The memelords and bullshit-sniffers fighting hype in quantum computing

Under the spectre of a ‘quantum winter’ researchers respond with pithy putdowns and the spiciest of memes

The quantum computing community has done an excellent job of pitching the potential of its work.

The world’s superpowers have already placed their bets. The European Commission last year launched a €1 billion fund for a number of quantum technology projects; the US National Quantum Initiative Act, a $1.2 billion investment plan to advance quantum computing, passed Congress in 2018; the Chinese government too has named quantum communications and computing among the ‘megaprojects’ it is backing.

Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, the UK, Canada and Singapore have made funding announcements totalling more than a billion euros.

Investors have been convinced to take a punt on the potential too. The number of deals with the small band of start-ups in the quantum technology space has tripled since 2013, with total funding reaching more than US$200M in 2017, according to CB Insights.

Big business has been keen to get in on the game as well. Booz Allen Hamilton, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Volkswagen, Ford, JPMorgan Chase, Samsung, Barclays, Hitachi Metals, and locally the Commonwealth Bank of Australia and Telstra have all announced quantum computing plays or partnerships with the main players building their own machines like Google, IBM, Intel, and Microsoft.

Analysts and media, meanwhile, have been dialling up the excitement. The count of articles covering the field is increasing every month. Headlines have claimed quantum computers will “change the world”; “disrupt every industry”; “change cybersecurity forever”; bring about a “AI revolution” and do it all “sooner than you expect”.

You’d be forgiven for thinking a working; fault-tolerant quantum computer ready to tackle algorithms and solve problems a supercomputer couldn’t cope with is just around the corner. But it’s not. It’s not even close.

Haunted by fears that disappointment with progress will lead to cynicism and funding cuts – a so called ‘winter’ as happened to artificial intelligence in the ’80s and more recently in nanotechnology – a small band of researchers is now working to reset expectations.

Not with sober posts in scientific publications though; but with the spiciest of memes and bullshit detection ‘as a service’.

Vigilante lulz 

Quantum Computing Memes for QMA-Complete Teens (@QuantumMemeing) was originally started “for teh lulz” by a group of PhD students at a major London university who were bored one afternoon late last year.

“We had no idea that it’d become so popular, especially not among so many senior figures in the field…Our next goal is to convince Peter Shor to follow us,” the students, who wished to remain anonymous so their criticisms don’t affect their job opportunities, told Computerworld.

While many of the memes relate to PhD problems and showing love for papers (particularly those authored by John Preskill and Ewin Tang) the account does not hold back in putting down quantum computing’s major players. The head of Google’s quantum hardware effort John Martinis; Caltech physics professor Alexei Kitaev; quantum technology efforts at Rigetti, IBM, D-Wave, Zapata and Google; as well as the community as a whole have all been playfully poked fun at through the medium of meme.

“We’ve found more support than kickback – it seems lots of people are more skeptical than we originally thought, or at least in the Twitter community. Everyone has slightly different estimates on the quantum computing timeline, but in general people seem to agree that too much hype can only harm the field,” the quantum memelords said.

“We’re concerned that some start-ups are going in too deep too quickly. Our personal opinion is that it’ll be 15 to 20 years before we get something resembling a fault tolerant quantum computer, and maybe even 10ish years before even some of the near-term applications become valuable,” they added.

Those start-ups, the students said, have taken a small fortune of venture capitalist cash, and some are “just putting a wrapper on algorithms” which won’t be useful for years.

“In the 15 or so years before they can actually sell a useful product, what are they going to do? If some of these start-ups that have taken on lots of cash fail, there’s a chance they could poison the well for everyone else,” the memers warned.

The @BullshitQuantum account came online in March, and supplies ‘Quantum Bullshit Detection as a Service’ to more than a thousand followers, among them some big names in the field.

It follows a simple methodology:

It is not known who runs the Quantum Bullshit Detector. The account did not respond to multiple requests for an interview. Having called bullshit on the likes of Robert Sutor, the IBM executive leading the company’s quantum strategy (who responded by blocking the account); MIT; and start-up Quantum Benchmark this is, perhaps, understandable.

As Scott Aaronson, University of Texas computer science professor and author of quantum hype-busting blog Shtetl-Optimized, said of the account: “vigilante justice is a high-risk affair”

Most of the Bullshit Detector’s efforts are applied to media coverage, and it has called ‘bullshit’ on countless articles in New Scientist, Quanta, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and elsewhere.

Hype no accident 

“The important thing for them is getting the funding, quantum physics is so incredibly expensive,” says Tara Roberson of the quantum lab leaders making grand promises about the field’s near-term potential. 

Roberson has interviewed quantum scientists and attended conferences as part of her research into hype in quantum computing with ANU’s Centre for the Public Awareness of Science.

“They’re going out and they’re trying to get the money so that everyone else has jobs and gets to do the research. It’s not like they hype things accidentally. But the postdocs back in the labs go ‘well this is rubbish because that’s not actually what we’re going to do’, or ‘it’ll be 30 years before you’ll see those benefits’,” she said.

While the Twitter accounts are “an anomaly”, Roberson said, “I've noticed that quantum researchers are starting to counter more extreme visions of the future by reframing the conversation in terms of more gradual, mundane development”.

Those extreme visions are often made by colleagues working “in the same building” Roberson adds. Adding to the hype are the media releases issued by research institutions – often their number and reach is a funding-linked KPI – laced with bold claims of being first and fastest. Given the complexity of the topic, journalists struggle to judge for themselves how significant an announcement is (let alone pithily and accurately describe what a quantum computer even is), and rival researchers are reticent to bag on their peers.

“We’re acutely aware that quantum computing is an area that is acutely vulnerable to hype – the intersection of people who are able to understand physics and computer science to a high enough level to properly understand quantum computing is pretty small,” said the QuantumMemeing team.

“As a result, the number of people who can call ‘bullshit’ on a claim is limited. Thankfully there’s a Twitter account for that now,” they added.

The risk of a ‘quantum winter’ is very real. If investors and businesses leave because they’re expecting solid results in the next few years “it’s going to be a bloodbath” quantum start-up Q-CTRL founder Michael Biercuk, has said

Aaronson, who has long been working to correct misconceptions about quantum computers said in June that “the history of AI reminds us that a crash could easily follow the current boom-time, if the results of quantum computing research don’t live up to people’s expectations”.

Some believe a winter is inevitable. Google’s quantum software team lead Dave Bacon told a quantum conference in Sydney last year that: “We don’t know what the future’s going to hold as this first big hype cycle eventually turns into winter.”

Hype is hugely helpful when seeking funding, but is a “double edged sword” that can underwhelm and create cynicism, adds Roberson. But explaining and defeating the hype, is probably best left to the memelords:

@georgepnott

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