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.

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Imitating the Sun on Earth: Fusion Reactors

Last week I visited the Wendelstein 7-X fusion device being built at the Greifswald branch of the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics (IPP) and was given a tour of the site in addition to an excellent presentation by former IPP director Professor Friedrich Wagner. This visit took place in the company of a group of young jurist from Germany, Austria and Switzerland who were meeting in Greifswald to discuss the topic of risk and law, or the law of risk. A report of the substantial discussion of the meeting will follow later and will be available from the NCCR Trade Regulation website. (photos)

The idea behind fusion research is to develop a power plant that releases energy by the same mechanism as the Sun does, that is, by fusing light atomic nuclei. What is special about nuclear fusion as a source of energy is that one gramme of fuel – hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium (produced from lithium) – generates as much energy as eleven tons of coal (90’000 kilowatt-hours of energy). When these two hydrogen isotope nuclei fuse, helium and neutrons are produced releasing large amounts of energy. In addition, the fuel itself is very abundant on earth and for all intent and purpose one may consider this to be a renewable source of energy. The energy is captured as thermal energy and converted to electrical power using turbine technology. Fusion reactors generate radioactive byproducts however these decay to background levels within one hundred years, and thus do not pose the problem of nuclear waste disposal that fission reactors do.

The sun, like other stars is a naturally occurring nuclear fusion reactor and exists not as a solid, but as a plasma. A plasma consists of electrically charged particles. The plasma of interest in the case of nuclear fusion consists of hydrogen isotope atoms that have been ionized, that is, where the electron that usually keep the atom in its neutral non ionized state has been supplied with enough energy to break loose. On earth, we have all seen plasmas in the form of neon signs or fluorescent light bulbs. Other examples include most flames, polar auroras, welding arcs, lightning and comet tails.

The first commercial commodity fusion power plant is still in the future. The two devices now under construction in Europe, ITER in France, and Wendelstein 7-X in Germany, are research devices meant to demonstrate proof of concept. In addition to these European efforts, there is the Large Helical Device (LHD) in Japan which is the largest supercoducting stellarator in the world. All of this confinement, that is the containment of the plasma is needed because like a coal fire, a fusion fire does not happen on its own, it must be ignited. To ignite a plasma and cause fusion to occur a plasma temperature of 100 million degrees is needed. To produce this kind of plasma temperature, one relies on magnetic a

Of the research fusion reactors being built, ITER is a tokamak and Wendelstein and LHD are stellerators. The difference is one of geometry. A tokamak has a magnetic toroidal confinement (like a doughnut) and the other a Möbius confinement for the plasma. In either case, the torus or the Möbius create a tube closing on itself where the plasma is confined. So, what is this plasma and why does it need confinement?

Last year a film made by the IPP on behalf of the European Fusion Development Agreement with funding from the European Union won the MIDAS Award. It is only nine minutes long and gives an entertaining and informative account on how a fusion power plat will work and what environmental properties are to be expected.

KNOWLEDGE ownership

I will follow up with a write up on what all of this means. Meanwhile for those who have requested the slides, here they are:

Thank you all for the feedback after my talk that went beyond and above anything that I could possibly have expected. The LIFT audience is a truly exceptional group of people who have touched me in ways that I could not even have dreamed of.

Update: The videos are up on the Lift conference site, and here it is the one from this presentation…