Archive for the ‘The Fate of Humanity’ Category

When events make craziness sane

Tuesday, April 7th, 2020

This post is simply to say the following (and thereby to make it common knowledge that I said it, and that I no longer give a shit who thinks less of me for saying it):

If the pandemic has radicalized you, I won’t think that makes you crazy. It’s radicalized me, noticeably shifted my worldview. And in some sense, I no more apologize for that, than I apologize for my worldview presumably differing from what it would’ve been in some parallel universe with no WWII.

If you suspect that all those earnest, well-intentioned plans and slogans about “flattening the curve” are wonderful and essential, but still, “flattening” is only a desperate gambit to buy some time and nothing more; still, flattening or no flattening, the fundamentals of the situation are that either

(1) a vaccine or cure gets discovered and deployed, or else

(2) we continue in quasi-lockdown mode for the rest of our lives, or else

(3) the virus spreads to the point where it definitely kills some people you know,

—if you suspect this, then at least in my book you’re not crazy. I suspect the same.

If you still don’t understand, no matter how patiently it’s explained to you, why ~18 months is the absolute bare minimum needed to get a vaccine out; if all the talk of Phase 1, 2, and 3 trials and the need to learn more about rare side effects and so forth seems hard to square with the desperate world war that this is; if you wonder whether the Allied commanders and Allied medical authorities in WWII, transported to the present, would agree that 18 months is the bare minimum, or whether they’d already be distributing vaccines a month ago that probably work well enough and do bounded damage if they don’t—I hereby confess that I don’t understand it either.

If you wonder how the US will possibly hold an election in November that the world won’t rightly consider a sham—given that the only safe way will be universal vote-by-mail, but Trump and his five Vichy justices will never allow it—know that I wonder this too.

If you think that all those psychiatrists now doing tele-psychiatry should tell their patients, “listen, I’ve been noticing an unhealthy absence of panic attacks, obsessions about the government trying to kill your family, or compulsive disinfecting of doorknobs, so I think we’d better up your dose of pro-anxiety medication”—I’m with you.

If you see any US state that wants to avoid >2% deaths, being pushed to the brink of openly defying the FDA, smuggling in medical supplies to escape federal confiscation, using illegal tests and illegal masks and illegal ventilators and illegal everything else, and you also see military commanders getting fired for going outside the chain of command to protect their soldiers’ lives, and you wonder whether this is the start of some broader dissolution of the Union—well, I don’t intend to repeat the mistake of underestimating this crisis.

If you think that the feds who literally confiscate medical supplies before they can reach the hospitals, might as well just shoot the patients as they’re wheeled into the ICU and say “we’re sorry, but this action was obligatory under directive 48c(7)”—I won’t judge you for feeling that way.

If you feel like, while there are still pockets of brilliance and kindness and inspiration and even heroism all over US territory, still, as a federal entity the United States effectively no longer exists or functions, at least not if you treat “try to stop the mass death of the population” as a nonnegotiable component of the “life, liberty, and happiness” foundation for the nation’s existence—if you think this, I won’t call you crazy. I feel more like a citizen of nowhere every day.

If you’d jump, should the opportunity arise (as it won’t), to appoint Bill Gates as temporary sovereign for as long as this crisis lasts, and thereafter hold a new Constitutional Convention to design a stronger democracy, attempting the first-ever Version 2.0 (as opposed to 1.3, 1.4, etc.) of the American founders’ vision, this time with even more safeguards against destruction by know-nothings and demagogues—if you’re in for that, I don’t think you’re crazy. I’m wondering where to sign up.

Finally, if you’re one of the people who constantly emails me wrong P=NP proofs or local hidden-variable explanations of quantum mechanics … sorry, I still think you’re crazy. That stuff hasn’t been affected.

Happy Passover and Easter!

If I used Twitter…

Saturday, April 4th, 2020

I’m thinking of writing a novel where human civilization is threatened by a global pandemic, and is then almost singlehandedly rescued by one man … a man who reigned for decades as the world’s prototypical ruthless and arrogant tech billionaire, but who was then transformed by the love of his wife. That is, if the billionaire can make it past government regulators as evil as they are stupid. I need some advice: how can I make my storyline a bit subtler, so critics don’t laugh it off as some immature nerd fantasy?

Updates (April 5): Thanks to several commenters for emphasizing that the wife needs to be a central character here: I agree! The other thing is, I don’t want Fox News cheering my novel for its Atlas Shrugged vibe. So maybe the pandemic is only surging out of control in the US because of the incompetence of a Republican president? I don’t want to go ridiculously overboard, but like, maybe the president is some thuggish conman with the diction of a 5-year-old, who the deluded Republicans cheer anyway? And maybe he’s also a Bible-thumping fundamentalist? OK, that’s too much, so maybe the fundamentalist is like the vice president or something, and he gets put in charge of the pandemic response and then sets about muzzling the scientists? As I said, I really need advice on making the messages subtler.

On “armchair epidemiology”

Monday, March 30th, 2020

Update (March 31): Since commenter after commenter seems to have missed my point—or rather, rounded the point to something different that I didn’t say—let me try one more time. My faith in official pronouncements from health authorities, and in institutions like the CDC and the FDA, was clearly catastrophically misplaced—and if that doesn’t force significant revisions to my worldview, then I’m beyond hope. Maybe the failures are because these organizations are at the mercy of political incompetents—meaning ultimately Trump and his cronies. Or maybe the rot started long before Trump. Maybe it’s specific to the US, or maybe it’s everywhere. I still don’t know the answers to those questions.

On the other hand, my faith in my ability to listen to individual people, whether they’re expert epidemiologists or virologists or just technologists or rationalists or anyone else (who in turn listened to the experts), and to say “yes, this person clearly has good judgment and has thought about it carefully, and if they’re worried then I should be too”—my faith in that has only gone up. The problem is simply that I didn’t do enough of that back in January and February, and when I did, I didn’t sufficiently act on it.

End of Update

On Feb. 4, a friend sent me an email that read, in part:

Dr. A,
What do you make of this coronavirus risk? … I don’t know what level of precaution is necessary!  Please share your view.  

This was the first time that I’d been prompted to give this subject any thought whatsoever. I sent a reply two minutes later:

For now, I think the risk from the ordinary flu is much much greater! But worth watching to see if it becomes a real pandemic.

Strictly speaking, this reply was “correct”—even “reasonable” and “balanced,” admitting the possibility of changing circumstances. Yet if I could go back in time, I’d probably send a slightly different message—one that would fare better in the judgment of history. Something like this, maybe:







Of course, I would never have sent such an email, and not only because of the bold and all-caps. My whole personality stands against every sentence. I’ve always taken my cues from “mainstream, reasonable, balanced” authorities, in any subject where I’m not personally expert. That heuristic has generally been an excellent way to maximize expected rightness. But when it fails … holy crap!

Now, and for the rest of my life, I’ll face the question: what was wrong with me, such that I would never have sent a “nutty” email like the one above? Can I fix it?

More specifically, was my problem intellectual or emotional? I lean toward the latter. By mid-to-late February, as more and more of my smartest friends started panicking and telling me why I should too, I got intellectually fully on board with the idea that millions of people might die as the new virus spread around the world, and I affirmed as much on Facebook and elsewhere. And yet it still took me a few more weeks to get from “millions could die” to “HOLY SHIT MILLIONS COULD DIE—PANIC—DROP EVERYTHING ELSE—BUILD MORE VENTILATORS!!!!

A viral article implores us to “flatten the curve of armchair epidemiology”—that is, to listen only to authoritive sources like the CDC, not random people spouting on social media. This was notable to me for being the diametric opposite of the actual lesson of the past two months. It would be like taking the lesson from the 2008 financial crisis that from now on, you would only trust serious rating agencies, like Moody’s or Standard & Poor.

Oh, but I forgot to tell you the punchline. A couple days ago, the same friend who emailed me on February 4, emailed again to tell me that both of her parents (who live outside the US) now have covid-19. Her father had to go to the emergency room and tested positive. Her mother stayed home with somewhat milder symptoms. Given the overloaded medical system in their country, neither can expect a high standard of care. My friend has spent the past few days desperately trying to get anyone from the hospital on the phone.

This post represents my apology to her. Like, it’s one thing to be so afraid of the jeers of the enlightened that you feign asexuality and live as an ascetic for a decade. It’s worse to be so afraid that you fail adequately to warn your friends when you see an exponential function coming to kill their loved ones.

First it came for Wuhan

Thursday, March 12th, 2020

Update (March 13): One day after I put up this post—a post that many commenters criticized as too alarmist—the first covid cases were detected in Austin. As a result, UT Austin closed its campus (including my son’s daycare), and at 3:30am, the Austin Independent School District announced its decision to suspend all schools until further notice. All my remaining plans for the semester (including visits to Berkeley, Stanford, Harvard, CU Boulder, Fermilab, Yale, and CMU) are obviously cancelled. My family is now on lockdown, in our house, probably at least until the summer. The war on the virus has reached us. The “1939” analogy that I mentioned in the post turned out to be more precise than I thought: then, as now, there were intense debates about how just serious the crisis would be, but those debates never even had a chance to get settled by argument; events on the ground simply rendered them irrelevant.

Scott’s foreword: This week Steve Ebin, a longtime Shtetl-Optimized reader (and occasional commenter) from the San Francisco tech world, sent me the essay below. Steve’s essay fit too well with my own recent thoughts, and indeed with this blog’s title, for me not to offer to share it here—and to my surprise and gratitude, Steve agreed.

I guess there are only two things I’d add to what Steve wrote. First, some commenters took me to task for a misplaced emphasis in my last coronavirus post, and on further reflection, I now concede that they were right. When a preventable catastrophe strikes the world, what’s always terrified me most are not the ranting lunatics and conspiracy theorists, even if some of those lunatics actually managed to attain the height of power, from where they played a central role in the catastrophe. No, what’s terrified me more are the blank-faced bureaucrats who’ve signed the paperwork that amounted to death warrants. Like, for example, the state regulators who ordered the Seattle infectious disease expert to stop, after she’d had enough of the government’s failure to allow corona tests, took it upon herself to start testing anyway, and found lots of positive results. Notably, only some countries have empowered lunatics, but the blank-faced bureaucrats rule everywhere unless something stronger overrides them.

Second, I’ll forever ask myself what went wrong with me, that it took me until metaphorical 1939 to acknowledge the scale of an unfolding catastrophe (on more than a purely intellectual level)—even while others were trying to tell me way back in metaphorical 1933. Even so, better metaphorical 1939 than metaphorical 1946.

Without further ado, Steve’s essay:

The most expensive meal I ever ate was in San Francisco at a restaurant called Eight Tables. As the name implies, the restaurant has only eight tables. The meal cost $1,000 and featured 12 courses, prepared by award-winning chefs.

The most expensive meal a person ever ate was in late 2019, in China, and consisted of under-cooked bat meat. It cost trillions of dollars. The person who ate it, possibly a peasant, changed the course of the 21st century. The bat he ate contained a virus, and the virus threatened to spread from this man to the rest of humanity.

I’m making up some details, of course. Maybe the man wasn’t a peasant. Or he could have been a woman. Or the bat could have been a pangolin. Or maybe, through a lucky accident (the guy was a loner perhaps), it could have not spread. That could have happened, but it didn’t. Or maybe sometimes that does happen and we don’t know it. These are just accidents of history.

I’m writing this on March 9, 2020. The good news is that the virus, in its current form, doesn’t kill children. I am so thankful for that. The bad news is that the virus does kill adults. The virus is like a grim reaper, culling the sick, the debilitated, and the elderly from the population. It attacks the pulmonary system. I heard a 25-year-old survivor describing how he became unable to control his breathing and could not fall asleep or he would die. Even for healthy young people, the prognosis is often poor. 

There were Jews in Europe in the 1930s who sat around tables with the elders of their families and villages and debated whether to leave for America, or Palestine, or South America. Most of them, including my grandmother’s family, didn’t leave, and were largely exterminated. The virus of the time was Nazism, and it too attacked the pulmonary systems of the old and the debilitated, in that case with poisonous gasses.

When you grow up as I did, you are taught to have a paranoia in the back of your mind that there is a major disaster about to happen. That a holocaust, or something of that magnitude, might occur in your lifetime. And so you are never complacent. For your whole life, you’re looking and waiting for a history changing event. You try to ensure that you are willing to follow your thoughts to their logical conclusion and take the necessary actions as a result, unlike many of the Jews of 1930s Europe, who refused to confront the obstacle in front of them until it was too late, and unlike many politicians and world leaders today, who are doing the same.

And the conclusion we must now confront is clear. We are watching a once-in-a-century event unfold. Coronavirus–its mutations, its spawn–will change the course of human history. It will overwhelm our defense system and may kill millions. It may continue to mutate and kill millions more. We will develop painful social measures to slow its spread. We will produce vaccines and better treatment protocols. Some of this will help, but none of this will work perfectly. What will happen to society as this unfolds?

My favorite biblical verse comes from Ecclesiastes: To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven. A time to be born, and a time to die. A time to plant and a time to pluck that which is planted. And so on.

The season has changed, and the seven years of famine have begun.

National disgrace

Tuesday, March 10th, 2020

In this blog’s now 15-year-history, at Waterloo and then MIT and now UT Austin, I’ve tried to make it clear that I blog always as Scott, never as Dr. Aaronson of Such-and-Such Institution. (God knows I’ve written a few things that a prudent dean might prefer that I hadn’t—though if I couldn’t honestly say that, in what sense would I even enjoy “academic freedom”?) Today, though, for only about the second time, I’m also writing as a professor motivated by a duty of care toward his students.

A week ago, most of my grad students were in the Bay Area for a workshop; they then returned and spent a week hanging around the CS building like normal. Yesterday I learned that at least one of those students developed symptoms consistent with covid19. Of course, it’s much more likely to be a boring cold or flu—but still, in any sane regime, just to be certain, such a person would promptly get tested.

After quarantining himself, my student called the “24/7 covid19 hotline” listed in an email from the university’s president, but found no one answering the phone over the weekend. Yesterday he finally got through—only to be told, flatly, that he couldn’t be tested due to insufficient capacity. When I heard this, I asked my department chair and dean to look into the matter, and received confirmation that yeah, it sucks, but this is the situation.

If it’s true that, as I’ve read, the same story is currently playing itself out all over the country, then this presumably isn’t the fault of anyone in UT’s health service or the city of Austin. Rather, as they say in the movies, it goes all the way to the top, to the CDC director and ultimately the president—or rather, to the festering wound that now sits where the top used to be.

Speaking of movies, over the weekend Dana and I watched Contagion, as apparently many people are now doing.  I confess that I’d missed it when it came out in 2011.  I think it’s a cinematic masterpiece.  It freely violates many of the rules of movie narrative: characters are neither done in by their own hubris, nor saved by their faith or by being A-list stars.  But Contagion is also more than a glorified public service announcement about the importance of washing your hands.  It wants to show you the reality of the human world of its characters, and also the reality of a virus, and how the two realities affect each other despite obeying utterly different logic.  It will show a scene that’s important to the charaters for human reasons, and then it will show you the same scene again, except this time making you focus on whose hand touched which surface in which order.

But for all its excellence and now-obvious prescience, there are two respects in which Contagion failed to predict the reality of 2020.  The first is just a lucky throw of the RNA dice: namely, that the real coronavirus is perhaps an order of magnitude less fatal than the movie virus, and for some unknown reason it spares children.  But the second difference is terrifying.  All the public health authorities in the movie are ultra-empowered and competent.  They do badass things like injecting themselves with experimental vaccines.  If they stumble, it’s only in deeply understandable ways that any of us might (e.g., warning their own loved ones to evacuate a city before warning the public).

In other words, when the scriptwriters, writing their disaster movie, tried to imagine the worst, they failed to imagine a US government that would essentially abandon the public, by

(1) botching a simple test that dozens of other countries performed without issue,
(2) preventing anyone else from performing their own tests, and then
(3) turning around and using the lack of positive test results to justify its own inaction.

They failed to imagine a CDC that might as well not exist for all it would do in its hour of need: one that didn’t even bother to update its website on weekends, and stopped publishing data once the data became too embarrassing.  The scriptwriters did imagine a troll gleefully spreading lies about the virus online, endangering anyone who listened to him.  They failed to imagine a universe where that troll was the president.

“I mean, don’t get me wrong,” they told me. “Trump is a racist con artist, a demagogue, the precise thing that Adams and Hamilton and Franklin tried to engineer our republic to avoid. Just, don’t get so depressed about it all the time! Moaning about how we’re trapped in a freakishly horrible branch of the wavefunction, blah blah. I mean look on the bright side! What an incredible run of luck we’ve had, that we elected a president with the mental horizons of a sadistic toddler, and yet in three years he hasn’t caused even one apocalypse. You’re alive and healthy, your loved ones are alive and healthy. It could be a lot worse!”

The above, I suspect, is a sentiment that will now forever date any writing containing it to January 2020 or earlier.

Coronavirus: the second-weirdest solution?

Friday, March 6th, 2020

Many people have suggested coating handles, doorknobs and so forth with virus-killing copper tape. It’s a shame that this isn’t being tried on a wider scale. In the meantime, though, here’s a related but different idea that I had last night.

Imagine we could coat every doorknob, every light switch, every railing, every other surface that people might touch in public buildings, with some long-lasting disgusting, sticky, slimy substance. For a variety of reasons, one probably wouldn’t use actual excrement, although it wouldn’t hurt if the substance looked like that. Or it could be a sickly neon green or red, to make it impossible to conceal when you’d gotten the substance on your hands.

What would be the result? Of course, people would avoid touching these surfaces. If they had to, they’d do so with a napkin or glove whenever possible. If they had to touch them bare-handedly, they’d rush to wash their hands with soap as soon as possible afterwards. Certainly they wouldn’t touch their faces before having washed their hands.

In short, they’d show exactly the behaviors that experts agree are among the most helpful, if our goal is to slow the spread of the coronavirus. In effect, we’d be plugging an unfortunate gap in our evolutionary programming—namely, that the surfaces where viruses can thrive aren’t intuitively disgusting to us, as (say) vomit or putrid meat are—by making those surfaces disgusting, as they ought to be in the middle of a pandemic.

Note that, even if it somehow turns out to be infeasible to coat all the touchable surfaces in public buildings with disgusting goo, you might still derive great personal benefit from imagining them so covered. If you manage to pull that off, it will yield just the right heuristic for when and how often you should now be washing your hands (and avoiding touching your face), without no need for additional conscious reflection.

Mostly, having the above thoughts made me grateful for my friend Robin Hanson. For as long Robin is around, tweeting and blogging from his unique corner of mindspace, no one will ever be able to say that my ideas for how to control the coronavirus were the world’s weirdest or most politically tone-deaf.

A coronavirus poem

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2020

These next few months, every time I stop myself from touching my face by force of will,

Let me remind myself that the same willpower is available to diet, to exercise, to throw myself into a project, to keep calm amid screaming, to introduce myself to strangers, to decrease the fraction of my life spent getting upset that someone was mean to my ingroup on social media, or otherwise to better myself as a human specimen.

Yea, let all of these things be just as easy for me as it was not to touch my face.

Ah, but what if I forget, what if I do keep touching my face in the next few months?

In one plausible scenario, with at least ~0.1% probability and probably higher depending on my age, a cheap answer will be available to that question: namely, that I’ll no longer be around to ponder the implications.

Freeman Dyson and Boris Tsirelson

Saturday, February 29th, 2020

Today, as the world braces for the possibility of losing millions of lives to the new coronavirus—to the hunger for pangolin meat, of all things (combined with the evisceration of competent public health agencies like the CDC)—we also mourn the loss of two incredibly special lives, those of Freeman Dyson (age 96) and Boris Tsirelson (age 69).

Freeman Dyson was sufficiently legendary, both within and beyond the worlds of math and physics, that there’s very little I can add to what’s been said. It seemed like he was immortal, although I’d heard from mutual friends that his health was failing over the past year. When I spent a year as a postdoc at the Institute for Advanced Study, in 2004-5, I often sat across from Dyson in the common room, while he drank tea and read the news. That I never once struck up a conversation with him is a regret that I’ll now carry with me forever.

My only exchange with Dyson came when he gave a lecture at UC Berkeley, about how life might persist infinitely far into the future, even after the last stars had burnt out, by feeding off steadily dimishing negentropy flows in the nearly-thermal radiation. During the Q&A, I challenged Dyson that his proposal seemed to assume an analog model of computation. But, I asked, once we took on board the quantum-gravity insights of Jacob Bekenstein and others, suggesting that nature behaves like a (quantum) digital computer at the Planck scale, with at most ~1043 operations per second and ~1069 qubits per square meter and so forth, wasn’t this sort of proposal ruled out? “I’m not going to argue with you,” was Dyson’s response. Yes, he’d assumed an analog computational model; if computation was digital then that surely changed the picture.

Sometimes—and not just with his climate skepticism, but also (e.g.) with his idea that general relativity and quantum mechanics didn’t need to be reconciled, that it was totally fine for the deepest layer of reality to be a patchwork of inconsistent theories—Dyson’s views struck me as not merely contrarian but as a high-level form of trolling. Even so, Dyson’s book Disturbing the Universe had had a major impact on me as a teenager, for the sparkling prose as much as for the ideas.

With Dyson’s passing, the scientific world has lost one of its last direct links to a heroic era, of Einstein and Oppenheimer and von Neumann and a young Richard Feynman, when theoretical physics stood at the helm of civilization like never before or since. Dyson, who apparently remained not only lucid but mathematically powerful (!) well into his last year, clearly remembered when the Golden Age of science fiction looked like simply sober forecasting; when the smartest young people, rather than denouncing each other on Twitter, dreamed of scouting the solar system in thermonuclear-explosion-powered spacecraft and seriously worked to make that happen.

Boris Tsirelson (homepage, Wikipedia), who emigrated from the Soviet Union and then worked at Tel Aviv University (where my wife Dana attended his math lectures), wasn’t nearly as well known as Dyson to the wider world, but was equally beloved within the quantum computing and information community. Tsirelson’s bound, which he proved in the 1980s, showed that even quantum mechanics could only violate the Bell inequality by so much and by no more, could only let Alice and Bob win the CHSH game with probability cos2(π/8). This seminal result anticipated many of the questions that would only be asked decades later with the rise of quantum information. Tsirelson’s investigations of quantum nonlocality also led him to pose the famous Tsirelson’s problem: loosely speaking, can all sets of quantum correlations that can arise from an infinite amount of entanglement, be arbitrarily well approximated using finite amounts of entanglement? The spectacular answer—no—was only announced one month ago, as a corollary of the MIP*=RE breakthrough, something that Tsirelson happily lived to see although I don’t know what his reaction was (update: I’m told that he indeed learned of it in his final weeks, and was happy about it). Sadly, for some reason, I never met Tsirelson in person, although I did have lively email exchanges with him 10-15 years ago about his problem and other topics. This amusing interview with Tsirelson gives some sense for his personality (hat tip to Gil Kalai, who knew Tsirelson well).

Please share any memories of Dyson or Tsirelson in the comments section.

Quantum Dominance, Hegemony, and Superiority

Thursday, December 19th, 2019

Yay! I’m now a Fellow of the ACM. Along with my fellow new inductee Peter Shor, who I hear is a real up-and-comer in the quantum computing field. I will seek to use this awesome responsibility to steer the ACM along the path of good rather than evil.

Also, last week, I attended the Q2B conference in San Jose, where a central theme was the outlook for practical quantum computing in the wake of the first clear demonstration of quantum computational supremacy. Thanks to the folks at QC Ware for organizing a fun conference (full disclosure: I’m QC Ware’s Chief Scientific Advisor). I’ll have more to say about the actual scientific things discussed at Q2B in future posts.

None of that is why you’re here, though. You’re here because of the battle over “quantum supremacy.”

A week ago, my good friend and collaborator Zach Weinersmith, of SMBC Comics, put out a cartoon with a dark-curly-haired scientist named “Dr. Aaronson,” who’s revealed on a hot mic to be an evil “quantum supremacist.” Apparently a rush job, this cartoon is far from Zach’s finest work. For one thing, if the character is supposed to be me, why not draw him as me, and if he isn’t, why call him “Dr. Aaronson”? In any case, I learned from talking to Zach that the cartoon’s timing was purely coincidental: Zach didn’t even realize what a hornet’s-nest he was poking with this.

Ever since John Preskill coined it in 2012, “quantum supremacy” has been an awkward term. Much as I admire John Preskill’s wisdom, brilliance, generosity, and good sense, in physics as in everything else—yeah, “quantum supremacy” is not a term I would’ve coined, and it’s certainly not a hill I’d choose to die on. Once it had gained common currency, though, I sort of took a liking to it, mostly because I realized that I could mine it for dark one-liners in my talks.

The thinking was: even as white supremacy was making its horrific resurgence in the US and around the world, here we were, physicists and computer scientists and mathematicians of varied skin tones and accents and genders, coming together to pursue a different and better kind of supremacy—a small reflection of the better world that we still believed was possible. You might say that we were reclaiming the word “supremacy”—which, after all, just means a state of being supreme—for something non-sexist and non-racist and inclusive and good.

In the world of 2019, alas, perhaps it was inevitable that people wouldn’t leave things there.

My first intimation came a month ago, when Leonie Mueck—someone who I’d gotten to know and like when she was an editor at Nature handling quantum information papers—emailed me about her view that our community should abandon the term “quantum supremacy,” because of its potential to make women and minorities uncomfortable in our field. She advocated using “quantum advantage” instead.

So I sent Leonie back a friendly reply, explaining that, as the father of a math-loving 6-year-old girl, I understood and shared her concerns—but also, that I didn’t know an alternative term that really worked.

See, it’s like this. Preskill meant “quantum supremacy” to refer to a momentous event that seemed likely to arrive in a matter of years: namely, the moment when programmable quantum computers would first outpace the ability of the fastest classical supercomputers on earth, running the fastest algorithms known by humans, to simulate what the quantum computers were doing (at least on special, contrived problems). And … “the historic milestone of quantum advantage”? It just doesn’t sound right. Plus, as many others pointed out, the term “quantum advantage” is already used to refer to … well, quantum advantages, which might fall well short of supremacy.

But one could go further. Suppose we did switch to “quantum advantage.” Couldn’t that term, too, remind vulnerable people about the unfair advantages that some groups have over others? Indeed, while “advantage” is certainly subtler than “supremacy,” couldn’t that make it all the more insidious, and therefore dangerous?

Oblivious though I sometimes am, I realized Leonie would be unhappy if I offered that, because of my wholehearted agreement, I would henceforth never again call it “quantum supremacy,” but only “quantum superiority,” “quantum dominance,” or “quantum hegemony.”

But maybe you now see the problem. What word does the English language provide to describe one thing decisively beating or being better than a different thing for some purpose, and which doesn’t have unsavory connotations?

I’ve heard “quantum ascendancy,” but that makes it sound like we’re a UFO cult—waiting to ascend, like ytterbium ions caught in a laser beam, to a vast quantum computer in the sky.

I’ve heard “quantum inimitability” (that is, inability to imitate using a classical computer), but who can pronounce that?

Yesterday, my brilliant former student Ewin Tang (yes, that one) relayed to me a suggestion by Kevin Tian: “quantum eclipse” (that is, the moment when quantum computers first eclipse classical ones for some task). But would one want to speak of a “quantum eclipse experiment”? And shouldn’t we expect that, the cuter and cleverer the term, the harder it will be to use unironically?

In summary, while someone might think of a term so inspired that it immediately supplants “quantum supremacy” (and while I welcome suggestions), I currently regard it as an open problem.

Anyway, evidently dissatisfied with my response, last week Leonie teamed up with 13 others to publish a letter in Nature, which was originally entitled “Supremacy is for racists—use ‘quantum advantage,'” but whose title I see has now been changed to the less inflammatory “Instead of ‘supremacy’ use ‘quantum advantage.'” Leonie’s co-signatories included four of my good friends and colleagues: Alan Aspuru-Guzik, Helmut Katzgraber, Anne Broadbent, and Chris Granade (the last of whom got started in the field by helping me edit Quantum Computing Since Democritus).

(Update: Leonie pointed me to a longer list of signatories here, at their website called “” A few names that might be known to Shtetl-Optimized readers are Andrew White, David Yonge-Mallo, Debbie Leung, Matt Leifer, Matthias Troyer.)

Their letter says:

The community claims that quantum supremacy is a technical term with a specified meaning. However, any technical justification for this descriptor could get swamped as it enters the public arena after the intense media coverage of the past few months.

In our view, ‘supremacy’ has overtones of violence, neocolonialism and racism through its association with ‘white supremacy’. Inherently violent language has crept into other branches of science as well — in human and robotic spaceflight, for example, terms such as ‘conquest’, ‘colonization’ and ‘settlement’ evoke the terra nullius arguments of settler colonialism and must be contextualized against ongoing issues of neocolonialism.

Instead, quantum computing should be an open arena and an inspiration for a new generation of scientists.

When I did an “Ask Me Anything” session, as the closing event at Q2B, Sarah Kaiser asked me to comment on the Nature petition. So I repeated what I’d said in my emailed response to Leonie—running through the problems with each proposed alternative term, talking about the value of reclaiming the word “supremacy,” and mostly just trying to diffuse the tension by getting everyone laughing together. Sarah later tweeted that she was “really disappointed” in my response.

Then the Wall Street Journal got in on the action, with a brief editorial (warning: paywalled) mocking the Nature petition:

There it is, folks: Mankind has hit quantum wokeness. Our species, akin to Schrödinger’s cat, is simultaneously brilliant and brain-dead. We built a quantum computer and then argued about whether the write-up was linguistically racist.

Taken seriously, the renaming game will never end. First put a Sharpie to the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which says federal laws trump state laws. Cancel Matt Damon for his 2004 role in “The Bourne Supremacy.” Make the Air Force give up the term “air supremacy.” Tell lovers of supreme pizza to quit being so chauvinistic about their toppings. Please inform Motown legend Diana Ross that the Supremes are problematic.

The quirks of quantum mechanics, some people argue, are explained by the existence of many universes. How did we get stuck in this one?

Steven Pinker also weighed in, with a linguistically-informed tweetstorm:

This sounds like something from The Onion but actually appeared in Nature … It follows the wokified stigmatization of other innocent words, like “House Master” (now, at Harvard, Residential Dean) and “NIPS” (Neural Information Processing Society, now NeurIPS). It’s a familiar linguistic phenomenon, a lexical version of Gresham’s Law: bad meanings drive good ones out of circulation. Examples: the doomed “niggardly” (no relation to the n-word) and the original senses of “cock,” “ass,” “prick,” “pussy,” and “booty.” Still, the prissy banning of words by academics should be resisted. It dumbs down understanding of language: word meanings are conventions, not spells with magical powers, and all words have multiple senses, which are distinguished in context. Also, it makes academia a laughingstock, tars the innocent, and does nothing to combat actual racism & sexism.

Others had a stronger reaction. Curtis Yarvin, better known as Mencius Moldbug, is one of the founders of “neoreaction” (and a significant influence on Steve Bannon, Michael Anton, and other Trumpists). Regulars might remember that Yarvin argued with me in Shtetl-Optimized‘s comment section, under a post in which I denounced Trump’s travel ban and its effects on my Iranian PhD student. Since then, Yarvin has sent me many emails, which have ranged from long to extremely long, and whose message could be summarized as: “[labored breathing] Abandon your liberal Enlightenment pretensions, young Nerdwalker. Come over the Dark Side.”

After the “supremacy is for racists” letter came out in Nature, though, Yarvin sent me his shortest email ever. It was simply a link to the letter, along with the comment “I knew it would come to this.”

He meant: “What more proof do you need, young Nerdawan, that this performative wokeness is a cancer that will eventually infect everything you value—even totally apolitical research in quantum information? And by extension, that my whole worldview, which warned of this, is fundamentally correct, while your faith in liberal academia is naïve, and will be repaid only with backstabbing?”

In a subsequent email, Yarvin predicted that in two years, the whole community will be saying “quantum advantage” instead of “quantum supremacy,” and in five years I’ll be saying “quantum advantage” too. As Yarvin famously wrote: “Cthulhu may swim slowly. But he only swims left.”

So what do I really think about this epic battle for (and against) supremacy?

Truthfully, half of me just wants to switch to “quantum advantage” right now and be done with it. As I said, I know some of the signatories of the Nature letter to be smart and reasonable and kind. They don’t wish to rid the planet of everyone like me. They’re not Amanda Marcottes or Arthur Chus. Furthermore, there’s little I despise more than a meaty scientific debate devolving into a pointless semantic one, with brilliant friend after brilliant friend getting sucked into the vortex (“you too?”). I’m strongly in the Pinkerian camp, which holds that words are just arbitrary designators, devoid of the totemic power to dictate thoughts. So if friends and colleagues—even just a few of them—tell me that they find some word I use to be offensive, why not just be a mensch, apologize for any unintended hurt, switch words midsentence, and continue discussing the matter at hand?

But then the other half of me wonders: once we’ve ceded an open-ended veto over technical terms that remind anyone of anything bad, where does it stop? How do we ever certify a word as kosher? At what point do we all get to stop arguing and laugh together?

To make this worry concrete, look back at Sarah Kaiser’s Twitter thread—the one where she expresses disappointment in me. Below her tweet, someone remarks that, besides “quantum supremacy,” the word “ancilla” (as in ancilla qubit, a qubit used for intermediate computation or other auxiliary purposes) is problematic as well. Here’s Sarah’s response:

I agree, but I wanted to start by focusing on the obvious one, Its harder for them to object to just one to start with, then once they admit the logic, we can expand the list

(What would Curtis Yarvin say about that?)

You’re probably now wondering: what’s wrong with “ancilla”? Apparently, in ancient Rome, an “ancilla” was a female slave, and indeed that’s the Latin root of the English adjective “ancillary” (as in “providing support to”). I confess that I hadn’t known that—had you? Admittedly, once you do know, you might never again look at a Controlled-NOT gate—pitilessly flipping an ancilla qubit, subject only to the whims of a nearby control qubit—in quite the same way.

(Ah, but the ancilla can fight back against her controller! And she does—in the Hadamard basis.)

The thing is, if we’re gonna play this game: what about annihilation operators? Won’t those need to be … annihilated from physics?

And what about unitary matrices? Doesn’t their very name negate the multiplicity of perspectives and cultures?

What about Dirac’s oddly-named bra/ket notation, with its limitless potential for puerile jokes, about the “bra” vectors displaying their contents horizontally and so forth? (Did you smile at that, you hateful pig?)

What about daggers? Don’t we need a less violent conjugate tranpose?

Not to beat a dead horse, but once you hunt for examples, you realize that the whole dictionary is shot through with domination and brutality—that you’d have to massacre the English language to take it out. There’s nothing special about math or physics in this respect.

The same half of me also thinks about my friends and colleagues who oppose claims of quantum supremacy, or even the quest for quantum supremacy, on various scientific grounds. I.e., either they don’t think that the Google team achieved what it said, or they think that the task wasn’t hard enough for classical computers, or they think that the entire goal is misguided or irrelevant or uninteresting.

Which is fine—these are precisely the arguments we should be having—except that I’ve personally seen some of my respected colleagues, while arguing for these positions, opportunistically tack on ideological objections to the term “quantum supremacy.” Just to goose up their case, I guess. And I confess that every time they did this, it made me want to keep saying “quantum supremacy” from now till the end of time—solely to deny these colleagues a cheap and unearned “victory,” one they apparently felt they couldn’t obtain on the merits alone. I realize that this is childish and irrational.

Most of all, though, the half of me that I’m talking about thinks about Curtis Yarvin and the Wall Street Journal editorial board, cackling with glee to see their worldview so dramatically confirmed—as theatrical wokeness, that self-parodying modern monstrosity, turns its gaze on (of all things) quantum computing research. More red meat to fire up the base—or at least that sliver of the base nerdy enough to care. And the left, as usual, walks right into the trap, sacrificing its credibility with the outside world to pursue a runaway virtue-signaling spiral.

The same half of me thinks: do we really want to fight racism and sexism? Then let’s work together to assemble a broad coalition that can defeat Trump. And Jair Bolsonaro, and Viktor Orbán, and all the other ghastly manifestations of humanity’s collective lizard-brain. Then, if we’re really fantasizing, we could liberalize the drug laws, and get contraception and loans and education to women in the Third World, and stop the systematic disenfranchisement of black voters, and open up the world’s richer, whiter, and higher-elevation countries to climate refugees, and protect the world’s remaining indigenous lands (those that didn’t burn to the ground this year).

In this context, the trouble with obsessing over terms like “quantum supremacy” is not merely that it diverts attention, while contributing nothing to fighting the world’s actual racism and sexism. The trouble is that the obsessions are actually harmful. For they make academics—along with progressive activists—look silly. They make people think that we must not have meant it when we talked about the existential urgency of climate change and the world’s other crises. They pump oxygen into right-wing echo chambers.

But it’s worse than ridiculous, because of the message that I fear is received by many outside the activists’ bubble. When you say stuff like “[quantum] supremacy is for racists,” what’s heard might be something more like:

“Watch your back, you disgusting supremacist. Yes, you. You claim that you mentor women and minorities, donate to good causes, try hard to confront the demons in your own character? Ha! None of that counts for anything with us. You’ll never be with-it enough to be our ally, so don’t bother trying. We’ll see to it that you’re never safe, not even in the most abstruse and apolitical fields. We’ll comb through your words—even words like ‘ancilla qubit’—looking for any that we can cast as offensive by our opaque and ever-shifting standards. And once we find some, we’ll have it within our power to end your career, and you’ll be reduced to groveling that we don’t. Remember those popular kids who bullied you in second grade, giving you nightmares of social ostracism that persist to this day? We plan to achieve what even those bullies couldn’t: to shame you with the full backing of the modern world’s moral code. See, we’re the good guys of this story. It’s goodness itself that’s branding you as racist scum.”

In short, I claim that the message—not the message intended, of course, by anyone other than a Chu or a Marcotte or a SneerClubber, but the message received—is basically a Trump campaign ad. I claim further that our civilization’s current self-inflicted catastrophe will end—i.e., the believers in science and reason and progress and rule of law will claw their way back to power—when, and only when, a generation of activists emerges that understands these dynamics as well as Barack Obama did.

Wouldn’t it be awesome if, five years from now, I could say to Curtis Yarvin: you were wrong? If I could say to him: my colleagues and I still use the term ‘quantum supremacy’ whenever we care to, and none of us have been cancelled or ostracized for it—so maybe you should revisit your paranoid theories about Cthulhu and the Cathedral and so forth? If I could say: quantum computing researchers now have bigger fish to fry than arguments over words—like moving beyond quantum supremacy to the first useful quantum simulations, as well as the race for scalability and fault-tolerance? And even: progressive activists now have bigger fish to fry too—like retaking actual power all over the world?

Anyway, as I said, that’s how half of me feels. The other half is ready to switch to “quantum advantage” or any other serviceable term and get back to doing science.

The morality of quantum computing

Thursday, November 7th, 2019

This morning a humanities teacher named Richard Horan, having read my NYT op-ed on quantum supremacy, emailed me the following question about it:

Is this pursuit [of scalable quantum computation] just an arms race? A race to see who can achieve it first? To what end? Will this achievement yield advances in medical science and human quality of life, or will it threaten us even more than we are threatened presently by our technologies? You seem rather sanguine about its possible development and uses. But how close does the hand on that doomsday clock move to midnight once we “can harness an exponential number of amplitudes for computation”?

I thought this question might possibly be of some broader interest, so here’s my response (with some light edits).

Dear Richard,

A radio interviewer asked me a similar question a couple weeks ago—whether there’s an ethical dimension to quantum computing research.  I replied that there’s an ethical dimension to everything that humans do.

A quantum computer is not like a nuclear weapon: it’s not going to directly kill anybody (unless the dilution refrigerator falls on them or something?).  It’s true that a full, scalable QC, if and when it’s achieved, will give a temporary advantage to people who want to break certain cryptographic codes.  The morality of that, of course, could strongly depend on whether the codebreakers are working for the “good guys” (like the Allies during WWII) or the “bad guys” (like, perhaps, Trump or Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping).

But in any case, there’s already a push to switch to new cryptographic codes that already exist and that we think are quantum-resistant.  An actual scalable QC on the horizon would of course massively accelerate that push.  And once people make the switch, we expect that security on the Internet will be more-or-less back where it started.

Meanwhile, the big upside potential from QCs is that they’ll provide an unprecedented ability to simulate physics and chemistry at the molecular level.  That could at least potentially help with designing new medicines, as well as new batteries and solar cells and carbon capture technologies—all things that the world desperately needs right now.

Also, the theory developed around QC has already led to many new and profound insights about physics and computation.  Some of us regard that as an inherent good, in the same way that art and music and literature are.

Now, one could argue that the climate crisis, or various other crises that our civilization faces, are so desperate that instead of working to build QCs, we should all just abandon our normal work and directly confront the crises, as (for example) Greta Thunberg is doing.  On some days I share that position.  But of course, were the position upheld, it would have implications not just for quantum computing researchers but for almost everyone on earth—including humanities teachers like yourself.