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Our world in a Quantum State

Quantum computers differ fundamentally from previous computers. Not only are they much faster, but they can perform millions of calculations simultaneously.

Author – Miriam Meckel, Professor for communication management at the University of St. Gallen and Founding Publisher of the digital learning platform “ada”.

Copyright by www.handelsblatt.com

SwissCognitiveThe pandemic is shaping our presence. What could this crisis be good for? What if we didn’t see this pause first and foremost as a tragic loss of productivity, but as an opportunity to reflect and take stock of where we are and who we have become?

There is no simple answer to this complex crisis, as numerous models that try to calculate the spread of the virus illustrate. The smallest fluctuations in individual factors can have a major impact on the consequences. It is a prime example of a chaotic system. To put it differently: The world is in a quantum state. It has long stopped operating in a binary realm.

Historically, there are many examples of thinking and acting in binary oppositions. Already in the gospel of Matthew it is written: “He who is not for me is against me.” Europe has lived for decades in the division caused by the Cold War, between the alternatives of East and West.

Since the 1950s, the victory march of the digital computer has consistently complemented this understanding of the world: every word, every picture and every sound can be transformed into an either-or, a series of zeros and ones. The world is binary. However, technology is not only a medium, but also a metaphor for the change in living conditions. When Google announced last fall that it had achieved “quantum supremacy”, it was a harbinger of an impending paradigm shift, a fundamental change in our living conditions. Behind this martial term lies enormous computing power: Google’s quantum computer “Sycamore” needed 200 seconds to complete a task for which the world’s best supercomputer, built by IBM, would need 10,000 years. That is an impractical amount of time for any human being who wants to enjoy the result.

Quantum computers differ fundamentally from previous computers. Not only are they much faster, but they can perform millions of calculations simultaneously. They do not use the bit as an information unit in the distinction between 0 and 1, but instead calculate in quantum bits. These Qubits can assume all states between 0 and 1. Future computers will thus free themselves from the shackles of the binary code and open themselves up to all conceivable overlapping states, called superposition. As former CEO of IBM Ginni Rometty quipped: “Quantum is the physical version of Shades of Grey. And there are more than 50.”

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In a thought experiment in 1935, the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger tried to apply the rules of quantum physics to the material world using the example of a cat. If he succeeded, it should be possible to put the cat into a state in which it would be both dead and alive at the same time. That sounds absurd. And yet there is a realization in this paradox of Qubits that drives our view of the world beyond computer technology.

“Previous computers work the way we flip a coin,” US journalist and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman explained. “It’s always heads or tails. In a quantum computer, the coin spins endlessly on the table, both sides are always present.” For Sundar Pichai, CEO of Alphabet and Google, nature in many ways also works like a quantum computer. Not with the binary distinction between 0 and 1, but with many intermediate states. “Quantum will allow us to understand and simulate the world around us in greater depth,” says Pichai. This will allow us to reconcile technological progress with biological and social evolution.

In 2018, two psychologists from Yale University studied a wide variety of characteristics, from beak shapes in animals to the human tendency to take risks. They found that all of these characteristics do not occur in the binary form of normal or abnormal, but as multiple variations on a continuum of possibilities. “We argue that there is no established normality,” says Avram Holmes, lead researcher of the study. “There is also no universal optimal profile of how a brain works.”

The future of the computer becomes a metaphor for how our world is changing and how we are changing our thinking. There are innumerable intermediate states that overlap and interlock. This strange time could now be used to initiate real economic and social change: traditional institutions, politics, economic order, even the media, can learn to deal with the shades of grey of the present day. We need more nuance and less absolutism in what we say and do. We could overcome gluttony and consciously opt for healthy working hours, sustainable travel and mindful social interaction. This could be the urgently needed recalibration of a social market economy that is finally worthy of its name again.

Miriam Meckel is Professor for communication management at the University of St. Gallen and Founding Publisher of the digital learning platform “ada”.


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