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.

Abundance in time

On a personal note, life is as boring as ever. You all know that I can not lie. Some have seen me lose it on stage, however a few directors here and there have admired my acting capabilities and the amount of control that I bring to my mimic. That said, let me get back to Theoretical Man. What is reality?

For the past year I have been busy learning and writing. I have gone back to one interest that like a stone on my path, I picked up many years ago and have kept in my pocket: the interface and interaction between science and law. First I put in my toe, that was about a year ago, then I wrote a couple of papers on my own, co-authored others, and been looking at this whole affair between technology and humans from the normative side. Those curious about what I write will be disappointed to find out that from the papers of the past year only one is publicly available.

Abundance and redundancy is a chapter that I am working on now. I have been looking and taking a bird’s eye view of the thinking that some economist bring to the table, and sometimes I want to throw up when I hear or read some of the nonsense. As a side remark, besides lawyers, some of my best friends are economists, so this is not a personal thing. I tend to always return to familiar ground, that is, quantum mechanics. What I am discovering is that when I first began to study quantum theory I was indoctrinated by a direct student of Niels Bohr and that has coloured my view of the field, or say, given my thinking a certain danish accent. That is, the approach was to calculate and shut up. I gave the philosophy behind the whole of the theory absolutely no thought, I did number crunching, and the answer was the answer. If theory predicted something that could be measured, we were all happy, if it did not, go back and play with the language of mathematics, and fix the freaking theory, and then recrunch the numbers, make it work. You had no idea that quantum mechanics was so brainless, did you? I still think that it is the most fun approach to trying to understand our universe, play with the theory, validate the prediction, reiterate. I am looking at quantum mechanics this time around, and I am feeling like Alice going down the rabbit hole. It is a fantastic world out there, it is all in my mind.

For those briefly familiar with physics, you must remember that Einstein and Bohr were good friends and they argued passionately, above all they disagreed about the nature of physics, and reality itself. This is the short version of what is a rather involved analysis in the philosophy of science. I am much more at home with Bohr’s view that physics is what can be said, and that what is, will for ever elude me. I am quite open to the possibility that indeed we do live in a world that is non-deterministic, at least contains some elements that are non-deterministic. But you know, these are heavy words that are more than pregnant with meaning. Now, given that with the experimental demonstration of entanglement, Einstein’s idea of objective local theories could be thrown out the door as not valid, Bohr’s views have been validated and continue to gain more and more currency.

I will publish a more developed argument that bridges this kind of thinking to legal theory on the website of the World Trade Institute and in the MILE alumni network that are due to be rolled out soon, and possibly cross-post it here.

Power and Control

For a while just think Ungdomshuset and then think again…

When you get rid of the unnecessary issues, this is one version of what you get:

Save the Internet | Rock the Vote

via Lawrence Lessig.