I am, I’m slightly embarrassed to admit, quoted pretty extensively in the cover story of this week’s New Scientist magazine (alas, only available to subscribers or those willing to shell out $4.95). The story, by Michael Brooks, is about an interesting recent paper by Lucien Hardy of Perimeter Institute, on the power of “quantum gravity computers.” Lucien’s paper considers the following question: by exploiting quantum fluctuations in the causal structure of spacetime, can one efficiently solve problems that are not efficiently solvable with a garden-variety quantum computer?
As I told Brooks, I really do think this is a hell of a question, one that’s intimately related to the challenge of understanding quantum gravity itself. The trouble is that, until an actual quantum theory of gravity chooses to make itself known to us, almost everything we can say about the question is pure speculation.
But of course, pure speculation is what New Scientist gobbles up with french fries and coleslaw. And so, knowing what kind of story they were going to run, I did my best to advocate giving reality at least a few column inches. Fortunately, the end result isn’t quite as bad as I’d feared.
(Full disclosure: recently New Scientist asked me to write an article for them on theoretical computer science breakthroughs of the last 30 years. Remembering some of the steamers NS has unloaded in the recent past, I faced a moral dilemma for approximately five minutes. I then wrote back to them and said I’d be delighted to do it.)
Anyway, here are a few relevant excerpts from the article. If New Scientist wants me to take these down, then of course I’ll have to comply — though I imagine that being linked to from the 25,000th most popularest blog on the entire Internet could only boost their sales.
A NEW computer is always welcome, isn’t it? It’s always faster than your old one, and it always does more stuff. An upgrade, the latest model with all the bells and whistles is an exciting prospect.
And when it comes to the kind of machine physicists are hoping for, you really are looking at something special. No ordinary upgrade for them: this will be the ultimate computer, and radically different from anything we have ever seen. Not only might it be supremely powerful, defying the logic of cause and effect to give instantaneous answers, it might also tell us exactly how the universe works. It might even tell us how our minds produce the phenomenon we call consciousness. Clear a space on your desk, then, for the quantum gravity computer.
Of course, there’s a chance it may not fit on your desktop because we don’t yet know what the machine will look like. Neither do we know how to build it, or even whether it will do all that its proponents hope. Nevertheless, just thinking about how this processor works could improve our understanding of the universe. “The power of quantum gravity computers is one of the deepest problems in physics,” says Scott Aaronson, a mathematician based at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada.
Put [quantum theory and general relativity] together to make a quantum theory of gravity and it is almost inevitable that we are going to have trouble with notions of cause and effect: the logic of tock following tick or output following input just won’t apply in the quantum-gravity universe.
Aaronson agrees with Hardy. “General relativity says that the causal structure can vary, and quantum mechanics says that anything that can vary can be in superposition,” he says. “So to me, an indefinite causal structure seems like the main new conceptual feature.”
The big question is how powerful [a quantum gravity computer] could be: will it be the ultimate processor?
It turns out this is a hard question to answer. Traditionally, a computer’s power is rated by the number of computations it can do in a given time. IBM’s Blue Gene computer currently tops the world rankings for classical computers: it can do 280 trillion calculations per second. In theory, a quantum computer can do even better. It will be able to crack the world’s toughest codes in the blink of an eye.
The quantum gravity computer, on the other hand, can’t compete under these rules because “quickly” doesn’t mean anything in a scheme where space and time can’t be separated. Or, as Aaronson puts it: “It would be nice if the quantum gravity theorists could at least tell us what they mean by ‘time’.”
Nevertheless, Hardy thinks there is good reason to suppose the quantum gravity computer would indeed be a more powerful machine than anything we have so far envisioned. The fact that it might glimpse its results without running a computation hints at this, he says — though he admits this is just speculation.
What’s more convincing, he says, is the difficulty of simulating a quantum gravity computer on a quantum computer. The fact that we have no algorithm for simulating quantum systems on classical computers highlights the gulf between a classical computer and a quantum computer. If a quantum computer cannot simulate a quantum gravity computer, then that implies there might be another huge leap in computing power waiting to be exploited.
It is a controversial conclusion, though. Seth Lloyd of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology thinks there is no reason to invoke a discontinuity that separates quantum gravity from more familiar processes … Aaronson’s money is on the Lloyd camp: quantum gravity computers can’t be more powerful than quantum computers, he says. In his view, it is a short step from ultra-powerful quantum gravity computers to total cosmic anarchy. If, as Hardy suggests, a quantum gravity computer might be able to see its result without having to run its algorithms, it is essentially no different to having a quantum computer strapped to a time machine. As we all know, time machines don’t make sense: they would enable us to do things like travel back in history to kill our grandparents and thereby cease to exist. “It’s hard to come up with any plausible way to make quantum computers more powerful that wouldn’t make them absurdly more powerful,” he says.
Whatever the truth, this is why investigating the characteristics of the quantum gravity computer is so valuable. It ties theories to the real world, Aaronson says, and stops the important issues, such as a link with observable facts or staying within the bounds of what’s physically possible, from being swept under the carpet. After all, a computer has to produce an observable, measurable output based on an input and a known set of rules. “The connection to observation is no longer a minor detail,” Aaronson says. “It’s the entire problem.”
Two obvious corrections:
- I certainly don’t think that quantum gravity computers “can’t” be more powerful than ordinary quantum computers. What I think is that, at the moment, there’s no good evidence that they would be.
- I am not a mathematician.
Update: Six months ago, New Scientist ran a credulous, uncomprehending story about a rocket propulsion system that flagrantly violates conservation of momentum (!). This led to interesting discussions here, here, and here about what can be done to improve the magazine’s standards. If you enjoyed the D-Wave fiasco, you’ll also like the spectacle of commenters rushing to defend the article against those elitist, ivory-tower academics with their oh-so-sacred conservation laws. In a world of Homer Simpsons, it’s not easy being a Lisa.