The Soul Of A New Machine

You’ve probably heard of “quantum computing”, but you may not know what it is. Here is a piece by Peter Diamandis, of Singularity University, that gives a helpful introduction to the key idea: that the bizarre “superposition” of a particle’s unmeasured quantum states makes it possible for n quantum bits (or “qubits”) to do the processing work of 2n “classical” bits.

How to take advantage of this has been a challenging problem both technically and algorithmically, but it is yielding, and the technology should begin to become useful within the next few years. Once the power of the qubit is in harness, whole classes of problems that, in terms of processing time, “scale up” exponentially on classical machines will now scale linearly.

This is no small thing; in particular it will enable modeling of complex systems that are, in principle, beyond the reach not only of current supercomputers, but of any classical computer that could ever be constructed. Peter Diamandis is right to apply S.U.’s favorite adjective — “disruptive” — to the prospect of this technology’s arrival.

The tone of Mr. Diamandis’s piece, as with everything related to Singularity University, is one of breathless excitement; when I spent a fascinating week there a few years ago, I remember one of the speakers saying that “if you can see the road ahead, you aren’t going fast enough.” To say that an emerging technology is “disruptive” is, for the members of this community, the highest praise.

This infatuation with “disruption” puzzles me. If the best societies are organic, living systems, as I believe them to be, then “disruption” is hardly a thing to be wished for. Would you like to have your family routine, or the regularities of your daily life, “disrupted”? Would an ecologist encourage the “disruption” of a healthy and balanced ecosystem? If I offered you a pill that would “disrupt” the workings of your own bodily organism, would you take it?

I’m no Luddite, and have, in my two careers as a recording engineer and software developer, always been an “early adopter” of new technologies. But I’m old enough now, have read enough history, and have seen enough radical change in my own sixty years, to understand that not all of the modern world’s “progress”, either technical or social, has in fact been a movement toward greater human flourishing and happiness.

I understand that technology will advance, willy-nilly, and that the pace is increasing. Nothing short of a major civilizational catastrophe could prevent it. I am sure as well that many of these advances will provide astonishing material benefits, and will confer upon us powers that would have seemed magical — even godlike — not so long ago.

What I have far less confidence in is our own wisdom and foresight. Our technology is advancing exponentially. I see no evidence that our judgment, our self-mastery, or our insight into the eternal conundrum of human nature and the human experience, are advancing at all.


  1. Kevin Kim says

    Diamandis writes:

    “3. Chemistry (and Climate Change): Worried about the climate crisis? Wondering what we can do about it? Quantum computers may be our newest tool to understand what is going on and to fight it. They will allow us to unlock “simulation-driven” solutions, perhaps design new catalysts that actually capture carbon from the atmosphere and turn it into new and valuable products at low cost and energy use.”

    I wonder whether he saw this. Diamandis’s vision may be coming true without quantum computing.

    Posted October 25, 2016 at 7:15 am | Permalink
  2. Tina says

    “This infatuation with “disruption” puzzles me.”

    I was in middle management at a large tech company when the concept first gained ground. The word “disruptive” is shorthand for “a new gold rush”, or more accurately, “plunder and pillage” – the 21st century version of hostile takeovers and pension looting. It’s nothing more than a pirate culture, the delight of young men chomping at the bit to make their fortunes at the expense of their own company along with the competitors they want to take down.

    Posted October 25, 2016 at 8:20 am | Permalink
  3. In 2004, I came across this:

    Why Quantum Computers Cannot Work.

    This has the potential to be a big waste of money, just like all the crazy computer driven modeling in different fields, like climate.

    Posted October 25, 2016 at 10:18 am | Permalink
  4. Rick says

    I’m no rocket surgeon, but the “harness” part seems like the big “if” here.
    A little like solving the Frankenstein problem. Got all the parts stitched together. Why ain’t he working? Just add lightning bolts. Those solve for anything in SF. I seen it. AKA magic.

    Magic. What can’t it do?

    Posted October 25, 2016 at 11:01 am | Permalink
  5. “…, are advancing at all.”

    Ironically, I submit they are actually regressing. Technology advancing at an accelerating pace is allowing younger generations to get by with ever dwindling education and maturation.

    How many youngsters today can make change from a dollar? How many understand what it means?

    Posted October 25, 2016 at 4:02 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says


    I submit they are actually regressing.

    Quite so; indeed they are. I have a habit of understatement.

    Posted October 25, 2016 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

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