## Archive for February, 2012

### Tell President Obama to support the Federal Research Public Access Act

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

If you’re tired of blog posts about open science, sorry dude—but it feels great to be part a group of blogging nerds who, for once, are actually having a nonzero (and positive, I think!) impact on the political process.  Yesterday, Elsevier, which had been the biggest supporter of the noxious Research Works Act, announced, under pressure from the “Cost of Knowledge” movement, that it was dropping its support for RWA.  Only hours later, Elsevier’s paid cheerleaders in Congress, Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), announced that they were shelving the RWA for now.  See this hilarious post by physicist John Baez, which translates Issa and Maloney’s statement on why they’re letting the RWA die into ordinary English sentence-by-sentence.

Finally, given the skeptical-yet-positive tone of this post, some people will wonder whether I now regret my earlier, more unmitigated D-Wave skepticism.  The answer is no!  Asking questions is my job.  I’ll give D-Wave credit whenever it answers some of the questions—as it did on this visit!—and will shift my views accordingly.  But I’ll also neither stop asking nor apologize for asking, until the evidence for a quantum speedup becomes clear and indisputable (as it certainly hasn’t yet).  On the other hand, I do regret the snowballing nastiness that developed as a combined result of my and other skeptics’ statements, D-Wave’s and its supporters’ statements, and the adversarial nature of the blogosphere.  For the first time, I find myself really, genuinely hoping—with all my heart—that D-Wave will succeed in proving that it can do some (not necessarily universal) form of scalable quantum computation.  For, if nothing else, such a success would prove to the world that my $100,000 is safe, and decisively refute the QC skeptics who, right now, are getting even further under my skin than the uncritical D-Wave boosters ever did. ### Safari photos from Kenya Sunday, February 12th, 2012 (Credit for most of the photos: Dana) I was going to write a whole long essay about • the differences between going to the zoo and visiting an ancestral environment of humanity, where elephants have grazed for millions of years; • the weird sense of familiarity, as if you’re seeing how the surface of the earth is “supposed” to look, how it did look before humans started converting it into KFCs and parking lots; • how to tell whether an elephant charging your jeep is serious about wanting to trample you or, much more likely, just warning you to go away (apparently, it has to do with whether its ears are straight back or flapping); • the “airport” at Lake Naivasha (a strip of dirt in a grassy field filled with zebras, and a guy on a bicycle who shoos the zebras off the strip before a plane lands); • Britain’s failure, to this day, to issue any sort of apology for its detention, torture, and murder of tens of thousands of Kenyans during the waning years of its colonial rule in the 1950s; • the near-destruction by poaching, over the last century, of many of the majestic animal populations you see above; • the heroism of Richard Leakey (past director of the Kenya Wildlife Service) in overcoming decades of bureaucratic inertia to initiate a crackdown, where rangers were authorized to “poach the poachers,” shooting them on sight (!); • how, after Leakey almost-singlehandedly saved Kenya’s wild elephants, he lost both of his legs when his plane crashed (widely suspected to be due to sabotage), and was forced from his job months later; • the benefits of safari tourism in creating a serious economic incentive for conservation, but also the drawbacks (e.g., all the jeeps making it harder for the cheetahs to hunt); • the large, obvious, anything-but-“theoretical” changes being wrought by global warming on the rainfall in Kenya’s game parks (which changes are killing the trees, thereby eliminating the lions’ hiding places and making it harder for them to hunt—hey, at least the zebras are happy); • the Maasais’ innovative uses for cow dung; the resulting immature jokes on my part (homeowner to roofer: “this roof you sold me is shit!”); • my growing fascination, over the course of the trip, with the lesser-known corners of Mammalia (elands, dik-diks, kudus, waterbucks, topis, rock hyraxes); how this might mirror my fascination with lesser-known complexity classes like AWPP, QMA(2)/qpoly, SBP, C=P, and BPPpath; • how parts of the African savannah have better cellphone reception than my office in Stata; • how it’s indeed possible to catch up on Jon Stewart and The Big Bang Theory over wifi, from a tent in the Maasai Mara, while hippos bellow loudly in the river below, and elephants graze and crocodiles sun themselves on the other side. But then I never got around to writing that essay. So enjoy the photos, and ask in the comments if you want me to say something else. ### The battle against Elsevier gains momentum Wednesday, February 8th, 2012 Check out this statement on “The Cost of Knowledge” released today, which (besides your humble blogger) has been signed by Ingrid Daubechies (President of the International Mathematical Union), Timothy Gowers, Terence Tao, László Lovász, and 29 others. The statement carefully explains the rationale for the current Elsevier boycott, and answers common questions like “why single out Elsevier?” and “what comes next?” Also check out Timothy Gowers’ blog post announcing the statement. The post includes a hilarious report by investment firm Exane Paribas, explaining that the current boycott has caused Reed Elsevier’s stock price to fall, but presenting that as a great investment opportunity, since they fully expect the price to rebound once this boycott fails like all the previous ones. I ask you: does that not want to make you boycott Elsevier, for no other reason than to see the people who follow Exane Paribas’ cynical advice lose their money? In related news, the boycott petition now has 4600+ signatures and counting. If you’ve already signed, great! If you haven’t, why not? Update (Feb. 9): There’s now a great editorial by Gareth Cook in the Boston Globe supporting the Elsevier boycott (and analogizing it to both the Tahrir Square uprising and the Boston Tea Party!). ### Whether or not God plays dice, I do Friday, February 3rd, 2012 Another Update (Feb. 7): I have a new piece up at IEEE Spectrum, explaining why I made this bet. Thanks to Rachel Courtland for soliciting the piece and for her suggestions improving it. Update: My$100,000 offer for disproving scalable quantum computing has been Slashdotted.  Reading through the comments was amusing as always.  The top comment suggested that winning my prize was trivial: “Just point a gun at his head and ask him ‘Convinced?'”  (For the record: no, I wouldn’t be, even as I handed over my money.  And if you want to be a street thug, why limit yourself to victims who happen to have made public bets about quantum computing?)  Many people assumed I was a QC skeptic, and was offering the prize because I hoped to spur research aimed at disproving QC.  (Which is actually an interesting misreading: I wonder how much “pro-paranormal” research has been spurred by James Randi’s million-dollar prize?)  Other people said the bet was irrelevant since D-Wave has already built scalable QCs.  (Oh, how I wish I could put the D-Wave boosters and the QC deniers in the same room, and let them duke it out with each other while leaving me alone for a while!)  One person argued that it would be easy to prove the impossibility of scalable QCs, just like it would’ve been easy to prove the impossibility of scalable classical computers in 1946: the only problem is that both proofs would then be invalidated by advances in technology.  (I think he understands the word “proof” differently than I do.)  Then, buried deep in the comments, with a score of 2 out of 5, was one person who understood precisely:

I think he’s saying that while a general quantum computer might be a very long way off, the underlying theory that allows such a thing to exist is on very solid ground (which is why he’s putting up the money). Of course this prize might still cost him since if the news of the prize goes viral he’s going to spend the next decade getting spammed by kooks.

OK, two people:

There’s some needed context.  Aaronson himself works on quantum complexity theory.  Much of his work deals with quantum computers (at a conceptual level–what is and isn’t possible).  Yet there are some people who reject the idea the quantum computers can scale to “useful” sizes–including some very smart people like Leonid Levin (of Cook-Levin Theorem fame)–and some of them send him email, questions, comments on his blog, etc. saying so.  These people are essentially asserting that Aaronson’s career is rooted in things that can’t exist.  Thus, Aaronson essentially said “prove it.”  It’s true that proving such a statement would be very difficult … But the context is that Aaronson gets mail and questions all the time from people who simply assert that scalable QC is impossible, and he’s challenging them to be more formal about it.  He also mentions, in fairness, that if he does have to pay out, he’d consider it an honor, because it would be a great scientific advance.

For better or worse, I’m now offering a US$100,000 award for a demonstration, convincing to me, that scalable quantum computing is impossible in the physical world. This award has no time limit other than my death, and is entirely at my discretion (though if you want to convince me, a good approach would be to convince most of the physics community first). I might, also at my discretion, decide to split the award among several people or groups, or give a smaller award for a discovery that dramatically weakens the possibility of scalable QC while still leaving it open. I don’t promise to read every claimed refutation of QC that’s emailed to me. Indeed, you needn’t even bother to send me your refutation directly: just convince most of the physics community, and believe me, I’ll hear about it! The prize amount will not be adjusted for inflation. The impetus for this prize was a post on Dick Lipton’s blog, entitled “Perpetual Motion of the 21st Century?” (See also this followup post.) The post consists of a debate between well-known quantum-computing skeptic Gil Kalai and well-known quantum-computing researcher Aram Harrow (Shtetl-Optimized commenters both), about the assumptions behind the Quantum Fault-Tolerance Theorem. So far, the debate covers well-trodden ground, but I understand that it will continue for a while longer. Anyway, in the comments section of the post, I pointed out that a refutation of scalable QC would require, not merely poking this or that hole in the Fault-Tolerance Theorem, but the construction of a dramatically-new, classically-efficiently-simulable picture of physical reality: something I don’t expect but would welcome as the scientific thrill of my life. Gil more-or-less dared me to put a large cash prize behind my words—as I’m now, apparently, known for doing!—and I accepted his dare. To clarify: no, I don’t expect ever to have to pay the prize, but that’s not, by itself, a sufficient reason for offering it. After all, I also don’t expect Newt to win the Republican primary, but I’m not ready to put$100,000 on the line for that belief.  The real reason to offer this prize is that, if I did have to pay, at least doing so would be an honor: for I’d then (presumably) simply be adding a little to the well-deserved Nobel Prize coffers of one of the greatest revolutionaries in the history of physics.

Over on Lipton’s blog, my offer was criticized for being “like offering \$100,000 to anyone who can prove that Bigfoot doesn’t exist.”  To me, though, that completely misses the point.  As I wrote there, whether Bigfoot exists is a question about the contingent history of evolution on Earth.  By contrast, whether scalable quantum computing is possible is a question about the laws of physics.  It’s perfectly conceivable that future developments in physics would conflict with scalable quantum computing, in the same way that relativity conflicts with faster-than-light communication, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics conflicts with perpetuum mobiles.  It’s for such a development in physics that I’m offering this prize.

Update: If anyone wants to offer a counterpart prize for a demonstration that scalable quantum computing is possible, I’ll be happy for that—as I’m sure, will many experimental QC groups around the world.  I’m certainly not offering such a prize.