Friday, 11 July 2014

Indications of vindication

It's always cool to have a big name scientist agree with you, especially if that big name scientist is Scott Aaronson. Here's Scott's thoughts on funding for quantum computing:

What happens when it turns out that some of the most-hyped applications of quantum computers (e.g., optimization, machine learning, and Big Data) were based on wildly inflated hopes—that there simply isn’t much quantum speedup to be had for typical problems of that kind, that yes, quantum algorithms exist, but they aren’t much faster than the best classical randomized algorithms?  What happens when it turns out that the real applications of quantum computing—like breaking RSA and simulating quantum systems—are nice, but not important enough by themselves to justify the cost?  (E.g., when the imminent risk of a quantum computer simply causes people to switch from RSA to other cryptographic codes?  Or when the large polynomial overheads of quantum simulation algorithms limit their usefulness?)  Finally, what happens when it turns out that the promises of useful quantum computers in 5-10 years were wildly unrealistic?
I’ll tell you: when this happens, the spigots of funding that once flowed freely will dry up, and the techno-journalists and pointy-haired bosses who once sang our praises will turn to the next craze.  And they’re unlikely to be impressed when we protest, “no, look, the reasons we told you before for why you should support quantum computing were never the real reasons!  and the real reasons remain as valid as ever!”
In my view, we as a community have failed to make the honest case for quantum computing—the case based on basic science—because we’ve underestimated the public.  We’ve falsely believed that people would never support us if we told them the truth: that while the potential applications are wonderful cherries on the sundae, they’re not and have never been the main reason to build a quantum computer.  The main reason is that we want to make absolutely manifest what quantum mechanics says about the nature of reality.  We want to lift the enormity of Hilbert space out of the textbooks, and rub its full, linear, unmodified truth in the face of anyone who denies it.  Or if it isn’t the truth, then we want to discover what is the truth.

Sound familiar? A while ago I posted the following:

With this in mind isn't it a bit...I don't know, shady of us, to be collecting money under the pretenses of maybe-eventually-possibly producing some kind of new technology that'll likely never arrive? No, I'd rather make the case for funding fundamental physics research simply as it is, without having to dangle a carrot in front of the public's nose. For one, it's more honest, which I tend to be in favour of. For another, it avoids backlash - after all, if we promise miracles, we had better darn well deliver them (I doubt the people will be so quick to grant us a 2000 year grace period). And for yet another (if ethical qualms don't move you) it allows physicists much more freedom in their research: freedom to explore, to investigate, to follow the winds of evidence wherever they lead, even if it's away from application.

I'm not sure if I totally agree with everything I wrote in that post anymore, but that part I definitely still think is true (and so does Scott, apparently). We need to be honest when we ask the public for science funding, for reasons both ethical and pragmatic. We really don't know when basic science research will pan out in terms of practical applications, and pretending otherwise will only come back to bite us in the ass.

[epistemic status: gloating]

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