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Quantum Administration

The New Yorker had an interesting article on Quantum Computing this month.

I've tried many times to wrap my head around Quantum Mechanics, and every time the unseemly truth of it seems to slide off my mind. I may nod politely and pretend to grok it fully if it ever comes up in polite conversation, but to be honest Mortality and Quantum Behavior are just two of the uncomfortable facts of the world that I seem predisposed towards ignoring indefinitely.

At least that's normally the case, however in this article the focus on the computing aspects of it made it stick more than it normally does. In particular, a paragraph from David Deutsch's "The Fabric of Reality" stuck in my craw.

But before I get into that, I suppose I should give a quick primer about the two "camps" of Quantum theory. The "Copenhagen" camp says that entangled quantum events stay vague and undefined until they are observed. That the act of peering at them causes them to coalesce into something specific (a dead cat for instance).

Whereas the Multiple Worlds (MWI) camp says that reality splits each time a quantum "decision" is to be made, and it isn't until you open the box that you find out if you are in the universe with the living cat or the dead one.

David Deutsch is a strong proponent of the Multiple Worlds Theory, and he's using the enormous potential computing power of Quantum Computers as an example. A modest sized quantum computer is capable of solving problems that would flummox computers made out of every known atom in the universe. So David rightfully asks the question "where did all that computing take place?". He thinks MWI best explains where "the math" comes from.

Now that we've got that down, I should introduce Quantum Computing.. Basically, it involves creating isolated "qubits", that are both one and zero at the same time, in an array, and then "posing" them a question with one specific answer. This is the standard head-on explaination that often leaves me bored.

Personally, I like this explanation via extended metaphor more:

Imagine you are a math professor working on a particularly nasty problem when one day, over breakfast, inspiration strikes and you reach out and grab the nearest piece of paper you can find, your 1st grade son's math homework. You jot down a three variable equation on his homework next to the question "What is 3+1?", and then goto let in the cat. When you come back you forget about the paper, and little Timmy grabs it and runs off to school. Later that day Timmy comes back, leaves the paper on the same table, you glance at it, and to your suprise, it appears that someone solved your equation to see if equaled four or not.

You visit his school the next day, attempt to figure out who did it and congratulate them for their effort but nobody fesses up, and everybody claims confusion.

So to test them further the next day you write down an equation with *ten* variables as the answer to "What is 2-1?". That night it comes back with a correct answer.

Pride stinging, you then put down an equation with so many variables it could not be solved by a universe filled with only computers working from the big bang to the heat death of the universe, and Timmy walks back in, the question answered...

That's kind of what Quantum computing is doing.

As someone who tends computing resources for a living, I find this a fascinating question on many levels. More specifically, it reminds me very strongly of something I heard at a guest lecture in college, namely, that the first rule of writing a video game was "to cheat when they aren't looking".

For instance when you are in a racing game, and have passed 8 of the 12 cars. The computer isn't actually having the 8x cars behind you jockey each other for position. Sure it might fiddle with their placements a little, but it certainly isn't bothering simulating them bumping each other and vying for position.

Similarly when you are playing a first-person shooter, and you are walking down simulated nazi cobblestone streets, surrounded by simulated buildings full of simulated nazis. The computer only bothers animating and displaying the ones you can see. Maybe it'll take the time to figure out if the ones near you are going to walk towards you, but it definitely draws a distance of things to 'bother about", and only "does the math" on those things.

The way Quantum Mechanics resolve strongly remind me of an efficiency "hack" to reality to not have to bother with calculations that are meaningless. Most of the time the dances internal to atoms just aren't relevant to the world, evident by the extreme lack of baseballs that decide to stop existing mid-flight, so why bother calculating them?

The idea that we are all constructs inside a gigantic computer is not a new one. Although one of my favorite "proofs" of it is the marked *lack* of time travelers coming back to visit us from the future. Time travel is clearly impossible in a strictly iterated simulated environment.

If reality is a computer, the entire quantum computing method of building a cascade of entangled bits who results are all chained together to spit out the only acceptable permutation strikes me as an evident "hack" of the system. A way to fool it into demanding resources from outside of our own universe in order to properly display the results of the puzzle we constructed.

Right now, quantum computers are small, with barely a dozen bits, but as they start to grow, and reach the point where they will be asking math questions that require equivalent or greater calculations than it takes to simulate our actual universe, I can't help but think a grumpy man with an unkempt beard is going to show up, with a penchant for acting out in spiteful irritation.

Lord save us from the Great and Almighty Sysadmin who was woken at 2am to investigate the mess we have wrought on his systems!