Archive for the ‘Adventures in Meatspace’ Category

From shtetl to Forum

Saturday, January 18th, 2020

Daily Updates:
Saturday January 18 (introduction)
Sunday January 19 (Elton John and Greta Thunberg)
Monday January 20 (the $71,000-a-head ski resort conference for Equality)
Tuesday January 21 (Trump! Greta! QC panel!)
Wednesday January 22 (wherein I fail to introduce myself to Al Gore)
Thursday January 23 (wherein I attend the IBM QC panel and “drunkenly unload” at the Canada Reception)
Friday January 24 (second Al Gore session, and getting lost)

It would be great to know whether anyone’s actually reading the later updates, so I know whether to continue putting effort into them!

Saturday January 18

Today I’m headed to the 50th World Economic Forum in Davos, where on Tuesday I’ll participate in a panel discussion on “The Quantum Potential” with Jeremy O’Brien of the quantum computing startup PsiQuantum, and will also host an ask-me-anything session about quantum computational supremacy and Google’s claim to have achieved it.

I’m well aware that this will be unlike any other conference I’ve ever attended: STOC or FOCS it ain’t. As one example, also speaking on Tuesday—although not conflicting with my QC sessions—will be a real-estate swindler and reality-TV star who’s somehow (alas) the current President of the United States. Yes, even while his impeachment trial in the Senate gets underway. Also speaking on Tuesday, a mere hour and a half after him, will be TIME’s Person of the Year, 17-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg.

In short, this Davos is shaping up to be an epic showdown between two diametrically opposed visions for the future of life on Earth. And your humble blogger will be right there in the middle of it, to … uhh … explain how quantum computers can sample probability distributions that are classically intractable unless the polynomial hierarchy collapses to the third level. I feel appropriately sheepish.

Since the experience will be so unusual for me, I’m planning to “live-blog Davos”: I’ll be updating this post, all week, with any strange new things that I see or learn. As a sign of my devotion to you, my loyal readers, I’ll even clothespin my nose and attend Trump’s speech so I can write about it.

And Greta: on the off chance that you happen to read Shtetl-Optimized, let me treat you to a vegan lunch or dinner! I’d like to try to persuade you of just how essential nuclear power will be to a carbon-free future. Oh, and if it’s not too much trouble, I’d also like a selfie with you for this blog. (Alas, a friend pointed out to me that it would probably be easier to meet Trump: unlike Greta, he won’t be swarmed with thousands of fans!)

Anyway, check back here throughout the week for updates. And if you’re in Davos and would like to meet, please shoot me an email. And please use the comment section to give me your advice, suggestions, well-wishes, requests, or important messages for me to fail to deliver to the “Davoisie” who run the world.

Sunday January 19

So I’ve arrived in Klosters, a village in the Swiss Alps close to Davos where I’ll be staying. (All the hotels in Davos itself were booked by the time I checked.)

I’d braced myself for the challenge of navigating three different trains through the Alps not knowing German. In reality, it was like a hundred times easier than public transportation at home. Every train arrived at the exact right second at the exact platform that was listed, bearing the exact right number, and there were clear visible signs strategically placed at exactly the places where anyone could get confused. I’d entered Bizarro Opposite World. I’m surely one of the more absentminded people on earth, as well as one of the more neurotic about being judged by bystanders if I ever admit to being lost, and it was nothing.

Snow! Once a regular part of my life, now the first I’d seen in several years. Partly because I now live in Texas, but also because even when we take the kids back to Pennsylvania for ChanuChrismaNewYears, it no longer snows like it did when I was a kid. If you show my 2-year-old, Daniel, a picture of snow-covered wilderness, he calls it a “beach.” Daniel’s soon-to-be 7-year-old sister still remembers snow from Boston, but the memory is rapidly fading. I wonder for how many of the children of the 21st century will snow just be a thing from old books and movies, like typewriters or rotary phones.

The World Economic Forum starts tomorrow afternoon. In the meantime, though, I thought I’d give an update not on the WEF itself, but on the inflight movie that I watched on my way here.

I watched Rocketman, the recent biopic/hagiography about Elton John, though as I watched I found that I kept making comparisons between Elton John and Greta Thunberg.

On the surface, these two might not seem to have a great deal of similarity.

But I gathered that they had this in common: while still teenagers, they saw a chance and they seized it. And doing so involved taking inner turmoil and then succesfully externalizing it to the whole planet. Making hundreds of millions of people feel the same emotions that they had felt. If I’m being painfully honest (how often am I not?), that’s something I’ve always wanted to achieve and haven’t.

Of course, when some of the most intense and distinctive emotions you’ve ever felt revolved around the discovery of quantum query complexity lower bounds … yeah, it might be tough to find more people than could fill a room to relive those emotional journeys with you. But a child’s joy at discovering numbers like Ackerman(100) (to say nothing of BB(100)), which are so incomprehensibly bigger than \( 9^{9^{9^{9^9}}} \) that I didn’t need to think twice about how many 9’s I put there? Or the exasperation at those who, yeah, totally get that quantum computers aren’t known to give exponential speedups for NP-complete problems, that’s a really important clarification coming from the theory side, but still, let’s continue to base our entire business or talk or article around the presupposition that quantum computers do give exponential speedups for NP-complete problems? Or even just the type of crush that comes with a ceaseless monologue about what an objectifying, misogynist pig you must be to experience it? Maybe I could someday make people vicariously experience and understand those emotions–if I could only find the right words.

My point is, this is precisely what Greta did for the burgeoning emotion of existential terror about the Anthropocene—another emotion that’s characterized my life since childhood. Not that I ever figured out anything to do about it, with the exception of Gore/Nader vote-swapping. By the standards of existential terrors, I consider this terror to be extraordinarily well-grounded. If Steven Weinberg is scared, who among us has the right to be calm?

The obvious objection to Greta—why should anyone care what a histrionic teenager thinks about a complicated scientific field that thousands of people get PhDs in?—calls for a substantive answer. So here’s mine. Like many concerned citizens, I try to absorb some of the research on ocean warming or the collapse of ice sheets and the melting permafrost leading to even more warming or the collapse of ecosystems due to changes in rainfall or bushfires or climate migrations or whatever. And whenever I do, I’m reminded of Richard Feynman’s remark, during the investigation of the Challenger disaster, that maybe it wasn’t all that interesting for the commission to spend its time reconstructing the exact details of which system caused which other system to malfunction at which millisecond, after the Space Shuttle had already started exploding. The thing was hosed at that point.

Still, even after the 80s and 90s, there remained deep open questions about the eventual shape of the climate crisis, and foremost among them was: how do you get people to stop talking about this crisis in the language of intellectual hypotheticals and meaningless virtue-signalling gestures and “those crazy scientists, who knows what they’ll say tomorrow”? How does one get people to revert to a more ancient language, the one that was used to win WWII for example, which speaks of courage and duty and heroism and defiance in the jaws of death?

Greta’s origin story—the one where the autistic girl spends months so depressed over climate inaction that she can’t eat or leave her room, until finally, no longer able to bear the psychic burden, she ditches school and carries a handmade protest sign to the front of the Swedish parliament—is not merely a prerequisite to a real contribution. It is Greta’s real contribution (so far anyway), and by that I don’t mean to diminish it. The idea was “trivial,” yes, but only in the sense that the wheel, Arabic numerals, or “personal computers will be important” were trivial ideas. Greta modeled for the rest of the world how they, too, would probably feel about climate change were they able to sync up their lizard brains with their higher brains … and crucially, a substantial segment of the world was already primed to agree with her. But it needed to see one successful example of a succesful sync between the science and the emotions appropriate to the science, as a crystal needs a seed.

The thesis of Rocketman is that Elton John’s great achievement was not only to invent a new character, but actually to become that character, since only by succesfully fusing the two could he touch the emotions of the masses. In a similar way, Greta Thunberg’s great accomplishment of her short life has been to make herself into the human race’s first Greta Thunberg.

Monday January 20

Happy 7th birthday to my daughter Lily!  (No, I didn’t miss her birthday party.  We did it on the 18th, right before I flew out.)

I think my goals for Davos have been downgraded from delivering a message of peace and nerd liberation to the world’s powerful, or even getting a selfie with Greta, to simply taking in a week in an environment that’s so alien to me.

Everything in Davos is based on a tiered system of badges, which determine which buildings you can get into to participate in the sessions.  I have a white badge, the highest tier, which would’ve set me back around $71,000 had WEF not thankfully waived its fees for academics.  I should mention that I’m also extremely underdressed compared to most of the people here, and that I spent much of my time today looking for free food.  It turns out that there’s pretty copious and excellent free food, although the sponsors sometimes ask you to leave your business card before you take any.  I don’t have a business card.

The above, for me, represents the true spirit of Davos: a conference at a Swiss ski resort that costs $71,000 to attend, held on behalf of the ideal of human equality.

But maybe I shouldn’t scoff.  I learned today about a war between Greece and Turkey that was averted only because the heads of the two countries talked it over at Davos, so that’s cool.  At the opening ceremony today, besides a beautiful orchestral rendition of “Ode to Joy,” there were a bunch of speeches about how Davos pioneered the entire concept of corporate social responsibility.  I suppose the critics might say instead that Davos pioneered the concept of corporate whitewashing—as with the wall-sized posters that I saw this afternoon, wherein a financial services corporation showcased a diverse cast of people each above their preferred pronouns (he/him, she/her, they/them).  Amazing how pronouns make everything woke and social-justicey!  I imagine that the truth is somewhere between these visions.  Just like the easiest way for NASA to fake a moon landing was actually to send humans to the moon, sometimes the easiest way to virtue-signal is actually to become more virtuous.

Tonight I went to a reception specifically for the academics at Davos.  There, for the first time since my arrival, I saw people who I knew (Shafi Goldwasser, Neha Narula…), and met someone who I’d known by reputation (Brian Schmidt, who shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery of dark energy).  But even the people who I didn’t know were clearly “my people,” with familiar nerdy mannerisms and interests, and in some cases even a thorough knowledge of SlateStarCodex references.  Imagine visiting a foreign country where no one spoke your language, then suddenly stumbling on the first ones who did.  I found it a hundred times easier than at the main conference to strike up conversations.

Oh yeah, quantum computing.  This afternoon I hosted three roundtable discussions about quantum computing, which were fun and stress-free — I spent much more of my mental energy today figuring out the shuttle buses.  If you’re a regular reader of this blog or my popular articles, or a watcher of my talks on YouTube, etc., then congratulations: you’ve gotten the same explanations of quantum computing for free that others may have paid $71,000 apiece to hear!  Tomorrow are my two “real” quantum computing sessions, as well as the speeches by both the Donald and the Greta (the latter being the much hotter ticket).  So it’s a big day, which I’ll tell you about after it’s happened. Stay tuned!

Tuesday January 21

PsiQuantum’s Jeremy O’Brien and I did the Davos quantum computing panel this morning (moderated by Jennifer Schenker). You can watch our 45-minute panel here. For regular readers of this blog, the territory will be familiar, but I dunno, I hope someone enjoys it anyway!

I’m now in the Congress Hall, in a seat near the front, waiting for Trump to arrive. I will listen to the President of the United States and not attract the Secret Service’s attention by loudly booing, but I have no intention to stand or applaud either.

Alas, getting a seat at Greta’s talk is looking like it will be difficult or impossible.

I was struck by the long runup to Trump’s address: the President of Switzerland gave a searing speech about the existential threats of climate change and ecosystem destruction, and “the politicians in many nations who appeal to fear and bigotry”—never mentioning Trump by name but making clear that she despised the entire ideology of the man people had come to hear. I thought it was a nice touch. Then some technicians spent 15 minutes adjusting Trump’s podium, then nothing happened for 20 minutes as we all waited for a tardy Trump, then some traditional Swiss singers did a performance on stage (!), and finally Klaus Schwab, director of the WEF, gave Trump a brief and coldly cordial introduction, joking about the weather in Davos.

And … now Trump is finally speaking. Once he starts, I suddenly realize that I have no idea what new insight I expected from this. He’s giving his standard stump speech, America has regained its footing after the disaster of the previous administration, winning like it’s never won before, unemployment is the lowest in recorded history, blah blah blah. I estimate that less than half of the audience applauded Trump’s entrance; the rest sat in stony silence. Meanwhile, some people were passing out flyers to the audience documenting all the egregious errors in Trump’s economic statistics.

Given the small and childish nature of the remarks (“we’re the best! ain’t no one gonna push us around!”), it feels somehow right to be looking down at my phone, blogging, rather than giving my undivided attention to the President of the United States speaking 75 feet in front of me.

Ok, I admit I just looked up, when Trump mentioned America’s commitment to developing new technologies like “5G and quantum computing” (he slowly drew out the word “quantum”).

His whole delivery is strangely lethargic, as if he didn’t sleep well last night (I didn’t either).

Trump announced that the US would be joining the WEF’s “1 trillion trees” environmental initiative, garnering the only applause in his speech. But he then immediately pivoted to a denunciation of the “doomsayers and pessimists and socialists who want to control our lives and take away our liberty” (he presumably meant people worried about climate change).

Now, I kid you not, Trump is expanding on his “optimism” theme by going on and on about the architectural achievements of Renaissance Florence.

You can watch Trump’s speech for yourself here.

While I wasn’t able to get in to see Greta Thunberg in person, you can watch her (along with others) here. I learned that her name is pronounced “toon-berg.”

Having now listened to Greta’s remarks, I confess that I disagree with the content of what she says.  She explicitly advocates a sort of purity-based carbon absolutism—demanding that companies and governments immediately implement, not merely net zero emissions (i.e. offsetting their emissions by paying to plant trees and so forth), but zero emissions period.  Since she can’t possibly mean literally zero, I’ll interpret her to mean close to zero.  Even so, it seems to me that the resulting economic upheavals would provoke a massive backlash against whoever tried to enforce such a policy.  Greta also dismisses the idea of technological solutions to climate change, saying that we don’t have time to invent such solutions.  But of course, some of the solutions already exist—a prime example being nuclear power.  And if we no longer have time to nuclearize the world, then to a great extent, that’s the fault of the antinuclear activists—an unbelievable moral and strategic failure that may have doomed our civilization, and for which there’s never been a reckoning.

Despite all my disagreements, if Greta’s strident, uncompromising rhetoric helps push the world toward cutting emissions, then she’ll have to be counted as one of the greatest people who ever lived. Of course, another possibility is the world’s leaders will applaud her and celebrate her moral courage, while not taking anything beyond token actions.

Wednesday January 22

Alas, I’ve come down with a nasty cold (is there any other kind?).  So I’m paring back my participation in the rest of Davos to the stuff that really interests me.  The good news is that my quantum computing sessions are already finished!

This morning, as I sat in the lobby of the Congress Centre checking my email and blowing my nose, I noticed some guy playing a cello nearby.  Dozens were gathered around him — so many that I could barely see the guy, only hear the music.  After he was finished, I worked up the courage to ask someone what the fuss was about.  Turns out that the guy was Yo-Yo Ma.

The Prince Regent of Liechtenstein was explaining to one of my quantum computing colleagues that Liechtenstein does not have much in the way of quantum.

Speaking of princes, I’m now at a cybersecurity session with Shafi Goldwasser and others, at which the attendance might be slightly depressed because it’s up against Prince Charles. That’s right: Davos is the conference where the heir apparent to the British throne speaks in a parallel session.

I’ve realized these past few days that I’m not very good at schmoozing with powerful people.  On the other hand, it’s possible that my being bad at it is a sort of mental defense mechanism.  The issue is that, the more I became a powerful “thought leader” who unironically used phrases like “Fourth Industrial Revolution” or “disruptive innovation,” the more I used business cards and LinkedIn to expand my network of contacts or checked my social media metrics … well, the less I’d be able to do the research that led to stuff like being invited here in the first place.  I imagine that many Davos regulars started out as nerds like me, and that today, coming to Davos to talk about “disruptive innovation” is a fun kind of semi-retirement.  If so, though, I’m not ready to retire just yet!  I still want to do things that are new enough that they don’t need to be described using multiple synonyms for newness.

Apparently one of the hottest tickets at Davos is a post-Forum Shabbat dinner, which used to be frequented by Shimon Peres, Elie Wiesel, etc.  Alas, not having known about it, I already planned my travel in a way that won’t let me attend it.  I feel a little like the guy in this Onion article.

I had signed up for a session entitled What’s At Stake: The Arctic, featuring Al Gore. As I waited for them to start letting people in, I suddenly realized that Al Gore was standing right next to me. However, he was engrossed in conversation with a young woman, and even though I assumed she was just some random fan like I was, I didn’t work up the courage to interrupt them. Only once the panel had started, with the woman on it two seats from Gore, did I realize that she was Sanna Marin, the new Prime Minister of Finland (and at 34, the world’s second-youngest head of state).

You can watch the panel here. Briefly, the Arctic has lost about half of its ice cover, not merely since preindustrial times but since a few decades ago. And this is not only a problem for polar bears. It’s increasing the earth’s absorption of sunlight and hence significantly accelerating global warming, and it’s also screwing up weather patterns all across the northern hemisphere. Of course, the Siberian permafrost is also thawing and releasing greenhouse gases that are even worse than CO2, further accelerating the wonderful feedback loop of doom.

I thought that Gore gave a masterful performance. He was in total command of the facts—discoursing clearly and at length on the relative roles of CO2, SO2, and methane in the permafrost as well as the economics of oil extraction, less in the manner of thundering (or ‘thunberging’?) prophet than in the manner of an academic savoring all the non-obvious twists as he explains something to a colleague—and his every response to the other panelists was completely on point.

In 2000, there was indeed a bifurcation of the universe, and we ended up in a freakishly horrible branch. Instead of something close to the best, most fact-driven US president one could conjure in one’s mind, we got something close to the worst, and then, after an 8-year interregnum just to lull us into complacency, we got something even worse than the worst.

The other panelists were good too. Gail Whiteman (the scientist) had the annoying tic of starting sentence after sentence with “the science says…,” but then did a good job of summarizing what the science does say about the melting of the Arctic and the permafrost.

Alas, rather than trying to talk to Gore, immediately after the session ended, I headed back to my hotel to go to sleep. Why? Partly because of my cold. But partly also because of incident immediately before the panel. I was sitting in the front row, next to an empty seat, when a woman who wanted to occupy that seat hissed at me that I was “manspreading.”

If, on these narrow seats packed so tightly together that they were basically a bench, my left leg had strayed an inch over the line, I would’ve addressed the situation differently: for example, “oh hello, may I sit here?” (At which point I would’ve immediately squeezed in.) Amazingly, the woman didn’t seem to didn’t care that a different woman, the one to my right, kept her pocketbook and other items on the seat next to her throughout the panel, preventing anyone else from using the seat in what was otherwise a packed house. (Is that “womanspreading”?)

Anyway, the effect of her comment was to transform the way I related to the panel. I looked around at the audience and thought: “these activists, who came to hear a panel on climate change, are fighting for a better world. And in their minds, one of the main ways that the world will be better is that it won’t contain sexist, entitled ‘manspreaders’ like me.”

In case any SneerClubbers are reading, I should clarify that I recognize an element of the irrational in these thoughts. I’m simply reporting, truthfully, that they’re what bubbled up outside the arena of conscious control. But furthermore, I feel like the fact that my brain works this way might give me some insight into the psychology of Trump support that few Democrats share—so much that I wonder if I could provide useful service as a Democratic political consultant!

I understand the mindset that howls: “better that every tree burn to the ground, every fish get trawled from the ocean, every coastal city get flooded out of existence, than that these sanctimonious hypocrites ‘on the right side of history,’ singing of their own universal compassion even as they build a utopia with no place for me in it, should get to enjoy even a second of smug self-satisfaction.” I hasten to add that I’ve learned how to override that mindset with a broader, better mindset: I can jump into the abyss, but I can also climb back out, and I can even look down at the abyss from above and report what’s there. It’s as if I’d captured some virulent strain of Ebola in a microbiology lab of the soul. And if nearly half of American voters (more in crucial swing states) have gotten infected with that Ebola strain, then maybe my lab work could have some broader interest.

I thought about Scott Minerd, the investor on the panel, who became a punching bag for the other panelists (except for Gore, a politician in a good sense, who went out of his way to find points of agreement). In his clumsy way, Minerd was making the same point that climate activists themselves correctly make: namely, that the oil companies need to be incentivized (for example, through a carbon tax) to leave reserves in the ground, that we can’t just trust them to do the noble thing and write off their own assets. But for some reason, Minerd presented himself as a greedy fat-cat, raining on the dreams of the hippies all around him for a carbon-free future, so then that’s how the other panelists duly treated him (except, again, for Gore).

But I looked at the audience, which was cheering attacks on Minerd, and the Ebola in my internal microbiology lab said: “the way these activists see Scott Minerd is not far from how they see Scott Aaronson. You’ll never be good enough for them. The people in this room might or might not succeed at saving the world, but in any case they don’t want your help.”

After all, what was the pinnacle of my contribution to saving the world? It was surely when I was 19, and created a website to defend the practice of NaderTrading (i.e., Ralph Nader supporters in swing states voting for Al Gore, while Gore supporters in safe states pledged to vote Nader on their behalf). Alas, we failed. We did help arrange a few thousand swaps, including a few hundred swaps in Florida, but it was 538 too few. We did too little, too late.

So what would I have talked to Gore about, anyway? Would I have reminded him of the central tragedy of his life, which was also a central tragedy of recent American history, just in order to babble, or brag, about a NaderTrading website that I made half a lifetime ago? Would I have made up a post-hoc rationalization for why I work on quantum computing, like that I hope it will lead to the discovery of new carbon-capture methods? Immediately after Gore’s eloquent brief for the survival of the Arctic and all life on earth, would I have asked him for an autograph or a selfie? No, better to just reflect on his words. At a crucial pivot point in history, Gore failed by a mere 538 votes, and I also failed to prevent the failure. But amazingly, Gore never gave up-–he just kept on fighting for what he knew civilization needed to do—and yesterday I sat a few feet away while he explained why the rest of us shouldn’t give up either. And he’s right about this—if not in the sense of the outlook being especially hopeful or encouraging right now, then surely in the sense of which attitude is the useful one to adopt. And my attitude, which you might call “Many-Worlds-inflected despair,” might be epistemically sound but it definitely wasn’t useful. What further clarifications did I need?

Thursday January 23

I attended a panel discussion on quantum computing hosted by IBM. The participants were Thomas Friedman (the New York Times columnist), Arvind Krishna (a senior Vice President at IBM), Raoul Klingner (director of a European research organization), and Alison Snyder (the managing editor of Axios magazine). There were about 100 people in the audience, more than at all of my Davos quantum computing sessions combined. I sat right in front, although I don’t think anyone on the panel recognized me.

Ginni Rometty, the CEO of IBM, gave an introduction. She said that quantum will change the world by speeding up supply-chain and other optimization problems. I assume she was talking about the Grover speedup? She also said that IBM is committed to delivering value for its customers, rather than “things you can do in two seconds that are not commercially valid” (I assume she meant Google’s supremacy experiment). She asked for a show of hands of who knows absolutely nothing about the science behind quantum computing. She then quipped, “well, that’s all of you!” She may have missed two hands that hadn’t gone up (both belonging to the same person).

I accepted an invitation to this session firstly for the free lunch (which turned out to be delicious), and secondly because I was truly, genuinely curious to hear what Thomas Friedman, many of whose columns I’ve liked, had to teach me about quantum computing. The answer turns out to be this: in his travels around the world over the past 6 years, Friedman has witnessed firsthand how the old dichotomy between right-wing parties and left-wing parties is breaking down everywhere (I assume he means, as both sides get taken over by populist movements?). And this is just like how a qubit breaks down the binary dichotomy between 0’s and 1’s! Also, the way a quantum computer can be in multiple states at once, is like how the US now has to be in multiple states at once in its relationship with China.

Friedman opened his remarks by joking about how he never took a single physics course, and had no idea why he was on a quantum computing panel at all. He quickly added, though, that he toured IBM’s QC labs, where he found IBM’s leaders to be wonderful explainers of what it all means.

I’ll note that Friedman, the politics and Middle East affairs writer — not the two panelists serving the role of quantum experts — was the only one who mentioned, even in passing, the idea that the advantage of QCs depends on something called “constructive interference.”

Krishna, the IBM Vice President, explained why IBM rejects the entire concept of “quantum supremacy”: because it’s an irrelevant curiosity, and creating value for customers in the marketplace (for example by solving their supply-chain optimization problems) is the only test that matters. No one on the panel expressed a contrary view.

Later, Krishna explained why quantum computers will never replace classical computers: because if you stored your bank balance on a quantum computer, one day you’d have $1, the next day $1000, the day after that $1 again, and so forth! He explained how, where current supercomputers use the same amount of energy needed to power all of Davos to train machine learning models, quantum computers would use less than the energy needed to power a single house. New algorithms do need to be designed to run neural networks quantumly, but fortunately that’s all being done as we speak.

I got the feeling that the businesspeople who came to this session felt like they got a lot more out of it than the businesspeople who came to my and Jeremy O’Brien’s session felt like they got out of ours. After all, this session got across some big real-world takeaways—e.g., that if you don’t quantum, your business will be left in the dust, stuck with a single value at a time rather than exploring all values in parallel, and IBM can help you rather than your competitors win the quantum race. It didn’t muddy the message with all the incomprehensible technicalities about how QCs only give exponential speedups for problems with special structure.

Later Update:

Tonight I went to a Davos reception hosted by the government of Canada (🇨🇦). I’m not sure why exactly they invited me, although I have of course enjoyed a couple years of life “up north” (well, in Waterloo, so actually further south than a decent chunk of the US … you see that I do have a tiny speck of a Canadian in me?).

I didn’t recognize a single person at the reception. So I just ate the food, drank beer, and answered emails. But then a few people did introduce themselves (two who recognized me, one who didn’t). As they gathered around, they started asking me questions about quantum computing: is it true that QCs could crack the classically impossible Traveling Salesman Problem? That they try all possible answers in parallel? Are they going to go commercial in 2-5 years, or have they already?

It might have been the beer, but for some reason I decided to launch an all-out assault of truth bombs, one after the next, with what they might have considered a somewhat emotional delivery.

OK fine, it wasn’t the beer. That’s just who I am.

And then, improbably, I was a sort of localized “life of the party” — although possibly for the amusement / novelty value of my rant more than for the manifest truth of my assertions. One person afterward told me that it was by far the most useful conversation he’d had at Davos.

And I replied: I’m flattered by your surely inflated praise, but in truth I should also thank you. You caught me at a moment when I’d been thinking to myself that, if only I could make one or two people’s eyes light up with comprehension about the fallacy of a QC simply trying all possible answers in parallel and then magically picking the best one, or about the central role of amplitudes and interference, or about the “merely” quadratic nature of the Grover speedup, or about the specialized nature of the most dramatic known applications for QCs, or about the gap between where the experimentalists are now and what’s needed for error correction and hence true scalability, or about the fact that “quantum supremacy” is obviously not a sufficient condition for a QC to be useful, but it’s equally obviously a necessary condition, or about the fact that doing something “practical” with a QC is of very little interest unless the task in question is actually harder for classical computers, which is a question of great subtlety … I say, if I could make only two or four eyes light up with comprehension of these things, then on that basis alone I could declare that the whole trip to Davos was worth it.

And then one of the people hugged me … and that was the coolest thing that happened to me today.

Friday January 24

I attended a second session with Al Gore, about the problem of the world filling up with plastic. I learned that the world’s plastic waste is set to double over the next 15-20 years, and that a superb solution—indeed, it seems like a crime that it hasn’t been implemented already—-would be to set up garbage booms at the mouths of a few major rivers from which something like 80% of the plastic waste in the ocean gets there.

Anyway, still didn’t introduce myself.

I wrote before about how surprisingly clear and logical the trains to Davos were, even with multiple changes. Unfortunately God’s mercy on me didn’t last. All week, I kept getting lost in warren-like buildings with dozens of “secret passageways” (often literally behind unmarked doors) and few signs—not even exit signs. In one case I missed a tram that was the only way out from somewhere because I arrived to the wrong side of the tram—and getting to the right side required entering a building and navigating another unmarked labyrinth, by which point the tram had already left. In another case, I wandered through a Davos hotel for almost an hour trying to find an exit, ricocheting like a pinball off person after person giving me conflicting directions. Only after I literally started ranting to a crowd: ”holy f-ck, is this place some psychological torture labyrinth designed by Franz Kafka? Am I the only one? Is it clear to all of you? Please, WHERE IS THE F-CKING EXIT???” until finally some local took pity and walked me through the maze. As I mentioned earlier, logistical issues like these made me about 5,000 times more anxious on this trip than the prospect of giving quantum computing talks to the world’s captains of industry. I don’t recall having had a nightmare about lecturing even once—but I’ve had never-ending nightmares about failing to show up to give a lecture because I’m wandering endlessly through an airport or a research center or whatever, always the only one who’s lost.

NP-complete Problems and Physics: A 2019 View

Sunday, June 2nd, 2019

If I want to get back to blogging on a regular basis, given the negative amount of time that I now have for such things, I’ll need to get better at dispensing with pun-filled titles, jokey opening statements, etc. etc., and resigning myself to a less witty, more workmanlike blog.

So in that spirit: a few weeks ago I gave a talk at the Fields Institute in Toronto, at a symposium to celebrate Stephen Cook and the 50th anniversary (or actually more like 48th anniversary) of the discovery of NP-completeness. Thanks so much to the organizers for making this symposium happen.

You can watch the video of my talk here (or read the PowerPoint slides here). The talk, on whether NP-complete problems can be efficiently solved in the physical universe, covers much the same ground as my 2005 survey article on the same theme (not to mention dozens of earlier talks), but this is an updated version and I’m happier with it than I was with most past iterations.

As I explain at the beginning of the talk, I wasn’t going to fly to Toronto at all, due to severe teaching and family constraints—but my wife Dana uncharacteristically urged me to go (“don’t worry, I’ll watch the kids!”). Why? Because in her view, it was the risks that Steve Cook took 50 years ago, as an untenured assistant professor at Berkeley, that gave birth to the field of computational complexity that Dana and I both now work in.

Anyway, be sure to check out the other talks as well—they’re by an assortment of random nobodies like Richard Karp, Avi Wigderson, Leslie Valiant, Michael Sipser, Alexander Razborov, Cynthia Dwork, and Jack Edmonds. I found the talk by Edmonds particularly eye-opening: he explains how he thought about (the objects that we now call) P and NP∩coNP when he first defined them in the early 60s, and how it was similar to and different from the way we think about them today.

Another memorable moment came when Edmonds interrupted Sipser’s talk—about the history of P vs. NP—to deliver a booming diatribe about how what really matters is not mathematical proof, but just how quickly you can solve problems in the real world. Edmonds added that, from a practical standpoint, P≠NP is “true today but might become false in the future.” In response, Sipser asked “what does a mathematician like me care about the real world?,” to roars of approval from the audience. I might’ve picked a different tack—about how for every practical person I meet for whom it’s blindingly obvious that “in real life, P≠NP,” I meet another for whom it’s equally obvious that “in real life, P=NP” (for all the usual reasons: because SAT solvers work so well in practice, because physical systems so easily relax as their ground states, etc). No wonder it took 25+ years of smart people thinking about operations research and combinatorial optimization before the P vs. NP question was even explicitly posed.


Unrelated Announcement: The Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC), a leading supercomputing facility in North Austin that’s part of the University of Texas, is seeking to hire a Research Scientist focused on quantum computing. Such a person would be a full participant in our Quantum Information Center at UT Austin, with plenty of opportunities for collaboration. Check out their posting!

“Quantum Computing and the Meaning of Life”

Wednesday, March 13th, 2019

Manolis Kellis is a computational biologist at MIT, known as one of the leaders in applying big data to genomics and gene regulatory networks. Throughout my 9 years at MIT, Manolis was one of my best friends there, even though our research styles and interests might seem distant. He and I were in the same PECASE class; see if you can spot us both in this photo (in the rows behind America’s last sentient president). My and Manolis’s families also became close after we both got married and had kids. We still keep in touch.

Today Manolis will be celebrating his 42nd birthday, with a symposium on the meaning of life (!). He asked his friends and colleagues to contribute talks and videos reflecting on that weighty topic.

Here’s a 15-minute video interview that Manolis and I recorded last night, where he asks me to pontificate about the implications of quantum mechanics for consciousness and free will and whether the universe is a computer simulation—and also about, uh, how to balance blogging with work and family.

Also, here’s a 2-minute birthday video that I made for Manolis before I really understood what he wanted. Unlike the first video, this one has no academic content, but it does involve me wearing a cowboy hat and swinging a makeshift “lasso.”

Happy birthday Manolis!

De-sneering my life

Wednesday, February 27th, 2019

If I’m being honest, the most exciting recent development in my life is this: a little over a month ago, I stopped checking “SneerClub” (a place I’d previously resolved not even to name here, but I think an exception is warranted now). Permanently, cold turkey. I won’t even visit to read their sneers about this post. I’ve made progress cutting down on other self-destructive social media fixations as well. Many friends suggested this course to me, and I thank them all, though I ultimately had to follow my own path to the obvious.

Ironically, the SneerClubbers themselves begged me to stop reading them (!), so presumably for once they’ll be okay with something I did (but if not, I don’t care). If any of them still have something to say to me, they can come to this blog, or email me, or if they pass through Austin, set up a time to hash it out over chips and queso (my treat). What I’ll no longer do is spend hours every week binge-reading a forum of people who’ve adopted nastiness and bad faith as their explicit principles. I’ll no longer toss and turn at night wondering how it came about that two thousand Redditors hate Scott Aaronson so much, and what I could say or do (short of total self-abnegation) that would make them hate me less. I plan to spend the freed-up time being Scott Aaronson.

Resolving to ignore one particular online hate pit—and then sticking to the resolution, as so far I have—has been a pure, unmitigated improvement to my quality of life. If you don’t believe me, ask my wife and kids. I recommend this course to anyone.

You could sensibly ask: why did I ever spend time worrying about an anti-nerds-like-me forum that’s so poisonous for its targets and participants alike? After long introspection, I think the answer is: there’s a part of me, perhaps a gift from the childhood bullies, that’s so obsessed with “society’s hatred of STEM nerds,” that it constantly seeks out evidence to confirm that its fears are justified—evidence that it can then wave in front of the rest of my brain to say “you see?? what did I always tell you?” And alas, whenever that part of my brain seeks such evidence, the world dutifully supplies mountains of it. It’s never once disappointed.

Now the SneerClubbers—who are perceptive and talented in their cruelty, if in nothing else—notice this about me, and gleefully ridicule me for it. But they’re oblivious to the central irony: that unlike the vast majority of humankind, or even the vast majority of social justice activists, they (the SneerClubbers) really do hate everyone like me. They’re precisely what the paranoid part of my brain wrongly fears that everyone else I meet is secretly like. They’re like someone who lectures you about your hilariously overblown fear of muggers, while simultaneously mugging you.

But at least they’re not the contented and self-confident bullies of my childhood nightmares, kicking dirt down at nerds from atop their pinnacle of wokeness and social adeptness. If you spend enough time studying them, they themselves come across as angry, depressed, pathetic. So for example: here’s one of my most persistent attackers, popping up on a math thread commemorating Michael Atiyah (one of the great mathematicians of the 20th century), just to insult Atiyah—randomly, gratuitously, and a few days after Atiyah had died. Almost everything posted all over Reddit by this individual—who uses the accurate tagline “unpleasantly radical”—has the same flavor. Somehow seeing this made it click for me: wait a second, these are the folks are lecturing me about my self-centeredness and arrogance and terrible social skills? Like, at least I try to be nice.


Scott Alexander, who writes the world’s best blog and is a more central target of SneerClub than I’ve been, recently announced that he asked the moderators of r/ssc to close its notorious “Culture War” thread, and they’ve done so—moving the thread to a new home on Reddit called “TheMotte.”

For those who don’t know: r/ssc is the place on Reddit to discuss Scott’s SlateStarCodex blog, though Scott himself was never too involved as more than a figurehead.  The Culture War thread was the place within r/ssc to discuss race, gender, immigration, and other hot-button topics.  The thread, which filled up with a bewildering thousands of comments per week (!), attracted the, err … full range of political views, including leftists, libertarians, and moderates but also alt-righters, neoreactionaries, and white nationalists. Predictably, SneerClub treated the thread as a gift from heaven: a constant source of inflammatory material that they could use to smear Scott personally (even if most of the time, Scott hadn’t even seen the offending content, let alone endorsing it).

Four months ago, I was one of the apparently many friends who told Scott that I felt he should dissociate the Culture War thread from his brand. So I congratulate him on his decision, which (despite his eloquently-expressed misgivings) I feel confident was the right one. Think about it this way: nobody’s freedom of speech has been curtailed—the thread continues full steam at TheMotte, for anyone who enjoys it—but meanwhile, the sneerers have been deprived of a golden weapon with which to slime Scott. Meanwhile, while the sneerers themselves might never change their minds about anything, Scott has demonstrated to third parties that he’s open and reasonable and ready to compromise, like the debater who happily switches to his opponent’s terminology. What’s not to like?


A couple weeks ago, while in Albuquerque for the SQuInT conference, I visited the excellent National Museum of Nuclear Science and History.  It was depressing, as it should have been, to tour the detailed exhibits about the murderous events surrounding the birth of the nuclear era: the Holocaust, the Rape of Nanking, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was depressing in a different way to tour the exhibits about the early Atomic Age, and see the boundless optimism that ‘unleashing the power of the atom’ would finally usher in a near-utopia of space travel and clean energy—and then to compare that vision to where we are now, with climate change ravaging the planet and (in a world-historic irony) the people who care most about the environment having denounced and marginalized the most reliable source of carbon-free energy, the one that probably had the best chance to avert our planet’s terrifying future.

But on the bright side: how wonderful to have born into a time and place when, for the most part, those who hate you have only the power to destroy your life that you yourself grant them. How wonderful when one can blunt their knives by simply refusing to open a browser tab.

Announcements

Thursday, December 27th, 2018

I’m planning to be in Australia soon—in Melbourne January 4-10 for a friend’s wedding, then in Sydney January 10-11 to meet colleagues and give a talk. It will be my first trip down under for 12 years (and Dana’s first ever). If there’s interest, I might be able to do a Shtetl-Optimized meetup in Melbourne the evening of Friday the 4th (or the morning of Saturday the 5th), and/or another one in Sydney the evening of Thursday the 10th. Email me if you’d go, and then we’ll figure out details.

The National Quantum Initiative Act is now law. Seeing the photos of Trump signing it, I felt … well, whatever emotions you might imagine I felt.

Frank Verstraete asked me to announce that the University of Vienna is seeking a full professor in quantum algorithms; see here for details.

Airport idiocy

Wednesday, November 28th, 2018

On Sunday, I returned to Austin with Dana and the kids from Thanksgiving in Pennsylvania.  The good news is that I didn’t get arrested this time, didn’t mistake any tips for change, and didn’t even miss the flight!  But I did experience two airports that changed decisively for the worse.

In Newark Terminal C—i.e., one of the most important terminals of one of the most important airports in the world—there’s now a gigantic wing without a single restaurant or concession stand that, quickly and for a sane price, serves the sort of food that a child (say) might plausibly want to eat.  No fast food, not even an Asian place with rice and teriyaki to go.  Just one upscale eatery after the next, with complicated artisanal foods at brain-exploding prices, and—crucially—“servers” who won’t even acknowledge or make eye contact with the customers, because you have to do everything through a digital ordering system that gives you no idea how long the food might take to be ready, and whether your flight is going to board first.  The experience was like waking up in some sci-fi dystopia, where all the people have been removed from a familiar environment and replaced with glassy-eyed cyborgs.  And had we not thought to pack a few snacks with us, our kids would’ve starved.

Based on this and other recent experiences, I propose the following principle: if a customer’s digitally-mediated order to your company is eventually going to need to get processed by a human being anyhow—a fallible human who could screw things up—and if you’re less competent at designing user interfaces than Amazon (which means: anyone other than Amazon), then you must make it easy for the customer to talk to one of the humans behind the curtain.  Besides making the customer happy, such a policy is good business, since when you do screw things up due to miscommunications caused by poor user interfaces—and you will—it will be on you to fix things anyway, which will eat into your profit margin.  To take another example, besides Newark Terminal C, all these comments apply with 3000% force to the delivery service DoorDash.

Returning to airports, though: whichever geniuses ruined Terminal C at Newark are amateurs compared to those in my adopted home city of Austin.  Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (ABIA) chose Thanksgiving break—i.e., the busiest travel time of the year—to roll out a universally despised redesign where you now need to journey for an extra 5-10 minutes (or 15 with screaming kids in tow), up and down elevators and across three parking lots, to reach the place where taxis and Ubers are.  The previous system was that you simply walked out of the terminal, crossed one street, and the line of taxis was there.

Supposedly this is to “reduce congestion” … except that, compared to other airports, ABIA never had any significant congestion caused by taxis.  I’d typically be the only person walking to them at a given time, or I’d join a line of just 3 or 4 people.  Nor does this do anything for the environment, since the city of Austin has no magical alternative, no subway or monorail to whisk you from the airport to downtown.  Just as many people will need a taxi or Uber as before; the only difference is that they’ll need to go ten times further out of their way as they’d need to go at a ten times busier airport.  For new visitors, this means their first experience of Austin will be one of confusion and anger; for Austin residents who fly a few times per month, it means that days or weeks have been erased from their lives.  From the conversations I’ve had so far, it appears that every single passenger of ABIA, and every single taxi and Uber driver, is livid about the change.  With one boneheaded decision, ABIA singlehandedly made Austin a less attractive place to live and work.

Postscript I.  But if you’re a prospective grad student, postdoc, or faculty member, you should still come to UT!  The death of reason, and the triumph of the blank-faced bureaucrats, is a worldwide problem, not something in any way unique to Austin.

Postscript II.  No, I don’t harbor any illusions that posts like this, or anything else I can realistically say or do, will change anything for the better, at my local airport let alone in the wider world.  Indeed, I sometimes wonder whether, for the bureaucrats, the point of ruining facilities and services that thousands rely on is precisely to grind down people’s sense of autonomy, to make them realize the futility of argument and protest.  Even so, if someone responsible for the doofus decisions in question happened to come across this post, and if they felt even the tiniest twinge of fear or guilt, felt like their victory over common sense wouldn’t be quite as easy or painless as they’d hoped—well, that would be reason enough for the post.

Boof

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2018

(Just a few politics-related comments to get off my chest.  Feel free to skip if American politics isn’t your 5-liter bottle of Coke.)

FiveThirtyEight currently gives Beto O’Rourke a ~29% chance of winning Ted Cruz’s Senate seat.  I wish it were higher, but I think this will be such a spectacular upset if it happens, and so transformative for Texas, that it’s well worth our support.  I’ve also been impressed by the enthusiasm of Beto’s campaign—including a rally in Austin this weekend where the 85-year-old Willie Nelson, headlining the first political event of his 60-year music career, performed a new song (“Vote ‘Em Out”).  I’ll tell you what: if anyone donates to Beto’s campaign within the next two days as a result of reading this post, and emails or leaves a comment to tell me about it, I’ll match their donation, up to my personal Tsirelson bound of $853.

Speaking of which, if you’re a US citizen and are not currently registered to vote, please do so!  And then show up and vote in the midterms!  My personal preference is to treat voting as simply a categorical imperative.  But if you’d like a mathematical discussion of the expected utility of voting, then check out this, by my former MIT undergraduate advisee Shaunak Kishore.

But what about the highest questions currently facing the American republic: namely, the exact meanings of “boofing,” “Devil’s triangle,” and “Renate alumnius”?  I’ve been reading the same articles and analyses as everybody else, and have no privileged insight.  For what it’s worth, though, I think it’s likely that Blasey Ford is teling the truth.  And I think it’s likely that Kavanaugh is lying—if not about the assault itself (which he might genuinely have no memory of—blackout is a real phenomenon), then certainly about his teenage drinking and other matters.  And while, absent some breakthrough in the FBI investigation, none of this rises to the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard, I think it likely should be seen as disqualifying for the Supreme Court.  (Admittedly, I’m not a good arbiter of that question, since there are about 200 unrelated reasons why I don’t want Kavanaugh near the Court.)  I also think it’s perfectly reasonable of Senate Democrats to fight this one to the bitter end, particularly after what the Republicans did to Merrick Garland, and what Kavanaugh himself did to Bill Clinton.  If you’re worried about the scorched-earth, all-defect equilibrium that seems to prevail in Congress—well, the Democrats are not the ones who started it.

All of that would be one thing, coming from some hardened social-justice type who might have happily convicted Kavanaugh of aggravated white male douchiness even before his umbilical cord was cut.  But I daresay that it means a bit more, coming from an individual who hundreds of online activists once denounced just as fervently as they now denounce Kavanaugh—someone who understands perfectly well that not even the allegation of wrongdoing is needed any longer for a person to be marked for flattening by the steamroller of Progress.  What can I say?  The enemy of my enemy is sometimes still my enemy.  My friend is anybody, of whatever party or creed, who puts their humanity above their ideology.  Justice is no respecter of persons.  Sometimes those who earn the mob’s ire are nevertheless guilty.

I was actually in the DC area the week of the Kavanaugh hearings, to speak at a quantum information panel on Capitol Hill convened by the House Science Committee, to participate in a quantum machine learning workshop at UMD, and to deliver the Nathan Krasnopoler Memorial Lecture at Johns Hopkins, which included the incredibly moving experience of meeting Nathan’s parents.

The panel went fine, I think.  Twenty or thirty Congressional staffers attended, including many of those involved in the National Quantum Initiative bill.  They asked us about the US’s standing relative to China in QIS; the relations among academia, industry, and national labs; and how to train a ‘quantum workforce.’  We panelists came prepared with a slide about what qubits and interference are, but ended up never needing it: the focus was emphatically on policy, not science.

Kamala Harris (D-CA) is the leader in the Senate for what’s now called the Quantum Computing Research Act.  One of Sen. Harris’s staffers conveyed to me that, given her great enthusiasm for quantum computing, the Senator would have been delighted to meet with me, but was unfortunately too busy with Kavanaugh-related matters.  This was better than what I’d feared, namely: “following the lead of various keyboard warriors on Twitter and Reddit, Sen. Harris denounces you, Dr. Aaronson, as a privileged white male techbro and STEMlord, and an enemy of the people.”  So once again I was face-to-face with the question: is it conceivable that social-media discourse is a bit … unrepresentative of the wider world?

My Tomassoni-Chisesi Prize talk

Saturday, September 15th, 2018

Update (Sep. 21) Video of Philip Kim’s and my talks is now available! (But not streaming, just a giant mp4 that you can download.)


On Thursday, I had the incredible honor of accepting the 2018 Tomassoni-Chisesi Prize in Physics at Università “La Sapienza” in Rome—“incredible” mostly because I’m of course not a physicist.  (I kept worrying they’d revoke the award when they realized I could barely solve the wave equation.)  This is not the first time quantum information was recognized; the prize has previously gone to Serge Haroche and Alain Aspect.  This year, for the first time, there was both an under-40 and an over-40 award; the latter went to Philip Kim, a quantum materials researcher at Harvard who I had the privilege to meet on this trip (he’s the taller one below).

I’m unbelievably grateful, not only to the committee, and its chair Giorgio Parisi (whose seminal work on phase transitions and satisfiability I’d long known, but who I met for the first time on this trip), but to Fabio Sciarrino, Paolo Mataloni, Fernanda Lupinacci, and everyone else who graciously hosted me and helped make my hastily-planned visit to Europe a success.

The department I visited has a storied history: here are the notes that Enrico Fermi left, documenting what he covered each day in his physics class in 1938.  The reason the last squares are blank is that, when Fermi and his Jewish wife left for Stockholm on the occasion of Fermi’s Nobel Prize, they continued directly to the US rather than return to an Italy that had just passed the racial laws.

On my way to Rome, I also gave two talks at a “quantum computing hackathon” in Zurich, called QuID (Quantum Information for Developers).  Thanks so much to Lidia del Rio for arranging that visit, which was fantastic as well.

To accept the Tomassoni-Chisesi prize, I had to give a 40-minute talk summarizing all my research from 2000 to the present—the hardest part being that I had to do it while wearing a suit, and sweating at least half my body weight.  (I also had a cold and a hacking cough.)  I think there will eventually be video of my and Prof. Kim’s talks, but it’s not yet available.  In the meantime, for those who are interested, here are my PowerPoint slides, and here’s the title and abstract:

Three Questions About Quantum Computing
Scott Aaronson (University of Texas at Austin)

I’ll discuss some of my work in quantum computing over the past 18 years, organizing it in terms of three questions.  First, how can we demonstrate, using near-future hardware, that quantum computers can get any genuine speedups at all over classical computers (ideally useful speedups)?  Second, what sorts of problems would be hard even for quantum computers, and can we turn the intractability of those problems to our advantage?  Third, are there physically reasonable models of computation even more powerful than quantum computing, or does quantum computing represent an ultimate limit?

If you’re a regular reader here, most of the content will be stuff you’ve seen before, with the exception of a story or two like the following:

Last night I was talking to my mom about my grandfather, who as it happens came through Rome 73 years ago, as an engineer with the US Army.  Disabling landmines was, ironically, one of the safer ways to be a Jew in Europe at that time.  If you’d told him then that, three-quarters of a century later, his grandson would be back here in Rome to accept an award for research in quantum computational complexity … well, I’m sure he’d have any number of questions about it.  But one thing I clearly remember is that my grandfather was always full of effusive praise for the warmth of the people he met in Italy—how, for example, Italian farmers would share food with the hungry and inadequately-provisioned Allied soldiers, despite supposedly being on the opposing side.  Today, every time I’m in Italy for a conference or a talk, I get to experience that warmth myself, and certainly the food part.

(Awww!  But I meant it.  Italians are super-warm.)

There’s a view that scientists should just pursue the truth and be serenely unaffected by prizes, recognition, and other baubles.  I think that view has a great deal to be said for it.  But thinking it over recently, I struck the following mental bargain: if I’m going to get depressed on a semi-regular basis by people attacking me online—and experience shows that I will—well then, I also get to enjoy whatever’s the opposite of that with a clear conscience.  It’s not arrogance or self-importance; it’s just trying to balance things out a bit!

So again, thanks so much—to the physics department of La Sapienza, but also to my family, friends, mentors, readers, colleagues at UT Austin and around the world, and everyone else who helps make possible whatever it is that I do.

Beyond fiction

Wednesday, August 8th, 2018

I now know firsthand what it’s like to be arrested by armed police officers, handcuffed, and sharply interrogated, while one’s wife and children look on helplessly.  This is not a prank post.

It happened in Philadelphia International Airport.  As someone who was born in Philadelphia, and who’s since visited ~40 countries on 6 continents and flies every week or two, I’ve long considered PHL possibly the most depressing airport on the planet (and the competition is fierce).

I’d just eaten dinner with my wife Dana and our two kids in a food court—after a day of travel that had already, before this happened, involved a missed flight and a lost suitcase, owing to a chain of mishaps that I’d (probably melodramatically) been describing to Dana as insane beyond the collective imagination of Homer and Shakespeare and Tolstoy and the world’s other literary giants to invent.  Again, that was before my arrest.

Two large uniformed men with holstered pistols saw me as we were exiting the airport, surrounded and handcuffed me, and demanded that I confess.

“I’m … sorry, officers,” I managed.  “I don’t understand what this is about.”

“Stop the games.  You know exactly what you took.  We have it all on video.  Where is it?”

Me, a thief?  I felt terrified to be at the beginning of a Kafka story.  But if I’m going to be brutally honest about it, I also felt … secretly vindicated in my irrational yet unshakeable beliefs that

  1. the laws of probability are broken, capricious horribleness reigning supreme over the universe,
  2. I’m despised by a large fraction of the world just for being who I am, and
  3. it’s only a matter of time until big, scary armed guys come for me, as they came for so many other nerdy misfits.

I almost wanted to say to the police: where have you been?  I’ve been expecting you my whole life.  And I wanted to say to Dana: you see??  see what I’ve been telling you all these years, about the nature of the universe we were born into?

Dana, for her part, was remonstrating with the officers that there must be some misunderstanding, that her husband was often absentminded but it’s completely impossible that he stole anything.  The officers brushed her away, told her to remove the kids from the situation.

“Are you gonna come clean?” one of the cops barked at me.  “We know you took it.”

“I didn’t take anything.”  Then I thought it over more.  “Or if somehow I did … then I’m certain that it would’ve been an accident, and I’d be more than happy to fix the…”

“Wait, if you did?  It sounds like you just confessed!”

“No, I definitely didn’t steal anything.  I’m just saying it’s possible that I might have mistakenly…”

“Your answers are rambling and all over the place.  Stop making up stories.  We know you did it.”

I’m not proud of myself for the next part, but the officers were so serious, and somehow I had to make them realize the sheer comical absurdity of what was happening.  “Look, I’m a computer science professor,” I said.  “I’ve never stolen a penny in my life, and it’s not something I’d ever…”

“Yeah, well I’m a police officer.  I’ve seen a lot in my thirty years in this job.  This is not about who you are, it’s about what you did.”

But what did I do?  After many more attempts to intimidate me, I was finally informed of the charge: “that smoothie place over there says you stole cash from their tip jar.”  Huh? How much?  One of the officers returned from the smoothie bar, and said, a bit sheepishly: “they say it was $4.”

Now a vague recollection came into sharper focus.  Yes, I had bought a berry smoothie for my daughter and a sparkling grapefruit juice for me.  I’d paid with a debit card, for reasons that I don’t remember, even though I normally pay cash.  My mind was elsewhere: on the missed flight, the lost suitcase, the brazen behavior of American Airlines (about which more later).  Then, completely forgetting I hadn’t paid cash this time, I looked down for my change: $4 in an unmarked plastic change cup.  I collected the change, put it in my wallet, then completely forgot about it.

After a minute, an employee angrily pointed down at a tray that the plastic cup was on (though not clearly at the cup itself), and said “hey, the tips go here!”  So I took a dollar from my wallet and put it on the tray.  I thought: this guy has some chutzpah, to demand a tip, and for an over-the-counter smoothie!  But whatever, he probably needs the dollar more than I do.  So if it will make him stop being angry…

But he was still angry.  He repeated: “this here is for tips!”

I said something to the effect of: “yeah, I know–that’s what you just told me, isn’t it?  So that’s why I just left you a tip!”  Sheesh.

At no point did he ever say, “you accidentally took from the tip jar,” or any other statement that would’ve clarified his meaning.

As I turned and walked away, I thought: yes, this is the strange world I was born into.  A world where people yell at me for not tipping at a smoothie bar–is that expected? I didn’t think it was–and then continue yelling even after I do.  But what did I expect?  Did I expect, as a nerdy outsider, to be able to buy normal people’s toleration with mere money?

As soon as I figured out what had happened, of course I offered to pay back the smoothie bar, not merely the $3 I still owed them, but $40 or whatever other amount would express my goodwill and compensate them for their trouble.  But the smoothie bar returned the $40 that I’d asked Dana to give them—I was unable to bring it myself on account of being handcuffed—and refused to press charges.  (In fact, apparently the employees hadn’t wanted to involve the police at all.  It was the manager, who hadn’t seen what happened, who’d insisted on it.)

So with no case, the police finally had no choice but to let me go–though not before giving me a stern lecture about never again putting my hands on stuff that’s not mine.


A week later, I’m still processing the experience.  In the rest of the post, I’d like to reflect on some lessons I think I learned from it.


First, it’s said that “a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged; a liberal is a conservative who’s been arrested.”  It’s true: there are aspects of being arrested that are hard to understand until you’ve been through it.  While I’m white (well, insofar as Ashkenazim are), and while both officers who interrogated me happened to be African-Americans, what I went through further increased my sympathy for the many minority victims of aggressive policing.  Sitting in your armchair, it’s easy to think: in a liberal democracy, as long you know you did nothing wrong, even if you got arrested, frisked, detained, there’d probably be no real need to panic.  All you’d need to do is calmly clear up the misunderstanding and be back on your merry way.

But at least in my experience, an actual arrest isn’t like that.  The presumption of innocence, Miranda rights, all the things you might learn about in civics class—none of it seems to play any role.  From the very beginning, there’s an overwhelming presumption of guilt.  Everything you say gets interpreted as if you’re a red-handed criminal trying to fabricate a story, no matter how strained and how ludicrous such an interpretation might become.

And something strange happened: the officers seemed so certain I was guilty, that after only a few minutes I started to feel guilty.  I still had only a hazy sense of my “crime,” but I knew I was going to be punished for it, and I only hoped that the punishment wouldn’t tear me away from my family and previous life forever.

I came away from this incident with a visceral feel for just how easy it would be to procure a false confession from someone, which I didn’t have before but which will now stay with me as long as I live.


Second, it occurred to me that the sight of me, stuttering and potbellied complexity blogger, shackled and interrogated by armed policemen demanding that he confess to the theft of $3 from an airport stand, is a decent visual metaphor for much of my life.  If you doubt this, simply imagine Arthur Chu or Amanda Marcotte in place of the police officers.

It’s like: my accusers arrive on the scene committed to a specific, hostile theory of me: that I’m a petty thief of smoothie bars, let’s say, or a sexual-harassment-loving misogynist.  With all due modesty, people who know me might say that it’s not merely that I don’t fit the theory, that I happen to be innocent of the charge.  Rather, it’s that I’m one of the most astronomically, ridiculously unlikely people to fit the theory you could ever meet.  Not because I’m especially saintly, but simply because I already walk around all day feeling like my right to exist is conditional and might be revoked at any minute.  Breaking the normal people’s rules is the last thing on my agenda!  And yes, I still often feel that way, even as a professor with an endowed chair and awards and whatever.  The only times when I really relax, among strangers, is when everyone’s there to discuss ideas.

But my accusers don’t know any of that, or they refuse to believe it.  Everything I say gets interpreted in the light of the hostile theory, and therefore serves only as further confirmation of it.  Ironically—and this is key—the very unusual personality traits that make me so unlikely to be an offender, are also what throw off my accusers’ detection algorithms, and make them double down on their wrong theory.  When I’m trapped, I tend to fall back on the only tools I know: argument, openness, frank confession of my mistakes and failings, sometimes a little self-deprecating humor.  Unfortunately, I find this often backfires, as my accusers see in my vulnerability a golden opportunity to mount another wretched evildoer above their fireplace.

Or, to go even further out on a psychoanalytic limb: I sometimes get the sense that it gradually does dawn on my accusers that I’m not who they thought I was.  And then, far from prompting an apology, that realization seems to make my accusers even angrier, as if my throwing off their model of reality so badly, was an even worse offense than actually being guilty of whatever they thought!  A thief, a misogynist, they know how to handle.  But a living, breathing adversarial example for their worldview?

Dana, who watched the entire arrest, tells me that the central mistake I made was to try to reason with the police officers: “you say I took $3 that wasn’t mine?  If so, then I’m sure it was an accident, so let’s try to figure out what happened so we can fix it…”  In Dana’s view, what I saw as an earnest desire to get to the bottom of things, came across to grizzled cops only as evasiveness and guilt.  She says it would’ve been far better if I’d categorically denied: “no, I did not steal.  That’s completely absurd.  Please release me immediately.”

I’ve asked myself: how do you live in a world where, again and again, you can choose the hard right path over the easy wrong one, and then see your choice gleefully wielded against you?  Where you can spill your guts out to your accusers, in a desperate attempt to talk with them not as hardened warriors, but one confused and vulnerable human to another–and your reward is (to take one example) your picture in Salon above the headline “The Plight of the Bitter Nerd”?

The only way to live in such a world, as far as I can see, is to remind yourself that sometimes openness and vulnerability work.  In the course of my arrest, the two officers gradually differentiated themselves into a “good cop” and a “bad cop.”  While the “bad cop” treated me till the end like an unrepentant kleptomaniac being freed on a technicality, the “good cop,” who talked to me and Dana much more, became almost apologetic: “look man, when we get a call that someone stole money, we have to treat it like that’s the situation, you understand what I’m saying?  And then if it’s not, well then it’s not.”  Likewise, Arthur Chu recently tweeted that he’s “unhappy about [my] continued existence”–i.e., on a straightforward reading, that he wants me to die.  But I try to remind myself every day that the human race doesn’t consist solely of Arthur Chus (or Amanda Marcottes, or Lubos Motls, or SneerClub posters, or Paul Manaforts or Donald Trumps).  The world contains millions of women and men of every background and ideology who want actual dialogue, many of whom I’m lucky to count as friends, many of whom I met through this blog.  Vulnerability is possible because the world is not uniformly evil.


Third, I emerged from my arrest with a self-help technique that’s probably well-known to somebody, but that was new to me, and that I hope others will find as useful as I’m finding it.  Here it is: when something freakishly bad happens to you, draw a directed graph of all the known causes of the event, and the causes of the causes, and so forth as far back as you can trace them.  Also draw all the known measures that could have blocked the causal path leading to the bad event, and what prevented those measures from working or from being tried.

For example: why did I end up in handcuffs?  Firstly because, earlier in the day, Lily threw a temper tantrum that prevented us from packing and leaving for Logan Airport on time.  Because there was also heavy traffic on the way there.  Because we left from Harvard Square, and failed to factor in the extra 10 minutes to reach the airport, compared to if we’d left from MIT.  Because online check-in didn’t work.  Because when we did arrive, (barely) on time, the contemptuous American Airlines counter staff deliberately refused to check us in, chatting as we stewed impotently, so that we’d no longer be on time and they could legally give our seats away to others, and strand us in an airport with two young kids.  Because the only replacement flight was in a different terminal.  Because, in the stress of switching terminals–everything is stressful with two kids in an airport–I lost our suitcase.  Because the only shuttle to get back to the terminal went around the long way, and was slow as molasses, and by the time I returned our suitcase had been taken by the bomb squad.  Because the stress of such events bears down on me like an iron weight, and makes me unable to concentrate on the reality in front of me.  Because the guy at the smoothie counter and I failed to communicate.  Because the police chose to respond (or were trained to respond), not by politely questioning me to try to understand what had happened, but by handcuffing me and presuming guilt.

I actually drew the graph, filled a notebook page with it–and when I searched it for answers, neither I nor the world got off easily.  Looking over the strange chain of events that led to my arrest, I could find much to support my “default narrative,” that the laws of probability are broken and the universe is grotesquely awful.  But also, my belief in the universe’s grotesque awfulness clearly played a role in the events.  Had I been able maintain a calm demeanor, I would not have made so many mistakes.

Again and again, I screwed up.  Again and again, airport personnel responded to my honest mistakes with a maximum of cold bureaucracy rather than commonsense discussion: the booting from the flight, the bomb squad, the handcuffs.

We tend to think of bureaucracy as a mere nuisance, the person behind the counter at the Department of Motor Vehicles who makes you wait all day and then sends you home to get a different form of ID.  In my view, though, the bureaucratic impulse is one of the worst evils of which the human mind is capable.  It is, after all, the impulse that once sent trainloads of Jewish children to their deaths because that was the policy and there were no documents stating that any exception should be made in this case.  Today it’s the impulse that rounds up and deports people who’ve lived in the US for decades, sometimes served in the army, etc., and that separates screaming children from their parents.  To me, the mindset that willingly carries out such orders is almost more terrifying than the mindset that gives the orders in the first place.  I don’t mean to suggest, of course, that my arrest was even a trillionth as bad as those other things; at most I got a tiny, accidental taste of many less fortunate people’s daily reality.  But it’s worth remembering: every time you exercise official power over another person without even trying to talk it over first, clear up any honest misunderstandings, find out if there’s a reasonable explanation, you’re surrendering to one of the most destructive impulses in the history of civilization.

May we each strive to kill the bureaucrat in us and nurture the human being.


Unrelated Announcements:

I’m in Mexico City this week, to participate in a computer science and philosophy conference at UNAM and then give a broad quantum computing talk at CViCom 2018.  Because of this, responses to this post might be delayed.

(Update: But I’m having a wonderful time in Mexico!  Lots of delicious mole and horchata, and no arrests so far.  Today I gave my survey talk on P vs. NP.  I opened with the following icebreaker: “As a computer scientist speaking in a philosophy institute, I apologize that my talk will contain very little philosophy  Also, as an American speaking in Mexico, I apologize for our president.”)

My friend Elette Boyle asked me to announce that the 2018 CRYPTO conference, to be held in Santa Barbara, will be preceded by exciting workshops, including one that I’ll be speaking at myself entitled Beyond Crypto: A Theory Perspective.  Register now if you’re interested.

Huge congratulations to Costis Daskalakis, my former MIT colleague, for winning the Nevanlinna Prize for his work in algorithmic game theory!  While I don’t pretend to understand their work, congratulations to the four new Fields Medalists as well.

I put a new preprint online: Quantum Lower Bound for Approximate Counting Via Laurent Polynomials.

I’ve added a new blog to my blogroll: The Unit of Caring. I’ve been impressed by the author’s moral adeptness: when she addresses contentious debates among nerds, rationalists, feminists, SJWs, etc. etc., she often seems perfectly balanced on an atom-thin tightrope, even as some of us are plummetting left and right.

I forgot to mention this earlier, but I’m now a donor to the campaign of Beto O’Rourke, as he strives to unseat the quisling Ted Cruz in my adopted home state of Texas.  Americans: please consider donating as well!


Further Thoughts (Aug. 9):

  1. I wholeheartedly endorse an observation that many commenters (on this blog and elsewhere) made independently: that what really happened, is that I was forced to live out an episode of Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm.  To my detractors, I say the following: try for one minute to imagine how pathological, narcissistic, far outside the human norm, etc. etc. you could make Seinfeld or George or Kramer or Elaine seem, if their misadventures from any given episode were described and analyzed with clinical detachment.  (Or you were never a Seinfeld fan, then I guess this argument fails and we have nothing to say to each other.)
  2. I feel like some commenters are imposing their own after-the-fact knowledge (“c’mon, it was obviously a tip jar, he must be lying!”).  Dana, who’s generally more grounded than I am, saw their whole setup and agreed it was profoundly non-obvious that the tiny, unmarked plastic cup was supposed to be for tips, particularly to someone who was extremely stressed and not concentrating.  And when the employee later talked about tips, he didn’t indicate the cup so I didn’t make a connection.
  3. Most importantly: I wish to clarify that I don’t regard the police officers who handcuffed and interrogated me as having been “evil” in any sense.  I even took a liking to the “good cop,” the one who implicitly acknowledged the situation’s surreal absurdity by the end (although maybe that’s the whole point of a “good cop”?).  Having said that, I’m still rattled by the way the “bad cop” treated me as an unrepentant thief even to the end, even after the situation had been cleared up to everyone else’s satisfaction.  And I stand by my view that there was no need to handcuff me in front of my wife and young children, when I’d shown not a single subatomic particle of resistance.
  4. Speaking of which, let me now relate the most interesting and unexpected part of the reaction to my story.  Again and again, I found that fellow Americans, even nominally left-wing ones, sided with the police, said that I was crazy and guilty as charged and should’ve expected much worse, etc.  And again and again, commenters from Australia and New Zealand sided with me 300%, said that handcuffing someone over such a trivial mishap was a ludicrous overreaction, which would be totally unheard of in their countries and which confirms all the bad things they’ve heard about the US.  So maybe the rational conclusion is that I should be learning to enjoy vegemite in preparation for a move down under?

Summer recapitulates life

Tuesday, July 24th, 2018

Last week, I was back at the IAS in Princeton, to speak at a wonderful PITP summer school entitled “From Qubits to Spacetime,” co-organized by Juan Maldacena and Edward Witten. This week, I’ll be back in Waterloo, to visit old and new friends at the Perimeter Institute and Institute for Quantum Computing and give a couple talks.  Then, over the weekend, I’ll be back in Boston to see old friends, colleagues, and students.  After some other miscellaneous travel, I’ll then return to Austin in late August when the semester begins.  The particular sequence IAS → Waterloo → Boston → Austin is of course one that I’ve followed before, over a longer timescale.

Two quick announcements:

First, at the suggestion of reader Sanketh Menda, I’m thinking of holding a Shtetl-Optimized meetup in Waterloo this week.  Please send me an email if you’re interested, and we’ll figure out a time and place that work for everyone.

Second, many of the videos from the IAS summer school are now available, including mine: Part I and Part II.  I cover some basics of complexity theory, the complexity of quantum states and unitary transformations, the Harlow-Hayden argument about the complexity of turning a black hole event horizon into a firewall (with my refinement), and my and Lenny Susskind’s work on circuit complexity, wormholes, and AdS/CFT.  As a special bonus, check out the super-embarrassing goof at the beginning of my first lecture—claiming a mistaken symmetry of conditional entropy and even attributing it to Edward Witten’s lecture!  (But Witten, who I met for the first time on this visit, was kind enough to call my talk “lots of fun” anyway, and give me other positive comments, which I should put on my CV or something.)

Addendum: Many of the PITP videos are well worth watching!  As one example, I found Witten’s talks to be shockingly accessible.  I’d been to a previous talk of his involving Khovanov homology, but beyond the first few minutes, it went so far over my head that I couldn’t tell you how it was for its intended audience.  I’d also been to a popular talk of Witten’s on string theory, but that’s something he could do with only 3 awake brain cells.  In these talks, by contrast, Witten proves some basic inequalities of classical and quantum information theory, then proves the Reeh-Schlieder Theorem of quantum field theory and the Hawking and Penrose singularity theorems of GR, and finally uses quantum information theory to prove positive energy conditions from quantum field theory that are often needed to make statements about GR.