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.


The times ahead will surprise us

Imagine my surprise! I found this little essay of mine that I wrote in a rush, but with great pleasure, published with errors and all! The original draft is the version just hot off the labours of my fingertips… and without the capable labour of editors. I am reposting and correcting some of the more obvious errors that I often introduce through a combination of speed, quick thoughts, change of mind, sentence reformulation, new word, and not much dedication to perfection.

Dannie Jost: The times ahead will surprise us | Third Wave GmbH: “I should have been an astronomer, I like to think in terms of light years and orders of magnitude. In 3-5 years not much happens, just fluctuations. Still, punditry is something that everyone ought to engage with at least once in a lifetime. It was about time that I give it a try.

What are the most interesting big trends and drivers that will shape the next 3-5 years, how might they manifest, and what are the main implications?

For the next 3-5 year the big trends and drivers that will shape our existence will be the shrinking of the economy, the development of a new understanding of what sustainability is, the discovery that governance systems are failing, and the increased frequency of extreme weather events. The main implications will be a tendency to concentrate on those values, attitudes, and resources that make a difference in the quality of one’s life. There will be a mixture of the intensity of loneliness, and an increase in the value of ‘clan values’.

This does not mean that there will be no conflicts. It may even be that the conflicts between social classes – the haves and have nots – will intensify within and across national sovereignty borders. I have a bad feeling that democracy and liberalism are eroding and that human rights and obligations are good candidates for a collaborative reengineering project. I know that capitalism is broken, but thank Charles Schwab for voicing it out loud.

Imagine that the world’s governments instead of restructuring their administrations, reducing costs, getting a grip on corruption, concentrating on improving the social cohesion and infrastructure, instead of all of that, put the squeeze on the taxpayers that are already over taxed (aka as ‘the poor’) and leave the few wealthy living in overabundance and tax free. Somehow that is not a recipe for peace. Strangely enough this is the trend as we watch the world deal the so-called financial and euro crisis. I do not like the developments one bit.

The question that remains for me is whether I will remain a complaining observer, and if there will be any action that I will take to interfere with these developments.

How could the world be made more desirable over the next 3-5 years? In other words, which problems would you like your peers to tackle over the next few years, or which parameters to change?

I would like to see my peers tackle financial regulation, social equity, and produce technology that liberates instead of technology that enslaves. A lot of technology today enslaves, it does not liberate. Come to think of it, the same can be said of regulations and laws that are there to guarantee our freedoms but that over time have been highjacked in the service of few and alienate the masses. The results are not pretty. I exaggerate. Still, sometimes it looks like one large group gets the obligations, and a small minority get the rights. That is not the idea. I do not like that bit either.

Which parameters should change is not the question I would ask, it implies a deterministic approach to a deterministic world. I would invite exploration and I would include discipline in the exploration. The exploration will aid in finding the emerging temporary parameters that can be used to shape the world and create the society that we want. Techno-determinism is not the way to go. Determinism is just not the way that the Universe is built, the Universe is evolving and we are interacting with it albeit on a small scale in the grand scale of things, and in a big way in the small scope of our planet.

All our information generating capabilities only reveal the limits of our knowledge and the confines of our cognitive abilities. We are not doomed, but the roller coaster ride of evolution has barely began.

I would like to see some of my own ideas gain traction, but the ink is not even dry on some of those plans. Still, the plans are quite concrete. I am playing and exploring the ideas of monopolies and competition and their relationship to innovation and public goods. For example, the pharmaceutical industry operates with a business model derived from hard core capitalism and that model is fairly kaputt.

Thanks for the questions. These are good questions. The more I try to answer them, the more evident it is to me that I do not have a clue. The times ahead will surprise us. I will continue to search for the perfect hot chocolate mix. Hopes I have for a smart phone that is a wifi fox and has no more than ten apps. For dishes and laundry, I will rely on house help and electric appliances.”

(Via the Third Wave blog.)

folk theories for folks on a ship

Raumschifferde was simply a great expedition. I love Hamburg, but more important the coffee was of superior quality. I unwittingly accepted an invitation from Matthias about speaking, and then found out that I had the keynote. It was however a fortunate set of circumstances. It so happened that the week before I was due to be in Athens where I did not have anything else to do than to work on my book, have a look at the Acropolis,  besides drinking coffee and doing a bit of Aikido with Sensei Jenny Flower. And so it was, plus a few more adventures including the preparation of this talk. By the way, most of the pics on the presentation are from Athens, the big exception being the four of the Basisbibliothek of the University of Bern. Even “le monde” of the 11th of february, used to quote Michel Foucault, was bought in Athens.

I will add a few notes to the presentation as soon as I get a few hours to work on those notes.