Imagine you are thinking of the future in the past. You are in back 1974 and you think that ‘any word you you speak this afternoon will radiate out in all directions, around the town before tomorrow, out and around the world before Tuesday’. I wish I could have had that thought then. Sure it’s wrong in detail but in principle, it was visionary. Computing has evolved rapidly despite the fact that fifty years later we are still pretty much tied to a keyboard. Global telephony has been upgraded and milliseconds are today’s measure of communication time rather than days. Our voices do radiate out in video and audio streams but much of our thinking is spread by text. It’s still the case that text is faster to comprehend. The limit isn’t the technology, it’s a biological constraint.
Lewis Thomas probably had his thoughts in 1971 but I first saw them in 1976. He had published a series of essay in the New England Journal of Medicine that were compiled into the notes of a biology watcher, The Lives of a Cell.
I’m repeating myself in that I wrote about Lewis Thomas only a month ago. It’s a mark of the importance of visionary thinking that I still have the book on my desktop. I just re-read a few of the essays and I’m in back in awe of the man.
When I wrote ‘it’s a biological constraint’, I was also hinting at quantum and perhaps organic computing. I just checked my folding @home account and learned that my desktop computer has earned over 800,000 points in recent weeks. Today, I am happy to relate, it’s working on a microorganism found in the extremely cold and hypersaline Deep Lake, Antarctica that has potential to improve the catalytic efficiency of certain enzymes. That I am running folding@home together with several million other people’s computers tells you that modern computing isn’t good at everything.
Linear strings of zeroes and ones are streaming imagery and messages around our planet at the speed of light. But there are a host of problems that are intractable with classical computing. Fertilizer efficiency could be improved in a day if we could use the quantum version of information units, qubits rather than bits. Until then, we won’t bother because we may not have the million years it’d take to find the answer by conventional computing. The Covid-19 pandemic vaccine research was done in a year, more or less. That’s remarkable in itself. But imagine that there are other disease problems that might take a trillion years of conventional effort to resolve that would be achievable in an a few hours with quantum computing.
Back in the 1940s, Erwin Schrödinger was working and lecturing here in Dublin asking What is Life? He presumed that biology must also underpinned by quantum physics. He theorised that the discovery of quantum mechanics in inanimate objects at room temperature might mean that quantum effects could be observed in animate objects if they were rendered inanimate, which could require studying cells cryogenically stored at zero Kelvin. He was ahead of his time because he had one of the very rare human brains that are unimaginably good at maths and logic.
Lets’ not digress into the nature or nurture arguments. Rather we should focus on educating everyone to ever higher standards to maximise the potential of every individual to the benefit of the 12 billion we shall soon become. And grasp the potentials in all forms of computing to improve the quality of life for the majority of humanity.
Yes, there are downsides to quantum computing. A parent told told me years ago that that a son said there was no such thing as privacy. Nor need for it, he opined. Some say that governments are covertly developing quantum computing to protect their secrets. They are driven by the nuclear idea of mutually assured destruction. Everyone’s doing it so we better do it too. That’s because all cryptography will be rendered useless if a quantum computer is used as a code breaker. Your bank account details and any nuclear launch codes required in your presidential day job could be known in seconds.
Meantime, many of the currently available quantum computers are very busy compiling their own quantum algorithms in order to become the robust, reliable large-scale quantum computers we require to resolve complex problems.
A breakthrough just might put quantum technology in your pocket before 2050. At which time, every electronic secret of every one that ever lived will be revealed to everyone who is living with quantum computing.
Coherent global governance is required now. Are The Elders listening?
Additional resources to watch on TED:
Matt Langione: 2021 The promise of quantum computers
Craig Costello: 2019 The promise and peril of our quantum future
And this read on NOVA wonders:
Katherine J. Wu: 2019 A bird’s eye view of quantum entanglement