Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Quantum computing + hype

 Last Friday, Victor Galitski published a thought-provoking editorial on linkedin, entitled "Quantum Computing Hype is Bad for Science".  I encourage people to read it.

As a person who has spent years working in the nano world (including on topics like "molecular electronics"), I'm intimately familiar with the problem of hype.  Not every advance is a "breakthrough" or "revolutionary" or "transformative" or "disruptive", and that is fine - scientists and engineers do themselves a disservice when overpromising or unjustifiably inflating claims of significance.  Incentives often point in an unfortunate direction in the world of glossy scientific publications, and the situation is even murkier when money is involved (whether to some higher order, as in trying to excite funding agencies, or to zeroth order, as in raising money for startup companies).   Nano-related research advances overwhelmingly do not lead toward single-crystal diamond nanofab or nanobots swimming through our capillaries.  Not every genomics advance will lead to a global cure for cancer or Alzheimers.  And not every quantum widget will usher in some quantum information age that will transform the world.  It's not healthy for anyone in the long term for unsupported, inflated claims to be the norm in any of these disciplines.

I am more of an optimist than Galitski.  

I agree that we are a good number of years away from practical general-purpose quantum computers that can handle problems large enough to be really interesting (e.g. breaking 4096-bit RSA encryption).  However, I think there is a ton of fascinating and productive research to be done along the way, including in areas farther removed from quantum computing, like quantum-enhanced sensing.  Major federal investments in the relevant science and engineering research will lead to real benefits in the long run, in terms of whatever technically demanding physics/electronics/optics/materials work force needs we will have.  There is very cool science to be done.  If handled correctly, increased investment will not come at the expense of non-quantum-computing science.  It is also likely not a zero-sum game in terms of human capital - there really might be more people, total, drawn into these fields if prospects for employment look more exciting and broader than they have in the past.  

Where I think Galitski is right on is the concern about what he calls "quantum Ponzi schemes".  Some people poured billions of dollars into anything with the word "blockchain" attached to it, even without knowing what blockchain means, or how it might be implemented by some particular product.  There is a real danger that investors will be unable to tell reality from science fiction and/or outright lying when it comes to quantum technologies.  Good grief, look how much money went into Theranos when lots of knowledgable people knew that single-drop-of-blood assays have all kinds of challenges and that the company's claims seemed unrealistic. 

I also think that it is totally reasonable to be concerned about the sustainability of this - anytime there is super-rapid growth in funding for an area, it's important to think about what comes later.  The space race is a good example.  There were very cool knock-on benefits overall from the post-Sputnik space race, but there was also a decades-long hangover in the actual aerospace industry when the spending fell back to earth.  

Like I said, I'm baseline pretty optimistic about all this, but it's important to listen to cautionary voices - it's the way to stay grounded and think more broadly about context.  


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is true for many nanotech startups.