Book Review: ‘The AI Does Not Hate You’ by Tom Chivers

October 6th, 2019

A couple weeks ago I read The AI Does Not Hate You: Superintelligence, Rationality, and the Race to Save the World, the first-ever book-length examination of the modern rationalist community, by British journalist Tom Chivers. I was planning to review it here, before it got preempted by the news of quantum supremacy (and subsequent news of classical non-supremacy). Now I can get back to rationalists.

Briefly, I think the book is a triumph. It’s based around in-person conversations with many of the notable figures in and around the rationalist community, in its Bay Area epicenter and beyond (although apparently Eliezer Yudkowsky only agreed to answer technical questions by Skype), together of course with the voluminous material available online. There’s a good deal about the 1990s origins of the community that I hadn’t previously known.

The title is taken from Eliezer’s aphorism, “The AI does not hate you, nor does it love you, but you are made of atoms which it can use for something else.” In other words: as soon as anyone succeeds in building a superhuman AI, if we don’t take extreme care that the AI’s values are “aligned” with human ones, the AI might be expected to obliterate humans almost instantly as a byproduct of pursuing whatever it does value, more-or-less as we humans did with woolly mammoths, moas, and now gorillas, rhinos, and thousands of other species.

Much of the book relates Chivers’s personal quest to figure out how seriously he should take this scenario. Are the rationalists just an unusually nerdy doomsday cult? Is there some non-negligible chance that they’re actually right about the AI thing? If so, how much more time do we have—and is there even anything meaningful that can be done today? Do the dramatic advances in machine learning over the past decade change the outlook? Should Chivers be worried about his own two children? How does this risk compare to the more “prosaic” civilizational risks, like climate change or nuclear war? I suspect that Chivers’s exploration will be most interesting to readers who, like me, regard the answers to none of these questions as obvious.

While it sounds extremely basic, what makes The AI Does Not Hate You so valuable to my mind is that, as far as I know, it’s nearly the only examination of the rationalists ever written by an outsider that tries to assess the ideas on a scale from true to false, rather than from quirky to offensive. Chivers’s own training in academic philosophy seems to have been crucial here. He’s not put off by people who act weirdly around him, even needlessly cold or aloof, nor by utilitarian thought experiments involving death or torture or weighing the value of human lives. He just cares, relentlessly, about the ideas—and about remaining a basically grounded and decent person while engaging them. Most strikingly, Chivers clearly feels a need—anachronistic though it seems in 2019—actually to understand complicated arguments, be able to repeat them back correctly, before he attacks them.

Indeed, far from failing to understand the rationalists, it occurs to me that the central criticism of Chivers’s book is likely to be just the opposite: he understands the rationalists so well, extends them so much sympathy, and ends up endorsing so many aspects of their worldview, that he must simply be a closet rationalist himself, and therefore can’t write about them with any pretense of journalistic or anthropological detachment. For my part, I’d say: it’s true that The AI Does Not Hate You is what you get if you treat rationalists as extremely smart (if unusual) people from whom you might learn something of consequence, rather than as monkeys in a zoo. On the other hand, Chivers does perform the journalist’s task of constantly challenging the rationalists he meets, often with points that (if upheld) would be fatal to their worldview. One of the rationalists’ best features—and this precisely matches my own experience—is that, far from clamming up or storming off when faced with such challenges (“lo! the visitor is not one of us!”), the rationalists positively relish them.

It occurred to me the other day that we’ll never know how the rationalists’ ideas would’ve developed, had they continued to do so in a cultural background like that of the late 20th century. As Chivers points out, the rationalists today are effectively caught in the crossfire of a much larger cultural war—between, to their right, the recrudescent know-nothing authoritarians, and to their left, what one could variously describe as woke culture, call-out culture, or sneer culture. On its face, it might seem laughable to conflate the rationalists with today’s resurgent fascists: many rationalists are driven by their utilitarianism to advocate open borders and massive aid to the Third World; the rationalist community is about as welcoming of alternative genders and sexualities as it’s humanly possible to be; and leading rationalists like Scott Alexander and Eliezer Yudkowsky strongly condemned Trump for the obvious reasons.

Chivers, however, explains how the problem started. On rationalist Internet forums, many misogynists and white nationalists and so forth encountered nerds willing to debate their ideas politely, rather than immediately banning them as more mainstream venues would. As a result, many of those forces of darkness (and they probably don’t mind being called that) predictably congregated on the rationalist forums, and their stench predictably wore off on the rationalists themselves. Furthermore, this isn’t an easy-to-fix problem, because debating ideas on their merits, extending charity to ideological opponents, etc. is sort of the rationalists’ entire shtick, whereas denouncing and no-platforming anyone who can be connected to an ideological enemy (in the modern parlance, “punching Nazis”) is the entire shtick of those condemning the rationalists.

Compounding the problem is that, as anyone who’s ever hung out with STEM nerds might’ve guessed, the rationalist community tends to skew WASP, Asian, or Jewish, non-impoverished, and male. Worse yet, while many rationalists live their lives in progressive enclaves and strongly support progressive values, they’ll also undergo extreme anguish if they feel forced to subordinate truth to those values.

Chivers writes that all of these issues “blew up in spectacular style at the end of 2014,” right here on this blog. Oh, what the hell, I’ll just quote him:

Scott Aaronson is, I think it’s fair to say, a member of the Rationalist community. He’s a prominent theoretical computer scientist at the University of Texas at Austin, and writes a very interesting, maths-heavy blog called Shtetl-Optimised.

People in the comments under his blog were discussing feminism and sexual harassment. And Aaronson, in a comment in which he described himself as a fan of Andrea Dworkin, described having been terrified of speaking to women as a teenager and young man. This fear was, he said, partly that of being thought of as a sexual abuser or creep if any woman ever became aware that he sexually desired them, a fear that he picked up from sexual-harassment-prevention workshops at his university and from reading feminist literature. This fear became so overwhelming, he said in the comment that came to be known as Comment #171, that he had ‘constant suicidal thoughts’ and at one point ‘actually begged a psychiatrist to prescribe drugs that would chemically castrate me (I had researched which ones), because a life of mathematical asceticism was the only future that I could imagine for myself.’ So when he read feminist articles talking about the ‘male privilege’ of nerds like him, he didn’t recognise the description, and so felt himself able to declare himself ‘only’ 97 per cent on board with the programme of feminism.

It struck me as a thoughtful and rather sweet remark, in the midst of a long and courteous discussion with a female commenter. But it got picked up, weirdly, by some feminist bloggers, including one who described it as ‘a yalp of entitlement combined with an aggressive unwillingness to accept that women are human beings just like men’ and that Aaronson was complaining that ‘having to explain my suffering to women when they should already be there, mopping my brow and offering me beers and blow jobs, is so tiresome.’

Scott Alexander (not Scott Aaronson) then wrote a furious 10,000-word defence of his friend… (p. 214-215)

And then Chivers goes on to explain Scott Alexander’s central thesis, in Untitled, that privilege is not a one-dimensional axis, so that (to take one example) society can make many women in STEM miserable while also making shy male nerds miserable in different ways.

For nerds, perhaps an alternative title for Chivers’s book could be “The Normal People Do Not Hate You (Not All of Them, Anyway).” It’s as though Chivers is demonstrating, through understated example, that taking delight in nerds’ suffering, wanting them to be miserable and alone, mocking their weird ideas, is not simply the default, well-adjusted human reaction, with any other reaction being ‘creepy’ and ‘problematic.’ Some might even go so far as to apply the latter adjectives to the sneerers’ attitude, the one that dresses up schoolyard bullying in a social-justice wig.

Reading Chivers’s book prompted me to reflect on my own relationship to the rationalist community. For years, I interacted often with the community—I’ve known Robin Hanson since ~2004 and Eliezer Yudkowsky since ~2006, and our blogs bounced off each other—but I never considered myself a member.  I never ranked paperclip-maximizing AIs among humanity’s more urgent threats—indeed, I saw them as a distraction from an all-too-likely climate catastrophe that will leave its survivors lucky to have stone tools, let alone AIs. I was also repelled by what I saw as the rationalists’ cultier aspects.  I even once toyed with the idea of changing the name of this blog to “More Wrong” or “Wallowing in Bias,” as a play on the rationalists’ LessWrong and OvercomingBias.

But I’ve drawn much closer to the community over the last few years, because of a combination of factors:

  1. The comment-171 affair. This was not the sort of thing that could provide any new information about the likelihood of a dangerous AI being built, but was (to put it mildly) the sort of thing that can tell you who your friends are. I learned that empathy works a lot like intelligence, in that those who boast of it most loudly are often the ones who lack it.
  2. The astounding progress in deep learning and reinforcement learning and GANs, which caused me (like everyone else, perhaps) to update in the direction of human-level AI in our lifetimes being an actual live possibility,
  3. The rise of Scott Alexander. To the charge that the rationalists are a cult, there’s now the reply that Scott, with his constant equivocations and doubts, his deep dives into data, his clarity and self-deprecating humor, is perhaps the least culty cult leader in human history. Likewise, to the charge that the rationalists are basement-dwelling kibitzers who accomplish nothing of note in the real world, there’s now the reply that Scott has attracted a huge mainstream following (Steven Pinker, Paul Graham, presidential candidate Andrew Yang…), purely by offering up what’s self-evidently some of the best writing of our time.
  4. Research. The AI-risk folks started publishing some research papers that I found interesting—some with relatively approachable problems that I could see myself trying to think about if quantum computing ever got boring. This shift seems to have happened at roughly around the same time my former student, Paul Christiano, “defected” from quantum computing to AI-risk research.

Anyway, if you’ve spent years steeped in the rationalist blogosphere, read Eliezer’s “Sequences,” and so on, The AI Does Not Hate You will probably have little that’s new, although it might still be interesting to revisit ideas and episodes that you know through a newcomer’s eyes. To anyone else … well, reading the book would be a lot faster than spending all those years reading blogs! I’ve heard of some rationalists now giving out copies of the book to their relatives, by way of explaining how they’ve chosen to spend their lives.

I still don’t know whether there’s a risk worth worrying about that a misaligned AI will threaten human civilization in my lifetime, or my children’s lifetimes, or even 500 years—or whether everyone will look back and laugh at how silly some people once were to think that (except, silly in which way?). But I do feel fairly confident that The AI Does Not Hate You will make a positive difference—possibly for the world, but at any rate for a little well-meaning community of sneered-at nerds obsessed with the future and with following ideas wherever they lead.

From quantum supremacy to classical fallacy

October 2nd, 2019

Maybe I should hope that people never learn to distinguish for themselves which claimed breakthroughs in building new forms of computation are obviously serious, and which ones are obviously silly. For as long as they don’t, this blog will always serve at least one purpose. People will cite it, tweet it, invoke its “authority,” even while from my point of view, I’m offering nothing more intellectually special than my toddler does when he calls out “moo-moo cow! baa-baa sheep!” as we pass them on the road.

But that’s too pessimistic. Sure, most readers must more-or-less already know what I’ll say about each thing: that Google’s quantum supremacy claim is serious, that memcomputing to solve NP-complete problems is not, etc. Even so, I’ve heard from many readers that this blog was at least helpful for double-checking their initial impressions, and for making common knowledge what before had merely been known to many. I’m fine for it to continue serving those roles.

Last week, even as I dealt with fallout from Google’s quantum supremacy leak, I also got several people asking me to comment on a Nature paper entitled Integer factorization using stochastic magnetic tunnel junctions (warning: paywalled). See also here for a university press release.

The authors report building a new kind of computer based on asynchronously updated “p-bits” (probabilistic bits). A p-bit is “a robust, classical entity fluctuating in time between 0 and 1, which interacts with other p-bits … using principles inspired by neural networks.” They build a device with 8 p-bits, and use it to factor integers up to 945. They present this as another “unconventional computation scheme” alongside quantum computing, and as a “potentially scalable hardware approach to the difficult problems of optimization and sampling.”

A commentary accompanying the Nature paper goes much further still—claiming that the new factoring approach, “if improved, could threaten data encryption,” and that resources should now be diverted from quantum computing to this promising new idea, one with the advantages of requiring no refrigeration or maintenance of delicate entangled states. (It should’ve added: and how big a number has Shor’s algorithm factored anyway, 21? Compared to 945, that’s peanuts!)

Since I couldn’t figure out a gentler way to say this, here goes: it’s astounding that this paper and commentary made it into Nature in the form that they did. Juxtaposing Google’s sampling achievement with p-bits, as several of my Facebook friends did last week, is juxtaposing the Wright brothers with some guy bouncing around on a pogo stick.

If you were looking forward to watching me dismantle the p-bit claims, I’m afraid you might be disappointed: the task is over almost the moment it begins. “p-bit” devices can’t scalably outperform classical computers, for the simple reason that they are classical computers. A little unusual in their architecture, but still well-covered by the classical Extended Church-Turing Thesis. Just like with the quantum adiabatic algorithm, an energy penalty is applied to coax the p-bits into running a local optimization algorithm: that is, making random local moves that preferentially decrease the number of violated constraints. Except here, because the whole evolution is classical, there doesn’t seem to be even the pretense that anything is happening that a laptop with a random-number generator couldn’t straightforwardly simulate. In terms of this editorial, if adiabatic quantum computing is Richard Nixon—hiding its lack of observed speedups behind subtle arguments about tunneling and spectral gaps—then p-bit computing is Trump.

Even so, I wouldn’t be writing this post if you opened the paper and it immediately said, in effect, “look, we know. You’re thinking that this is just yet another stochastic local optimization method, which could clearly be simulated efficiently on a conventional computer, thereby putting it into a different conceptual universe from quantum computing. You’re thinking that factoring an n-bit integer will self-evidently take exp(n) time by this method, as compared to exp(n1/3) for the Number Field Sieve, and that no crypto is in even remote danger from this. But here’s why you should still be interested in our p-bit model: because of other advantages X, Y, and Z.” Alas, in vain one searches the whole paper, and the lengthy supplementary material, and the commentary, for any acknowledgment of the pachyderm in the pagoda. Not an asymptotic runtime scaling in sight. Quantum computing is there, but stripped of the theoretical framework that gives it its purpose.

That silence, in the pages of Naturethat’s the part that convinced me that, while on the negative side this blog seems to have accomplished nothing for the world in 14 years of existence, on the positive side it will likely have a role for decades to come.

Update: See a response in the comments, which I appreciated, from Kerem Cansari (one of the authors of the paper), and my response to the response.

(Partly) Unrelated Announcement #1: My new postdoc, Andrea Rocchetto, had the neat idea of compiling a Quantum Computing Fact Sheet: a quick “Cliffs Notes” for journalists, policymakers, and others looking to get the basics right. The fact sheet might grow in the future, but in the meantime, check it out! Or at a more popular level, try the Quantum Atlas made by folks at the University of Maryland.

Unrelated Announcement #2: Daniel Wichs asked me to give a shout-out to a new Conference on Information-Theoretic Cryptography, to be held June 17-19 in Boston.

Third Announcement: Several friends asked me to share that Prof. Peter Wittek, quantum computing researcher at the University of Toronto, has gone missing in the Himalayas. Needless to say we hope for his safe return.

Scott’s Supreme Quantum Supremacy FAQ!

September 23rd, 2019

You’ve seen the stories—in the Financial Times, Technology Review, CNET, Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, or elsewhere—saying that a group at Google has now achieved quantum computational supremacy with a 53-qubit superconducting device. While these stories are easy to find, I’m not going to link to them here, for the simple reason that none of them were supposed to exist yet.

As the world now knows, Google is indeed preparing a big announcement about quantum supremacy, to coincide with the publication of its research paper in a high-profile journal (which journal? you can probably narrow it down to two). This will hopefully happen within a month.

Meanwhile, though, NASA, which has some contributors to the work, inadvertently posted an outdated version of the Google paper on a public website. It was there only briefly, but long enough to make it to the Financial Times, my inbox, and millions of other places. Fact-free pontificating about what it means has predictably proliferated.

The world, it seems, is going to be denied its clean “moon landing” moment, wherein the Extended Church-Turing Thesis gets experimentally obliterated within the space of a press conference. This is going to be more like the Wright Brothers’ flight—about which rumors and half-truths leaked out in dribs and drabs between 1903 and 1908, the year Will and Orville finally agreed to do public demonstration flights. (This time around, though, it thankfully won’t take that long to clear everything up!)

I’ve known about what was in the works for a couple months now; it was excruciating not being able to blog about it. Though sworn to secrecy, I couldn’t resist dropping some hints here and there (did you catch any?)—for example, in my recent Bernays Lectures in Zürich, a lecture series whose entire structure built up to the brink of this moment.

This post is not an official announcement or confirmation of anything. Though the lightning may already be visible, the thunder belongs to the group at Google, at a time and place of its choosing.

Rather, because so much misinformation is swirling around, what I thought I’d do here, in my role as blogger and “public intellectual,” is offer Scott’s Supreme Quantum Supremacy FAQ. You know, just in case you were randomly curious about the topic of quantum supremacy, or wanted to know what the implications would be if some search engine company based in Mountain View or wherever were hypothetically to claim to have achieved quantum supremacy.

Without further ado, then:

Q1. What is quantum computational supremacy?

Often abbreviated to just “quantum supremacy,” the term refers to the use of a quantum computer to solve some well-defined set of problems that would take orders of magnitude longer to solve with any currently known algorithms running on existing classical computers—and not for incidental reasons, but for reasons of asymptotic quantum complexity. The emphasis here is on being as sure as possible that the problem really was solved quantumly and really is classically intractable, and ideally achieving the speedup soon (with the noisy, non-universal QCs of the present or very near future). If the problem is also useful for something, then so much the better, but that’s not at all necessary. The Wright Flyer and the Fermi pile weren’t useful in themselves.

Q2. If Google has indeed achieved quantum supremacy, does that mean that now “no code is uncrackable”, as Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang recently tweeted?

No, it doesn’t. (But I still like Yang’s candidacy.)

There are two issues here. First, the devices currently being built by Google, IBM, and others have 50-100 qubits and no error-correction. Running Shor’s algorithm to break the RSA cryptosystem would require several thousand logical qubits. With known error-correction methods, that could easily translate into millions of physical qubits, and those probably of a higher quality than any that exist today. I don’t think anyone is close to that, and we have no idea how long it will take.

But the second issue is that, even in a hypothetical future with scalable, error-corrected QCs, on our current understanding they’ll only be able to crack some codes, not all of them. By an unfortunate coincidence, the public-key codes that they can crack include most of what we currently use to secure the Internet: RSA, Diffie-Hellman, elliptic curve crypto, etc. But symmetric-key crypto should only be minimally affected. And there are even candidates for public-key cryptosystems (for example, based on lattices) that no one knows how to break quantumly after 20+ years of trying, and some efforts underway now to start migrating to those systems. For more, see for example my letter to Rebecca Goldstein.

Q3. What calculation is Google planning to do, or has it already done, that’s believed to be classically hard?

So, I can tell you, but I’ll feel slightly sheepish doing so. The calculation is: a “challenger” generates a random quantum circuit C (i.e., a random sequence of 1-qubit and nearest-neighbor 2-qubit gates, of depth perhaps 20, acting on a 2D grid of n = 50 to 60 qubits). The challenger then sends C to the quantum computer, and asks it apply C to the all-0 initial state, measure the result in the {0,1} basis, send back whatever n-bit string was observed, and repeat some thousands or millions of times. Finally, using its knowledge of C, the classical challenger applies a statistical test to check whether the outputs are consistent with the QC having done this.

So, this is not a problem like factoring with a single right answer. The circuit C gives rise to some probability distribution, call it DC, over n-bit strings, and the problem is to output samples from that distribution. In fact, there will typically be 2n strings in the support of DC—so many that, if the QC is working as expected, the same output will never be observed twice. A crucial point, though, is that the distribution DC is not uniform. Some strings enjoy constructive interference of amplitudes and therefore have larger probabilities, while others suffer destructive interference and have smaller probabilities. And even though we’ll only see a number of samples that’s tiny compared to 2n, we can check whether the samples preferentially cluster among the strings that are predicted to be likelier, and thereby build up our confidence that something classically intractable is being done.

So, tl;dr, the quantum computer is simply asked to apply a random (but known) sequence of quantum operations—not because we intrinsically care about the result, but because we’re trying to prove that it can beat a classical computer at some well-defined task.

Q4. But if the quantum computer is just executing some random garbage circuit, whose only purpose is to be hard to simulate classically, then who cares? Isn’t this a big overhyped nothingburger?

No. As I put it the other day, it’s not an everythingburger, but it’s certainly at least a somethingburger!

It’s like, have a little respect for the immensity of what we’re talking about here, and for the terrifying engineering that’s needed to make it reality. Before quantum supremacy, by definition, the QC skeptics can all laugh to each other that, for all the billions of dollars spent over 20+ years, still no quantum computer has even once been used to solve any problem faster than your laptop could solve it, or at least not in any way that depended on its being a quantum computer. In a post-quantum-supremacy world, that’s no longer the case. A superposition involving 250 or 260 complex numbers has been computationally harnessed, using time and space resources that are minuscule compared to 250 or 260.

I keep bringing up the Wright Flyer only because the chasm between what we’re talking about, and the dismissiveness I’m seeing in some corners of the Internet, is kind of breathtaking to me. It’s like, if you believed that useful air travel was fundamentally impossible, then seeing a dinky wooden propeller plane keep itself aloft wouldn’t refute your belief … but it sure as hell shouldn’t reassure you either.

Was I right to worry, years ago, that the constant drumbeat of hype about much less significant QC milestones would wear out people’s patience, so that they’d no longer care when something newsworthy finally did happen?

Q5. Years ago, you scolded the masses for being super-excited about D-Wave, and its claims to get huge quantum speedups for optimization problems via quantum annealing. Today you scold the masses for not being super-excited about quantum supremacy. Why can’t you stay consistent?

Because my goal is not to move the “excitement level” in some uniformly preferred direction, it’s to be right! With hindsight, would you say that I was mostly right about D-Wave, even when raining on that particular parade made me unpopular in some circles? Well, I’m trying to be right about quantum supremacy too.

Q6. If quantum supremacy calculations just involve sampling from probability distributions, how do you check that they were done correctly?

Glad you asked! This is the subject of a fair amount of theory that I and others developed over the last decade. I already gave you the short version in my answer to Q3: you check by doing statistics on the samples that the QC returned, to verify that they’re preferentially clustered in the “peaks” of the chaotic probability distribution DC. One convenient way of doing this, which Google calls the “linear cross-entropy test,” is simply to sum up Pr[C outputs si] over all the samples s1,…,sk that the QC returned, and then to declare the test a “success” if and only if the sum exceeds some threshold—say, bk/2n, for some constant b strictly between 1 and 2.

Admittedly, in order to apply this test, you need to calculate the probabilities Pr[C outputs si] on your classical computer—and the only known ways to calculate them require brute force and take ~2n time. Is that a showstopper? No, not if n is 50, and you’re Google and are able to handle numbers like 250 (although not 21000, which exceeds a googol, har har). By running a huge cluster of classical cores for (say) a month, you can eventually verify the outputs that your QC produced in a few seconds—while also seeing that the QC was many orders of magnitude faster. However, this does mean that sampling-based quantum supremacy experiments are almost specifically designed for ~50-qubit devices like the ones being built right now. Even with 100 qubits, we wouldn’t know how to verify the results using all the classical computing power available on earth.

(Let me stress that this issue is specific to sampling experiments like the ones that are currently being done. If Shor’s algorithm factored a 2000-digit number, it would be easy to check the result by simply multiplying the claimed factors and running a primality test on them. Likewise, if a QC were used to simulate some complicated biomolecule, you could check its results by comparing them to experiment.)

Q7. Wait. If classical computers can only check the results of a quantum supremacy experiment, in a regime where the classical computers can still simulate the experiment (albeit extremely slowly), then how do you get to claim “quantum supremacy”?

Come on. With a 53-qubit chip, it’s perfectly feasible to see a speedup by a factor of many millions, in a regime where you can still directly verify the outputs, and also to see that the speedup is growing exponentially with the number of qubits, exactly as asymptotic analysis would predict. This isn’t marginal.

Q8. Is there a mathematical proof that no fast classical algorithm could possibly spoof the results of a sampling-based quantum supremacy experiment?

Not at present. But that’s not quantum supremacy researchers’ fault! As long as theoretical computer scientists can’t even prove basic conjectures like P≠NP or P≠PSPACE, there’s no hope of ruling out a fast classical simulation unconditionally. The best we can hope for are conditional hardness results. And we have indeed managed to prove some such results—see for example the BosonSampling paper, or the Bouland et al. paper on average-case #P-hardness of calculating amplitudes in random circuits, or my paper with Lijie Chen (“Complexity-Theoretic Foundations of Quantum Supremacy Experiments”). The biggest theoretical open problem in this area, in my opinion, is to prove better conditional hardness results.

Q9. Does sampling-based quantum supremacy have any applications in itself?

When people were first thinking about this subject, it seemed pretty obvious that the answer was “no”! (I know because I was one of the people.) Recently, however, the situation has changed—for example, because of my certified randomness protocol, which shows how a sampling-based quantum supremacy experiment could almost immediately be repurposed to generate bits that can be proven to be random to a skeptical third party (under computational assumptions). This, in turn, has possible applications to proof-of-stake cryptocurrencies and other cryptographic protocols. I’m hopeful that more such applications will be discovered in the near future.

Q10. If the quantum supremacy experiments are just generating random bits, isn’t that uninteresting? Isn’t it trivial to convert qubits into random bits, just by measuring them?

The key is that a quantum supremacy experiment doesn’t generate uniform random bits. Instead, it samples from some complicated, correlated probability distribution over 50- or 60-bit strings. In my certified randomness protocol, the deviations from uniformity play a central role in how the QC convinces a classical skeptic that it really was sampling the bits randomly, rather than in some secretly deterministic way (e.g., using a pseudorandom generator).

Q11. Haven’t decades of quantum-mechanical experiments–for example, the ones that violated the Bell inequality–already demonstrated quantum supremacy?

This is purely a confusion over words. Those other experiments demonstrated other forms of “quantum supremacy”: for example, in the case of Bell inequality violations, what you could call “quantum correlational supremacy.” They did not demonstrate quantum computational supremacy, meaning doing something that’s infeasible to simulate using a classical computer (where the classical simulation has no restrictions of spatial locality or anything else of that kind). Today, when people use the phrase “quantum supremacy,” it’s generally short for quantum computational supremacy.

Q12. Even so, there are countless examples of materials and chemical reactions that are hard to classically simulate, as well as special-purpose quantum simulators (like those of Lukin’s group at Harvard). Why don’t these already count as quantum computational supremacy?

Under some people’s definitions of “quantum computational supremacy,” they do! The key difference with Google’s effort is that they have a fully programmable device—one that you can program with an arbitrary sequence of nearest-neighbor 2-qubit gates, just by sending the appropriate signals from your classical computer.

In other words, it’s no longer open to the QC skeptics to sneer that, sure, there are quantum systems that are hard to simulate classically, but that’s just because nature is hard to simulate, and you don’t get to arbitrarily redefine whatever random chemical you find in the wild to be a “computer for simulating itself.” Under any sane definition, the superconducting devices that Google, IBM, and others are now building are indeed “computers.”

Q13. Did you (Scott Aaronson) invent the concept of quantum supremacy?

No. I did play some role in developing it, which led to Sabine Hossenfelder among others generously overcrediting me for the whole idea. The term “quantum supremacy” was coined by John Preskill in 2012, though in some sense the core concept goes back to the beginnings of quantum computing itself in the early 1980s. In 1993, Bernstein and Vazirani explicitly pointed out the severe apparent tension between quantum mechanics and the Extended Church-Turing Thesis of classical computer science. Then, in 1994, the use of Shor’s algorithm to factor a huge number became the quantum supremacy experiment par excellence—albeit, one that’s still (in 2019) much too hard to perform.

The key idea of instead demonstrating quantum supremacy using a sampling problem was, as far as I know, first suggested by Barbara Terhal and David DiVincenzo, in a farsighted paper from 2002. The “modern” push for sampling-based supremacy experiments started around 2011, when Alex Arkhipov and I published our paper on BosonSampling, and (independently of us) Bremner, Jozsa, and Shepherd published their paper on the commuting Hamiltonians model. These papers showed, not only that “simple,” non-universal quantum systems can solve apparently-hard sampling problems, but also that an efficient classical algorithm for the same sampling problems would imply a collapse of the polynomial hierarchy. Arkhipov and I also made a start toward arguing that even the approximate versions of quantum sampling problems can be classically hard.

As far as I know, the idea of “Random Circuit Sampling”—that is, generating your hard sampling problem by just picking a random sequence of 2-qubit gates in (say) a superconducting architecture—originated in an email thread that I started in December 2015, which also included John Martinis, Hartmut Neven, Sergio Boixo, Ashley Montanaro, Michael Bremner, Richard Jozsa, Aram Harrow, Greg Kuperberg, and others. The thread was entitled “Hard sampling problems with 40 qubits,” and my email began “Sorry for the spam.” I then discussed some advantages and disadvantages of three options for demonstrating sampling-based quantum supremacy: (1) random circuits, (2) commuting Hamiltonians, and (3) BosonSampling. After Greg Kuperberg chimed in to support option (1), a consensus quickly formed among the participants that (1) was indeed the best option from an engineering standpoint—and that, if the theoretical analysis wasn’t yet satisfactory for (1), then that was something we could remedy.

[Update: Sergio Boixo tells me that, internally, the Google group had been considering the idea of random circuit sampling since February 2015, even before my email thread. This doesn’t surprise me: while there are lots of details that had to be worked out, the idea itself is an extremely natural one.]

After that, the Google group did a huge amount of analysis of random circuit sampling, both theoretical and numerical, while Lijie Chen and I and Bouland et al. supplied different forms of complexity-theoretic evidence for the problem’s classical hardness.

Q14. If quantum supremacy was achieved, what would it mean for the QC skeptics?

I wouldn’t want to be them right now! They could retreat to the position that of course quantum supremacy is possible (who ever claimed that it wasn’t? surely not them!), that the real issue has always been quantum error-correction. And indeed, some of them have consistently maintained that position all along. But others, including my good friend Gil Kalai, are on record, right here on this blog predicting that even quantum supremacy can never be achieved for fundamental reasons. I won’t let them wiggle out of it now.

[Update: As many of you will have seen, Gil Kalai has taken the position that the Google result won’t stand and will need to be retracted. He asked for more data: specifically, a complete histogram of the output probabilities for a smaller number of qubits. This turns out to be already available, in a Science paper from 2018.]

Q15. What’s next?

If it’s achieved quantum supremacy, then I think the Google group already has the requisite hardware to demonstrate my protocol for generating certified random bits. And that’s indeed one of the very next things they’re planning to do.

[Addendum: Also, of course, the evidence for quantum supremacy itself can be made stronger and various loopholes closed—for example, by improving the fidelity so that fewer samples need to be taken (something that Umesh Vazirani tells me he’d like to see), by having the circuit C be generated and the outputs verified by a skeptic external to Google. and simply by letting more time pass, so outsiders can have a crack at simulating the results classically. My personal guess is that the basic picture is going to stand, but just like with the first experiments that claimed to violate the Bell inequality, there’s still plenty of room to force the skeptics into a tinier corner.]

Beyond that, one obvious next milestone would be to use a programmable QC, with (say) 50-100 qubits, to do some useful quantum simulation (say, of a condensed-matter system) much faster than any known classical method could do it. A second obvious milestone would be to demonstrate the use of quantum error-correction, to keep an encoded qubit alive for longer than the underlying physical qubits remain alive. There’s no doubt that Google, IBM, and the other players will now be racing toward both of these milestones.

[Update: Steve Girvin reminds me that the Yale group has already achieved quantum error-correction “beyond the break-even point,” albeit in a bosonic system rather than superconducting qubits. So perhaps a better way to phrase the next milestone would be: achieve quantum computational supremacy and useful quantum error-correction in the same system.]

Another update: I thought this IEEE Spectrum piece gave a really nice overview of the issues.

Last update: John Preskill’s Quanta column about quantum supremacy is predictably excellent (and possibly a bit more accessible than this FAQ).

Blurry but clear enough

September 20th, 2019

My vision is blurry right now, because yesterday I had a procedure called corneal cross-linking, intended to prevent further deterioration of my eyes as I get older. But I can see clearly enough to tap out a post with random thoughts about the world.

I’m happy that the Netanyahu era might finally be ending in Israel, after which Netanyahu will hopefully face some long-delayed justice for his eye-popping corruption. If only there were a realistic prospect of Trump facing similar justice. I wish Benny Gantz success in putting together a coalition.

I’m happy that my two least favorite candidates, Bill de Blasio and Kirsten Gillibrand, have now both dropped out of the Democratic primary. Biden, Booker, Warren, Yang—I could enthusiastically support pretty much any of them, if they looked like they had a good chance to defeat Twitler. Let’s hope.

Most importantly, I wish to register my full-throated support for the climate strikes taking place today all over the world, including here in Austin. My daughter Lily, age 6, is old enough to understand the basics of what’s happening and to worry about her future. I urge the climate strikers to keep their eyes on things that will actually make a difference (building new nuclear plants, carbon taxes, geoengineering) and ignore what won’t (banning plastic straws).

As for Greta Thunberg: she is, or is trying to be, the real-life version of the Comet King from Unsong. You can make fun of her, ask what standing or expertise she has as some random 16-year-old to lead a worldwide movement. But I suspect that this is always what it looks like when someone takes something that’s known to (almost) all, and then makes it common knowledge. If civilization makes it to the 22nd century at all, then in whatever form it still exists, I can easily imagine that it will have more statues of Greta than of MLK or Gandhi.

On a completely unrelated and much less important note, John Horgan has a post about “pluralism in math” that includes some comments by me.

Oh, and on the quantum supremacy front—I foresee some big news very soon. You know which blog to watch for more.

Paul Bernays Lectures

September 9th, 2019

Last week, I had the honor of giving the annual Paul Bernays Lectures at ETH Zürich. My opening line: “as I look at the list of previous Bernays Lecturers—many of them Nobel physics laureates, Fields Medalists, etc.—I think to myself, how badly did you have to screw up this year in order to end up with me?”

Paul Bernays was the primary assistant to David Hilbert, before Bernays (being Jewish by birth) was forced out of Göttingen by the Nazis in 1933. He spent most of the rest of his career at ETH. He’s perhaps best known for the von Neumann-Bernays-Gödel set theory, and for writing (in a volume by “Hilbert and Bernays,” but actually just Bernays) arguably the first full proof of Gödel’s Second Incompleteness Theorem.

Anyway, the idea of the Paul Bernays Lectures is to rotate between Bernays’s different interests in his long, distinguished career—interests that included math, philosophy, logic, and the foundations of physics. I mentioned that, if there’s any benefit to carting me out to Switzerland for these lectures, it’s that quantum computing theory combines all of these interests. And this happens to be the moment in history right before we start finding out, directly from experiments, whether quantum computers can indeed solve certain special problems much faster.

The general theme for my three lectures was “Quantum Computing and the Fundamental Limits of Computation.” The attendance was a few hundred. My idea was to take the audience from Church and Turing in the 1930s, all the way to the quantum computational supremacy experiments that Google and others are doing now—as part of a single narrative.

If you’re interested, streaming video of the lectures is available as of today (though I haven’t watched it—let me know if the quality is OK!), as well as of course my slides. Here you go:

Lecture 1: The Church-Turing Thesis and Physics (watch streaming / PowerPoint slides) (with an intro in German by Giovanni Sommaruga, who knew Bernays, and a second intro in English by Renato Renner, who appeared on this blog here)

Abstract: Is nature computable?  What should we even mean in formulating such a question?  For generations, the identification of “computable” with “computable by a Turing machine” has been seen as either an arbitrary mathematical definition, or a philosophical or psychological claim. The rise of quantum computing and information, however, has brought a fruitful new way to look at the Church-Turing Thesis: namely, as a falsifiable empirical claim about the physical universe.  This talk seeks to examine the computability of the laws of physics from a modern standpoint—one that fully incorporates the insights of quantum mechanics, quantum field theory, quantum gravity, and cosmology.  We’ll critically assess ‘hypercomputing’ proposals involving (for example) relativistic time dilation, black holes, closed timelike curves, and exotic cosmologies, and will make a 21st-century case for the physical Church-Turing Thesis.

Lecture 2: The Limits of Efficient Computation (watch streaming / PowerPoint slides)

Abstract: Computer scientists care about what’s computable not only in principle, but within the resource constraints of the physical universe.  Closely related, which types of problems are solvable using a number of steps that scales reasonably (say, polynomially) with the problem size?  This lecture will examine whether the notorious NP-complete problems, like the Traveling Salesman Problem, are efficiently solvable using the resources of the physical world.  We’ll start with P=?NP problem of classical computer science—its meaning, history, and current status.  We’ll then discuss quantum computers: how they work, how they can sometimes yield exponential speedups over classical computers, and why many believe that not even they will do so for the NP-complete problems.  Finally, we’ll critically assess proposals that would use exotic physics to go even beyond quantum computers, in terms of what they would render computable in polynomial time.

Lecture 3: The Quest for Quantum Computational Supremacy (watch streaming / PowerPoint slides)

Abstract: Can useful quantum computers be built in our world?  This talk will discuss the current status of the large efforts currently underway at Google, IBM, and many other places to build noisy quantum devices, with 50-100 qubits, that can clearly outperform classical computers at least on some specialized tasks — a milestone that’s been given the unfortunate name of “quantum supremacy.”  We’ll survey recent theoretical work (on BosonSampling, random circuit sampling, and more) that aims to tell us: which problems should we give these devices, that we’re as confident as possible are hard for classical computers? And how should we check whether the devices indeed solved them?  We’ll end by discussing a new protocol, for generating certified random bits, that can be implemented almost as soon as quantum supremacy itself is achieved, and which might therefore become the first application of quantum computing to be realized.

Finally, thanks so much to Giovanni Sommaruga and everyone else at ETH for arranging a fantastic visit.

A rare classified ad

September 7th, 2019

Dana and I are searching for a live-in nanny for our two kids, Lily (age 6) and Daniel (age 2). We can offer $750/week. We can also offer a private room with a full bathroom and a beautiful view in our home in central Austin, TX, as well as free food and other amenities. The responsibilities include helping to take the kids to and from school and drive them to various activities, helping to get them ready for school/daycare in the morning and ready for sleep at night, cooking and other housework. We’d ask for no more than 45 hours per week, and could give several days off at a time depending on scheduling constraints.

If interested, please shoot me an email, tell me all about yourself and provide references.

Obviously, feel free to let anyone else know who you think might be interested (but who might not read this blog).

I’m really sorry to be doing this here! We tried on classified sites and didn’t find a good match.

A nerdocratic oath

August 30th, 2019

Recently, my Facebook wall was full of discussion about instituting an oath for STEM workers, analogous to the Hippocratic oath for doctors.  Perhaps some of the motivation for this comes from a worldview I can’t get behind—one that holds STEM nerds almost uniquely responsible for the world’s evils.  Nevertheless, on reflection, I find myself in broad support of the idea.

But I prefer writing the oath myself. Here’s my attempt:

1. I will never allow anyone else to make me a cog. I will never do what is stupid or horrible because “that’s what the regulations say” or “that’s what my supervisor said,” and then sleep soundly at night. I’ll never do my part for a project unless I’m satisfied that the project’s broader goals are, at worst, morally neutral. There’s no one on earth who gets to say: “I just solve technical problems.  Moral implications are outside my scope.”

2. If I build or supply tools that are used to do evil or cause suffering, I’ll be horrified as soon as I learn about it.  Yes, I might judge that the good of the tools outweighs the bad, that the bad can’t be prevented, etc.  But I’ll be hyper-alert to the possibility of self-serving bias in such reflections, and will choose a different course of action whenever the reflections are no longer persuasive to my highest self.

3. I will pursue the truth, and hold the sharing of truth and exposing of falsehoods among my highest moral values.

4. I will make a stink, resign, leak to the press, sabotage, rather than go along quietly with decisions inimical to my values.

5. I will put everything on the line for my students, advisees, employees—my time, funds, reputation, and credibility.  And not only because it can somewhat make up for failings in the other areas.

6. Black, white, male, female, trans, gay, straight, Israeli, Palestinian, young, old.  Whatever ideologies I might subscribe to about which groups are advantaged and which disadvantaged in which aspects of life—when it comes time to interact with a person, I will throw ideology into the ocean and treat them solely as an individual, not as a representative of a group.

7. I will not be Jeffrey Epstein—and not just in the narrow sense of not collecting underage girls on a private sex island.  I’ll see myself always as accountable to the moral judgment of history.  Whenever I’m publicly accused of wrongdoing, I’ll consider only two options: (a) if guilty, then confess, offer restitution, beg for forgiveness, or (b) if innocent, then mount a full public defense.  Finding some escape that avoids the need for either of these—from legal maneuvering to suicide—will never be on the table for me.

8. I’m under no obligation to blog or tweet every detail of my private life. Yet even in my most private moments, I’ll act in such a way that, if my actions were made public, I’d have a defense of which I was unashamed.

9. To whatever extent I was gifted at birth with a greater-than-average ability to prove theorems or write code or whatever, I’ll treat it as just that—a gift, which I didn’t earn or deserve. It doesn’t make me inherently worthier than anyone else, but it does give me a moral obligation to use the gift for good. And whenever I’m tempted to be jealous of various non-nerds—of their ease in social or romantic situations, wealth, looks, power, athletic ability, or anything else about them—I’ll remember the gift, and that all in all, I made out better than I had a right to expect.

10. I’ll be conscious always of living in a universe where catastrophes—genocides, destructions of civilizations, extinctions of magnificent species—have happened and will happen again. The burning of the Amazon, the deaths of children, the bleaching of coral reefs, will weigh on me daily, to the maximum extent consistent with being able to get out of bed in the morning, live, and work. While it’s not obvious that any of these problems are open to a STEM-nerd solution, of the sort I could plausibly think of or implement—nevertheless, I’ll keep asking myself whether any of them are. And if I ever do find myself before one of the levers of history, I’ll pull with all my strength to try to prevent these catastrophes.

Links, proofs, talks, jokes

July 30th, 2019

For those who haven’t yet seen it, Erica Klarreich has a wonderful article in Quanta on Hao Huang’s proof of the Sensitivity Conjecture. This is how good popular writing about math can be.

Klarreich quotes my line from this blog, “I find it hard to imagine that even God knows how to prove the Sensitivity Conjecture in any simpler way than this.” However, even if God doesn’t know a simpler proof, that of course doesn’t rule out the possibility that Don Knuth does! And indeed, a couple days ago Knuth posted his own variant of Huang’s proof on his homepage—in Knuth’s words, fleshing out the argument that Shalev Ben-David previously posted on this blog—and then left a comment about it here, the first comment by Knuth that I know about on this blog or any other blog. I’m honored—although as for whether the variants that avoid the Cauchy Interlacing Theorem are actually “simpler,” I guess I’ll leave that between Huang, Ben-David, Knuth, and God.

In Communications of the ACM, Samuel Greengard has a good, detailed article on Ewin Tang and her dequantization of the quantum recommendation systems algorithm. One warning (with thanks to commenter Ted): the sentence “The only known provable separation theorem between quantum and classical is sqrt(n) vs. n” is mistaken, though it gestures in the direction of a truth. In the black-box setting, we can rigorously prove all sorts of separations: sqrt(n) vs. n (for Grover search), exponential (for period-finding), and more. In the non-black-box setting, we can’t prove any such separations at all.

Last week I returned to the US from the FQXi meeting in the Tuscan countryside. This year’s theme was “Mind Matters: Intelligence and Agency in the Physical World.” I gave a talk entitled “The Search for Physical Correlates of Consciousness: Lessons from the Failure of Integrated Information Theory” (PowerPoint slides here), which reprised my blog posts critical of IIT from five years ago. There were thought-provoking talks by many others who might be known to readers of this blog, including Sean Carroll, David Chalmers, Max Tegmark, Seth Lloyd, Carlo Rovelli, Karl Friston … you can see the full schedule here. Apparently video of the talks is not available yet but will be soon.

Let me close this post by sharing two important new insights about quantum mechanics that emerged from my conversations at the FQXi meeting:

(1) In Hilbert space, no one can hear you scream. Unless, that is, you scream the exact same way everywhere, or unless you split into separate copies, one for each different way of screaming.

(2) It’s true that, as a matter of logic, the Schrödinger equation does not imply the Born Rule. Having said that, if the Schrödinger equation were leading a rally, and the crowd started a chant of “BORN RULE! BORN RULE! BORN RULE!”—the Schrödinger equation would just smile and wait 13 seconds for the chant to die down before continuing.

Fake it till you make it (to the moon)

July 19th, 2019

While I wait to board a flight at my favorite location on earth—Philadelphia International Airport—I figured I might as well blog something to mark the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11. (Thanks also to Joshua Zelinsky for a Facebook post that inspired this.)

I wasn’t alive for Apollo, but I’ve been alive for 3/4 of the time after it, even though it now seems like ancient history—specifically, like a Roman cathedral being gawked at by a medieval peasant, like an achievement by some vanished, more cohesive civilization that we can’t even replicate today, let alone surpass.

Which brings me to a depressing mystery: why do so many people now deny that humans walked on the moon at all? Like, why that specifically? While they’re at it, why don’t they also deny that WWII happened, or that the Beatles existed?

Surprisingly, skepticism of the reality of Apollo seems to have gone all the way back to the landings themselves. One of my favorite stories growing up was of my mom, as a teenager, working as a waitress at an Israeli restaurant in Philadelphia, on the night of Apollo 11 landing. My mom asked for a few minutes off to listen to news of the landing on the radio. The owners wouldn’t grant it—explaining that it was all Hollywood anyway, just some actors in spacesuits on a sound stage, and obviously my mom wasn’t so naïve as to think anyone was actually walking to the moon?

Alas, as we get further and further from the event, with no serious prospect of ever replicating it past the stage of announcing an optimistic timetable (nor, to be honest, any scientific reason to replicate it), as the people involved die off, and as our civilization becomes ever more awash in social-media-fueled paranoid conspiracies, I fear that moon-landing denalism will become more common.

Because here’s the thing: Apollo could happen, but only because of a wildly improbable, once-in-history confluence of social and geopolitical factors. It was economically insane, taking 100,000 people and 4% of the US federal budget for some photo-ops, a flag-planting, some data and returned moon rocks that had genuine scientific value but could’ve been provided much more cheaply by robots. It was dismantled immediately afterwards like a used movie set, rather than leading to any greater successes. Indeed, manned spaceflight severely regressed afterwards, surely mocking the expectations of every last science fiction fan and techno-utopian who was alive at that time.

One could summarize the situation by saying that, in certain respects, the Apollo program really was “faked.” It’s just that the way they “faked” it, involved actually landing people on the moon!

On two blog posts of Jerry Coyne

July 13th, 2019

A few months ago, I got to know Jerry Coyne, the recently-retired biologist at the University of Chicago who writes the blog “Why Evolution Is True.” The interaction started when Jerry put up a bemused post about my thoughts on predictability and free will, and I pointed out that if he wanted to engage me on those topics, there was more to go on than an 8-minute YouTube video. I told Coyne that it would be a shame to get off on the wrong foot with him, since perusal of his blog made it obvious that whatever he and I disputed, it was dwarfed by our areas of agreement. He and I exchanged more emails and had lunch in Chicago.

By way of explaining how he hadn’t read “The Ghost in the Quantum Turing Machine,” Coyne emphasized the difference in my and his turnaround times: while these days I update my blog only a couple times per month, Coyne often updates multiple times per day. Indeed the sheer volume of material he posts, on subjects from biology to culture wars to Chicago hot dogs, would take months to absorb.

Today, though, I want to comment on just two posts of Jerry’s.

The first post, from back in May, concerns David Gelernter, the computer science professor at Yale who was infamously injured in a 1993 attack by the Unabomber, and who’s now mainly known as a right-wing commentator. I don’t know Gelernter, though I did once attend a small interdisciplinary workshop in the south of France that Gelernter also attended, wherein I gave a talk about quantum computing and computational complexity in which Gelernter showed no interest. Anyway, Gelernter, in an essay in May for the Claremont Review of Books, argued that recent work has definitively disproved Darwinism as a mechanism for generating new species, and until something better comes along, Intelligent Design is the best available alternative.

Curiously, I think that Gelernter’s argument falls flat not for detailed reasons of biology, but mostly just because it indulges in bad math and computer science—in fact, in precisely the sorts of arguments that I was trying to answer in my segment on Morgan Freeman’s Through the Wormhole (see also Section 3.2 of Why Philosophers Should Care About Computational Complexity). Gelernter says that

  1. a random change to an amino acid sequence will pretty much always make it worse,
  2. the probability of finding a useful new such sequence by picking one at random is at most ~1 in 1077, and
  3. there have only been maybe ~1040 organisms in earth’s history.

Since 1077 >> 1040, Darwinism is thereby refuted—not in principle, but as an explanation for life on earth. QED.

The most glaring hole in the above argument, it seems to me, is that it simply ignores intermediate possible numbers of mutations. How hard would it be to change, not 1 or 100, but 5 amino acids in a given protein to get a usefully different one—as might happen, for example, with local optimization methods like simulated annealing run at nonzero temperature? And how many chances were there for that kind of mutation in the earth’s history?

Gelernter can’t personally see how a path could cut through the exponentially large solution space in a polynomial amount of time, so he asserts that it’s impossible. Many of the would-be P≠NP provers who email me every week do the same. But this particular kind of “argument from incredulity” has an abysmal track record: it would’ve applied equally well, for example, to problems like maximum matching that turned out to have efficient algorithms. This is why, in CS, we demand better evidence of hardness—like completeness results or black-box lower bounds—neither of which seem however to apply to the case at hand. Surely Gelernter understands all this, but had he not, he could’ve learned it from my lecture at the workshop in France!

Alas, online debate, as it’s wont to do, focused less on Gelernter’s actual arguments and the problems with them, than on the tiresome questions of “standing” and “status.” In particular: does Gelernter’s authority, as a noted computer science professor, somehow lend new weight to Intelligent Design? Or conversely: does the very fact that a computer scientist endorsed ID prove that computer science itself isn’t a real science at all, and that its practitioners should never be taken seriously in any statements about the real world?

It’s hard to say which of these two questions makes me want to bury my face deeper into my hands. Serge Lang, the famous mathematician and textbook author, spent much of his later life fervently denying the connection between HIV and AIDS. Lynn Margulis, the discoverer of the origin of mitochondria (and Carl Sagan’s first wife), died a 9/11 truther. What broader lesson should we draw from any of this? And anyway, what percentage of computer scientists actually do doubt evolution, and how does it compare to the percentage in other academic fields and other professions? Isn’t the question of how divorced we computer scientists are from the real world an … ahem … empirical matter, one hard to answer on the basis of armchair certainties and anecdotes?

Speaking of empiricism, if you check Gelernter’s publication list on DBLP and his Google Scholar page, you’ll find that he did influential work in programming languages, parallel computing, and other areas from 1981 through 1997, and then in the past 22 years published a grand total of … two papers in computer science. One with four coauthors, the other a review/perspective piece about his earlier work. So it seems fair to say that, some time after receiving tenure in a CS department, Gelernter pivoted (to put it mildly) away from CS and toward conservative punditry. His recent offerings, in case you’re curious, include the book America-Lite: How Imperial Academia Dismantled Our Culture (and Ushered In the Obamacrats).

Some will claim that this case underscores what’s wrong with the tenure system itself, while others will reply that it’s precisely what tenure was designed for, even if in this instance you happen to disagree with what Gelernter uses his tenured freedom to say. The point I wanted to make is different, though. It’s that the question “what kind of a field is computer science, anyway, that a guy can do high-level CS research on Monday, and then on Tuesday reject Darwinism and unironically use the word ‘Obamacrat’?”—well, even if I accepted the immense weight this question places on one atypical example (which I don’t), and even if I dismissed the power of compartmentalization (which I again don’t), the question still wouldn’t arise in Gelernter’s case, since getting from “Monday” to “Tuesday” seems to have taken him 15+ years.

Anyway, the second post of Coyne’s that I wanted to talk about is from just yesterday, and is about Jeffrey Epstein—the financier, science philanthropist, and confessed sex offender, whose appalling crimes you’ll have read all about this week if you weren’t on a long sea voyage without Internet or something.

For the benefit of my many fair-minded friends on Twitter, I should clarify that I’ve never met Jeffrey Epstein, let alone accepted any private flights to his sex island or whatever. I doubt he has any clue who I am either—even if he did once claim to be “intrigued” by quantum information.

I do know a few of the scientists who Epstein once hung out with, including Seth Lloyd and Steven Pinker. Pinker, in particular, is now facing vociferous attacks on Twitter, similar in magnitude perhaps to what I faced in the comment-171 affair, for having been photographed next to Epstein at a 2014 luncheon that was hosted by Lawrence Krauss (a physicist who later faced sexual harassment allegations of his own). By the evidentiary standards of social media, this photo suffices to convict Pinker as basically a child molester himself, and is also a devastating refutation of any data that Pinker might have adduced in his books about the Enlightenment’s contributions to human flourishing.

From my standpoint, what’s surprising is not that Pinker is up against this, but that it took this long to happen, given that Pinker’s pro-Enlightenment, anti-blank-slate views have had the effect of painting a giant red target on his back. Despite the near-inevitability, though, you can’t blame Pinker for wanting to defend himself, as I did when it was my turn for the struggle session.

Thus, in response to an emailed inquiry by Jerry Coyne, Pinker shared some detailed reflections about Epstein; Pinker then gave Coyne permission to post those reflections on his blog (though they were originally meant for Coyne only). Like everything Pinker writes, they’re worth reading in full. Here’s the opening paragraph:

The annoying irony is that I could never stand the guy [Epstein], never took research funding from him, and always tried to keep my distance. Friends and colleagues described him to me as a quantitative genius and a scientific sophisticate, and they invited me to salons and coffee klatches at which he held court. But I found him to be a kibitzer and a dilettante — he would abruptly change the subject ADD style, dismiss an observation with an adolescent wisecrack, and privilege his own intuitions over systematic data.

Pinker goes on to discuss his record of celebrating, and extensively documenting, the forces of modernity that led to dramatic reductions in violence against women and that have the power to continue doing so. On Twitter, Pinker had already written: “Needless to say I condemn Epstein’s crimes in the strongest terms.”

I probably should’ve predicted that Pinker would then be attacked again—this time, for having prefaced his condemnation with the phrase “needless to say.” The argument, as best I can follow, runs like this: given all the isms of which woke Twitter has already convicted Pinker—scientism, neoliberalism, biological determinism, etc.—how could Pinker’s being against Epstein’s crimes (which we recently learned probably include the rape, and not only statutorily, of a 15-year-old) possibly be assumed as a given?

For the record, just as Epstein’s friends and enablers weren’t confined to one party or ideology, so the public condemnation of Epstein strikes me as a matter that is (or should be) beyond ideology, with all reasonable dispute now confined to the space between “very bad” and “extremely bad,” between “lock away for years” and “lock away for life.”

While I didn’t need Pinker to tell me that, one reason I personally appreciated his comments is that they helped to answer a question that had bugged me, and that none of the mountains of other condemnations of Epstein had given me a clear sense about. Namely: supposing, hypothetically, that I’d met Epstein around 2002 or so—without, of course, knowing about his crimes—would I have been as taken with him as many other academics seem to have been? (Would you have been? How sure are you?)

Over the last decade, I’ve had the opportunity to meet some titans and semi-titans of finance and business, to discuss quantum computing and other nerdy topics. For a few (by no means all) of these titans, my overriding impression was precisely their unwillingness to concentrate on any one point for more than about 20 seconds—as though they wanted the crust of a deep intellectual exchange without the meat filling. My experience with them fit Pinker’s description of Epstein to a T (though I hasten to add that, as far as I know, none of these others ran teenage sex rings).

Anyway, given all the anger at Pinker for having intersected with Epstein, it’s ironic that I could easily imagine Pinker’s comments rattling Epstein the most of anyone’s, if Epstein hears of them from his prison cell. It’s like: Epstein must have developed a skin like a rhinoceros’s by this point about being called a child abuser, a creep, and a thousand similar (and similarly deserved) epithets. But “a kibitzer and a dilettante” who merely lured famous intellectuals into his living room, with wads of cash not entirely unlike the ones used to lure teenage girls to his massage table? Ouch!

OK, but what about Alan Dershowitz—the man who apparently used to be Epstein’s close friend, who still is Pinker’s friend, and who played a crucial role in securing Epstein’s 2008 plea bargain, the one now condemned as a travesty of justice? I’m not sure how I feel about Dershowitz.  It’s like: I understand that our system requires attorneys willing to mount a vociferous defense even for clients who they privately know or believe to be guilty—and even to get those clients off on technicalities or bargaining whenever they can.  I’m also incredibly grateful that I chose CS rather than law school, because I don’t think I could last an hour advocating causes that I knew to be unjust. Just like my fellow CS professor, the intelligent design advocate David Gelernter, I have the privilege and the burden of speaking only for myself.