Archive for the ‘Adventures in Meatspace’ Category

I had a dream

Wednesday, September 14th, 2022

As I slept fitfully, still recovering from COVID, I had one of the more interesting dreams of my life:

I was desperately trying to finish some PowerPoint slides in time to give a talk. Uncharacteristically for me, one of the slides displayed actual code. This was a dream, so nothing was as clear as I’d like, but the code did something vaguely reminiscent of Rosser’s Theorem—e.g., enumerating all proofs in ZFC until it finds the lexicographically first proof or disproof of a certain statement, then branching into cases depending on whether it’s a proof or a disproof. In any case, it was simple enough to fit on one slide.

Suddenly, though, my whole presentation was deleted. Everything was ruined!

One of the developers of PowerPoint happened to be right there in the lecture hall (of course!), so I confronted him with my laptop and angrily demanded an explanation. He said that I must have triggered the section of Microsoft Office that tries to detect and prevent any discussion of logical paradoxes that are too dangerous for humankind—the ones that would cause people to realize that our entire universe is just an illusion, a sandbox being run inside an AI, a glitch-prone Matrix. He said it patronizingly, as if it should’ve been obvious: “you and I both know that the Paradoxes are not to be talked about, so why would you be so stupid as to put one in your presentation?”

My reaction was to jab my finger in the guy’s face, shove him, scream, and curse him out. At that moment, I wasn’t concerned in the slightest about the universe being an illusion, or about glitches in the Matrix. I was concerned about my embarrassment when I’d be called in 10 minutes to give my talk and would have nothing to show.

My last thought, before I woke with a start, was to wonder whether Greg Kuperberg was right and I should give my presentations in Beamer, or some other open-source software, and then I wouldn’t have had this problem.

A coda: I woke a bit after 7AM Central and started to write this down. But then—this is now real life (!)—I saw an email saying that a dozen people were waiting for me in a conference room in Europe for an important Zoom meeting. We’d gotten the time zones wrong; I’d thought that it wasn’t until 8AM my time. If not for this dream causing me to wake up, I would’ve missed the meeting entirely.

What I’ve learned from having COVID

Sunday, September 4th, 2022
  1. The same thing Salman Rushdie learned: either you spend your entire life in hiding, or eventually it’ll come for you. Years might pass. You might emerge from hiding once, ten times, a hundred times, be fine, and conclude (emotionally if not intellectually) that the danger must now be over, that if it were going to come at all then it already would have, that maybe you’re even magically safe. But this is just the nature of a Poisson process: 0, 0, 0, followed by 1.
  2. First comes the foreboding (in my case, on the flight back home from the wonderful CQIQC meeting in Toronto)—“could this be COVID?”—the urge to reassure yourself that it isn’t, the premature relief when the test is negative. Only then, up to a day later, comes the second vertical line on the plastic cartridge.
  3. I’m grateful for the vaccines, which have up to a 1% probability of having saved my life. My body was as ready for this virus as my brain would’ve been for someone pointing a gun at my head and demanding to know a proof of the Karp-Lipton Theorem. All the same, I wish I also could’ve taken a nasal vaccine, to neutralize the intruder at the gate. Through inaction, through delays, through safetyism that’s ironically caused millions of additional deaths, the regulatory bureaucracies of the US and other nations have a staggering amount to answer for.
  4. Likewise, Paxlovid should’ve been distributed like candy, so that everyone would have a supply and could start the instant they tested positive. By the time you’re able to book an online appointment and send a loved one to a pharmacy, a night has likely passed and the Paxlovid is less effective.
  5. By the usual standards of a cold, this is mild. But the headaches, the weakness, the tiredness … holy crap the tiredness. I now know what it’s like to be a male lion or a hundred-year-old man, to sleep for 20 hours per day and have that feel perfectly appropriate and normal. I can only hope I won’t be one of the long-haulers; if I were, this could be the end of my scientific career. Fortunately the probability seems small.
  6. You can quarantine in your bedroom, speak to your family only through the door, have meals passed to you, but your illness will still cast a penumbra on everyone around you. Your spouse will be stuck watching the kids alone. Other parents won’t let their kids play with your kids … and you can’t blame them; you’d do the same in their situation.
  7. It’s hard to generalize from a sample size of 1 (or 2 if you count my son Daniel, who recovered from a thankfully mild case half a year ago). Readers: what are your COVID stories?

Updatez

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2022
  1. On the IBM Qiskit blog, there’s an interview with me about the role of complexity theory in the early history of quantum computing. Not much new for regular readers, but I’m very happy with how it came out—thanks so much to Robert Davis and Olivia Lanes for making it happen! My only quibble is with the sketch of my face, which might create the inaccurate impression that I no longer have teeth.
  2. Boaz Barak pointed me to a Twitter thread of DALL-E paintings of people using quantum computers, in the styles of many of history’s famous artists. While the motifs are unsurprising (QCs look like regular computers but glowing, or maybe like giant glowing atoms), highly recommended as another demonstration of the sort of thing DALL-E does best.
  3. Dan Spielman asked me to announce that the National Academy of Sciences is seeking nominations for the Held Prize in combinatorial and discrete optimization. The deadline is October 3.
  4. I’m at the NSF Workshop on Quantum Advantage and Next Steps at the University of Chicago. My talk yesterday was entitled “Verifiable Quantum Advantage: What I Hope Will Be Done” (yeah yeah, I decided to call it “advantage” rather than “supremacy” in deference to the name of the workshop). My PowerPoint slides are here. Meanwhile, this morning was the BosonSampling session. The talk by Chaoyang Lu, leader of USTC’s experimental BosonSampling effort, was punctuated by numerous silly memes and videos, as well as the following striking sentence: “only by putting the seven dragon balls together can you unlock the true quantum computational power.”
  5. Gavin Leech lists and excerpts his favorite writings of mine over the past 25 years, while complaining that I spend “a lot of time rebutting fleeting manias” and “obsess[ing] over political flotsam.”

Q2B 2021

Monday, November 1st, 2021

This is a quick post to let people know that the 2021 Q2B (Quantum 2 Business) conference will be this December 7-9 at the Santa Clara Convention Center. (Full disclosure: Q2B is hosted by QC Ware, Inc., to which I’m the scientific adviser.) Barring a dramatic rise in cases or the like, I’m planning to attend to do my Ask-Me-Anything session, in what’s become an annual tradition. Notably, this will be my first in-person conference, and in fact my first professional travel of any kind, since before covid shut down the US in late March 2020. I hope to see many of you there! And if you won’t be at Q2B, but you’ll be in the Bay Area and would like to meet otherwise, let me know and we’ll try to work something out.

On turning 40 today

Friday, May 21st, 2021

Holy crap.

In case you’re wondering how I spent such a milestone of a day: well, I spent hours of it at an important virtual grant review meeting with the Department of Defense. Alas, when it came time for my own big presentation at that meeting—about what my students and I had done over the past five years to lay the theoretical foundations for the recent achievement of quantum computational supremacy—I’d uploaded the completely wrong PowerPoint file (it was something.pptx rather than something.ppt, where they weren’t two versions of the same presentation). Sorting this out took about 10 minutes, destroyed my momentum, and wasted everyone’s time. I partly blame the Microsoft Teams platform, whose limitations as conferencing software compared to Zoom necessitated emailing my presentation in the first place. But of course, part of the blame rests with me.

I had to explain apologetically to the US Department of Defense that I’m no good with tech stuff—being a mere computer science PhD. And unlike many of my colleagues (who I envy), back in my youth—for at age 40 I’m no longer young—I never had enough time to become both the kind of person who might earn a big grant to do quantum computing theory, and the kind of person who’d be minimally competent at the logistics of a review meeting for such a grant.


Forty years. Seven-eighths of those years, aware of the finiteness of the speed of light and of its value. Four-fifths of them, aware of the grislier details of the Holocaust. Three-quarters of them, aware of what it means to write code. Two-thirds of them, aware of polynomial versus exponential time. More than half of them trying to understand the capabilities and limitations of quantum computers as my day job. And then, rounding the corner, more than a third of the years writing this blog, a third of them being a professor, a quarter of them married, a fifth of them raising kids, a thirtieth of them in the midst of a global pandemic.

I didn’t even come close to achieving everything I hoped I would in my thirties. At least a half-dozen major papers, ones I expected would’ve been finished years ago (on the mixing of coffee and cream, on complexity and firewalls and AdS/CFT, on certified random numbers from sampling-based quantum supremacy experiments, on the implications of the Raz-Tal oracle separation, …), still need to be revised or even written. Other projects (e.g., the graphic novel about teaching math to Lily) were excitedly announced and then barely even started. I never wrote most of my promised blog post about the continuum hypothesis, or the one about Stephen Wolfram’s recrudescent claims of a unified theory of physics. And covid, which determined the world’s working conditions while we were running out the clock, turned out not to be a hyper-productive time for me. That’s how you know I’m not Newton (well, it’s the not the only way you know).

Anyway, during the runup to it, one’s 40th birthday feels like a temporal singularity, where you have to compress more and more of what you’d hoped to achieve before age 40 as you get closer and closer to it, because what the hell is there on the other side? They‘re over-40 and hence “old”; you’re under-40 and hence still “young.”

OK, but here I am on the other side right now, the “old” side, and I’m still here, still thinking and writing and feeling fairly continuous with my pre-singularity embodiment! And so far, in 16 hours on this side, the most senile thing I’ve done has been to email the wrong file attachment and thereby ruin an important funding presenta… you know what, let’s not even go there.

If you feel compelled to give me a 40th birthday present, then just make it a comment on this post, as short or long as you like, about what anything I said or did meant for you. I’m a total softie for that stuff.

Brief thoughts on the Texas catastrophe

Thursday, February 18th, 2021

This past week, I spent so much mental energy worrying about the fate of Scott Alexander that I almost forgot that right here in Texas, I’m surrounded by historic scenes of Third-World-style devastation: snowstorms and sub-freezing temperatures for which our infrastructure was completely unprepared; impassable roads; burst gas and water pipes; millions without electricity or heat or clean water; the UT campus a short walk from me converted into a giant refugee camp.

For all those who asked: my family and I are fine. While many we know were without power for days (or are still without power), we lucked out by living close to a hospital, which means that they can’t shut off the electricity to our block. We are now on a boil-water notice, like all of Austin, and we can’t take deliveries or easily go anywhere, and the university and schools and daycares are all closed (even for remote learning). Which means: we’re simply holed up in our house, eating through our stockpiled food, the kids running around being crazy, Dana and I watching them with one eye and our laptops with the other. Could be worse.

In some sense, it’s not surprising that the Texas infrastructure would buckle under weather stresses outside the envelope of anything it was designed for or saw for decades. The central problem is that our elected leaders have shown zero indication of understanding the urgent need, for Texas’ economic viability, to do whatever it takes to make sure nothing like this ever happens again. Ted Cruz, as everyone now knows, left for Cancun; the mayor of Colorado City angrily told everyone to fend for themselves (and then resigned); and Governor Abbott has been blaming frozen wind turbines, a tiny percentage of the problem (frozen gas pipes are a much bigger issue) but one that plays with the base. The bare minimum of a sane response might be, I dunno,

  • acknowledging the reality that climate change means that “once-per-century” weather events will be every couple years from now on,
  • building spare capacity (nuclear would be ideal … well, I can dream),
  • winterizing what we have now, and
  • connecting the Texas grid to the rest of the US.

If I were a Texas Democrat, I’d consider making Republican incompetence on infrastructure, utilities, and public health my only campaign issues.

Alright, now back to watching the Mars lander, which is apparently easier to build and deploy than a reliable electric grid.

Jonathan Dowling (1955-2020)

Saturday, June 6th, 2020

Today I woke up to the sad and shocking news that Jon Dowling (homepage / Twitter / Wikipedia)—physics professor at Louisiana State, guy who got the US government to invest in quantum computing back in the 90s, author of the popular book Schrödinger’s Killer App: Race to Build the World’s First Quantum Computer, investigator of BosonSampling among many other topics, owner of a “QUBIT” license plate, and one of my main competitors in the field of quantum computing humor—has passed away at age 65, apparently due to an aortic aneurysm.

Three months ago, right before covid shut down the world, the last travel I did was a seven-hour road trip from Austin to Baton Rouge, together with my postdoc Andrea Rocchetto, to deliver something called the Hearne Lecture at the Louisiana State physics department. My topic (unsurprisingly) was Google’s quantum supremacy experiment.

I’d debated whether to cancel the trip, as flying already seemed too dangerous. Dowling was the one who said “why not just drive here with one of your postdocs?”—which turned into a memorable experience for me and Andrea, complete with a personal tour of LIGO and a visit to an alligator hatchery. I had no inkling that it was the last time I’d ever see Jon Dowling, but am now super-glad that we made the visit.

At the dinner after my talk, Dowling was exactly the same as every other time I’d seen him: loud, piss-drunk, obnoxious, and hilarious. He dominated the conversation with stories and jokes, referring in every other sentence either to his Irishness or my Jewishness. His efforts to banter with the waitress, to elicit her deepest opinions about each appetizer and bottle of wine, were so over-the-top that I, sitting next to him, blushed, as if to say, “hey, I’m just the visitor here! I don’t necessarily endorse this routine!”

But Dowling got away with it because, no matter how many taboos he violated per sentence, there was never any hint of malice in it. He was an equal-opportunity offender, with his favorite target being himself. He loved to talk, for example, about my pathological obsession with airy-fairy abstractions, like some kind of “polynomial hierarchy” that hopefully wouldn’t “collapse”—with the punchline being that he, the hardheaded laser physicist, then needed to learn what that meant for his own research.

The quantum computing community of the southern US, not to mention of Twitter and Facebook, and indeed of the entire world, will be poorer without this inimitable, louder-than-life presence.

Feel free to share your own Dowling stories in the comments.

National disgrace

Tuesday, March 10th, 2020

In this blog’s now 15-year-history, at Waterloo and then MIT and now UT Austin, I’ve tried to make it clear that I blog always as Scott, never as Dr. Aaronson of Such-and-Such Institution. (God knows I’ve written a few things that a prudent dean might prefer that I hadn’t—though if I couldn’t honestly say that, in what sense would I even enjoy “academic freedom”?) Today, though, for only about the second time, I’m also writing as a professor motivated by a duty of care toward his students.

A week ago, most of my grad students were in the Bay Area for a workshop; they then returned and spent a week hanging around the CS building like normal. Yesterday I learned that at least one of those students developed symptoms consistent with covid19. Of course, it’s much more likely to be a boring cold or flu—but still, in any sane regime, just to be certain, such a person would promptly get tested.

After quarantining himself, my student called the “24/7 covid19 hotline” listed in an email from the university’s president, but found no one answering the phone over the weekend. Yesterday he finally got through—only to be told, flatly, that he couldn’t be tested due to insufficient capacity. When I heard this, I asked my department chair and dean to look into the matter, and received confirmation that yeah, it sucks, but this is the situation.

If it’s true that, as I’ve read, the same story is currently playing itself out all over the country, then this presumably isn’t the fault of anyone in UT’s health service or the city of Austin. Rather, as they say in the movies, it goes all the way to the top, to the CDC director and ultimately the president—or rather, to the festering wound that now sits where the top used to be.

Speaking of movies, over the weekend Dana and I watched Contagion, as apparently many people are now doing.  I confess that I’d missed it when it came out in 2011.  I think it’s a cinematic masterpiece.  It freely violates many of the rules of movie narrative: characters are neither done in by their own hubris, nor saved by their faith or by being A-list stars.  But Contagion is also more than a glorified public service announcement about the importance of washing your hands.  It wants to show you the reality of the human world of its characters, and also the reality of a virus, and how the two realities affect each other despite obeying utterly different logic.  It will show a scene that’s important to the charaters for human reasons, and then it will show you the same scene again, except this time making you focus on whose hand touched which surface in which order.

But for all its excellence and now-obvious prescience, there are two respects in which Contagion failed to predict the reality of 2020.  The first is just a lucky throw of the RNA dice: namely, that the real coronavirus is perhaps an order of magnitude less fatal than the movie virus, and for some unknown reason it spares children.  But the second difference is terrifying.  All the public health authorities in the movie are ultra-empowered and competent.  They do badass things like injecting themselves with experimental vaccines.  If they stumble, it’s only in deeply understandable ways that any of us might (e.g., warning their own loved ones to evacuate a city before warning the public).

In other words, when the scriptwriters, writing their disaster movie, tried to imagine the worst, they failed to imagine a US government that would essentially abandon the public, by

(1) botching a simple test that dozens of other countries performed without issue,
(2) preventing anyone else from performing their own tests, and then
(3) turning around and using the lack of positive test results to justify its own inaction.

They failed to imagine a CDC that might as well not exist for all it would do in its hour of need: one that didn’t even bother to update its website on weekends, and stopped publishing data once the data became too embarrassing.  The scriptwriters did imagine a troll gleefully spreading lies about the virus online, endangering anyone who listened to him.  They failed to imagine a universe where that troll was the president.

“I mean, don’t get me wrong,” they told me. “Trump is a racist con artist, a demagogue, the precise thing that Adams and Hamilton and Franklin tried to engineer our republic to avoid. Just, don’t get so depressed about it all the time! Moaning about how we’re trapped in a freakishly horrible branch of the wavefunction, blah blah. I mean look on the bright side! What an incredible run of luck we’ve had, that we elected a president with the mental horizons of a sadistic toddler, and yet in three years he hasn’t caused even one apocalypse. You’re alive and healthy, your loved ones are alive and healthy. It could be a lot worse!”

The above, I suspect, is a sentiment that will now forever date any writing containing it to January 2020 or earlier.

My video interview with Lex Fridman at MIT about philosophy and quantum computing

Monday, February 17th, 2020

Here it is (about 90 minutes; I recommend the 1.5x speed)

I had buried this as an addendum to my previous post on the quantum supremacy lecture tour, but then decided that a steely-eyed assessment of what’s likely to have more or less interest for this blog’s readers probably militated in favor of a separate post.

Thanks so much to Lex for arranging the interview and for his questions!

My “Quantum Supremacy: Skeptics Were Wrong” 2020 World Speaking Tour

Monday, February 17th, 2020

(At a few people’s request, I’ve changed the title so that it no longer refers to a specific person. I try always to be accurate, amusing, and appropriate, but sometimes I only hit 1 or 2 of the 3.)

As part of my speaking tour, in the last month I’ve already given talks at the following fine places:

World Economic Forum at Davos
University of Waterloo
Perimeter Institute
UC Berkeley
Harvard
MIT
Princeton
University of Houston

And I’ll be giving talks at the following places over the next couple of months:

Louisiana State University
Pittsburgh Quantum Institute
Fermilab
Yale

For anyone who’s interested, I’ll add links and dates to this post later (if you want that to happen any faster, feel free to hunt them down for me!).

In the meantime, there are also interviews! See, for example, this 5-minute one on Texas Standard (an NPR affiliate), where I’m asked about the current state of quantum computing in the US, in light of the Trump administration’s recent proposal to give a big boost to quantum computing and AI research, even while slashing and burning basic science more broadly. I made some critical comments—for example, about the need to support the whole basic research ecosystem (I pointed out that “quantum computing can’t thrive in isolation”), and also about the urgent need to make it feasible for the best researchers from around the world to get US visas and green cards. Unfortunately, those parts seem to have been edited out, in favor of my explanations of basic points about quantum computing.

More Updates:

There was a discussion on Twitter of the ethics of the “Quantum Bullshit Detector” Twitter feed—which dishes out vigilante justice, like some dark and troubled comic-book hero, by rendering anonymous, unexplained, unaccountable, very often correct albeit not infallible verdicts of “Bullshit” or “Not Bullshit” on claimed quantum information advances. As part of that discussion, Christopher Savoie wrote:

[Criticizing] is what we do in science. [But not calling] “bullshit” anonymously and without any accountability. Look at Scott Aaronson’s blog. He takes strong positions. But as Scott. I respect that.

What do people think: should “He takes strong positions. But as Scott.” be added onto the Shtetl-Optimized header bar?

In other news, I was amused by the following headline, for a Vice story about the MIP*=RE breakthrough: Mathematicians Are Studying Planet-Sized Supercomputers With God-Like Powers. (If I’m going to quibble about accuracy: only planet-sized???)