Scientific Sense Podcast

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Quantum computing and the reversal of time

The search company’s recent announcement (1), that it has a breakthrough in quantum computing, albeit with highly overinflated benchmarks, is interesting. Just the fact that a few dozen qubits could substantially change the landscape of computing has been known for a while. The applicability of such hardware may still be limited to highly specialized problems. Just as the over-inflated expectations at the intersection of conventional AI and neuroscience are dying down, the latest news may provide a shining toy for engineers to fool around for a few years.

However, orders of magnitude improvement in the speed of computing is a profitable path for humans to pursue. The most interesting application could be in Physics and not in Medicine as the company appears to speculate. In the former, a recent experiment (2) that appears to show the possibility of a reversal of time in the state of a quantum computer provides new avenues for next-generation cosmology. As the universe itself appears to be a quantum computer, humble efforts by humans to pull together a few coordinated qubits could, at the very least, open our minds. On the latter, in spite of the best efforts of engineers to programmatically understand biological systems, nothing much has happened for a century. The primary reason for this could be that biological systems are fundamentally different from engineering systems and just crunching ignorance faster may not lead to anything. With the missing theory of consciousness, humans still seem to be seeking deep answers to who they really are. And, their inability to arrest the deterioration of their infrastructure as well as prevent catastrophic wars from within is ample evidence that we are nowhere close to a fundamental understanding. One cannot just throw fast and raw computing power to problems she does not understand.

Efforts expended in materials science and increasing computing speed likely have much higher returns than other popular ideas such as searching for ET and habitable planets. One may be able to find a needle in an accessible haystack but not in haystacks that are beyond the space-time limits. And, there should not be any worries that ET will interfere with the Earth as she will not have much interest. It is amazing to see the happiness gushing out of experimentalists at the discovery of yet another exoplanet; one would have thought it would be tempered after finding 4000 of them. Even theoreticians have been taking a cue from the novelists, as they spin up beautiful stories about the universe. High-speed computing could bring a level of sanity to this field as realistic simulations could provide better avenues to explore for meaning.

A few thousand orders of magnitude improvement in computing speed is in the cards. It may be better to direct it to engineering problems that are well articulated. Speed is not something that cures a lack of fundamental understanding.

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