding what to do with Bletchley’s intelligence (!).  In the movie, it falls to him, not the military, to decide which ship convoys will be saved, and which sacrificed to prevent spilling Bletchley’s secret.  If that had any historicity to it, it would surely be the most military and political power ever entrusted to a mathematician (update: see the comments section for potential counterexamples).
  • It’s true that Turing (along with three other codebreakers) wrote a letter directly to Winston Churchill, pleading for more funding for Bletchley Park—and that Churchill saw the letter, and ordered “Action this day! Make sure they have all they want on extreme priority.”  However, the letter was not a power play to elevate Turing over Hugh Alexander and his other colleagues: in fact, Alexander co-signed the letter.  More broadly, the fierce infighting between Turing and everyone else at Bletchley Park, central to the movie’s plot, seems to have been almost entirely invented for dramatic purposes.
  • The movie actually deserves a lot of credit for getting right that the major technical problem of Bletchley Park was how to get the Bombes to search through keys fast enough—and that speeding things up is where Turing made a central contribution.  As a result, The Imitation Game might be the first Hollywood movie ever made whose plot revolves around computational efficiency.  (Counterexamples, anyone?)  Unfortunately, the movie presents Turing’s great insight as being that one can speed up the search by guessing common phrases, like “HEIL HITLER,” that are likely to be in the plaintext.  That was, I believe, obvious to everyone from the beginning.
  • Turing never built a computer in his own home, and he never named a computer “Christopher,” after his childhood crush Christopher Morcom.  (On the other hand, Christopher Morcom existed, and his early death from tuberculosis really did devastate Turing, sending him into morbid-yet-prescient ruminations about whether a mind could exist separately from a brain.)
  • I found it ironic that The Imitation Game, produced in 2014, is far more squeamish about on-screen homosexuality than Breaking the Code, produced in 1986.  Turing talks about being gay (which is an improvement over 2001’s Enigma, which made Turing straight!), but is never shown embracing another man.  However, the more important problem is that the movie botches the story of the burglary of Turing’s house (i.e., the event that led to Turing’s arrest and conviction for homosexual indecency), omitting the role of Turing’s own naiveté in revealing his homosexuality to the police, and substituting some cloak-and-dagger spy stuff.  Once again, Breaking the Code handled this perfectly.
  • In one scene, Euler is pronounced “Yooler.”

For more, see an excellent piece in Slate, How Accurate Is The Imitation Game?.  And for other science bloggers’ reactions, see this review by Christos Papadimitriou (which I thought was extremely kind, though it focuses more on Turing himself than on the movie), this reaction by Peter Woit, which largely echoes mine, and this by Clifford Johnson.

Walter Lewin

December 10th, 2014

Yesterday I heard the sad news that Prof. Walter Lewin, age 78—perhaps the most celebrated physics teacher in MIT’s history—has been stripped of his emeritus status and barred from campus, and all of his physics lectures removed from OpenCourseWare, because an internal investigation found that he had been sexually harassing students online.  I don’t know anything about what happened beyond the terse public announcements, but those who do know tell me that the charges were extremely serious, and that “this wasn’t a borderline case.”

I’m someone who feels that sexual harassment must never be tolerated, neither here nor anywhere else.  But I also feel that, if a public figure is going to be publicly brought down like this (yes, even by a private university), then the detailed findings of the investigation should likewise be made public, regardless of how embarrassing they are.  I know others differ, but I think the need of the world to see that justice was done overrides MIT’s internal administrative needs, and even Prof. Lewin’s privacy (the names of any victims could, of course, be kept secret).

More importantly, I wish to register that I disagree in the strongest possible terms with MIT’s decision to remove Prof. Lewin’s lectures from OpenCourseWare—thereby forcing the tens of thousands of students around the world who were watching these legendary lectures to hunt for ripped copies on BitTorrent.  (Imagine that: physics lectures as prized contraband!)  By all means, punish Prof. Lewin as harshly as he deserves, but—as students have been pleading on Reddit, in the MIT Tech comments section, and elsewhere—don’t also punish the countless students of both sexes who continue to benefit from his work.  (For godsakes, I’d regard taking down the lectures as a tough call if Prof. Lewin had gone on a murder spree.)  Doing this sends the wrong message about MIT’s values, and is a gift to those who like to compare modern American college campuses to the Soviet Union.

Update: For those who are interested, while the comment section starts out with a discussion of whether Walter Lewin’s physics lectures should’ve been removed from OCW, it’s now broadened to include essentially all aspects of the human condition.

PostBQP Postscripts: A Confession of Mathematical Errors

November 30th, 2014

tl;dr: This post reveals two errors in one of my most-cited papers, and also explains how to fix them.  Thanks to Piotr Achinger, Michael Cohen, Greg Kuperberg, Ciaran Lee, Ryan O’Donnell, Julian Rosen, Will Sawin, Cem Say, and others for their contributions to this post.


If you look at my Wikipedia page, apparently one of the two things in the world that I’m “known for” (along with algebrization) is “quantum Turing with postselection.”  By this, Wikipedia means my 2004 definition of the complexity class PostBQP—that is, the class of decision problems solvable in bounded-error quantum polynomial time, assuming the ability to postselect (or condition) on certain measurement outcomes—and my proof that PostBQP coincides with the classical complexity PP (that is, the class of decision problems expressible in terms of whether the number of inputs that cause a given polynomial-time Turing machine to accept does or doesn’t exceed some threshold).

To explain this a bit: even without quantum mechanics, it’s pretty obvious that, if you could “postselect” on exponentially-unlikely events, then you’d get huge, unrealistic amounts of computational power.  For example (and apologies in advance for the macabre imagery), you could “solve” NP-complete problems in polynomial time by simply guessing a random solution, then checking whether the solution is right, and shooting yourself if it happened to be wrong!  Conditioned on still being alive (and if you like, appealing to the “anthropic principle”), you must find yourself having guessed a valid solution—assuming, of course, that there were any valid solutions to be found.  If there weren’t any, then you’d seem to be out of luck!  (Exercise for the reader: generalize this “algorithm,” so that it still works even if you don’t know in advance whether your NP-complete problem instance has any valid solutions.)

So with the PostBQP=PP theorem, the surprise was not that postselection gives you lots of computational power, but rather that postselection combined with quantum mechanics gives you much more power even than postselection by itself (or quantum mechanics by itself, for that matter).  Since PPP=P#P, the class PP basically captures the full difficulty of #P-complete counting problems—that is, not just solving an NP-complete problem, but counting how many solutions it has.  It’s not obvious that a quantum computer with postselection can solve counting problems, but that’s what the theorem shows.  That, in turn, has implications for other things: for example, I showed it can be used to prove classical facts about PP, like the fact that PP is closed under intersection (the Beigel-Reingold-Spielman Theorem), in a straightforward way; and it’s also used to show the hardness of quantum sampling problems, in the work of Bremner-Jozsa-Shepherd as well as my BosonSampling work with Arkhipov.

I’m diffident about being “known for” something so simple; once I had asked the question, the proof of PostBQP=PP took me all of an hour to work out.  Yet PostBQP ended up being a hundred times more influential for quantum computing theory than things on which I expended a thousand times more effort.  So on balance, I guess I’m happy to call PostBQP my own.

That’s why today’s post comes with a special sense of intellectual responsibility.  Within the last month, it’s come to my attention that there are at least two embarrassing oversights in my PostBQP paper from a decade ago, one of them concerning the very definition of PostBQP.  I hasten to clarify: once one fixes up the definition, the PostBQP=PP theorem remains perfectly valid, and all the applications of PostBQP that I mentioned above—for example, to reproving Beigel-Reingold-Spielman, and to the hardness of quantum sampling problems—go through just fine.  But if you think I have nothing to be embarrassed about: well, read on.


The definitional subtlety came clearly to my attention a few weeks ago, when I was lecturing about PostBQP in my 6.845 Quantum Complexity Theory graduate class.  I defined PostBQP as the class of languages L⊆{0,1}* for which there exists a polynomial-time quantum Turing machine M such that, for all inputs x∈{0,1}*,

  • M(x) “succeeds” (determined, say, by measuring its first output qubit in the {|0>,|1>} basis) with nonzero probability.
  • If x∈L, then conditioned on M(x) succeeding, M(x) “accepts” (determined, say, by measuring its second output qubit in the {|0>,|1>} basis) with probability at least 2/3.
  • If x∉L, then conditioned on M(x) succeeding, M(x) accepts with probability at most 1/3.

I then had to reassure the students that PostBQP, so defined, was a “robust” class: that is, that the definition doesn’t depend on stupid things like which set of quantum gates we allow. I argued that, even though we’re postselecting on exponentially-unlikely events, it’s still OK, because the Solovay-Kitaev Theorem lets us approximate any desired unitary to within exponentially-small error, with only a polynomial increase in the size of our quantum circuit. (Here we actually need the full power of the Solovay-Kitaev Theorem, in contrast to ordinary BQP, where we only need part of the power.)

A student in the class, Michael Cohen, immediately jumped in with a difficulty: what if M(x) succeeded, not with exponentially-small probability, but with doubly-exponentially-small probability—say, exp(-2n)?  In that case, one could no longer use the Solovay-Kitaev Theorem to show the irrelevance of the gate set.  It would no longer even be clear that PostBQP⊆PP, since the PP simulation might not be able to keep track of such tiny probabilities.

Thinking on my feet, I replied that we could presumably choose a set of gates—for example, gates involving rational numbers only—for which doubly-exponentially-small probabilities would never arise.  Or if all else failed, we could simply add to the definition of PostBQP that M(x) had to “succeed” with probability at least 1/exp(n): after all, that was the only situation I ever cared about anyway, and the only one that ever arose in the applications of PostBQP.

But the question still gnawed at me: was there a problem with my original, unamended definition of PostBQP?  If we weren’t careful in choosing our gate set, could we have cancellations that produced doubly-exponentially-small probabilities?  I promised I’d think about it more.

By a funny coincidence, just a couple weeks later, Ciaran Lee, a student at Oxford, emailed me the exact same question.  So on a train ride from Princeton to Boston, I decided to think about it for real.  It wasn’t hard to show that, if the gates involved square roots of rational numbers only—for example, if we’re dealing with the Hadamard and Toffoli gates, or the cos(π/8) and CNOT gates, or other standard gate sets—then every measurement outcome has at least 1/exp(n) probability, so there’s no problem with the definition of PostBQP.  But I didn’t know what might happen with stranger gate sets.

As is my wont these days—when parenting, teaching, and so forth leave me with almost no time to concentrate on math—I posted the problem to MathOverflow.  Almost immediately, I got incisive responses.  First, Piotr Achinger pointed out that, if we allow arbitrary gates, then it’s easy to get massive cancellations.  In more detail, let {an} be extremely-rapidly growing sequence of integers, say with an+1 > exp(an).  Then define

$$ \alpha = \sum_{n=1}^{\infty} 0.1^{a_n}. $$

If we write out α in decimal notation, it will consist of mostly 0’s, but with 1’s spaced further and further apart, like so: 0.1101000000000001000….  Now consider a gate set that involves α as well as 0.1 and -0.1 as matrix entries.  Given n qubits, it’s not hard to see that we can set up an interference experiment in which one of the paths leading to a given outcome E has amplitude α, and the other paths have amplitudes $$ -(0.1^{a_1}), -(0.1^{a_2}), \ldots, -(0.1^{a_k}), $$ where k is the largest integer such that ak≤n. In that case, the total amplitude of E will be about $$0.1^{a_{k+1}},$$ which for most values of n is doubly-exponentially small in n. Of course, by simply choosing a faster-growing sequence {an}, we can cause an even more severe cancellation.

Furthermore, by modifying the above construction to involve two crazy transcendental numbers α and β, I claim that we can set up a PostBQP computation such that deciding what happens is arbitrarily harder than PP (though still computable)—say, outside of exponential space, or even triple-exponential space. Moreover, we can do this despite the fact that the first n digits of α and β remain computable in O(n) time. The details are left as an exercise for the interested reader.

Yet even though we can engineer massive cancellations with crazy gates, I still conjectured that nothing would go wrong with “normal” gates: for example, gates involving algebraic amplitudes only. More formally, I conjectured that any finite set A=(a1,…,ak) of algebraic numbers is “tame,” in the sense that, if p is any degree-n polynomial with integer coefficients at most exp(n) in absolute value, then p(a1,…,ak)≠0 implies |p(a1,…,ak)|≥1/exp(n). And indeed, Julian Rosen on MathOverflow found an elegant proof of this fact. I’ll let you read it over there if you’re interested, but briefly, it interprets the amplitude we want as one particular Archimedean valuation of a certain element of a number field, and then lower-bounds the amplitude by considering the product of all Archimedean and non-Archimedean valuations (the latter of which involves the p-adic numbers). Since this was a bit heavy-duty for me, I was grateful when Will Sawin reformulated the proof in linear-algebraic terms that I understood.

And then came the embarrassing part. A few days ago, I was chatting with Greg Kuperberg, the renowned mathematician and author of our climate-change parable. I thought he’d be interested in this PostBQP progress, so I mentioned it to him. Delicately, Greg let me know that he had recently proved the exact same results, for the exact same reason (namely, fixing the definition of PostBQP), for the latest revision of his paper How Hard Is It to Approximate the Jones Polynomial?. Moreover, he actually wrote to me in June to tell me about this! At the time, however, I regarded it as “pointless mathematical hairsplitting” (who cares about these low-level gate-set issues anyway?). So I didn’t pay it any attention—and then I’d completely forgotten about Greg’s work when the question resurfaced a few months later. This is truly a just punishment for looking down on “mathematical hairsplitting,” and not a lesson I’ll soon forget.

Anyway, Greg’s paper provides yet a third proof that the algebraic numbers are tame, this one using Galois conjugates (though it turns out that, from a sufficiently refined perspective, Greg’s proof is equivalent to the other two).

There remains one obvious open problem here, one that I noted in the MathOverflow post and in which Greg is also extremely interested. Namely, we now know that it’s possible to screw up PostBQP using gates with amplitudes that are crazy transcendental numbers (closely related to the Liouville numbers). And we also know that, if the gates have algebraic amplitudes, then everything is fine: all events have at least 1/exp(n) probability. But what if the gates have not-so-crazy transcendental amplitudes, like 1/e, or (a bit more realistically) cos(2)?  I conjecture that everything is still fine, but the proof techniques that worked for the algebraic case seem useless here.

Stepping back, how great are the consequences of all this for our understanding of PostBQP? Fortunately, I claim that they’re not that great, for the following reason. As Adleman, DeMarrais, and Huang already noted in 1997—in the same paper that proved BQP⊆PP—we can screw up the definition even of BQP, let alone PostBQP, using a bizarre enough gate set. For example, suppose we had a gate G that mapped |0> to x|0>+y|1>, where y was a real number whose binary expansion encoded the halting problem (for example, y might equal Chaitin’s Ω).  Then by applying G more and more times, we could learn more and more bits of y, and thereby solve an uncomputable problem in the limit n→∞.

Faced with this observation, most quantum computing experts would say something like: “OK, but this is silly! It has no physical relevance, since we’ll never come across a magical gate like G—if only we did! And at any rate, it has nothing to do with quantum computing specifically: even classically, one could imagine a coin that landed heads with probability equal to Chaitin’s Ω. Therefore, the right way to deal with this is simply to define BQP in such a way as to disallow such absurd gates.” And indeed, that is what’s done today—usually without even remarking on it.

Now, it turns out that even gates that are “perfectly safe” for defining BQP, can turn “unsafe” when it comes to defining PostBQP. To screw up the definition of PostBQP, it’s not necessary that a gate involve uncomputable (or extremely hard-to-compute) amplitudes: the amplitudes could all be easily computable, but they could still be “unsafe” because of massive cancellations, as in the example above involving α. But one could think of this as a difference of degree, rather than of kind. It’s still true that there’s a large set of gates, including virtually all the gates anyone has ever cared about in practice (Toffoli, Hadamard, π/8, etc. etc.), that are perfectly safe for defining the complexity class; it’s just that the set is slightly smaller than it was for BQP.


The other issue with the PostBQP=PP paper was discovered by Ryan O’Donnell and Cem Say.  In Proposition 3 of the paper, I claim that PostBQP = BQPPostBQP||,classical, where the latter is the class of problems solvable by a BQP machine that’s allowed to make poly(n) parallel, classical queries to a PostBQP oracle.  As Ryan pointed out to me, nothing in my brief argument for this depended on quantum mechanics, so it would equally well show that PostBPP = BPPPostBPP||, where PostBPP (also known as BPPpath) is the classical analogue of PostBQP, and BPPPostBPP|| is the class of problems solvable by a BPP machine that can make poly(n) parallel queries to a PostBPP oracle.  But BPPPostBPP|| clearly contains BPPNP||, which in turn contains AM—so we would get AM in PostBPP, and therefore AM in PostBQP=PP.  But Vereshchagin gave an oracle relative to which AM is not contained in PP.  Since there was no nonrelativizing ingredient anywhere in my argument, the only possible conclusion is that my argument was wrong.  (This, incidentally, provides a nice illustration of the value of oracle results.)

In retrospect, it’s easy to pinpoint what went wrong.  If we try to simulate BPPPostBPP|| in PostBPP, our random bits will be playing a dual role: in choosing the queries to be submitted to the PostBPP oracle, and in providing the “raw material for postselection,” in computing the responses to those queries.  But in PostBPP, we only get to postselect once.  When we do, the two sets of random bits that we’d wanted to keep separate will get hopelessly mixed up, with the postselection acting on the “BPP” random bits, not just on the “PostBPP” ones.

How can we fix this problem?  Well, when defining the class BQPPostBQP||,classical, suppose we require the queries to the PostBQP oracle to be not only “classical,” but deterministic: that is, they have to be generated in advance by a P machine, and can’t depend on any random bits whatsoever.  And suppose we define BPPPostBPP||,classical similarly.  In that case, it’s not hard to see that the equalities BQPPostBQP||,classical = PostBQP and BPPPostBPP||,classical = PostBPP both go through.  You don’t actually care about this, do you?  But Ryan O’Donnell and Cem Say did, and that’s good enough for me.


I wish I could say that these are the only cases of mistakes recently being found in decade-old papers of mine, but alas, such is not the case.  In the near future, my student Adam Bouland, MIT undergrad Mitchell Lee, and Singapore’s Joe Fitzsimons will post to the arXiv a paper that grew out of an error in my 2005 paper Quantum Computing and Hidden Variables. In that paper, I introduced a hypothetical generalization of the quantum computing model, in which one gets to see the entire trajectory of a hidden variable, rather than just a single measurement outcome. I showed that this generalization would let us solve problems somewhat beyond what we think we can do with a “standard” quantum computer. In particular, we could solve the collision problem in O(1) queries, efficiently solve Graph Isomorphism (and all other problems in the Statistical Zero-Knowledge class), and search an N-element list in only ~N1/3 steps, rather than the ~N1/2 steps of Grover’s search algorithm. That part of the paper remains fine!

On the other hand, at the end of the paper, I also gave a brief argument to show that, even in the hidden-variable model, ~N1/3 steps are required to search an N-element list. But Mitchell Lee and Adam Bouland discovered that that argument is wrong: it fails to account for all the possible ways that an algorithm could exploit the correlations between the hidden variable’s values at different moments in time. (I’ve previously discussed this error in other blog posts, as well as in the latest edition of Quantum Computing Since Democritus.)

If we suitably restrict the hidden-variable theory, then we can correctly prove a lower bound of ~N1/4, or even (with strong enough assumptions) ~N1/3; and we do that in the forthcoming paper. Even with no restrictions, as far as we know an ~N1/3 lower bound for search with hidden variables remains true. But it now looks like proving it will require a major advance in our understanding of hidden-variable theories: for example, a proof that the “Schrödinger theory” is robust to small perturbations, which I’d given as the main open problem in my 2005 paper.

As if that weren’t enough, in my 2003 paper Quantum Certificate Complexity, I claimed (as a side remark) that one could get a recursive Boolean function f with an asymptotic gap between the block sensitivity bs(f) and the randomized certificate complexity RC(f). However, two and a half years ago, Avishay Tal discovered that this didn’t work, because block sensitivity doesn’t behave nicely under composition.  (In assuming it did, I was propagating an error introduced earlier by Wegener and Zádori.)  More broadly, Avishay showed that there is no recursively-defined Boolean function with an asymptotic gap between bs(f) and RC(f). On the other hand, if we just want some Boolean function with an asymptotic gap between bs(f) and RC(f), then Raghav Kulkarni observed that we can use a non-recursive function introduced by Xiaoming Sun, which yields bs(f)≈N3/7 and RC(f)≈N4/7. This is actually a larger separation than the one I’d wrongly claimed.

Now that I’ve come clean about all these things, hopefully the healing can begin at last.

Lens of Computation on the Sciences

November 25th, 2014

This weekend, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton hosted a workshop on the “Lens of Computation in the Sciences,” which was organized by Avi Wigderson, and was meant to showcase theoretical computer science’s imperialistic ambitions to transform every other field.  I was proud to speak at the workshop, representing CS theory’s designs on physics.  But videos of all four of the talks are now available, and all are worth checking out:

Unfortunately, the videos were slow to buffer when I last tried it.  While you’re waiting, you could also check my PowerPoint slides, though they overlap considerably with my previous talks.  (As always, if you can’t read PowerPoint, then go ask another reader of this blog to convert the file into a format you like.)

Thanks so much to Avi, and everyone else at IAS, for organizing an awesome workshop!

Kuperberg’s parable

November 23rd, 2014

Recently, longtime friend-of-the-blog Greg Kuperberg wrote a Facebook post that, with Greg’s kind permission, I’m sharing here.


A parable about pseudo-skepticism in response to climate science, and science in general.

Doctor: You ought to stop smoking, among other reasons because smoking causes lung cancer.
Patient: Are you sure? I like to smoke. It also creates jobs.
D: Yes, the science is settled.
P: All right, if the science is settled, can you tell me when I will get lung cancer if I continue to smoke?
D: No, of course not, it’s not that precise.
P: Okay, how many cigarettes can I safely smoke?
D: I can’t tell you that, although I wouldn’t recommend smoking at all.
P: Do you know that I will get lung cancer at all no matter how much I smoke?
D: No, it’s a statistical risk. But smoking also causes heart disease.
P: I certainly know smokers with heart disease, but I also know non-smokers with heart disease. Even if I do get heart disease, would you really know that it’s because I smoke?
D: No, not necessarily; it’s a statistical effect.
P: If it’s statistical, then you do know that correlation is not causation, right?
D: Yes, but you can also see the direct effect of smoking on lungs of smokers in autopsies.
P: Some of whom lived a long time, you already admitted.
D: Yes, but there is a lot of research to back this up.
P: Look, I’m not a research scientist, I’m interested in my case. You have an extended medical record for me with X-rays, CAT scans, blood tests, you name it. You can gather more data about me if you like. Yet you’re hedging everything you have to say.
D: Of course, there’s always more to learn about the human body. But it’s a settled recommendation that smoking is bad for you.
P: It sounds like the science is anything but settled. I’m not interested in hypothetical recommendations. Why don’t you get back to me when you actually know what you’re talking about. In the meantime, I will continue to smoke, because as I said, I enjoy it. And by the way, since you’re so concerned about my health, I believe in healthy skepticism.

What does the NSA think of academic cryptographers? Recently-declassified document provides clues

November 16th, 2014

Brighten Godfrey was one of my officemates when we were grad students at Berkeley.  He’s now a highly-successful computer networking professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where he studies the wonderful question of how we could get the latency of the Internet down to the physical limit imposed by the finiteness of the speed of light.  (Right now, we’re away from that limit by a factor of about 50.)

Last week, Brighten brought to my attention a remarkable document: a 1994 issue of CryptoLog, an NSA internal newsletter, which was recently declassified with a few redactions.  The most interesting thing in the newsletter is a trip report (pages 12-19 in the newsletter, 15-22 in the PDF file) by an unnamed NSA cryptographer, who attended the 1992 EuroCrypt conference, and who details his opinions on just about every talk.  If you’re interested in crypto, you really need to read this thing all the way through, but here’s a small sampling of the zingers:

  • Three of the last four sessions were of no value whatever, and indeed there was almost nothing at Eurocrypt to interest us (this is good news!). The scholarship was actually extremely good; it’s just that the directions which external cryptologic researchers have taken are remarkably far from our own lines of interest.
  • There were no proposals of cryptosystems, no novel cryptanalysis of old designs, even very little on hardware design. I really don’t see how things could have been any better for our purposes. We can hope that the absentee cryptologists stayed away because they had no new ideas, or even that they’ve taken an interest in other areas of research.
  • Alfredo DeSantis … spoke on “Graph decompositions and secret-sharing schemes,” a silly topic which brings joy to combinatorists and yawns to everyone else.
  • Perhaps it is beneficial to be attacked, for you can easily augment your publication list by offering a modification.
  • This result has no cryptanalytic application, but it serves to answer a question which someone with nothing else to think about might have asked.
  • I think I have hammered home my point often enough that I shall regard it as proved (by emphatic enunciation): the tendency at IACR meetings is for academic scientists (mathematicians, computer scientists, engineers, and philosophers masquerading as theoretical computer scientists) to present commendable research papers (in their own areas) which might affect cryptology at some future time or (more likely) in some other world. Naturally this is not anathema to us.
  • The next four sessions were given over to philosophical matters. Complexity theorists are quite happy to define concepts and then to discuss them even though they have no examples of them.
  • Don Beaver (Penn State), in another era, would have been a spellbinding charismatic preacher; young, dashing (he still wears a pony-tail), self-confident and glib, he has captured from Silvio Micali the leadership of the philosophic wing of the U.S. East Coast cryptanalytic community.
  • Those of you who know my prejudice against the “zero-knowledge” wing of the philosophical camp will be surprised to hear that I enjoyed the three talks of the session better than any of that ilk that I had previously endured. The reason is simple: I took along some interesting reading material and ignored the speakers. That technique served to advantage again for three more snoozers, Thursday’s “digital signature and electronic cash” session, but the final session, also on complexity theory, provided some sensible listening.
  • But it is refreshing to find a complexity theory talk which actually addresses an important problem!
  • The other two talks again avoided anything of substance.  [The authors of one paper] thought it worthwhile, in dealing [with] the general discrete logarithm problem, to prove that the problem is contained in the complexity classes NP and co-AM, but is unlikely to be in co-NP.
  • And Ueli Maurer, again dazzling us with his brilliance, felt compelled, in “Factoring with an Oracle” to arm himself with an Oracle (essentially an Omniscient Being that complexity theorists like to turn to when they can’t solve a problem) while factoring. He’s calculating the time it would take him (and his Friend) to factor, and would like also to demonstrate his independence by consulting his Partner as seldom as possible. The next time you find yourself similarly equipped, you will perhaps want to refer to his paper.
  • The conference again offered an interesting view into the thought processes of the world’s leading “cryptologists.” It is indeed remarkable how far the Agency has strayed from the True Path.

Of course, it would be wise not to read too much into this: it’s not some official NSA policy statement, but the griping of a single, opinionated individual somewhere within the NSA, who was probably bored and trying to amuse his colleagues.  All the same, it’s a fascinating document, not only for its zingers about people who are still very much active on the cryptographic scene, but also for its candid insights into what the NSA cares about and why, and for its look into the subculture within cryptography that would lead, years later, to Neal Koblitz’s widely-discussed anti-provable-security manifestos.

Reading this document drove home for me that the “provable security wars” are a very simple matter of the collision of two communities with different intellectual goals, not of one being right and the other being wrong.  Here’s a fun exercise: try reading this trip report while remembering that, in the 1980s—i.e., the decade immediately preceding the maligned EuroCrypt conference—the “philosophic wing” of cryptography that the writer lampoons actually succeeded in introducing revolutionary concepts (interactive proofs, zero-knowledge, cryptographic pseudorandomness, etc.) that transformed the field, concepts that have now been recognized with no fewer than three Turing Awards (to Yao, Goldwasser, and Micali).  On the other hand, it’s undoubtedly true that this progress was of no immediate interest to the NSA.  On the third hand, the “philosophers” might reply that helping the NSA wasn’t their goal.  The best interests of the NSA don’t necessarily coincide with the best interests of scientific advancement (not to mention the best interests of humanity—but that’s a separate debate).

Der Quantencomputer

November 14th, 2014

Those of you who read German (I don’t) might enjoy a joint interview of me and Seth Lloyd about quantum computing, which was conducted in Seth’s office by the journalist Christian Meier, and published in the Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung.  Even if you don’t read German, you can just feed the interview into Google Translate, like I did.  While the interview covers ground that will be forehead-bangingly familiar to regular readers of this blog, I’m happy with how it turned out; even the slightly-garbled Google Translate output is much better than most quantum computing articles in the English-language press.  (And while Christian hoped to provoke spirited debate between me and Seth by interviewing us together, we surprised ourselves by finding very little that we actually disagreed about.)  I noticed only one error, when I’m quoted talking about “the discovery of the transistor in the 1960s.”  I might have said something about the widespread commercialization of transistors (and integrated circuits) in the 1960s, but I know full well that the transistor was invented at Bell Labs in 1947.

Interstellar’s dangling wormholes

November 10th, 2014

Update (Nov. 15): A third of my confusions addressed by reading Kip Thorne’s book! Details at the bottom of this post.


On Saturday Dana and I saw Interstellar, the sci-fi blockbuster co-produced by the famous theoretical physicist Kip Thorne (who told me about his work on this movie when I met him eight years ago).  We had the rare privilege of seeing the movie on the same day that we got to hang out with a real astronaut, Dan Barry, who flew three shuttle missions and did four spacewalks in the 1990s.  (As the end result of a project that Dan’s roboticist daughter, Jenny Barry, did for my graduate course on quantum complexity theory, I’m now the coauthor with both Barrys on a paper in Physical Review A, about uncomputability in quantum partially-observable Markov decision processes.)

Before talking about the movie, let me say a little about the astronaut.  Besides being an inspirational example of someone who’s achieved more dreams in life than most of us—seeing the curvature of the earth while floating in orbit around it, appearing on Survivor, and publishing a Phys. Rev. A paper—Dan is also a passionate advocate of humanity’s colonizing other worlds.  When I asked him whether there was any future for humans in space, he answered firmly that the only future for humans was in space, and then proceeded to tell me about the technical viability of getting humans to Mars with limited radiation exposure, the abundant water there, the romantic appeal that would inspire people to sign up for the one-way trip, and the extinction risk for any species confined to a single planet.  Hearing all this from someone who’d actually been to space gave Interstellar, with its theme of humans needing to leave Earth to survive (and its subsidiary theme of the death of NASA’s manned space program meaning the death of humanity), a special vividness for me.  Granted, I remain skeptical about several points: the feasibility of a human colony on Mars in the foreseeable future (a self-sufficient human colony on Antarctica, or under the ocean, strike me as plenty hard enough for the next few centuries); whether a space colony, even if feasible, cracks the list of the top twenty things we ought to be doing to mitigate the risk of human extinction; and whether there’s anything more to be learned, at this point in history, by sending humans to space that couldn’t be learned a hundred times more cheaply by sending robots.  On the other hand, if there is a case for continuing to send humans to space, then I’d say it’s certainly the case that Dan Barry makes.

OK, but enough about the real-life space traveler: what did I think about the movie?  Interstellar is a work of staggering ambition, grappling with some of the grandest themes of which sci-fi is capable: the deterioration of the earth’s climate; the future of life in the universe; the emotional consequences of extreme relativistic time dilation; whether “our” survival would be ensured by hatching human embryos in a faraway world, while sacrificing almost all the humans currently alive; to what extent humans can place the good of the species above family and self; the malleability of space and time; the paradoxes of time travel.  It’s also an imperfect movie, one with many “dangling wormholes” and unbalanced parentheses that are still generating compile-time errors in my brain.  And it’s full of stilted dialogue that made me giggle—particularly when the characters discussed jumping into a black hole to retrieve its “quantum data.”  Also, despite Kip Thorne’s involvement, I didn’t find the movie’s science spectacularly plausible or coherent (more about that below).  On the other hand, if you just wanted a movie that scrupulously obeyed the laws of physics, rather than intelligently probing their implications and limits, you could watch any romantic comedy.  So sure, Interstellar might make you cringe, but if you like science fiction at all, then it will also make you ponder, stare awestruck, and argue with friends for days afterward—and enough of the latter to make it more than worth your while.  Just one tip: if you’re prone to headaches, do not sit near the front of the theater, especially if you’re seeing it in IMAX.

For other science bloggers’ takes, see John Preskill (who was at a meeting with Steven Spielberg to brainstorm the movie in 2006), Sean Carroll, Clifford Johnson, and Peter Woit.

In the rest of this post, I’m going to list the questions about Interstellar that I still don’t understand the answers to (yes, the ones still not answered by the Interstellar FAQ).  No doubt some of these are answered by Thorne’s book The Science of Interstellar, which I’ve ordered (it hasn’t arrived yet), but since my confusions are more about plot than science, I’m guessing that others are not.

SPOILER ALERT: My questions give away basically the entire plot—so if you’re planning to see the movie, please don’t read any further.  After you’ve seen it, though, come back and see if you can help with any of my questions.


1. What’s causing the blight, and the poisoning of the earth’s atmosphere?  The movie is never clear about this.  Is it a freak occurrence, or is it human-caused climate change?  If the latter, then wouldn’t it be worth some effort to try to reverse the damage and salvage the earth, rather than escaping through a wormhole to another galaxy?

2. What’s with the drone?  Who sent it?  Why are Cooper and Murph able to control it with their laptop?  Most important of all, what does it have to do with the rest of the movie?

3. If NASA wanted Cooper that badly—if he was the best pilot they’d ever had and NASA knew it—then why couldn’t they just call him up?  Why did they have to wait for beings from the fifth dimension to send a coded message to his daughter revealing their coordinates?  Once he did show up, did they just kind of decide opportunistically that it would be a good idea to recruit him?

4. What was with Cooper’s crash in his previous NASA career?  If he was their best pilot, how and why did the crash happen?  If this was such a defining, traumatic incident in his life, why is it never brought up for the rest of the movie?

5. How is NASA funded in this dystopian future?  If official ideology holds that the Apollo missions were faked, and that growing crops is the only thing that matters, then why have the craven politicians been secretly funneling what must be trillions of dollars to a shadow-NASA, over a period of fifty years?

6. Why couldn’t NASA have reconnoitered the planets using robots—especially since this is a future where very impressive robots exist?  Yes, yes, I know, Matt Damon explains in the movie that humans remain more versatile than robots, because of their “survival instinct.”  But the crew arrives at the planets missing extremely basic information about them, like whether they’re inhospitable to human life because of freezing temperatures or mile-high tidal waves.  This is information that robotic probes, even of the sort we have today, could have easily provided.

7. Why are the people who scouted out the 12 planets so limited in the data they can send back?  If they can send anything, then why not data that would make Cooper’s mission completely redundant (excepting, of course, the case of the lying Dr. Mann)?  Does the wormhole limit their transmissions to 1 bit per decade or something?

8. Rather than wasting precious decades waiting for Cooper’s mission to return, while (presumably) billions of people die of starvation on a fading earth, wouldn’t it make more sense for NASA to start colonizing the planets now?  They could simply start trial colonies on all the planets, even if they think most of the colonies will fail.  Yes, this plan involves sacrificing individuals for the greater good of humanity, but NASA is already doing that anyway, with its slower, riskier, stupider reconnaissance plan.  The point becomes even stronger when we remember that, in Professor Brand’s mind, the only feasible plan is “Plan B” (the one involving the frozen human embryos).  Frozen embryos are (relatively) cheap: why not just spray them all over the place?  And why wait for “Plan A” to fail before starting that?

9. The movie involves a planet, Miller, that’s so close to the black hole Gargantua, that every hour spent there corresponds to seven years on earth.  There was an amusing exchange on Slate, where Phil Plait made the commonsense point that a planet that deep in a black hole’s gravity well would presumably get ripped apart by tidal forces.  Plait later had to issue an apology, since, in conceiving this movie, Kip Thorne had made sure that Gargantua was a rapidly rotating black hole—and it turns out that the physics of rotating black holes are sufficiently different from those of non-rotating ones to allow such a planet in principle.  Alas, this clever explanation still leaves me unsatisfied.  Physicists, please help: even if such a planet existed, wouldn’t safely landing a spacecraft on it, and getting it out again, require a staggering amount of energy—well beyond what the humans shown in the movie can produce?  (If they could produce that much acceleration and deceleration, then why couldn’t they have traveled from Earth to Saturn in days rather than years?)  If one could land on Miller and then get off of it using the relatively conventional spacecraft shown in the movie, then the amusing thought suggests itself that one could get factor-of-60,000 computational speedups, “free of charge,” by simply leaving one’s computer in space while one spent some time on the planet.  (And indeed, something like that happens in the movie: after Cooper and Anne Hathaway return from Miller, Romilly—the character who stayed behind—has had 23 years to think about physics.)

10. Why does Cooper decide to go into the black hole?  Surely he could jettison enough weight to escape the black hole’s gravity by sending his capsule into the hole, while he himself shared Anne Hathaway’s capsule?

11. Speaking of which, does Cooper go into the black hole?  I.e., is the “tesseract” something he encounters before or after he crosses the event horizon?  (Or maybe it should be thought of as at the event horizon—like a friendlier version of the AMPS firewall?)

12. Why is Cooper able to send messages back in time—but only by jostling books around, moving the hands of a watch, and creating patterns of dust in one particular room of one particular house?  (Does this have something to do with love and gravity being the only two forces in the universe that transcend space and time?)

13. Why does Cooper desperately send the message “STAY” to his former self?  By this point in the movie, isn’t it clear that staying on Earth means the death of all humans, including Murph?  If Cooper thought that a message could get through at all, then why not a message like: “go, and go directly to Edmunds’ planet, since that’s the best one”?  Also, given that Cooper now exists outside of time, why does he feel such desperate urgency?  Doesn’t he get, like, infinitely many chances?

14. Why is Cooper only able to send “quantum data” that saves the world to the older Murph—the one who lives when (presumably) billions of people are already dying of starvation?  Why can’t he send the “quantum data” back to the 10-year-old Murph, for example?  Even if she can’t yet understand it, surely she could hand it over to Professor Brand.  And even if this plan would be unlikely to succeed: again, Cooper now exists outside of time.  So can’t he just keep going back to the 10-year-old Murph, rattling those books over and over until the message gets through?

15. What exactly is the “quantum data” needed for, anyway?  I gather it has something to do with building a propulsion system that can get the entire human population out of the earth’s gravity well at a reasonable cost?  (Incidentally, what about all the animals?  If the writers of the Old Testament noticed that issue, surely the writers of Interstellar could.)

16. How does Cooper ever make it out of the black hole?  (Maybe it was explained and I missed it: once he entered the black hole, things got extremely confusing.)  Do the fifth-dimensional beings create a new copy of Cooper outside the black hole?  Do they postselect on a branch of the wavefunction where he never entered the black hole in the first place?  Does Murph use the “quantum data” to get him out?

17. At his tearful reunion with the elderly Murph, why is Cooper totally uninterested in meeting his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who are in the same room?  And why are they uninterested in meeting him?  I mean, seeing Murph again has been Cooper’s overriding motivation during his journey across the universe, and has repeatedly been weighed against the survival of the entire human race, including Murph herself.  But seeing Murph’s kids—his grandkids—isn’t even worth five minutes?

18. Speaking of which, when did Murph ever find time to get married and have kids?  Since she’s such a major character, why don’t we learn anything about this?

19. Also, why is Murph an old woman by the time Cooper gets back?  Yes, Cooper lost a few decades because of the time dilation on Miller’s planet.  I guess he lost the additional decades while entering and leaving Gargantua?  If the five-dimensional beings were able to use their time-travel / causality-warping powers to get Cooper out of the black hole, couldn’t they have re-synced his clock with Murph’s while they were at it?

20. Why does Cooper need to steal a spaceship to get to Anne Hathaway’s planet?  Isn’t Murph, like, the one in charge?  Can’t she order that a spaceship be provided for Cooper?

21. Astute readers will note that I haven’t yet said anything about the movie’s central paradox, the one that dwarfs all the others.  Namely, if humans were going to go extinct without a “wormhole assist” from the humans of the far future, then how were there any humans in the far future to provide the wormhole assist?  And conversely, if the humans of the far future find themselves already existing, then why do they go to the trouble to put the wormhole in their past (which now seems superfluous, except maybe for tidying up the story of their own origins)?  The reason I didn’t ask about this is that I realize it’s supposed to be paradoxical; we’re supposed to feel vertigo thinking about it.  (And also, it’s not entirely unrelated to how PSPACE-complete problems get solved with polynomial resources, in my and John Watrous’s paper on computation with closed timelike curves.)  My problem is a different one: if the fifth-dimensional, far-future humans have the power to mold their own past to make sure everything turned out OK, then what they actually do seems pathetic compared to what they could do.  For example, why don’t they send a coded message to the 21st-century humans (similar to the coded messages that Cooper sends to Murph), telling them how to avoid the blight that destroys their crops?  Or just telling them that Edmunds’ planet is the right one to colonize?  Like the God of theodicy arguments, do the future humans want to use their superpowers only to give us a little boost here and there, while still leaving us a character-forming struggle?  Even if this reticence means that billions of innocent people—ones who had nothing to do with the character-forming struggle—will die horrible deaths?  If so, then I don’t understand these supposedly transcendently-evolved humans any better than I understand the theodical God.


Anyway, rather than ending on that note of cosmic pessimism, I guess I could rejoice that we’re living through what must be the single biggest month in the history of nerd cinema—what with a sci-fi film co-produced by a great theoretical physicist, a Stephen Hawking biopic, and the Alan Turing movie coming out in a few weeks.  I haven’t yet seen the latter two.  But it looks like the time might be ripe to pitch my own decades-old film ideas, like “Radical: The Story of Évariste Galois.”


Update (Nov. 15): I just finished reading Kip Thorne’s interesting book The Science of Interstellar.  I’d say that it addresses (doesn’t always clear up, but at least addresses) 7 of my 21 confusions: 1, 4, 9, 10, 11, 15, and 19.  Briefly:

1. Thorne correctly notes that the movie is vague about what’s causing the blight and the change to the earth’s atmosphere, but he discusses a bunch of possibilities, which are more in the “freak disaster” than the “manmade” category.

4. Cooper’s crash was supposed to have been caused by a gravitational anomaly, as the bulk beings of the far future were figuring out how to communicate with 21st-century humans.  It was another foreshadowing of those bulk beings.

9. Thorne notices the problem of the astronomical amount of energy needed to safely land on Miller’s planet and then get off of it—given that this planet is deep inside the gravity well of the black hole Gargantua, and orbiting Gargantua at a large fraction of the speed of light.  Thorne offers a solution that can only be called creative: namely, while nothing about this was said in the movie (since Christopher Nolan thought it would confuse people), it turns out that the crew accelerated to relativistic speed and then decelerated using a gravitational slingshot around a second, intermediate-mass black hole, which just happened to be in the vicinity of Gargantua at precisely the right times for this.  Thorne again appeals to slingshots around unmentioned but strategically-placed intermediate-mass black holes several more times in the book, to explain other implausible accelerations and decelerations that I hadn’t even noticed.

10. Thorne acknowledges that Cooper didn’t really need to jump into Gargantua in order to jettison the mass of his body (which is trivial compared to the mass of the spacecraft).  Cooper’s real reason for jumping, he says, was the desperate hope that he could somehow find the quantum data there needed to save the humans on Earth, and then somehow get it out of the black hole and back to the humans.  (This being a movie, it of course turns out that Cooper was right.)

11. Yes, Cooper encounters the tesseract while inside the black hole.  Indeed, he hits it while flying into a singularity that’s behind the event horizon, but that isn’t the black hole’s “main” singularity—it’s a different, milder singularity.

15. While this wasn’t made clear in the movie, the purpose of the quantum data was indeed to learn how to manipulate the gravitational anomalies in order to decrease Newton’s constant G in the vicinity of the earth—destroying the earth but also allowing all the humans to escape its gravity with the rocket fuel that’s available.  (Again, nothing said about the poor animals.)

19. Yes, Cooper lost the additional decades while entering Gargantua.  (Furthermore, while Thorne doesn’t discuss this, I guess he must have lost them only when he was still with Anne Hathaway, not after he separates from her.  For otherwise, Anne Hathaway would also be an old woman by the time Cooper reaches her on Edmunds’ planet, contrary to what’s shown in the movie.)

A few quick announcements

October 14th, 2014

I gave a new survey talk at Yale, entitled “When Exactly Do Quantum Computers Provide a Speedup?”  Here are the PowerPoint slides.  Thanks so much to Rob Schoelkopf for inviting me, and to everyone else at Yale for an awesome visit.

Aephraim Steinberg asks me to announce that the call for nominations for the 2015 John Stewart Bell Prize is now available.

Ronitt Rubinfeld asks me to remind people that the STOC’2015 submission deadline is November 4.  Here’s the call for papers.

Likewise, Jeff Kinne asks me to remind people that the Complexity’2015 submission deadline is November 26.  Here’s the call for papers.

Speaking Truth to Parallelism at Cornell

October 3rd, 2014

This week I was at my alma mater, Cornell, to give a talk at the 50th anniversary celebration of its computer science department.  You can watch the streaming video here; my talk runs from roughly 1:17:30 to 1:56 (though if you’ve seen other complexity/physics/humor shows by me, this one is pretty similar, except for the riff about Cornell at the beginning).

The other two things in that video—a talk by Tom Henzinger about IST Austria, a bold new basic research institute that he leads, closely modeled after the Weizmann Institute in Israel; and a discussion panel about the future of programming languages—are also really interesting and worth watching.  There was lots of other good stuff at this workshop, including a talk about Google Glass and its applications to photography (by, not surprisingly, a guy wearing a Google Glass—Marc Levoy); a panel discussion with three Turing Award winners, Juris Hartmanis, John Hopcroft, and Ed Clarke, about the early days of Cornell’s CS department; a talk by Amit Singhal, Google’s director of search; a talk about differential privacy by Cynthia Dwork, one of the leading researchers at the recently-closed Microsoft SVC lab (with a poignant and emotional ending); and a talk by my own lab director at MIT, Daniela Rus, about her research in robotics.

Along with the 50th anniversary celebration, Bill Gates was also on campus to dedicate Bill and Melinda Gates Hall, the new home of Cornell’s CS department.  Click here for streaming video of a Q&A that Gates did with Cornell students, where I thought he acquitted himself quite well, saying many sensible things about education, the developing world, etc. that other smart people could also say, but that have extra gravitas coming from him.  Gates has also become extremely effective at wrapping barbs of fact inside a soft mesh of politically-unthreatening platitudes—but listen carefully and you’ll hear the barbs.  The amount of pomp and preparation around Gates’s visit reminded me of when President Obama visited MIT, befitting the two men’s approximately equal power.  (Obama has nuclear weapons, but then again, he also has Congress.)

And no, I didn’t get to meet Gates or shake his hand, though I did get to stand about ten feet from him at the Gates Hall dedication.  (He apparently spent most of his time at Cornell meeting with plant breeders, and other people doing things relevant to the Gates Foundation’s interests.)

Thanks so much to Bobby and Jon Kleinberg, and everyone else who invited me to this fantastic event and helped make it happen.  May Cornell’s CS department have a great next 50 years.

One last remark before I close this post.  Several readers have expressed disapproval and befuddlement over the proposed title of my next book, “Speaking Truth to Parallelism.”  In the words of commenter TonyK:

That has got to be the worst title in the history of publishing! “Speaking Truth to Parallelism”? It doesn’t even make sense! I count myself as one of your fans, Scott, but you’re going to have to do better than that if you want anybody else to buy your book. I know you can do better — witness “Quantum Computing Since Democritus”.

However, my experiences at Cornell this week helped to convince me that, not only does “Speaking Truth to Parallelism” make perfect sense, it’s an activity that’s needed now more than ever.  What it means, of course, is fighting a certain naïve, long-ago-debunked view of quantum computers—namely, that they would achieve exponential speedups by simply “trying every possible answer in parallel”—that’s become so entrenched in the minds of many journalists, laypeople, and even scientists from other fields that it feels like nothing you say can possibly dislodge it.  The words out of your mouth will literally be ignored, misheard, or even contorted to the opposite of what they mean, if that’s what it takes to preserve the listener’s misconception about quantum computers being able to solve NP-hard optimization problems by sheer magic.  (Much like in the Simpsons-visit-Australia episode, where Marge’s request for “coffee” is misheard over and over as “beer.”)  You probably think I’m exaggerating, and I’d agree with you—if I hadn’t experienced this phenomenon hundreds of times over the last decade.

So, to take one example: after my talk at Cornell, an audience member came up to me to say that it was a wonderful talk, but that what he really wanted to know was whether I thought quantum computers could solve problems in the “NP space” in linear time, by trying all the possible solutions at once.  He didn’t seem to realize that I’d spent the entire previous half hour answering that exact question, explaining why the answer was “no.”  Coincidentally, this week I also got an email from a longtime reader of this blog, saying that he read and loved Quantum Computing Since Democritus, and wanted my feedback on a popular article he’d written about quantum computing.  What was the gist of the article?  You guessed it: “quantum computing = generic exponential speedups for optimization, machine learning, and Big Data problems, by trying all the possible answers at once.”

These people’s enthusiasm for quantum computing tends to be so genuine, so sincere, that I find myself unable to blame them—even when they’ve done the equivalent of going up to Richard Dawkins and thanking him for having taught them that evolution works for the good of the entire species, just as its wise Designer intended.  I do blame the media and other careless or unscrupulous parties for misleading people about quantum computing, but most of all I blame myself, for not making my explanations clear enough.  In the end, then, meeting the “NP space” folks only makes me want to redouble my efforts to Speak Truth to Parallelism: eventually, I feel, the nerd world will get this point.


Update (Oct. 4): I had regarded this (perhaps wrongly) as too obvious to state, but particularly for non-native English speakers, I’d better clarify: “speaking truth to parallelism” is a deliberate pun on the left-wing protester phrase “speaking truth to power.”  So whatever linguistic oddness there is in my phrase, I’d say it simply inherits from the original.

Another Update (Oct. 7): See this comment for my short summary of what’s known about the actual technical question (can quantum computers solve NP-complete problems in polynomial time, or not?).

Another Update (Oct. 8): Many commenters wrote to point out that the video of my talk at Cornell is now password-protected, and no longer publicly available.  I wrote to my contacts at Cornell to ask about this, and they said they’re planning to release lightly-edited versions of the videos soon, but will look into the matter in the meantime.