Quantum Solace or Classical Misery?

I wrote a few paragraphs for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung Ich. Heute. 10 vor 8. blog. Given a wide choice of technology relevant topics close to my heart… the choice was difficult. I had to start somewhere. The German version is Ach, analog, digital – Quanten! Blitzkurs für alle Feinde des Digitalen und Technologieverächter.

Battlefields for Words: Is the digital displacing the analogue?

I start the year fighting. I not only contend, but assert that we are fighting all the wrong battles and ignoring the only war worth fighting. I am frankly tired of the persistent residuals of absurd reductionism and ubiquitous oversimplification. We are fighting a technology war, when we should be fighting for dignity. Digital versus analogue is just one of the many battlefields. This war is senseless, the battles are meaningless. Technology is not the enemy. What is technology? What is the enemy? 

My take is that the pervasiveness of technology and the irrelevance of the distinction between digital and analogue have eluded the awareness of many. Be it books, cooking stoves, automobiles, or pharmaceuticals, we live in a world where production cannot divorce itself from its technologies. Still, many think that technology is evil, and others blame all our economic and social woes on digital technology. But let’s think again. 

Technology is the application of knowledge for practical purposes. Technology is alternatively taken for granted, left unexamined, instrumentalised, or simply despised. We assimilate technology very fast. We have forgotten how pervasive technology is. There is only one consequent way to renounce technology, and that is to not ever be born. We have no control on that one. We are doomed or blessed to live with technology. This is our nature. 

We have not thought enough about evolution and the role that technology plays in it. In our compulsive search for sense, we unwittingly have created the very tools for our evolution. But what are these tools? When humanoids predating homo sapiens discovered how to modify the surface of a cave’s rock so as to express, supposedly what was experienced, a technology was invented. Knowledge was applied for a practical purpose.  Today people write blogs to express their passions for cars, cooking, philosophy, slapstick, frugality, fashion and a myriad sundry of assorted topics that make me dizzy, have no interest in, or cannot comprehend. We are still in the business of expressing and sharing. The tools have changed. 

It is starting to dawn on you that perhaps we take in technology like the air we breathe. But like the air we breathe, has technology become polluted with the digital? A reflection on the very distinction between analogue and digital devices, between analogue computing and digital computing, tells you that all is as pristine as ever. Our beloved technology has not become adulterated with the digital. Analogue is about the use of continuous variables. For instance, an Ampère meter to measure current, or thermometer to measure temperature, would have been representative of such devices before the widespread use of digital circuits and computers. Today these analogue devices can be visited in science and technology museums. Other than the old fashioned mercury or alcohol thermometer that you may have laying around the house, these too have gone digital. But the world of analogue variables such as temperature, current, voltage, velocity and pressure to which we relate to on a daily basis, is set by classical mechanics. Classical mechanics is a theory that functions as a model to think about the physical world. While as a model it is correct, it is far from being able to describe the physical world completely. It gives us a tool to work through a set of limited problems. We would not have been able to put a man on the moon, or built a smartphone if we had only classical mechanics to rely on; the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics were also needed. Stated more bluntly, analogue technology represents the best knowledge of the nineteenth century. 

To add insult to injury in keeping things analogue and digital straight, computers come also in three different flavours: classical analogue; classical digital , and quantum. Alan Turing used a classical analogue computer to break the German Enigma code. You and I use classical digital computers in our everyday lives to make a simple phone call. Quantum computers have seen the market in 2011 (D-Wave), and work towards their realization has resulted in the 2012 Nobel Prizes presented to David J Wineland and Serge Haroche. Last year Google launched the Quantum Artificial Intelligence Laboratory with NASA. However given that  present quantum computers require operating temperatures lower than freezing hell, the pocket version is still not available.

Thus, the pocket variety of computer that we can buy today is the classical digital computer. It deals with discrete quantities – bits are discrete – and these computers deal with continuous quantities by discretizing them (i.e. digital thermometers). It is difficult to think of any computers that do not run on electricity (the abacus is a good example of a mechanical computational device, but isn’t a computer). Now, is electricity analogue or digital? Well, it is both. First electric current is produced by electrons flowing through a conducting medium (usually copper). Electricity is produced by transforming some other form of energy. Remember? We burn fossil fuels or have wind turbines spinning to produce electricity. Surely, somewhere between elementary school and the shopping mall you have learned that electrons themselves are discrete little buggers that can only be fathomed within the world described in the language of quantum mechanics. In this bugger quantum world, electrons are both particle and wave, both discrete and continuous. And there we have it , quantum computing can be both analogue and digital. The take home lesson is that digital and analogue can not be separated. These are not two different worlds, it is one physical reality that can be shaped using different methods, and expressed in the language of different theoretical premises. Our machines employ a plethora of methods and processes, deeply integrated, analogue and digital. It is not simple. 

We are living in a fantasy world of ill suited theories and seek the quick fixes for our ailments armed with nothing but our gullibility that there is one simple single fix for all that ails us. Ailing business will not assure their survival by killing competing emergent technologies or business models (the devils of the digital), but by assimilating and looking at where the real enemy is. What is that real enemy?

Our enemy is ourselves. We are neglecting our dignity. We are not thinking.