Quantum Dominance, Hegemony, and Superiority

Yay! I’m now a Fellow of the ACM. Along with my fellow new inductee Peter Shor, who I hear is a real up-and-comer in the quantum computing field. I will seek to use this awesome responsibility to steer the ACM along the path of good rather than evil.

Also, last week, I attended the Q2B conference in San Jose, where a central theme was the outlook for practical quantum computing in the wake of the first clear demonstration of quantum computational supremacy. Thanks to the folks at QC Ware for organizing a fun conference (full disclosure: I’m QC Ware’s Chief Scientific Advisor). I’ll have more to say about the actual scientific things discussed at Q2B in future posts.

None of that is why you’re here, though. You’re here because of the battle over “quantum supremacy.”

A week ago, my good friend and collaborator Zach Weinersmith, of SMBC Comics, put out a cartoon with a dark-curly-haired scientist named “Dr. Aaronson,” who’s revealed on a hot mic to be an evil “quantum supremacist.” Apparently a rush job, this cartoon is far from Zach’s finest work. For one thing, if the character is supposed to be me, why not draw him as me, and if he isn’t, why call him “Dr. Aaronson”? In any case, I learned from talking to Zach that the cartoon’s timing was purely coincidental: Zach didn’t even realize what a hornet’s-nest he was poking with this.

Ever since John Preskill coined it in 2012, “quantum supremacy” has been an awkward term. Much as I admire John Preskill’s wisdom, brilliance, generosity, and good sense, in physics as in everything else—yeah, “quantum supremacy” is not a term I would’ve coined, and it’s certainly not a hill I’d choose to die on. Once it had gained common currency, though, I sort of took a liking to it, mostly because I realized that I could mine it for dark one-liners in my talks.

The thinking was: even as white supremacy was making its horrific resurgence in the US and around the world, here we were, physicists and computer scientists and mathematicians of varied skin tones and accents and genders, coming together to pursue a different and better kind of supremacy—a small reflection of the better world that we still believed was possible. You might say that we were reclaiming the word “supremacy”—which, after all, just means a state of being supreme—for something non-sexist and non-racist and inclusive and good.

In the world of 2019, alas, perhaps it was inevitable that people wouldn’t leave things there.

My first intimation came a month ago, when Leonie Mueck—someone who I’d gotten to know and like when she was an editor at Nature handling quantum information papers—emailed me about her view that our community should abandon the term “quantum supremacy,” because of its potential to make women and minorities uncomfortable in our field. She advocated using “quantum advantage” instead.

So I sent Leonie back a friendly reply, explaining that, as the father of a math-loving 6-year-old girl, I understood and shared her concerns—but also, that I didn’t know an alternative term that really worked.

See, it’s like this. Preskill meant “quantum supremacy” to refer to a momentous event that seemed likely to arrive in a matter of years: namely, the moment when programmable quantum computers would first outpace the ability of the fastest classical supercomputers on earth, running the fastest algorithms known by humans, to simulate what the quantum computers were doing (at least on special, contrived problems). And … “the historic milestone of quantum advantage”? It just doesn’t sound right. Plus, as many others pointed out, the term “quantum advantage” is already used to refer to … well, quantum advantages, which might fall well short of supremacy.

But one could go further. Suppose we did switch to “quantum advantage.” Couldn’t that term, too, remind vulnerable people about the unfair advantages that some groups have over others? Indeed, while “advantage” is certainly subtler than “supremacy,” couldn’t that make it all the more insidious, and therefore dangerous?

Oblivious though I sometimes am, I realized Leonie would be unhappy if I offered that, because of my wholehearted agreement, I would henceforth never again call it “quantum supremacy,” but only “quantum superiority,” “quantum dominance,” or “quantum hegemony.”

But maybe you now see the problem. What word does the English language provide to describe one thing decisively beating or being better than a different thing for some purpose, and which doesn’t have unsavory connotations?

I’ve heard “quantum ascendancy,” but that makes it sound like we’re a UFO cult—waiting to ascend, like ytterbium ions caught in a laser beam, to a vast quantum computer in the sky.

I’ve heard “quantum inimitability” (that is, inability to imitate using a classical computer), but who can pronounce that?

Yesterday, my brilliant former student Ewin Tang (yes, that one) relayed to me a suggestion by Kevin Tian: “quantum eclipse” (that is, the moment when quantum computers first eclipse classical ones for some task). But would one want to speak of a “quantum eclipse experiment”? And shouldn’t we expect that, the cuter and cleverer the term, the harder it will be to use unironically?

In summary, while someone might think of a term so inspired that it immediately supplants “quantum supremacy” (and while I welcome suggestions), I currently regard it as an open problem.

Anyway, evidently dissatisfied with my response, last week Leonie teamed up with 13 others to publish a letter in Nature, which was originally entitled “Supremacy is for racists—use ‘quantum advantage,'” but whose title I see has now been changed to the less inflammatory “Instead of ‘supremacy’ use ‘quantum advantage.'” Leonie’s co-signatories included four of my good friends and colleagues: Alan Aspuru-Guzik, Helmut Katzgraber, Anne Broadbent, and Chris Granade (the last of whom got started in the field by helping me edit Quantum Computing Since Democritus).

(Update: Leonie pointed me to a longer list of signatories here, at their website called “quantumresponsibility.org.” A few names that might be known to Shtetl-Optimized readers are Andrew White, David Yonge-Mallo, Debbie Leung, Matt Leifer, Matthias Troyer.)

Their letter says:

The community claims that quantum supremacy is a technical term with a specified meaning. However, any technical justification for this descriptor could get swamped as it enters the public arena after the intense media coverage of the past few months.

In our view, ‘supremacy’ has overtones of violence, neocolonialism and racism through its association with ‘white supremacy’. Inherently violent language has crept into other branches of science as well — in human and robotic spaceflight, for example, terms such as ‘conquest’, ‘colonization’ and ‘settlement’ evoke the terra nullius arguments of settler colonialism and must be contextualized against ongoing issues of neocolonialism.

Instead, quantum computing should be an open arena and an inspiration for a new generation of scientists.

When I did an “Ask Me Anything” session, as the closing event at Q2B, Sarah Kaiser asked me to comment on the Nature petition. So I repeated what I’d said in my emailed response to Leonie—running through the problems with each proposed alternative term, talking about the value of reclaiming the word “supremacy,” and mostly just trying to diffuse the tension by getting everyone laughing together. Sarah later tweeted that she was “really disappointed” in my response.

Then the Wall Street Journal got in on the action, with a brief editorial (warning: paywalled) mocking the Nature petition:

There it is, folks: Mankind has hit quantum wokeness. Our species, akin to Schrödinger’s cat, is simultaneously brilliant and brain-dead. We built a quantum computer and then argued about whether the write-up was linguistically racist.

Taken seriously, the renaming game will never end. First put a Sharpie to the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which says federal laws trump state laws. Cancel Matt Damon for his 2004 role in “The Bourne Supremacy.” Make the Air Force give up the term “air supremacy.” Tell lovers of supreme pizza to quit being so chauvinistic about their toppings. Please inform Motown legend Diana Ross that the Supremes are problematic.

The quirks of quantum mechanics, some people argue, are explained by the existence of many universes. How did we get stuck in this one?

Steven Pinker also weighed in, with a linguistically-informed tweetstorm:

This sounds like something from The Onion but actually appeared in Nature … It follows the wokified stigmatization of other innocent words, like “House Master” (now, at Harvard, Residential Dean) and “NIPS” (Neural Information Processing Society, now NeurIPS). It’s a familiar linguistic phenomenon, a lexical version of Gresham’s Law: bad meanings drive good ones out of circulation. Examples: the doomed “niggardly” (no relation to the n-word) and the original senses of “cock,” “ass,” “prick,” “pussy,” and “booty.” Still, the prissy banning of words by academics should be resisted. It dumbs down understanding of language: word meanings are conventions, not spells with magical powers, and all words have multiple senses, which are distinguished in context. Also, it makes academia a laughingstock, tars the innocent, and does nothing to combat actual racism & sexism.

Others had a stronger reaction. Curtis Yarvin, better known as Mencius Moldbug, is one of the founders of “neoreaction” (and a significant influence on Steve Bannon, Michael Anton, and other Trumpists). Regulars might remember that Yarvin argued with me in Shtetl-Optimized‘s comment section, under a post in which I denounced Trump’s travel ban and its effects on my Iranian PhD student. Since then, Yarvin has sent me many emails, which have ranged from long to extremely long, and whose message could be summarized as: “[labored breathing] Abandon your liberal Enlightenment pretensions, young Nerdwalker. Come over the Dark Side.”

After the “supremacy is for racists” letter came out in Nature, though, Yarvin sent me his shortest email ever. It was simply a link to the letter, along with the comment “I knew it would come to this.”

He meant: “What more proof do you need, young Nerdawan, that this performative wokeness is a cancer that will eventually infect everything you value—even totally apolitical research in quantum information? And by extension, that my whole worldview, which warned of this, is fundamentally correct, while your faith in liberal academia is naïve, and will be repaid only with backstabbing?”

In a subsequent email, Yarvin predicted that in two years, the whole community will be saying “quantum advantage” instead of “quantum supremacy,” and in five years I’ll be saying “quantum advantage” too. As Yarvin famously wrote: “Cthulhu may swim slowly. But he only swims left.”

So what do I really think about this epic battle for (and against) supremacy?

Truthfully, half of me just wants to switch to “quantum advantage” right now and be done with it. As I said, I know some of the signatories of the Nature letter to be smart and reasonable and kind. They don’t wish to rid the planet of everyone like me. They’re not Amanda Marcottes or Arthur Chus. Furthermore, there’s little I despise more than a meaty scientific debate devolving into a pointless semantic one, with brilliant friend after brilliant friend getting sucked into the vortex (“you too?”). I’m strongly in the Pinkerian camp, which holds that words are just arbitrary designators, devoid of the totemic power to dictate thoughts. So if friends and colleagues—even just a few of them—tell me that they find some word I use to be offensive, why not just be a mensch, apologize for any unintended hurt, switch words midsentence, and continue discussing the matter at hand?

But then the other half of me wonders: once we’ve ceded an open-ended veto over technical terms that remind anyone of anything bad, where does it stop? How do we ever certify a word as kosher? At what point do we all get to stop arguing and laugh together?

To make this worry concrete, look back at Sarah Kaiser’s Twitter thread—the one where she expresses disappointment in me. Below her tweet, someone remarks that, besides “quantum supremacy,” the word “ancilla” (as in ancilla qubit, a qubit used for intermediate computation or other auxiliary purposes) is problematic as well. Here’s Sarah’s response:

I agree, but I wanted to start by focusing on the obvious one, Its harder for them to object to just one to start with, then once they admit the logic, we can expand the list

(What would Curtis Yarvin say about that?)

You’re probably now wondering: what’s wrong with “ancilla”? Apparently, in ancient Rome, an “ancilla” was a female slave, and indeed that’s the Latin root of the English adjective “ancillary” (as in “providing support to”). I confess that I hadn’t known that—had you? Admittedly, once you do know, you might never again look at a Controlled-NOT gate—pitilessly flipping an ancilla qubit, subject only to the whims of a nearby control qubit—in quite the same way.

(Ah, but the ancilla can fight back against her controller! And she does—in the Hadamard basis.)

The thing is, if we’re gonna play this game: what about annihilation operators? Won’t those need to be … annihilated from physics?

And what about unitary matrices? Doesn’t their very name negate the multiplicity of perspectives and cultures?

What about Dirac’s oddly-named bra/ket notation, with its limitless potential for puerile jokes, about the “bra” vectors displaying their contents horizontally and so forth? (Did you smile at that, you hateful pig?)

What about daggers? Don’t we need a less violent conjugate tranpose?

Not to beat a dead horse, but once you hunt for examples, you realize that the whole dictionary is shot through with domination and brutality—that you’d have to massacre the English language to take it out. There’s nothing special about math or physics in this respect.

The same half of me also thinks about my friends and colleagues who oppose claims of quantum supremacy, or even the quest for quantum supremacy, on various scientific grounds. I.e., either they don’t think that the Google team achieved what it said, or they think that the task wasn’t hard enough for classical computers, or they think that the entire goal is misguided or irrelevant or uninteresting.

Which is fine—these are precisely the arguments we should be having—except that I’ve personally seen some of my respected colleagues, while arguing for these positions, opportunistically tack on ideological objections to the term “quantum supremacy.” Just to goose up their case, I guess. And I confess that every time they did this, it made me want to keep saying “quantum supremacy” from now till the end of time—solely to deny these colleagues a cheap and unearned “victory,” one they apparently felt they couldn’t obtain on the merits alone. I realize that this is childish and irrational.

Most of all, though, the half of me that I’m talking about thinks about Curtis Yarvin and the Wall Street Journal editorial board, cackling with glee to see their worldview so dramatically confirmed—as theatrical wokeness, that self-parodying modern monstrosity, turns its gaze on (of all things) quantum computing research. More red meat to fire up the base—or at least that sliver of the base nerdy enough to care. And the left, as usual, walks right into the trap, sacrificing its credibility with the outside world to pursue a runaway virtue-signaling spiral.

The same half of me thinks: do we really want to fight racism and sexism? Then let’s work together to assemble a broad coalition that can defeat Trump. And Jair Bolsonaro, and Viktor Orbán, and all the other ghastly manifestations of humanity’s collective lizard-brain. Then, if we’re really fantasizing, we could liberalize the drug laws, and get contraception and loans and education to women in the Third World, and stop the systematic disenfranchisement of black voters, and open up the world’s richer, whiter, and higher-elevation countries to climate refugees, and protect the world’s remaining indigenous lands (those that didn’t burn to the ground this year).

In this context, the trouble with obsessing over terms like “quantum supremacy” is not merely that it diverts attention, while contributing nothing to fighting the world’s actual racism and sexism. The trouble is that the obsessions are actually harmful. For they make academics—along with progressive activists—look silly. They make people think that we must not have meant it when we talked about the existential urgency of climate change and the world’s other crises. They pump oxygen into right-wing echo chambers.

But it’s worse than ridiculous, because of the message that I fear is received by many outside the activists’ bubble. When you say stuff like “[quantum] supremacy is for racists,” what’s heard might be something more like:

“Watch your back, you disgusting supremacist. Yes, you. You claim that you mentor women and minorities, donate to good causes, try hard to confront the demons in your own character? Ha! None of that counts for anything with us. You’ll never be with-it enough to be our ally, so don’t bother trying. We’ll see to it that you’re never safe, not even in the most abstruse and apolitical fields. We’ll comb through your words—even words like ‘ancilla qubit’—looking for any that we can cast as offensive by our opaque and ever-shifting standards. And once we find some, we’ll have it within our power to end your career, and you’ll be reduced to groveling that we don’t. Remember those popular kids who bullied you in second grade, giving you nightmares of social ostracism that persist to this day? We plan to achieve what even those bullies couldn’t: to shame you with the full backing of the modern world’s moral code. See, we’re the good guys of this story. It’s goodness itself that’s branding you as racist scum.”

In short, I claim that the message—not the message intended, of course, by anyone other than a Chu or a Marcotte or a SneerClubber, but the message received—is basically a Trump campaign ad. I claim further that our civilization’s current self-inflicted catastrophe will end—i.e., the believers in science and reason and progress and rule of law will claw their way back to power—when, and only when, a generation of activists emerges that understands these dynamics as well as Barack Obama did.

Wouldn’t it be awesome if, five years from now, I could say to Curtis Yarvin: you were wrong? If I could say to him: my colleagues and I still use the term ‘quantum supremacy’ whenever we care to, and none of us have been cancelled or ostracized for it—so maybe you should revisit your paranoid theories about Cthulhu and the Cathedral and so forth? If I could say: quantum computing researchers now have bigger fish to fry than arguments over words—like moving beyond quantum supremacy to the first useful quantum simulations, as well as the race for scalability and fault-tolerance? And even: progressive activists now have bigger fish to fry too—like retaking actual power all over the world?

Anyway, as I said, that’s how half of me feels. The other half is ready to switch to “quantum advantage” or any other serviceable term and get back to doing science.

197 Responses to “Quantum Dominance, Hegemony, and Superiority”

  1. D. L. Yonge-Mallo Says:

    The original title of the letter was the rather tame “Quantum advantage – call to the quantum computing community to rethink its language”. It was changed to the provocative title by Nature editors for unknown reasons, and then changed again to its current form when the signatories complained that it had been changed without their consent.

  2. Cyberax Says:

    Why not just take the practical approach?

    I.e. only switch scientific terms when they become completely tainted with the general public? If you ask a random person what word they associate with “supremacy” the answer will be “white”. So worry about ancilias when 90% of the US population would associate them with female slaves.

    This is happening in other areas. For example, in software the “master/slave” terminology is being deprecated for obvious reasons in favor of “leader/follower” or “primary/secondary”. IS-IS routing protocol is now almost never pronounced or written as “ISIS” and so on.

  3. Stephen Luttrell Says:

    Quantum Primality, Quantum Prime, Qprime, Q’. This plays on the double meaning of “primal”: (1) first or original, and (2) chief or most important — see https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/primal.

  4. q Says:

    See also Lubos Motl’s take on this

  5. Oscar Cunningham Says:

    This debate isn’t going to matter for much longer anyway, because the concept will become irrelevant. There’s no term we use now to refer to the first moment when a classical computer performed a task that humans could never do on their own.

  6. D. L. Yonge-Mallo Says:

    Regarding “where does it stop?”, this is an instance of the slippery slope fallacy. The meanings of words and expressions are not entirely arbitrary, but determined by the context, which might differ for each user of a word or expression. The word “slave” might have very different connotations for you than for someone else. If the “polynomial hierarchy” had been the “polynomial patriarchy” instead, I hope you can see that it would need to be changed, and that it might negatively affect some people a lot more than others.

    As a descriptivist when it comes to linguistics, I disagree with Pinker that changes to language for political reasons should be resisted on principle. Language changes all the time, sometimes by conscious decision of a community, but most often for random reasons such as fashion. Pinker also either seems not to know or is deliberately ignoring the reason the name NIPS was changed, namely, men were actually using the name to harass women in and around that conference. I think that’s a very good reason to have changed the name. Anecdotally, I’ve heard it has reduced problems around that conference (but have no data and can be persuaded otherwise).

    Positive and negative connotations of a word fall on a spectrum which depends on the context and the individual. I avoid the word “slave” in technical language (“master-slave”) because it has a strong negative association for me, and it seems to be true enough for a sufficiently large number of people that I’ve noticed it disappearing from technical language. Even though I know the Latin meaning of “ancilla”, I’m less convinced about that word because I don’t think most English-speakers associate it with its original meaning.

    The question, then, shouldn’t be “where does it stop?”, but “what’s a reasonable threshold at which to avoid something which might have negative connotations to only a subset of a language’s users?” I have no problems with words like “inequality” or “dominate” or “dagger” in math, and I’m not aware of anyone who has seriously suggested they be changed, which makes them unlike the expression “[something] supremacy”.

    I also disagree that careful choice of language does nothing “real” to combat racism and sexism. Language use doesn’t exist in a vacuum and has a real impact on society. This is why people who commit atrocities repeatedly use dehumanising language to describe their victims. It became more acceptable for men to be flight attendants after the term was changed from stewardess. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to disagree about whether a particular term is actually harmful, but I can’t take seriously the argument that choosing terminology carefully does nothing to shape society. Widespread use of expressions make similar expressions socially acceptable. One can disagree that “quantum supremacy” evokes “white supremacy”, but the argument that the language doesn’t affect the prevalence of racism or sexism in society contradicts observation.

    There is another approach to dealing with an offensive (or perceived offensive) term than to avoid it, which is to claim it, as some minorities have done with what were originally slurs. However, I think the quantum community isn’t sufficiently large for this to work. I think the current term will likely continue to be used, if for no reason than inertia.

  7. David Glenday Says:

    Hi Scott, I know you will be very busy over the holiday period, especially with two young children to look after, but I thought you might like to set two hours aside to listen to Stephen Fry’s lecture titled “The future of humanity and technology” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=24F6C1KfbjM. I watched it, enjoyed it and thought you might too.
    Anyway, I enjoy your blog and wish you a happy holiday.

    PS You don’t have to publish this.

  8. Rodolfo Saboia Says:

    What about Quantum predominance?

    The word came from dominance, that also has problems, but sounds good.

  9. Vanessa Kosoy Says:

    FWIW, I’m a jewish queer woman and I 100% agree with Pinker and you. The American left seems to have forgone all sense of proportion, and the real (very serious!) problems are getting lost in the vanishing signal-to-noise ratio of overreaction to any perceived or imagined offense.

  10. T Says:

    The “OK” hand gesture is now considered a white supremacist symbol. (Prior to being informed of this, my only association with the gesture was scuba diving.) How did this come to be? In some filthy corner of the internet, white supremacists decided to appropriate the most innocuous symbol that they could think of. And they succeeded.

    I am confident that real racists are profoundly gleeful to see the nature letter. “Counterproductive” doesn’t even begin to describe it. I’m always stunned by how readily woke activists fall into the trap of doing the bidding of the far right.

    We need to find a way to shrug our shoulders and say “that’s not what it means in this context” and move on.

  11. Scott Says:

    D. L. Yonge-Mallo #1:

      The original title of the letter was the rather tame “Quantum advantage – call to the quantum computing community to rethink its language”. It was changed to the provocative title by Nature editors for unknown reasons, and then changed again to its current form when the signatories complained that it had been changed without their consent.

    Thank you for that crucial piece of context! The original title—with its implicit accusation of racism against anyone who uses “quantum supremacy”—was by far the most problematic part of the letter for me. I’m delighted to learn that it wasn’t the signatories’ fault.

  12. Peter Morgan Says:

    The history of after “quantum supremacy” is, perhaps, “quantum collapse”. There’s something there, “quantum noise” and the associated measurement incompatibility, which we can usefully engineer in ways that are clearly different from Boolean circuits, but an evolving published understanding will in time become “quantum egalitarianism” (except insofar as the very classical aspect of patent law keeps quantum wrapped up in profit-taking.)

    The political disaster that this is can be resolved by a little freedom. Quantum is only supreme over classical if classical is tied up as a straw man, disallowed by fiat from using noncommutativity when it’s useful.

  13. Sam Says:

    It is meaningless to say “If the “polynomial hierarchy” had been the “polynomial patriarchy” instead”, because we can not assign any meaning to polynomial patriarchy, unless we try too hard. Here, in this case, Preskill tried to explain why he chose supremacy over advantage and his explanation sounds reasonable.
    This term, as it is more strong, has made common people excited about quantum computing. Regarding the triggering effect of the word supremacy, can one avoid the term entirely? One can get triggered 24 hours a day if one choose to. The movements of this kind are getting started not by the people who are actually suffering due to the problems in the society, but by the super-privileged woke people with ample time to think over or fight over trivial issues. As Scott tried to indicate, that weakens the fight for more serious or real problems. One may unintentionally harm a cause by trying to help the very cause. For example, mandatory diversity statements or affirmative action may have bad side effects. And we saw what happened to Abigail Thompson when she pointed out the bad side effects.

  14. K Says:

    Sounds like the original Nature title was clickbait. How about “quantum transcendency” or “quantum preeminence”?

  15. New top story on Hacker News: Quantum Dominance, Hegemony, and Superiority – Outside The Know Says:

    […] Quantum Dominance, Hegemony, and Superiority 11 by weinzierl | 0 comments on Hacker News. […]

  16. Bob Strauss Says:

    I’m looking forward to the day when outmoded classical computers get “quantum participation medals.”

  17. Obi Wokanobi Says:

    “As soon as it works,
    No one calls it AI anymore”
    –John McCarthy

    As QC becomes the “dominant” paradigm, it will be just called “whatever”. Probably referred to by the brand name that wins the market. “Just Google It” will no longer refer to typing letters into a box and parsing results. But rather simulating hypothetical atoms with programmable atoms 😉

  18. A B Says:

    Let your activist friends be ‘disappointed’ in you. Let them be crushed and miserable. Given their ambitions (ancilla?!), that would be a signal that the best outcome was reached. They have raised the stakes to unfathomably stupid and dangerous levels. And if people in your position don’t take a stand, well, why NOT prefer the Curtis Yarvins to the Leonie Muecks? Curtis will never try to cripple anyone’s career over a word. Do you trust the 13 signatories to not do that?

  19. Adam Says:

    I would like to joke that the only guy who has every right to say that the word quantum supremacy is triggering is the prominent quantum computing skeptic Gil Kalai. The rest should take it easy. To the word-trigger theorists like D. L. Yonge-Mallo, should we remove the word holocaust from the public discourse, as it may evoke pain and trigger the people who suffered through holocaust or the people who are related to the people who suffered? Calling someone grammar-Nazi, should that offend people or reduce the severity of the evil deeds of Nazis? The pro-life people, the religious people, Anti-LGBTQ people may get triggered by many words, pictures and concepts in the mainstream media of today. Does that mean the mainstream media should stop triggering them?

  20. JimV Says:

    Great post. Shows you could be a humor columnist if you had the time. I guess I’ll go with “quantum primality” from now on. (If the subject comes up in my circle, which it won’t.)

  21. Corbin Says:

    In response to these arguments, I often remind folks: English is imperialist. Use Lojban instead.

    To say the same thing in Lojban: lo glibau ku gutytrusi’o .i pe’u ku’i tavla fo lo jbobau

    I might translate this back to English as “English languages are part of an invader’s political ideology. Please, in contrast, talk using Lojbanic languages.” I might pick a different first verb, like {regnaftngi} “part of the UK/Commonwealth culture and way of life”, or {envaxire} “part of the culture of a colonizing and invasive people”.

    Not persuaded yet? Lojban doesn’t have gendered conjugations or pronouns. Only two weeks of study are required. Nobody will mind if you use a dictionary in conversation.

  22. Orin Says:

    I have trouble empathizing with those who are offended or made uncomfortable by anything for which it is obvious that the intentions are benign. I think this is what the “where does it stop” sentiment gets at; if we cannot hold the line at “the principle of charity,” then we cede a foundation of rational discourse. If someone were to respond to D. L. Yonge-Mallo that his use of the “.” symbol to end sentences is profoundly hurtful to them because it evokes menstruation, how would he respond? I would imagine that he would convey something similar to the sentiment expressed by Scott here. In other words, he would ultimately draw the line not at preventing harmful evocations, but at emphasizing the importance of critical reasoning about intended meaning. The inconsistent relativism apparent in the belief that “quantum supremacy” is harmful but “dominate” is not becomes clear the moment someone else questions his own personal choice of where to draw the line, putting him in the same position as Scott. Would he change his mind about “dominate” if a single person expressed being made uncomfortable? Two people? 1% of the population? What is the criterion? If someone personally told me that “dominate” made them uncomfortable, then in interactions with them I would do my best to avoid the term, but in broader interactions with a heterogeneous audience such a standard is simply not sustainable.

    Stepping back from the details, I’m more worried about a blindness to the pragmatic fact that a significant and perhaps even dominant contributor to the support for Trump et al is due to people wanting to give a middle finger to what they see as “snowflakes” and the “PC police”. The argument that “observation” indicates that the use of language “affects the prevalence of racism or sexism in society” is a credulous correlation-causation mistake, and people like D. L. Yonge-Mallo are doing their side, and indirectly the legitimacy of the expert class as an institution of good governance, a potentially catastrophic disservice.

  23. Ken Says:

    How dare you use the word mensch? This obviously should be changed to peoplsch.

  24. D. L. Yonge-Mallo Says:

    Sam #13: It was a hypothetical. Of course “polynomial patriarchy” is meaningless, I’m asking you to *imagine* if a term existed which would be obviously offensive to a large group of people. You don’t have to agree that “quantum supremacy” is such a term, but can you at least imagine that such a term might exist from the perspective of someone other than yourself? But also, it’s not true that the people support avoiding offensive language are super-privileged. I avoid the word “slave” as a technical term in CS because I know people who have been actual slaves in real life (Yazidis under ISIS).

    Adam #17: No, we shouldn’t avoid the word “Holocaust” or “grammar-Nazi” (see slippery slope fallacy, above). If you think that’s what the signatories of the Nature letter want, you don’t understand the issue. I don’t avoid the word “slave” when I talk about actual slavery, but I avoid the terminology “master-slave” when I’m talking about computer science, because it’s unnecessary in that context and it has negative connotations for a large group of people. You can reasonably disagree about whether this is true or not for the expression “[something] supremacy”, but the straw man that “if you avoid this term, you’d have to avoid all these other terms” is observably false, because some terms are already taboo in polite company, and yet this hasn’t made all words taboo. And note that I didn’t avoid the term “straw man”, and similarly the letter to Nature used the word “arena”, because *context* removes these from their originally gendered and gladiatorial meanings. (If the context of putting “quantum” in front of “supremacy” can nullify its other meanings, as some critics of the letter contend, then the same argument applies also to the use of “straw man” in logic or “arena” as a metaphor. There’s no disagreement that context can do this; the reasonable disagreement is over whether it does it sufficiently in the case of the specific expression under discussion. Some people think not, but you’re evidently unable to understand their point of view because you’ve already stereotyped them as “word-trigger theorists”.)

  25. Daniel Says:

    > Don’t we need a less violent conjugate transpose?

    No model of mathematics based on conjugal relations can ever be non-violent! Trans(posed) mathematicians should unite in condemnation of quantum supremacists!

  26. You are not a hateful pig Says:

    “What about Dirac’s oddly-named bra/ket notation, with its limitless potential for puerile jokes, about the “bra” vectors displaying their contents horizontally and so forth? (Did you just smile at that, you hateful pig?)”

    You are not “hateful pig” i’m just sad that you don’t understand what it is like for women and minorities when these jokes are made. In an environment where people make such jokes some people do worse. It would be so great if you could support women by saying to your peers, hey that makes some people uncomfortable let’s not use it.

  27. Scott Says:

    D. L. Yonge-Mallo #6: Thanks so much for the thoughtful response, and especially for your attempt to articulate and defend a defensible line.

    I would say: slippery-slope is only a fallacy if one isn’t, in fact, stepping onto one! But in her Twitter thread, Sarah Kaiser—the person who first publicly asked me to comment on this—explicitly affirmed that there is a slippery slope, and that she wants us to slide right down it, with no stopping-point suggested. Sarah also implied that the choice to focus for now only on “quantum supremacy,” rather than on “ancilla” and any other technical terms that anyone might object to, was a purely strategic one. That context seems crucial to this discussion.

  28. D. L. Yonge-Mallo Says:

    Orin #22: If a sufficiently large group of people were serious enough about suggesting that English shouldn’t end sentences with periods that a group of experts in English would put their names on a letter to Nature (or whatever the analogous publication would be), I would try to understand their perspective, even if it seems silly to me. I agree with you about “inconsistent relativism”: as I noted, associations depend on the context and the individual. That’s why I said it’s a reasonable question to ask “what’s a reasonable threshold at which to avoid something which might have negative connotations to only a subset of a language’s users?” Your answer to that question might be very different from mine. But I don’t understand why you think inconsistency for any individual is a problem, because language is social and speakers agree on things as a group. A particular person may not find a racial slur offensive, but we as a society have decided that it shouldn’t be used (except in limited contexts) in polite society. I cannot point to a threshold at which I change my mind about whether a word is to be avoided, but I can tell you that I have witnessed enough people react negatively to the use of the word “slave” (outside of actually talking about slavery) that I have decided to avoid it. As for the alleged correlation-causation mistake, I think racists and sexists do, in fact, get emboldened to act when racist and sexist language become acceptable in a societal context. Correlation is not always causation, but it sometimes is, and I don’t see how you can argue that racist/sexist language and racist/sexist actions are not causally related.

    I do acknowledge your point about the pragmatism of not appearing to be “PC police” because it provokes a reaction, as the Nature letter obviously has. I’m not blind to it. And to be honest, I don’t know how to deal with the types of people who’ll do things (sometimes to their own detriment) just to “trigger the libs”. I don’t really see what path there is to a better society except to promote more empathy. If the fact that a group of people says something is harmful to them isn’t enough to cause that a person to at least try to understand their point of view, even if they end up disagreeing with it, then no amount of argument will persuade them.

    (I think I’m done commenting here, barring an extraordinary response, as in cases like these, people rarely persuade each other.)

  29. William Hird Says:

    I loved Steven Pinker’s response, but if you HAD to change the name for some wacky reason why not just call it “Quantum Speedup”? You are just speeding up computations using quantum mechanics, simple and plain. I don’t think people in the methamphetameme community (addicts and law enforcement) will complain 🙂

  30. Vitor Says:

    Completely agree with you Scott, you have my respect for shining a light on this issue. If only we were all as brave and principled as you, regardless of what term you end up using.

    Personally, I feel that “quantum supremacy” accurately reflects its scientific content. Supremacy is not just an extraneous word sprinkled on top for color. In contrast, there are a couple of terms in game theory that are actually offensive, more akin to something like “polynomial patriarchy”. Most people reading this blog probably know them, no need to add fuel to the fire by pointing them out. I wouldn’t mind if that terminology was updated to something more neutral.

  31. Gabriel Says:

    The slight humor in the phrase “quantum supremacy”, whether intentional or not, is completely fine. So the whole debacle is ridiculous. And here’s another complaint: I’ve noticed that in the SciShow youtube videos (which by the way are excellent) they tend to say for example “pregnant people” instead of “pregnant women”

  32. MCA Says:

    D.L #6 : “I also disagree that careful choice of language does nothing “real” to combat racism and sexism. Language use doesn’t exist in a vacuum and has a real impact on society. This is why people who commit atrocities repeatedly use dehumanising language to describe their victims.”

    But where is the evidence that this is causal, rather than just a consequence of their inner psychology?

    That’s the problem with the stronger version of this “language policing” – I’m not aware of any good evidence that differing language is the root cause, or even a contributing cause, of changes in internal psychology or views. This is an exceptional claim, but instead of being supported with exceptional evidence, is simply treated as a given.

  33. pete Says:

    To my mind, the correct response to folk like Yarvin, and this whole debate is: “whatever.”

    Yarvin wants you arguing fiercely over things like this, and he doesn’t care which side. Because the whole debate plays into the image he wants to create of his political opponents; and while it goes on there’s less chance of noticing the stuffing of your banknotes, environment, rights, democracy, political future, and so on into the back pockets of he and his friends.

  34. Peter S. Shenkin Says:


  35. Scott Says:

    Vitor #30:

      In contrast, there are a couple of terms in game theory that are actually offensive, more akin to something like “polynomial patriarchy”. Most people reading this blog probably know them, no need to add fuel to the fire by pointing them out.

    What are those terms? “Dominating strategy”? Out with it!

  36. Gabriel Says:

    When I was in school, a math teacher told us not to write next to the rectangled answer after all the calculations “final solution”. What do you think?

  37. Mike Musson Says:

    Everyone is avoiding the obvious name choice that doesn’t have any baggage: quantum privilege.

  38. Scott Says:

    Gabriel #36: That’s an interesting one! It’s arguably worse than “quantum supremacy,” since it’s not just one word (supremacy) but a conjunction of words with an extremely specific historical meaning. (“Make America Great Again” was ugly for the same reason.) On the other hand, many people (especially non native English speakers, if we’re talking about the English translation of Endlösung) might not know the meaning. And certainly it’s less bad than, let’s say, naming your kid Adolf.

  39. Not Pol Pot Says:

    In differential geometry, one can study vector fields on Riemannian manifolds whose flow preserves the metric. These were first studied by, and subsequently named after, 19th century geometer Wilhelm Killing. They are called Killing fields.

    For what it’s worth, I think this one is actually worth changing (although there’s no general call to do so), but I’m much less convinced about quantum supremacy.

  40. Daniel Moskovich Says:

    “Watch your back, you disgusting supremacist. Yes, you. You claim that you mentor women and minorities, donate to good causes, try hard to confront the demons in your own character? Ha! None of that counts for anything with us. You’ll never be with-it enough to be our ally, so don’t bother trying. We’ll see to it that you’re never safe, not even in the most abstruse and apolitical fields. We’ll comb through your words—even words like ‘ancilla qubit’—-looking for any that we can cast as offensive by our opaque and ever-shifting standards. And once we find some, we’ll have it within our power to end your career, and you’ll be reduced to groveling that we don’t. Remember those popular kids who bullied you in second grade, giving you nightmares of social ostracism that persist to this day? We plan to achieve what even those bullies couldn’t: to shame you with the full backing of the modern world’s moral code. See, we’re the good guys of this story. It’s goodness itself that’s branding you as racist scum.”

    I would broadly agree with this; but I think you’re playing into it with sentences like: “as the father of a math-loving 6-year-old girl, I understood and shared her concerns”. So the father of a math-loving 6-year-old girl must have a certain box set of opinions? Such a person cannot like and support Trump (who in this post is a codeword for all that is bad and wrong- I think that’s unfair also)? Such a person cannot be a white supremacist, for that matter? I think these are exactly the sentiment the strawman is pointing out.

  41. Paul Topping Says:

    Great post! I vote we stand and fight. I don’t buy that this is a false “slippery slope” case. One the woke’s founding principles is that if anyone who is a member of a downtrodden group objects to something (ie, feels “pain”), then that thing must be banned. They are oiling the slippery slope! If we don’t take a stand here, then it really will be the banishment of one word after another. The woke will actively pursue this agenda as it is their raison d’etre.

  42. Daniel Moskovich Says:

    Scott #38: I assume you are aware of Message to Adolf? I’m not sure that even one of the worst men who ever lived should have the right or privilege to erase a name from usage.

  43. Daniel Says:

    > Scott #35: What are those terms? “Dominating strategy”? Out with it!

    – Game theorists think that for a stable marriage, the men must propose
    – Game theorists force prisoners to betray their friends, then try to comfort us by saying it stops working when they do it over and over again to the same poor prisoner
    – Game theorists think strong dictators always win
    – Game theorists think that dominating people deserve to win
    – Game theorists think that mutes (“dummies”) are ineffective

    Conversely, right-wing people might be triggered by the game-theoretical claims that mixed is better than pure, and that a game is unacceptable if some people can’t win at it.

  44. zluria Says:

    Let me be the devil’s advocate: Quantum supremacy sounds terrible. I was telling my wife about the term, and she is not especially woke, but the moment I said it she made a face. “What’s that? Sounds like something a pretentious star wars nerd made up.”

    It also emphatically does not fit the defenition: quantum supremacy makes it sound as if quantum computers are now better at everything, when in fact they are only better at a specific, contrived task.

    Quantum advantage is better – it sounds much better, and crucially – it better describes the phenomenon.

    Look, I’m with you, firmly on the side of reason, freedom and enlightenment. Only – maybe this isn’t the hill we want to die on?

  45. Orin Says:

    D. L. Yonge-Mallo #28, I think we cut through all of this cleanly enough if we focus on intent. The reasonable among us are offended by racial slurs not because they are evocative, but because of intent. I think the fundamental difference of opinion has little to do with the constellation of issues like racism or sexism, since we all seem to agree on that, but with to what degree we should cater to those we are offended by superficial things other than intent. However I get the impression that the unstated assumption in, for example, the Nature correspondence, which insinuates with language like “inherently violent language has crept into other branches of science as well”, is that if physicists keep terms around like “quantum supremacy”, then they are crypto-racists, that their intent is somehow to insidiously cultivate a “violent, neocolonial, or racist” gestalt in order to maintain latent privilege. If this was not an intended intimation, then perhaps, ironically, the authors should be more careful about their use of language, given the context surrounding the rhetorical use of evocative language like “violent”, “neocolonial”, or “racist” as a cudgel to shame and intimidate those who disagree with you.

  46. Sam Says:

    D. L. Yonge-Mallo, thanks for your response. It is not the case that words or images can not to be triggering. Sexual images or words do trigger, violent words or words with violent history also do. It is good if one can avoid words that can evoke strong feelings. That you avoid “slave” (because you have seen and you have empathy) is appreciable, but can you or others avoid the word slave or slavery (in other contexts) lifelong? If someone uses that term to define a model of asymmetric communication, should you blame him for being not empathetic/ mindless? There we disagree. What I wanted to say, that in real life, we can not avoid getting triggered, unless we chose to. A sexually harassed person may get triggered by the words used by her harasser. But if they are commonly used words, we can not request the whole word not to use those words. As you agree, one can not avoid all triggering words. If you argue that quantum supremacy or master-slave protocol validate white supremacy or slavery, then you are plain wrong. If you say that they evoke painful memories, then one has to ban many words and delete a lot of history from the public discourse. Just banning a single word would not do much to help if that is the case.

  47. Gabriel Says:

    Scott #38: It was actually in Spanish! In fact, my guess is that you have the same issue in most languages. At least you do in Hebrew as well…

  48. Vitor Says:

    Scott #35

    Since you bring it up yourself, I was thinking about

    1) the heteronormative marriages used to explain matching algorithms. Stretching it a bit, there’s a whiff of arranged or even forced marriage around it.

    2) “battle of the sexes”. Because I, as a male, obviously prefer to go to the football match instead of the theater, and this fundamental fact must define all my relationships, which are of course only with women.

    Those two are actually reasonable to object to, I would say. The only thing that bothers me about dominant strategies is that they must be lonely in the absence of submissive strategies.

  49. Scott Says:

    Daniel Moskovich #42: I’d heard of that manga but haven’t read it. The problem with ‘reclaiming’ the name Adolf is that it’s less you than your poor kid who’ll have to handle the consequences of your bravery! 😀

  50. Anders Says:

    “Quantum privilege”?

  51. Poprox Says:

    One vote for “quantum advancedness” from me.

  52. Doug Wykstra Says:

    While I’m sympathetic to people who object to hierarchical constructs in their language no matter the context, hierarchy does have its uses.

    For example, you perhaps ought to privilege the actual opinions and objections that real people have communicated to you over the hypothetical opinions and objections that you imagine others may communicate at some point in the future. A real, actual person telling you “quantum supremacy is a term that makes me uncomfortable,” and a person who exists only in your imagination one day saying “unitary matrices is a term that should be banned” are not situations that should be given equal weight.

    It’s odd that among scientists, a group professionally trained to understand that speculative hypothesis must give way to observed phenomena, a small subgroup exists that is willing to give equal weight to something that they have actually heard and something that they may one day hear.

  53. Sandro Says:

    D. L. Yonge-Mallo #6:

    Regarding “where does it stop?”, this is an instance of the slippery slope fallacy.

    You are misusing this term. The slippery slope is a particular type of argument which is sometimes a fallacy. If you think it’s being employed fallaciously, then the onus is on you to demonstrate the fallacious inference. It seems quite clear from the context provided in the linked Twitter threads that this is a first salvo in a long-term strategy that will simply waste everyone’s time bikeshedding over inherently ambiguous language, ie. a perfect example of a real slippery slope.

    So please address Scott’s actual points that imply that this slippery slope exists if you want us to accept his usage as fallacious.

    The other examples you raise are more egregious. For instance, master-slave is a reasonable term to want changed. The very origin of a master-slave dynamic is rooted in slavery and dehumanization; there is no other ethical, historical use of this term, which is not the case with “supremacy” or most of the enumerable other terms being discussed. As another poster noted, the only place this slope ends is all of us switching to a newly created language with no historical baggage. Is that a reasonable end goal in your mind?

    There seems to be little consideration of nuance or proportional response in cultural dialogue these days, unfortunately. It’s all scorched earth, and Scott is right when he says it devalues these legitimate progressive goals in people’s minds. You’re fooling yourself if you think these petty arguments aren’t fueling Trump’s rise.

  54. Jelani Says:

    ‘Quantum Supremacy’ is a fine term; don’t waste too much time on this. Carry on …

  55. Chris Z Says:

    Two thoughts in regard to alternate concept handles for “quantum supremacy”.

    1. I noticed that I immediately lean towards searching for new nouns to which I can prepend the descriptor “quantum”. This is probably not the correct approach. We’re not searching for a “quantum type” of some noun, we’re searching for a specific type of “quantum computing”, specifically, faster than classical computing. For a concrete example, I feel no temptation to say that a supersonic jet is an example of “Flight supremacy”, or that the first useful airplane was an example of “travel supremacy”. Supercompute is already taken, perhaps find someone to honor: SuperTuring computation? Or something like SuperClassical computation?

    2. It may be useful to avoid the normative associations that make some people nervous. (Faster = Better, etc). This is somewhat unavoidable because “quantum supremacy” is a point on a line for which we have a very natural sense of “direction”. It might be more useful to think of words that connote boundaries, categorization, and types, rather than “point we are striving to reach”.

  56. Paul Beame Says:

    The event that “quantum supremacy” was introduced to mark is analogous to Deep Blue beating Kasparov. However, the term feels somewhat more appropriate for another level in that competition of machines-vs-humans: The Singularity.

    Until now, I’ve thought of the term as more good PR than anything to be worried about.

  57. Nick Says:

    “I knew it would come to this.”

    Wow, he predicted that people would bikeshed about terminology? What a wise prophet! If only we had heeded his words when had the chance, maybe this disaster could have been averted!

  58. Scott Says:

    Doug Wykstra #52:

      For example, you perhaps ought to privilege the actual opinions and objections that real people have communicated to you over the hypothetical opinions and objections that you imagine others may communicate at some point in the future. A real, actual person telling you “quantum supremacy is a term that makes me uncomfortable,” and a person who exists only in your imagination one day saying “unitary matrices is a term that should be banned” are not situations that should be given equal weight.

    Maybe reread the post? 🙂 Sarah Kaiser is a real person involved in the campaign against “quantum supremacy,” and she expressed the view that, after the campaign succeeds, “ancilla” and an unspecified number of other technical terms should be next. And I wasn’t (only) trying to be funny: I really, honestly don’t know what principle separates “ancilla qubit” from my other examples of “annihilation operator,” “bra vector,” and possibly even “unitary.”

    It might be worth mentioning that I know of one African-American on this thread: namely, the one who wrote ” ‘Quantum Supremacy’ is a fine term; don’t waste too much time on this. Carry on …” (Jelani Nelson, who used to be a PhD student in the theory group at MIT, is now a CS professor at Berkeley.)

    That’s not particularly relevant, except insofar as it reminds us that, even when someone does tell us that a certain word makes them uncomfortable, that mostly gives us data about them: they can’t necessarily speak for other members of their identity group let alone for other groups.

  59. Curtis Yarvin Says:

    It’s the side of light, of course. You probably think Sauron was a bad guy too:


    This whole word issue is way worse than most people suspect. “Family” is from the Latin word *famulus*, meaning *slave*. For centuries all educated Europeans knew Latin, making Latin essentially part of all European languages, including English. Since the Romans were the Romans, though, Latin is to slavery as Eskimo is to snow. (Excuse me — Inuit.)

    The link between family and slavery is even deeply coded in our legal system, which is why *emancipation* means both freeing a slave and separating a child. Under Roman law these were actually the same thing. A slave, in fact, was a sort of adult unrelated child. A lot to grapple with here. Maybe — give Esperanto another try? There’s always Islamic law?

    It is easy and depressing to parse the great quantum-supremacy debate. The explicit moral logic of the quantum-advantage supporters is simple. Abandoning this one little word, “supremacy,” is a small but necessary blow in the battle to defend the most vulnerable Americans from the new rising power of Drumpf and the thuggish, hoglike proto-Klansmen who march by the thousand to his chilling Nuremberg rallies.

    To help society fend off this existential challenge, and protect the vulnerable from the great forces even now conspiring against them, a few nerds are asked to — use another word? This is really what you’re complaining about? You’re really complaining about this, nerds? Wow, just wow. Well… that’s a perspective. I guess that’s what happens when you only took engineering classes.

    I am not saying everyone has this comic book in their heads. But everyone has a bit of it. And in this book, calling out casual use of a historically significant word like “supremacy” is an extremely moral, righteous, noble, and in fact *obligatory* act. Similarly, if you genuinely believe in God, taking His name in vain is genuinely offensive; and sitting quietly as it is so taken, cowardly.

    Furthermore, if you don’t think “quantum supremacist” can’t or won’t be co-opted as an ironic dogwhistle by the racist Internet, you may not know very much about the racist Internet. If so, I recommend you just trust me on this subject. Do not search for the word “groyper.”

    The situation is further complicated by the fact that for at least the last 50 years, not even racists have said “supremacy” sincerely. White nationalists do call themselves “white nationalists.” And there are plenty of those — but none of them talk about “white supremacy” — a label from the mid-century rural South, easily as dated in sincere use as “honky” or “malarkey.”

    So “white supremacist” is solely an exonym, a term of external abuse, like “Kraut,” “gook,” “gammon,” or “chud.” Abstractly, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this. Perhaps some groups of people are just wrong and may even need to be abused — punched, for instance. But this dimension adds an even weirder unintended irony to the use of “supremacy” in a scientific context. (For the record, I think it might still be possible to get away with “quantum dominance.”)

    There is another perspective on this debate. The other perspective says that whatever you think you are doing, what you are actually doing is: bullying computer scientists. Whoever you think you are doing it for, bullying computer scientists does not affect those people at all. It does affect the computer scientists. And it does affect you. It makes you feel strong and proud and important. So does cocaine. Your career might even profit from it — you can certainly profit from cocaine.

    There is really very little that we human beings enjoy more than telling other people what to do. Once we have a socially accepted rationalization for exercising dominance — like the idea that bullying computer scientists can protect the underprivileged from the vast anti-underprivileged conspiracy — anything in the hominin clade will be on it like a piranha on a meatball.

    It is arrogant but typical to think that scientists, because of their high IQs as measured by the latest skull calipers, would somehow be above these basic human social and political instincts. Of course we’re not. We may still be uniquely positioned to push back against them. In fact, I can’t imagine anyone better positioned than our host. But I would still advise him not to.

  60. fred Says:

    Twenty years ago I was in a software startup, pretty much all the engineers were non-US students (Europe and Asia).
    We had a distributed demo setup with one machine labeled “master” and all the others labeled “slave”.
    A bunch of investors were supposed to visit to check it out, and it turned out they were all African Americans.
    We avoided a PR debacle because our CFO, himself an African American, caught the “faux pas” in time before they arrived, and he was pretty upset about it, which I could understand after some discussion.
    The only Canadian engineer among us thought that it was silly to take down the labels.

  61. Stephen Jordan Says:

    Lest it get buried under the other topics that were aggregated into the same post: congratulations to you and Peter on becoming an ACM fellows!

  62. AnonymousCoward Says:

    A few comments:
    A) Divorced from any social context, “supremacy” is definitely the best term I’ve heard so far for the event where a quantum computer does something a classical computer can’t. “Advantage” doesn’t seem nearly as good in the sense that, broadly construed, quantum advantages have been turning up in quantum optics etc for a long time.

    B) Having said that, I am sympathetic to the opinion that we should just give in on this one. I genuinely do feel a little uncomfortable using the term “quantum supremacy”. In retrospect it was an unwise choice. Focusing on one of the other examples you raise, no doubt this is not to my credit, but I still feel vaguely embarrassed talking about “bras” in a physics class where female students might well be outnumbered 10 to 1 and where some male students who might still have a fair bit of growing up left to do, might well smirk. Yes, everyone is an adult and should be able to deal with it, but it nonetheless seems unfortunate. Dirac was a brilliant physicist and the idiosyncrasies of his terminology can be considered to be a harmless part of dorky physics culture, but I don’t think that means that we shouldn’t try to weed out possibly problematic terminology in the present as we come across it.
    Expanding on this theme, as you point out, math and physics are strewn with unwise / currently unfashionable choices of terminology, and if this were indeed the top of a slippery slope, we would be in for an for an extremely annoying and even potentially disruptive-to-research-communication slide to the bottom. However, there are at least two obvious reasons why “quantum supremacy” is a special target: i) The phrase was coined relatively recently and is arguably still not entrenched, ii) It is all over the news right now which means that people who do care about trying to weed out what they consider to be harmful terminology have a large audience aware of the term which they can potentially mobilize to make life miserable for those who resist. I just can’t imagine anyone being able to bring pressure to bear on the community over a term like ancilla. They will take the win re supremacy and move on, most likely.

    C) Related to B) – have you considered / come across any examples of how people are encountering the term supremacy outside of the U.S. and Europe? I can only offer an anecdote regarding a country in Asia, but here when a bright student explained to their class what quantum supremacy was, how do you think they explained the term “supremacy”? With reference to the only other term involving supremacy that is commonly known here: “White supremacy” of course. I know this is only a single incident, but I was bummed out that potentially a lot of people in this country will encounter the term “quantum supremacy” for the first time immediately adjacent to the phrase “white supremacy”.

    D) I know this may seem a bit provocative, but as a Jewish person, isn’t your power play in this conversation something like “As a member of a community which is even now under violent attack by white supremacists, I have an absolute right to reclaim the word “supremacy”. I would ask people without similar standing to kindly butt out of the conversation”?I know you mentioned “reclaiming” the word in your original post, but I thought you didn’t tie it very strongly to yourself. Is your policy never to use identity as leverage even for a good cause? I mean I don’t know why I am even asking – I’m pretty sure that is your policy, because other arguments will take precedence. But somehow, with the talk of reclaiming, I thought you almost went there, and I’m genuinely interested to hear you expand on that if you feel it’s pertinent. My point in bringing this up is that you personally should be beyond reproach if you choose to use this term, by the logic of the people who are currently questioning it.

  63. Sniffnoy Says:

    Pinker also either seems not to know or is deliberately ignoring the reason the name NIPS was changed, namely, men were actually using the name to harass women in and around that conference.

    Huh. That… is not what I would have predicted as the reason on reading the original post.

  64. Poprox Says:

    Both white supremacists and quantum supremacists are trying to steal Taco Bell’s well-earned victory over ownership of the word when they invented things like the beef taco supreme.

  65. Scott Says:

    AnonymousCoward (good name 🙂 ) #59: Indeed, how this plays out in languages other than English is an extremely interesting question. Any readers here care to enlighten us?

    Regarding your anecdote, I ask your forgiveness for wondering: could the translator have missed something? Like, if there really is a language that has no way to express the concepts of “supreme” or “winning” or “better” or “dominant” without directly implying evil, then that seems like an amazing discovery in anthropology, doesn’t it?

    Regarding your “provocative bit,” I confess that being Jewish never once crossed my mind when I wrote about “reclaiming” the word supremacy.

    (Having said that: if, according to the Official Regulations of Wokeness, being Jewish, a member of one of humanity’s longest-persecuted identity groups, grants my voice and perspective some sort of special consideration from my opponents in these discussions, I hereby wish to claim the special consideration now. 😀 )

    By “reclaiming” I simply meant: reclaiming the word “supremacy” from the racists, for and on behalf of all decent human beings, for the latter to use as a common inheritance. This provides a nice illustration of where wokeness really has changed the meaning of a word in a subtle, nontrivial way: from “reclaiming” as something that good people do to what bad people took from them, to “reclaiming” only as something that a historically oppressed class does to what an oppressor class took from it.

  66. Gé Weijers Says:

    Whose discomfort are we talking about anyway?

    I suspect that removing this “quantum supremacy blemish” from technical language is more about us white people feeling uncomfortable being reminded of atrocities like Jim Crow, lynching, police brutality, and slavery than it is about the feelings of the (descendants of) black people who were, or still are, the victims of these atrocities.

  67. Anonymous Says:

    After reading your post I’ll be surprised if you aren’t called a sexist, privileged
    and condescending white man.
    What’s amazing about all of this is that some people drowned in their own lack
    of critical thinking and high on their own hyperempathic impulses are letting
    these ideologues disrupt things just for the sake of it. And others who just
    want to do science and not deal with this be bullied into submission.
    For whatever reason, the concept of Whiteness reminds me of the Intelligent
    Design debate a decade or so ago. (As in Whiteness being pseudoscience.)
    I get it. The easy way out is to just say “okay” and move on. But “easy” has
    never been a synonym of “correct.”
    Sooner or later these changes are going to have unforeseen consequences and I
    wouldn’t be surprised if, in the long term, it meant the total collapse of
    western society (it’s the whole point of anti-whiteness ideology after all).
    Maybe the chinese will be better at this than us.
    But, then again, climate change is already destroying our planet. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

  68. Ajit R. Jadhav Says:

    1. So, Prof. Peter Shor wasn’t an ACM Fellow all this time?

    … Anyway, congrats to both of you!

    [But does it come with any monetary benefits?]


    (Did you smile at that, you hateful pig?)

    Yes, because you had already placed the que-word “limitless” in there. Generally speaking, quantum systems aren’t just two-state systems; these vectors are infinite-dimensional. And the mind boggles at the idea of the infinitely many…



  69. Particles4Justice Says:

    Thank you for pointing out that a dagger is not politically correct. Furthermore its symbol looks like a Catholic cross, that remains us of marginalization, slavery and inquisition. It must be replaced with an Hammer and Sickle. Furthermore, complex conjugation star will be replaced by star and crescent.

  70. David Karger Says:

    Vitor #48

    Years ago I taught the stable marriage algorithm with the traditional men/women narrative. Afterwards, I was contacted by a student who relayed (roughly, I don’t recall exactly) that certain LGBT students in the class had been discomfited by the hetero-normative assumptions.

    So now, every year when I teach stable marriage, I explain how it has “traditionally been presented as men vs. women although of course now we recognize that reflects a heteronormative assumption.” This way, I can both provide the relevant intuition and defuse its hurtful subtext.

    I think it’s just basic generosity to make small accommodations in order to respect a minority’s (justifiable) sensitivity, and often possible.

    So the question is, just how much of a hassle would it be to rename quantum supremacy? The term has been around for only a few years. Nobody’s asking anyone to go back and revise all the old papers; just to use a new term going forward (and I think it would be perfectly reasonable to for papers to say “foobar (formerly quantum supremacy)” for a few years. This might feel mildly silly to us old timers, but wouldn’t even by noticed by anyone entering the field after the present. In a few years, the whole thing would be forgotten. This seems a lot like the NeurIPS renaming—which Pinker complains about, but which I fully support because, again, it’s a minor inconvenience weighed against the feelings of an important part of the community.

    So to add a vocabulary suggestions, how about , “quantum supersession”?

  71. Daniel Says:

    If you want to emphasize the event when quantum computing overtakes classical computing, maybe something along the lines of “quantum tipping point” or “crossing the quantum threshold” might work. But please avoid the logical but unfortunate “quantum quantum leap”.

  72. STEM Caveman Says:

    Scott, on the list of new ACM fellows you are, as must usually be the case, the first in alphabetical order. There are known birth-order and birth-month effects for some life outcomes, and an alphabetical position effect would not be too surprising. Do you feel your career has benefited in any noticeable or significant way from having a surname starting with AA? I mean that as a good faith inquiry, and (hopefully obviously) not a suggestion that any big achievement of yours could have been tipped by a hypothetical name effect.

  73. STEM Caveman Says:

    Arguments over “supremacy” are just the beginning. After all, isn’t the correct term “computational diversity”, in which quantum and classical architectures harmoniously coexist, collaborate and hybridize to compute more effectively than either one alone? And don’t we want, er, *need*, nay, *must have*, ahem, *shall have or else*, Diversity Statements as part of every TCS graduate school application, which is the way things have already started moving in some places for faculty hiring?

  74. jonas Says:

    Daniel Moskovich #42: a lot of given names have faded to obscurity. Admittedly that has slowed down a bit in the 20th century because of writing and television, just like the rest of changes in language. But still, there’s nothing wrong with nobody using a given name, especially if it’s a boy’s name.

    Scott: I’m not sure if Zach could draw a reasonable likeness of you.

  75. Shmi Says:

    Was waiting for you to (again) mention the unfortunately named and obviously slut-shaming busy beaver game/function.

  76. b_jonas Says:

    How is this related to the anecdote “https://mathoverflow.net/a/53738/” about mathematicians using terminology that is not safe to use in an airport or on airplane?

  77. Edan Maor Says:

    Gabriel #36:

    > When I was in school, a math teacher told us not to write next to the rectangled answer after all the calculations “final solution”. What do you think?

    I think it’s pretty standard in most cases to try and avoid this phrase, as it definitely has a very specific historic connotation. That said, it’s such a standard way to phrase things that I’ll often say it or almost say it by accident, and I’ve heard it said on occasion.

    Personally I probably would notice if someone says it, but wouldn’t care very much (excepting the obvious – if someone says it with the specific purpose intended.)

    (Note: I’m an Israeli Jew, so probably more “sensitive” to this phrase. And the above is relevant in English and in Hebrew.)

    I think others have mentioned this, but if you’re not aware Scott, a fairly influential open source maintainer (antirez, who built Redis) wrote quite a bit about being asked to change the master/slave terms in Redis to something else for similar reasons, and why he refused. (For reference, he is Italian if I’m not mistaken.)

  78. Eric Says:

    Not Pol Pot #39: Surely this is absurd? Imagine removing the largest honour from a person just because they had a bad name… Imagine in some distant future, Euler becomes a derogative word. Do we rename everything?

  79. John Black Says:

    You sound like someone who was bullied when you were younger and is afraid to offend anyone. Maybe try stiffening your spine and taking a stand instead of trying to please the social justice bullies. Watch, Yarvin will be proved right yet again. It’s uncanny how many high IQ people lack the social intelligence and basic cojones to resist these power-hungry apparatchiks. You are right about one thing: Trump was elected because of things like this, and he will probably be re-elected for them. If people at universities have nothing better to do that this, can you blame people for becoming anti-academia? The absurdity of the leftists and cowardice of the liberals in this era is breathtaking to behold.

  80. fred Says:

    Quantum Chosenness.

  81. Scott Says:

    zluria #44:

      Look, I’m with you, firmly on the side of reason, freedom and enlightenment. Only – maybe this isn’t the hill we want to die on?

    I thought I made it clear in the post that I have no intention to die on this hill! But if we’re being honest about it, right now I’m simply sitting on the hill, the hill where I’ve happened to live for 6 or 7 years, while a few people tweet their disappointment in me.

  82. Scott Says:

    STEM Caveman #72:

      Do you feel your career has benefited in any noticeable or significant way from having a surname starting with AA?

    I mean, it’s nice to arrive at a conference and not have to search for my name badge, but just head straight to the left edge of the leftmost table. 🙂

    More seriously, it’s a bit weird knowing that any paper I ever coauthor with 3 or more people will be “Aaronson et al.” (unless I coauthor with someone like Aardal or Aanderaa—both real people who’ve worked in CS theory). And for that reason, on the margin, I may have declined to join a few joint papers that I might otherwise have joined, if I felt that my contribution was too small to merit the “accidental top billing.”

    On the whole, though, not a big effect.

  83. Not Pol Pot Says:

    Eric #78: I’ll bite that bullet and say that, if through some accident of history the common phrase for the holocaust became “Euler characteristic”, we should find a different name for the alternating sum of the Betti numbers. Euler’s been dead for over 200 years; I promise he won’t mind.

    Note that I don’t say that we should rename everything named after Killing (and there’s plenty more), just the one that now shares its (very specific) name with one of the most brutal mass murders in human history.

  84. Scott Says:

    Stephen Jordan #61: Thanks!!!

  85. PTT Says:

    We sympathize somewhat with Aaronson’s predicament. The man has shown clear signs of getting it in the past; he’s too much of a free thinker to swallow the woke agenda wholesale. And yet he’s horrified at the possibility of having to swallow the red pill, and so continues to virtue-signal even as he realizes that won’t save him from the SJW mob. (It’s all there in his post, just go read it.) Scott Aaronson would do well to closely study the case of Bret Weinstein. I’m not urging him to take Weinstein’s path, just reminding him that these things have a way of choosing themselves, without asking you.

  86. Scott Says:

    Nick #57:

      “I knew it would come to this.”
      Wow, he predicted that people would bikeshed about terminology? What a wise prophet! If only we had heeded his words when had the chance, maybe this disaster could have been averted!

    LOL, this might be my favorite comment so far.

  87. Gil Kalai Says:

    Instead of “quantum supremacy” let me propose the term HQCA (“Huge Quantum Computational Advantage”) I’ll try to use it.

  88. Boaz Barak Says:

    Congrats on the ACM fellowship!

    I agree with one of your halves (forgot which one) that debates about scientific terms and semantics are typically uninteresting and unproductive. It sometimes happens that a scientific term has unfortunate connotations and so it’s better to use another. For example these days almost everyone uses the “traveling salesperson problem” instead of “traveling salesman problem”. I don’t think it was a huge deal, but the new term is just as good scientifically and has less chance of making people uncomfortable so I think it’s a positive change.

    Similarly if many people decide to write papers using “quantum advantage” instead of “quantum supremacy “ then the former might become the most common terms and that’s fine. The important thing is that this decision is made by the community of people actually working on quantum computing. The opinions of outsiders, whether it is some activists in favor of the change or people like Pinker or the WSJ editorial opposing it, are irrelevant.

    The second important thing is to recognize this is not very important. We can all keep using “quantum supremacy “ and it is unlikely to have any significant negative effect (if at all) on the well-being of actually female or minority scientists in this area, and similarly we can also stop using it and it won’t have any negative effect on scientific process beyond making it a little harder to search by keyword for papers on the same topic.

  89. A1987dM Says:

    Okay, when I hear “quantum supremacy” I don’t immediately think of white supremacist, but I don’t immediately think of something as weak as “faster than any non-quantum computer in the world at just one problem with no practical applications deliberately contrived to be slow on non-quantum computers”.

    As for “ancilla”, WTH would be wrong with “auxiliary”?

  90. Gabriele Says:

    Your closing remarks about “big fish to fry” offends me and all the vegetarian readers of this blog. Please retract them.

    (Yes, it’s a joke. And… I am actually vegetarian. Long time lurker, first comment. 🙂

  91. Boaz Barak Says:

    P.s. Let me correct myself – the fact that several people signed the letter means that continuing using the term will have at least negative effect on people currently in the field. I still maintain that the effect of either continuing using the term or changing to another will be small.

  92. Candide III Says:

    Nick #57: now I know what it was that Stalin and Trotsky were doing about left-deviationism and right-opportunism: they were bikeshedding about terminology. Live and learn.

  93. Aaron Roth Says:

    These days, stable matchings are often taught by referring to the two sides of the market as “students and schools” or “residents and hospitals” because these are how the algorithms are actually used in practice. They are also a better motivation than the contrived marriage story. But note that its not so easy to keep the marriage story but relax the heteronormative assumption: it is very important that the set of feasible matchings form a bipartite graph, because otherwise stable matchings don’t exist.

    Battle of the Sexes is definitely a dated name. When I teach it I usually make some reference to this, and swap the role of the man and the woman in the story, which still elicits a few laughs.

  94. STEM Caveman Says:

    Isn’t “final solution” a slight mistranslation? I thought “total solution”, Allsolution, comprehensive solution, ultimate ubersolution or terms of that sort better capture the sense of the word in German. “Final solution” might simply be a term that was already in use in English of the time and used as a ready-at-hand approximation.

    I think it is virtuous to re-use a phrase and thus over time dilute it of offensive connotations, rather than creating a permanent and ever growing set of linguistic landmines. Similarly, I thought the World Trade Center should have simply been rebuilt as office towers, with any large scale commemoration done separately elsewhere if at all.

  95. mr_squiggle Says:

    Turing incomplete – toys
    Turing complete – all respectable classical computing devices
    Turing surfeit – a device which can perform calculations a classical computer cannot, with reasonable resources.

  96. Dan T. Says:


    Day after day, alone on a hill
    The man with the foolish grin is keeping perfectly still
    But nobody wants to know him, they can see that he’s just a fool
    And he never gives an answer
    But the fool on the hill sees the sun going down
    And the eyes in his head see the world spinning around

  97. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Setting aside the politics, the phrase “quantum supremacy” has turned into something misleading in a different way. What John Preskill originally meant in his 2012 arXiv essay was the supremacy of full quantum computing. I think that that phrase could be okay another name for the complexity class BQP. However, the usage of the phrase “quantum supremacy” shifted over the next few years to eventually mean the first quantum computation of any kind that classical computers can’t match, even if it is far short of full BQP and whether or not it is at all useful. I think that that’s misleading, and the name that I prefer for achievements like Google Sycamore is “quantum unsimulability”. I wouldn’t even call Sycamore “quantum advantage” unless someone can demonstrate a clear use of random quantum circuits. (And maybe something a bit better than certified randomness, which is a perfectly respectable application albeit still under investigation.)

  98. Jan Jannink Says:

    how about : the quantum primacy

    Seriously, it actually means the right thing, sounds more mathy, and a dozen other good things.

    There is one aspect of this whole debate that has gone untouched it seems, in Leonie Mueck’s original proposal, your response, this blog post and the comments. Humans aren’t born with knowledge, they acquire it much like mountain climbers climb peaks over the course of their lives. The pioneer knowledge climbers having seen the world from those peaks are now different from their aspiring peers. They rarely recognize that this difference prevents their peers from perceiving the world as they do. They are frequently uninterested in scaling the peaks in other knowledge domain ranges that would allow them to reach that understanding. So those knowledge climbers name their climbing routes and teach the names to those who follow, not realizing they’ve made them unappealing to those they preceded. If we want the world to be more like our image of it, then it’s in our interest to get as many people up the mountain as possible.

  99. Uncle Brad Says:

    Quantum Embiggenment

  100. David Says:

    What I can’t understand is how anyone can take these objections seriously. The whole thing is just ridiculous. There’s nothing wrong in the word “supremacy” by itself, it has a specific meaning, it fits the context here, end of discussion. In fact anyone can check a dictionary for usage examples of the word “supremacy” in other non-racist contexts. Meriam-Webster for instance shows ” the supremacy of cashmere among wools accounts for its high price”.

    The same goes with the “final solution” phrase that #34 mentioned. It took me a while to even figure out what he was referring to, as it would be a perfectly fine phrase to use in the context of solving a school problem. If I had had a teacher tell me not to use that phrase, I would most certainly ignored the advice: both words are perfectly fine and understood, and just because some idiot used them in a bad setting can’t prevent the rest of us from using them when it makes perfect sense.

    The case of “Killing fields” is even worse as Killing is just a surname; I hope #37 was simply joking.

  101. Maks Says:

    Russian writer and journalis Juliya Latynina have said that “West moves towards there from where we have come from, and we [post soviet countries] are walking in circles”. Many years I’m reading scientific news and blogs and today I more and more see strange discussions about racism and sexism in words and terms. It looks so soviet-style for me.

  102. ppnl Says:

    I have a list of words that make me uncomfortable. The list is topped by the word “Uranus”. Seriously. That planet needs to change its name.

  103. anonymous Says:

    You need to realize sometimes people do what they do not because of their stated intentions, but because of deeper emotional reasons. The way I see it, many social justice warriors, and other ‘I’m offended’ activists do what they do not because they really care.

    (some of them, who have been really hurt, deserve empathy and are easy to recognize. I’m not talking about them – I’m talking about those kind of people which seemingly enjoy fighting windmills)

    while their started reason is being offended, and advocating political correctness, the real motivation behind them is envy, low self esteem and a deep emotional need to justify to themselves why the neighbors grass is greener.

    Every little victory, every little wrongdoing that is admitted, gives them the satisfaction of confirming that the reason others are better is that they are evil, cheating and immoral. it’s a confirmation that indeed others had it easier and society isn’t fair and they are the victims.

    But the problems is that envy is infinite, and seeing the flaws of others won’t make their life any better. Giving a positive feedback to them (by apologising for everything) won’t settle them (as it should have), but instead will send them looking for the next windmill to fight, in order to feel that emotional acceptance again.

    It is a frustrating experience dealing with them because of how impossible they are to satisfy. It seems like you take it personally, but you shouldn’t. Nobody, not even Leonie, really cares that much about supremacy being offensive. They are using you for Catharsis.

    you mentioned bullies because deep down you realize they are the same kind of people: people using others to satisfy their emotional self esteem problems, by reducing other’s self worth.

    once I realized this, and stopped paying attention to these kind of people, so much anxiety was resolved.

  104. Job Says:

    There’s quantum rubicon to refer to the point of no return for classical computing.

    I also like the suggestion of using something like aturing to refer to a computational advantage over classical systems.

    The supremacy term, in the quantum context, is actually kind of a sales pitch since there’s no expectation that practical QCs will displace classical computers, except for very specialized applications.

    And it’s easily avoided, even without an alternative catch phrase, except possibly when referring to the supremacy experiment, which is old news anyway.

    I’m up to the challenge of not using the term. Not using a word is easy, it’s being told which words to use that’s a problem.

    Even if “quantum advantage” were an adequate alternative, telling people to use that is just inviting dissent.

  105. Scott Says:

    “You are not a hateful pig” #26:

      You are not “hateful pig” i’m just sad that you don’t understand what it is like for women and minorities when these jokes are made. In an environment where people make such jokes some people do worse. It would be so great if you could support women by saying to your peers, hey that makes some people uncomfortable let’s not use it.

    A few responses:

    1. Thank you for explicitly affirming my non-hateful, non-porcine nature. I appreciate it!

    2. When you think of the kind of guy who bothers you—the kind who would invent a puerile pun involving bras—do you think he wouldn’t also invent a pun involving penises or jockstraps? So do we agree that the problem is not that he’s objectifying women, but simply that he’s making any reference to sex or sexual body parts at all?

    3. You’re talking to someone who’s regularly invited to give talks largely because of the expectation that he’ll be able to get the audience laughing—men, women, nerds, non-nerds, people with limited English, basically anyone open to his core “physicists be like THIS but computer scientists be like THAT” quantum computing humor shtick. So I’m constantly navigating what is or isn’t offensive, and self-censoring when I judge something over the line. I’m familiar with this issue.

    And as someone in the yuk-trenches, I’m not ready to endorse the position that intellectual life has to be scrubbed completely clean of all humorous allusions to sex. Do you think the free-love radicals of the 1960s would even be able to comprehend their intellectual descendants making such an argument? I’d say that it’s always a judgment call depending on context. But if we adopt a militant ethos of “whenever in the slightest doubt, leave it out,” our lives would be left … denuded.

    4. As a commenter above pointed out, the claim that women and minorities are driven out of STEM by slightly off-color jokes or phrases is an empirical claim that requires empirical support. One doesn’t just get to assume it without argument: indeed, if the claim turned out to be false, wouldn’t one have come close to slandering the innocent? For starters, one would have to investigate questions like: don’t male doctors and lawyers make off-color jokes more often, if anything, than male STEM academics? If so, then how did that not prevent medicine and law from successfully achieving gender parity, and even a predominance of women in many specialties?

    5. Even assuming a causal relationship, there are also difficult questions here about values. For example: suppose it were discovered that the presence of men with facial hair, or men with glasses, decreased the attendence of women at scientific conferences by a tiny but statistically detectable amount. (Much, much weirder things have been seriously reported in social science!) Would it then be morally obligatory to start a “Shave and Wear Contacts” pressure campaign?

  106. Scott Says:

    Ajit #68:

      But does [the ACM Fellowship] come with any monetary benefits?

    Alas, no.

  107. Scott Says:

    Vitor #48, David Karger #70, Aaron Roth #93: The stable marriage problem is actually a perfect example of how the lead of a culture-war argument can get transmuted into educational gold. When I’ve taught the stable marriage problem, I’ve remarked on its heteronormativity. I’ve then discussed the gay or lesbian version, which is also called the stable roommates problem—and which also turns out to have a polynomial-time algorithm, but a more complicated one than for the hetero case!

    One can also remark on how the symmetry between men and women needs to get broken somehow, either with men proposing to women or women proposing to men. And how, even though a priori it might seem better to be the chooser, and suck to be the one who has to constantly propose and then get humiliatingly rejected in favor of someone else—nevertheless, one can prove a formal sense in which the sex that proposes ends up with the better outcome.

  108. Scott Says:

    Greg Kuperberg #97: I just went back and looked again at Preskill’s 2012 essay, and here’s what he writes:

      We therefore hope to hasten the onset of the era of quantum supremacy, when we
      will be able to perform tasks with controlled quantum systems going beyond what
      can be achieved with ordinary digital computers …

      Such examples [IQP and BosonSampling] illustrate that there may be easier ways to achieve quantum supremacy than by operating a general purpose quantum computer.

    So it looks like you were mistaken: quantum supremacy has never had BQP-universality as part of its definition.

  109. Scott Says:

    PTT #85:

      We sympathize somewhat with Aaronson’s predicament.

    I appreciate the sympathy, but who is the royal “We” here? I hope you don’t have a tapeworm? 😀

  110. David Karger Says:

    Scott #107 completely agree; I often do some of the same.
    Perhaps a similar approach to quantum supremacy: might it be possible to negotiate with the petitioners regarding a *footnote* that will be placed on each first use of the QS term in an article,for example: “in recent years various forms of ethnic supremacy, and in particular white supremacy, have taken on new life. They are fundamentally evil and we reject them categorically. The term quantum supremacy may share an English word with these concepts but shares none of their intentions.”

  111. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Scott – Good point then, the shift in meaning is inside of John’s essay instead. Or at least it started there.
    Huh. I still like the starting point better though, that it should mean BQP-universality, or at a minimum, quantum computers that can do a range of clearly useful things.

  112. John Black Says:

    David Karger and others here demonstrate how easily intelligent people can be made to bow to ever-increasing and -absurd demands by fanatics—demands which have zero to do with science and everything to do with politicizing everything in order to give a neo-Stalinist cult absolute power. If these submissive attitudes are representative of the of the best and brightest minds in Western science, we are in more trouble than I realized.

  113. Robert Rand Says:

    > I will seek to use this awesome responsibility to steer the ACM along the path of good rather than evil.


    The ACM is currently on Emperor Elsevier’s Death Star trying to destroy literally the only good thing the current administration has ever considered doing.


    Move quickly, Open-Access-Jedi Aaronson, and may the Force Be With You.

    (Note: Somebody just made a Facebook group about this.)

  114. Candide III Says:

    Robert #113: and in a parallel and possibly unrelated development, someone is pushing USG to attack SciHub as a tool of Russian intelligence services (!)

  115. D. L. Yonge-Mallo Says:

    I wrote in #28 that there wasn’t any point for me to comment further, but I’d actually posted that before I saw Scott’s #27, and since his question was addressed to me and it’s his blog, I feel obliged to answer.

    But first, where are my manners? Stephen #61 reminded me that I forgot to congratulate Scott. So, Scott, congratulations!

    Now: A sufficient condition for a slippery slope argument to be fallacious is that the slope is clearly uphill, even if there’s someone on top of the hill beckoning or pulling you upwards. Isn’t it clear that Sarah Kaiser is waging an uphill battle? The argument treats “quantum supremacy” as if it were a high-resistance block holding back a sled at the top of a hill which, once removed, will allow it to slide down over other terms like “ancilla” or even “dagger” without much resistance. Does anyone seriously believe this?

    I would suggest a more accurate picture is one in which a sled is being pulled uphill against heavy resistance, has already passed points lower on the hill such as “slave” and “NIPS”, is somewhere below where “quantum supremacy” is, and other terms people want changed such as “ancilla” are further uphill while reductio ad absurdum such as “dagger” or “sentence-ending periods” are far off in the distance beyond the clouds. (If we had lived in a world where, due to a mere accident of history, the term had been “slave qubit” instead of “ancilla”, it would probably already have been changed without much resistance. I wish I’d thought of this more realistic hypothetical earlier instead of “polynomial patriarchy” above.) Also, Steven Pinker and many others wants to drag the sled back down to the point where “NIPS” was acceptable. So yes, I think it is a slippery slope fallacy.

    Even if Sarah has a list of terms she wants changed, agreeing to one doesn’t automatically mean agreeing to all of them. Each case still has to be considered on its own merit.

    Does this satisfy the onus, Sandro #53? No, I don’t believe switching to a newly created language is a reasonable end goal, because I don’t believe that choosing not to use a few words will slippery slope all the way there. As I mentioned above, I’m a linguistic descriptivist. The way slippery slope supporters seem to believe language works isn’t how it actually works. Words become taboo all the time, and there’s nothing particularly wrong with this. For example, just look at how many people have accepted “woke” as a pejorative. They’ve been manipulated to do so by a coordinated media campaign and peer pressure, and they don’t even realise this while proclaiming that they’re against making words taboo.

  116. D. L. Yonge-Mallo Says:

    Since I’ve addressed half of comment #53 in #115, let me also say something about “this sort of thing fuels Trump supporters”, which others have also mentioned. To me, this has the sniff of “you’re just provoking the bully”. Does anyone believe that Fox & Friends wouldn’t label anyone whose opinion differed from theirs in any way “radical leftists” *no matter what they did*? Trump supporters are backed by a powerful media empire, run by people who have discovered a weakness in democracy in the age of Facebook and the Internet, namely, that it’s very easy to manipulate people into supporting you by stoking their outrage and spreading lies and appealing to their tribalism. They’d have you believe that a small group of “woke academics” are trying to politically control you by changing the way you use language when the media already controls you by manipulating how you use language.

    If you don’t believe this, just take a look at any forum where the Nature letter is being discussed, including in this very comment thread, and count how many people mock “wokeness” or think they’re clever by suggesting the word “privilege” instead of supremacy. The small group of academics who signed that letter are opposed by Steven Pinker, the Telegraph, the Wall Street Journal, and numerous other outlets with much more power and influence than they do. Look at how many people are saying “woke people are just looking for things to be outraged about” unironically while being outraged about something which has no effect on them. (The only people whose opinion should even matter here are people who actually work in quantum computing.)

    The mere *existence* of immigrants fuels Trump supporters. So who cares whether something fuels them or not? They’re going to bully you no matter how hard you try to appease them. (This exact same argument, of course, is made against “woke academics” including in this very comment thread. But whose actions can realistically be labeled “bullying” here, a small group of people writing a letter to a science journal, or numerous television stations and newspapers, several popular authors, and supporters of a President and political party which already controls most of the levers of power in the USA, mocking said academics for being “woke”?)

    I don’t know what to do about the fact that a large part of the American population seems to be in thrall to “alternative facts”. I suspect that many of those who suggest that “wokeness” fuels Trump supporters don’t know either, and are just trying to comfort themselves by imagining that acting differently would appease them.

  117. flox Says:

    Let’s stop dancing around the obvious solution.

    Quantum Trump

  118. matt Says:

    “qupremacy”. The “qu” is pronounced as in “qubit”.

  119. chorasimilarity Says:

    As a member of the ACM, what’s your opinion on the letter opposing Open Access, signed by ACM, Elsevier, etc?

  120. Mark Marshall Says:

    What about “Quantum Usefulness”, which is what we are all really waiting for?

  121. Scott Says:

    Robert Rand #113 and chorasimilarity #119: [gasp] I confess I was totally unaware that ACM had teamed up with Elsevier to oppose open access! If Elsevier came out in support of orphans, puppies, and hot cocoa, I’d still want to carefully see what their angle was before joining them.

    I thought that I was being tongue-in-cheek about steering the ACM, a totally anodyne professional society, along the path of good rather than evil. But I’m now being called on my bluff!

    Anyone who knows the ACM better than I do: what would be some effective ways to register one’s opposition to this?

  122. chorasimilarity Says:

    Scott #121, I admired Gowers initiative [1] from 2012, which led to The Cost of Knowledge movement [2].

    However, any remake of this could be done better. Gowers and The Cost of Knowledge protested against a publisher (Elsevier), but we see now that the problem may not be entirely on the seller’s side (publisher). If there were no buyer (academic management, scientific organization), there would be no problem, right?

    [1] https://gowers.wordpress.com/2012/01/21/elsevier-my-part-in-its-downfall/

    [2] http://thecostofknowledge.com/

  123. Curtis Yarvin Says:

    DLY #115 and #116, I fear you are living in a movie. Here is a simple exercise for assessing which of two powers, A or B, is stronger.

    If you think B is stronger, ask B whether they would switch all their weapons with A. If B says yes, either you are wrong, or B is lying to trick you. Ask him to explain himself. Judge his explanation. Think it possible, like the scientist you clearly are, that you may be wrong.

    As B, I am happy to take the combined assets of the universities and major foundations, all of which I conceive to be progressive in nature. I so conceive because they frequently present and even demand expressions of progressivism.

    For instance, I would take the assets of Berkeley, because of this lovely questionnaire — a gateway through which even our host, ACM fellow though he be, would have to pass, if he wanted to work at one of America’s great research universities (and the one with the best climate):


    25 years ago I was a grad student at this very institution. At that time no such thing could have been imagined. Anyone can feel free to imagine such a test if it measured your commitment to Christian values, Mormon values, Hindu values, American values, Nazi values, or those of any other sectarian or national doctrine. (Have you heard of this guy Modi? I bet he could copy this document almost verbatim. But for, like, Vishnu, or something.)

    If Berkeley asked faculty candidates in exactly such terms what they had done for the German race, would we not have to categorize Berkeley as a Nazi institution? And the chance of Berkeley as it is doing so is zero; so Berkeley is not presently a Nazi institution. It is a progressive institution. I don’t see any point at all in quibbling about these facts.

    Last time I looked, the assets of foundations + endowments were roughly equal to student debt outstanding. This suggests some interesting accounting directions. But in this test, I will just take these assets — which constitute a tiny fraction of the power of America’s progressive institutions. The rest of their goodwill, staff, physical plant, etc, I don’t need at all. A trillion and a half dollars should really be enough for every last one of my evil plans.

    As A, of course, you get the assets of B. You get: an incompetent President in a largely ceremonial White House; Tucker Carlson; the rest of Fox, which has recently slipped from the grasp of its senile Australian founder into the hands of some smooth MBA son; a few pissant foundations, whose total assets must be well below 8 figures; a small intellectual establishment, deeply learned in the art of effete, compersive complaining; some weird-ass Christian colleges; a few eccentric billionaires, probably with under 1% of the assets of all billionaires; 60 million poor lost boomer souls, who on average are probably as interested in college football as politics, and who have neither any particular capacity or desire to rule, nor any particular capacity or desire for violence; a few cancelled writers, of no account at all; and a whole bunch of anonymous Twitter accounts, containing a small number of genuine literary geniuses, a larger number of lovable midwits, and a few homicidal autistic terrorists.

    Am I missing anything? What am I missing? I must be missing something. In any case, there is certainly ain’t no trillion dollars. You seem genuinely worried, which you should not be, and I sincerely hope this perspective reassures you.

    Someone else mentioned “bikeshedding.” I have done a lot of bikeshedding. It is a fun contest, generally conducted with the bare hands. The assumption is that no one in the shed has any real power, except possibly the moderator. Once the players start showing up with weapons, the game is no longer a game — and it deserves a different name. What weapons? See above.

  124. Sam Says:

    Let me try to summarize the arguments of both sides as understood by me.
    Arguments for changing the term: Scientific terminologies change over time. And words do have associations with history and real life. After using the term “supremacy” for 5-7 years, it is not too late to drop the term and removing this specific term is not asking for too much. Surely people should be generous and take into account if some colleagues find something objectionable. Surely people should not object to removing slave qubit or ancilla qubit or the phrase “final solution”. And continuing words like conquest, supremacy, colonization would help to retain such concepts in the real life even if we use them in technical contexts.

    Arguments against changing the term: Supremacy has a natural meaning and there are places where it is appropriate (Supreme court, for example). There are several such words that has negative connotations.
    Saying idioms like “people are blinded by hatred”, does it offend/trigger some people who are unfortunately blind? Should we remove terms like double-blind if that is the case? Should we remove the term supremum from the analysis? In this case, Preskill who is by no means a white-supremacist, chose the term to give a stronger effect than “advantage”. And that worked to some extent. Quantum supremacy is more catchy than quantum advantage. And for what reason we should remove the term? Some of the people who signed the letter fights against white-supremacy on twitter on almost daily basis. Does removing supremacy create a safe-space (where they can wake up in the morning without finding anything to outrage ) for them? If one genuinely wants to create a so-called safe space, then one has to really go slippery slope and commit to remove a lot of unpleasant history, words and idioms from the public discourse and science. Additionally, removing a term is not easy when there are papers with the previously used terms. We have to still cite them and point out the relation between the old term and the new term at least for next couple of years. Finally, even if we assume that words can trigger different images and emotions, it is highly disputable that continuing words like conquest, supremacy, colonization would help to validate/retain such concepts in the real life even if we use them in technical contexts.

  125. Scott Says:

    Sam #124: Looks about right to me!

  126. Orin Says:

    DLY #116, you need to give people more credit. I can’t speak for the average person who watches Fox & Friends, but I hope you can appreciate, even from this thread alone, that there are quite a few people (I’d imagine Scott included) who do not watch Fox & Friends, who do not drink conservative media kool-aid like mind-controlled zombies, and who in fact are lifelong liberals and advocates for progressive causes, and yet who are alienated to the point of being able to empathize with the “middle finger” Trump supporters. I’ll let you extrapolate to how non-lifelong-liberals might feel. Assuming Trump supporters are cartoonishly stupid or racist (“the mere *existence* of immigrants fuels Trump supporters”) is a recipe for disaster. It is not only wrong and strategically naive, but ironically the same kind of generalization you are supposedly arguing against when applied to other domains of your choosing.

  127. Scott Says:

    Curtis #123: After careful consideration, I agree to your deal. All the endowments of all the universities and left-leaning foundations in America, all $1.5 trillion or whatever, gets transferred to Republicans. In exchange, the Republican Party ceases to exist or to field candidates, under its current name or any other name. All elections are henceforth between the different factions of what used to be the Democratic Party.

    Assuming you agree and I agree, all that’s left is to (1) convince the universities and foundations, and (2) convince the Republicans! Where should we start? 🙂

  128. Anon Says:

    My final response to DLY, who added value to the discussion with his responses. The very reason why “ancilla qubit ” is better than “slave qubit” is the same reason why “quantum supremacy” is better than “quantum advantage”. In the latter, stronger term was deemed to be helpful, in the former milder terms like ancilla (with its changed meaning as auxiliary) or auxiliary suffices. You want to use the word “slave” only to denounce “slavery”, but please note that, the word “master” is still used in many places in a slightly different context. For example, master player. And it is used for black sportsmen or women too. This shows that the meanings of the words can change to positive. On the outrage against woke politics: Are we hypocrites as we too are outraged (or wasting time for what we are trying to pass as ” much ado about nothing”)? This only indicates that we (anti-wokes) have strong opinions too. And this shows you can not avoid triggering people. A religious student who believes only in hetero marriages may get triggered by Karger’s or Scott’s well thought approach of teaching stable marriage. A pro-life student may get triggered in a biology class or a class on modern US politics. Should we ignore their feelings just because they are likely to come from historically advantaged groups?

  129. PTT Says:

    Scott #109:

    >I appreciate the sympathy, but who is the royal “We” here? I hope you don’t have a tapeworm? ????

    PTT is known to occasionally slip into the royal “we”, as will be familiar to readers of our blog. We appreciate the concern and will look into the tapeworm issue. You, in turn, would be wise to examine the case of Bret Weinstein and its relevance to your own trajectory.

  130. Curtis Yarvin Says:

    Scott #127: it’s rare for anyone to even notice that most people have no motivation for supporting either “side,” except — to defend themselves against the other. And then people are like: how could you possibly be a monarchist? Are you serious?

  131. Rand Says:

    Scott #121: Right now, I think the best thing to do is just to draw attention to it. The ACM signed onto something that runs against the desires and best interests of their membership, and they’ll only get away with it if it slides under our radar. This hasn’t been well-reported on and a few blog posts and tweets would quickly remedy that.

    I’d also like to see all of the ACM SIGs come out against this. I’d recommend that people email the heads of their respective SIGs, available here: https://www.acm.org/special-interest-groups/sig-governance

  132. jonas Says:

    Chris Z #55, mr_squiggle #95, Job #104: absolutely not. We use “Turing” for computation models regardless of how fast they execute. A computer is still Turing-equivalent even if it solves some problems exponentially faster, such as a universal quantum computer, or it’s slower than RAM machines by a quadratic time, such as single-tape turing machines, or even if they’re double exponentially slower than RAM machines, such as two-counter machines. Thus, using terminology that you proposed like “SuperTuring” or “Turing surfeit” or “aturing” would be misleading.

  133. Jonathan P. Dowling Says:

    The only difference between banning words and burning books is a matter of degrees.

  134. Scott Says:

    PTT #129: I don’t know Bret Weinstein, but I do know his brother Eric reasonably well. Yes, while I didn’t blog about it at the time (what could I have added to the mountains of commentary?), what happened to Bret and Heather Heying was one of the decisive events that showed that academics who are merely progressive and anti-racist in the ordinary ways, and not part of the woke religion, can no longer seek careers at liberal arts colleges if they have any inclinations to stand on principle about anything. The situation at research universities remains considerably better. In 20 or 30 years, of course, who knows? But by then civilization might be in the midst of savage warfare fueled by climate refugees, and which words you can use at universities will be the least of our worries.

  135. David Karger Says:

    John#112 what you call “bowing to demands” can equally be called being generous. If I can do something that costs me little and helps people less well off than I am feel better, then why not?

  136. gentzen Says:

    What I don’t like about “quantum advantage” is that John Preskill explicitly explained in his quanta piece why it doesn’t work for him. And he did not yet put his name on the longer list of signatories (see update to the original post). If it doesn’t matter whether the name describes what it means, then why not just call it “Preskill milestone”? OK, there are all kinds of reasons why this would not be nice. But one thing I like about it is that there is no “quantum” in it. And it contains the implicit thread that if people keep arguing about words, their name might be used too: how about “Kaiser qubit” instead of “ancilla qubit”?

    However, the reality is that it is not the readership of this blog who gets to choose the new name. The choice is to either stick with the established “quantum supremacy”, or to accept the misleading “quantum advantage”. Maybe John Preskill would have to option to select a new name. A name not lacking punch. Something like “proof of hypercomputation” that claims too much but at least explains why achieving it is worth all that hype.

  137. Les Hapablap Says:

    There is no slippery slope fallacy going on here. It can’t be, because what has occurred here is already way down at the bottom of whatever slope we are talking about.

    The event as I see it is that a word has been used in a scientific label that is innocuous enough that it was used in a movie title not 15 years ago, and yet several probably well-meaning and normal people have signed a protest letter about it, pressuring change by an implied threat to a scientist. That several well-meaning and normal people would even have the idea to spend their time this way means that some very strange and foul memes have gotten hold around here.

    Count me among those who would never in a million years vote for Trump, but I will not vote for anyone who displays even a whiff of sympathy for this sort of behavior.

  138. D. L. Yonge-Mallo Says:

    Curtis #123: Like Scott #127, I’d take the deal. But I also don’t consider A and B to be opposing sides in your example. Almost all political discussion is phrased in terms of left and right, but for me the much more useful distinction is between authoritarian and anti-authoritarian, which is an orthogonal axis to left-right. The people in power in both A and B can easily switch sides. Donald Trump has been both a Democrat and a Republican, but he’ll never be on the side of the common people (despite what many seem to believe).

    Sam #124: I don’t think it’s quite accurate to say there are two sides. Neither of your sides describes my position. I have no issues with expressions such as “final solution” when used in the context of an exam when the two words just happen to coincide, or “colonisation” when used in a biology paper about insect colonies, or any number of expressions which might be offensive taken out of context. The “two sides” framing treats whether or not to avoid taboo terms as if it were a matter of principle to be debated, whereas in reality words become taboo (or lose their taboo) all the time. The relevant question for me is whether or not the *specific* expression “[something] supremacy” crosses that threshold for society. This is why counterarguments about “supremum” look like straw men to me: it is a different expression which has its own context.

    I mentioned earlier that I avoid the word “slave” in CS because I know Yazidis who are affected by it. Here’s the background: I was at a conference at the UN about human rights, and it came up in a conversation about how we can educate refugees in Switzerland. I was questioned about computer science as a topic which might be suitable, and “master-slave” actually came up as a problem. In the discussion about terminology which ensued, what I gathered was that it was only this specific *concept* which was the problem, and that the word “slave” was too strongly associated with it to dissociate the meaning even in other contexts. Words such as “violate” or “violation” were not problems in the context of expressions like “violate the boundary condition”. (Indeed, the expression “violations of human rights” was used throughout the conference, often by the Yazidi themselves.)

    This is why I think that people who react to being asked to avoid one specific term by immediately asking if other terms won’t also fall under the axe don’t truly understand the issue. I was called a “word-trigger theorist” above, but I’m actually a word-trigger *empiricist*. In my actual experience, the slippery slope never happens. I’ve avoided the term “slave”, but nobody has asked me to also avoid “master”, which a *theorist* might imagine would have the same effect, but actually doesn’t in real life (because “master”, unlike “slave”, is easily to dissociate from its slavery meaning by context). I also object to the idea that only “privileged” people care about avoiding traumatic language, because it’s a clear example of selection bias: you’ll only hear about objections to the word “slave” in CS from a privileged person like me, who has free time to write long comments about it on Scott’s blog, because the people affected by it, like resettled Yazidi refugee children who might want to study CS, are too busy with more important things like survival.

    If somebody says, “making it easier to teach CS to refugees (or making CS more welcoming to African-Americans or whatever) isn’t important enough to change existing terminology because I can’t accommodate everybody”, I respect their choice. The point isn’t what one person thinks, but what society thinks as a whole. I choose to avoid the word “slave” and someone else can choose not to, but if more people choose to do as I have done, then the term will just naturally fall out of use, which it seems to have. You cannot avoid all triggering words, but society can and does choose what to avoid, by consensus.

    Orin #116: I was responding specifically to the claim that things like this are “fueling Trump’s rise”. I should have been more specific in my answer and written “the mere *existence* of immigrants fuels (a non-insignificant portion of) Trump supporters”. There’s pretty much nothing you can do about people who get angry about saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”. I’m not saying that only such people oppose the idea of avoiding the use of certain language in certain contexts, or even that all Trump supporters are like that. I’m actually very sympathetic to many Trump supporters who feel disenfranchised by pre-2016 mainstream US politics, and very sad that many of them are trapped in a bubble where they’ll continue to be misled into doing things which will harm themselves in the long term.

  139. D. L. Yonge-Mallo Says:

    I really like gentzen’s #136 suggestion of “Preskill milestone”.

    (Okay, I’m really done this time. I think I’ve explained why I support the Nature letter as well as I could and can’t really add anything more substantive. Apologies to anyone else expecting a reply from me.)

  140. PTT Says:

    Scott #134: Your distinction between liberal-arts colleges and research universities might be more wishful thinking than reality. Google “Yale screaming girl” for a case in point.

  141. Bewildered Observer From Beyond Says:

    It seems to me that since the 1960s generations of academics (almost surely in some humanities department) imagine new ways to find their first world lives intolerable which is then fed into the educational system such that for subsequent generations of young people that new way for life to be intolerable becomes reality.

    Sometimes this may happen in a single generation too. Like many kids interested in math, I was inspired by the book Men of Mathematics. Later in grad school, a white sophomore remarked he found it strange I was inspired by it because they were all white. This made me feel stupid because while I had always known they were European it was only then that it struck me they were ‘white’. But what really annoyed me, and this may not make sense to many of you, was now there was possibly an insurmountable obstacle between me and my heroes because while earlier I could become a ‘man of mathematics’ there was simply no way I could become a ‘white man of mathematics’. Suddenly entire new vistas of being unsure became open to me. Earlier it was simply of the sort ‘maybe I not an algebra person?’ now it included the pernicious ‘maybe I can’t do this because I’m not a white frenchman’.

    Coming back to terms that give offense, While it may or may not be the case whether a certain term is currently found offensive by a suitably significant proportion of young people, it is highly probable that if the woke culture is left unchecked, given its hold on education/media related depts, this will indeed become a reality for subsequent generation of kids in that many of them will be genuinely offended by such a term, and then people will be forced to change it to something else.

    The true slippery slope is not that new words will be added to the offence-giving list but rather elements of behaviours other than linguistic behaviours will be imagined to be ‘problematic’ and in time these will become genuine triggers for a new generation.

  142. Scott Says:

    D. L. Yonge-Mallo #138: It’s totally fine if you don’t want to answer more comments. But: you wrote that, as an empiricist rather than a theorist, you understand that there’s no slippery slope; while we may all need to stop using the word “slave” (even in seemingly innocuous contexts), the word “master” is fine. This seems like an extremely unfortunate choice of example: are you aware that both Harvard and Yale recently cancelled the term “housemaster”?

  143. Anemonious Says:

    She advocated using “quantum advantage” instead.

    The amount of effort it must have taken her to talk herself down from “quantum privilege” is admirable

  144. Anonemonious Says:

    I’m not sure which one is overcredited or slurred by suggesting that Bannon was directly influenced by Moldbug but what’s the source for that ?

  145. Sam Says:

    DL Younge Mallo, you have earned my respect for your detailed and logical comments. I am not asking for any answers from you, still want to put into record my thoughts.

    1. Although you clarified your stance on colonization for the contexts like ant colony optimization, the letter claimed that words like colonization (in the context of robots) are examples of violent words and would validate/retain the concept in the real world. I think this is one point I found most objectionable in the Nature letter.

    2. I am not a terrible person. If I am talking in front of Yazidi’s, I would reflect on the word “slave” and would try to avoid it too. If I know someone had cancer, I may avoid using the word cancer if I feel that brings back the trauma. If a black student objects to using the word quantum supremacy, I would say that I am against any concept like white supremacy but quantum supremacy is a different concept and I am using the stronger word to illustrate the surprising power of quantum computers. A mature adult person hopefully would understand that I am not a closet racist and my behavior would reflect that I respect and welcome all.

    3. It is not that the privileged can not speak for unprivileged, but what I see as problem when the privileged tries to guess the thoughts and psyche of the unprivileged without taking into accounts of all the possibilities. This year’s Nobel prize winners in economics showed that how we think about poor people and how poor people actually think can be vastly different.

    4. Much of this outrage is about the particular context. We thought the use of supremacy in the context of quantum computing is pretty innocuous, so is the use of House master. I probably did make the mistake of giving straw man examples, but you did that also when you gave the examples of polynomial patriarchy or slave qubit.

    5. About emotional safe space: The real world is not a Vipasana meditation retreat. But if we are really serious about the emotional well-being of everyone, then sincere effort is required rather than going for low-hanging fruits like removing quantum supremacy.

    6. Although, I was triggered/annoyed by the particular context of outrage over quantum supremacy, what I really fear is what may come after. What Karger and others are not getting is that this letter has a context. The academic world has become a self-righteous echo chamber with left liberal ideas. It is not a safe space for anyone with different views. Though time and again, we have seen the excesses of cancel culture, rarely we have seen prominent people in the academia speaking against that culture.

  146. Raetihi Says:

    matt #118: > “qupremacy”. The “qu” is pronounced as in “qubit”.

    I do not see any need to change the “quantum supremacy” terminology, or any other scientific term that has been discussed here. As a geometer, I would be willing to die on a Killing field. (Okay, that’s an oxymoronic metaphor: the flow would keep me alive.) Even if you CS people don’t want to die on the “quantum supremacy” hill, you could at least try to defend it against woke craziness until the situation becomes untenable. If it’s absolutely necessary to capitulate at some point, then matt’s proposal is clearly the best option. Everyone would understand that “qupremacy” is just a portmanteau of the established term, shorter, easier to pronounce and quite qute anyway.

    If you don’t put up some serious resistance here, what will be next? Will the term “black hole” be declared to be cultural appropriation? Or, even worse, will it be declared to be racist? sexist? The woke warriors have greased the slope already. Stop the madness NOW, before scientific culture and reason die in the line of fire between Darth Yarvin and the Social Justice Loonies.

  147. John Black Says:

    David Karger, you aren’t bowing to people less well off than you; you are bowing to other university elites with some ridiculous ideas who want to control your language (and ultimately your thought—see “Newspeak”). This is how Jordan Peterson became famous; he finally took a stand and said no to people who wanted to dictate the language he could use. If you don’t see how tolerating that is a slide into totalitarianism, I don’t know what to tell you. It’s common for totalitarians to appeal to morality, guilt and use “for the children” rhetoric, because, as you are demonstrating, it works. I am amazed that people find this controversial; to me it shows how effectively people are being conditioned by the language and thought police.

  148. 2160p Says:

    Reality left satire behind years ago.


  149. Curtis Yarvin Says:

    DLY #138: a military or political conflict is an objective phenomenon, not a philosophical one. The observer does not get to decide what the sides are.

    Anon #144: good catch, the reported connection to Bannon was indeed false. I’ve never interacted with him.

  150. Ian Durham Says:

    Hey Scott,

    So I am one of the people who signed the letter (but not one of the originals who appeared in Nature), though I also see many of your points and agree with them (I’m baffled by “ancilla”). I was interviewed for an FQXi podcast about Google’s results when they first came out and I briefly mentioned the kerfuffle over the term “supremacy.” (And, like you, I immensely respect John Preskill and don’t think he meant any harm.) I don’t like most of the alternatives that have been proposed (I especially dislike “advantage”) so, on the podcast, I suggested “quantum primacy.” I don’t think the term carries any baggage (that I am aware of?) and I think it captures what John was going for with the term “supremacy”. The truth is that, though I am a (later) signatory to the letter, the proverbial cat may be out of the bag at this point. However, if we there is still a chance to stuff the cat back in, then my vote would be for “primacy.”

  151. Extranonymous Says:

    At this point in the woke cycle just like with creationists, antivaxers and flatearthers one loses by merely engaging with them at face value and presumptions of good faith thus providing those ideas with more clout and exposure than their originators ever could. And just like with those it became quite hopeless to expect the necessary kind of self-control to be exercised by people who are heavily motivated to mistake conflicts for debates.

    In an adult establishment the Nature letter would have been quietly ignored and its co-signatories noted for political feeble-mindedness.

    Another thing to point out is that Mueck is not a scientist (was she ever ?) or even a scientific editor anymore, she is now a “comm/PR professional” which in todays setting would rightly constitute a bad actor category on its own.
    She has also attached herself to some “quantum software” startup and with quantum pushed to become the next funding bubble it should only be assumed that the whole thing is a poorly disguised guerrilla PR effort on her behalf because again apparently the market cannot be expected to make certain kinds of publicity a bad publicity.

    also, Russia and China called – asked if in the spirit of woke non-violence the US and the rest of the west would be so kind so as to (linguistically) divest itself out of additional kinds of supremacy such as economical, nuclear, air-and-space et al.

  152. ShyGuy Says:

    Thank you for this carefully written post Scott, I totally agree with you. I am honestly worried and scared by the authoritarian creep of politics into the scientific discourse. I fear that it will not stop here. I fear that brilliant papers are going to be rejected by zealous reviewers because of the use of “ideologically inapprorpiate language”. I am so scared that I do not dare to sign this comment with my real name.

    Thank you for giving us all a voice.

  153. Scott Says:

    Extranonymous #151: This is a warning; your third paragraph is too much like a personal attack. Any further comments in the same spirit will be left in moderation. Thanks.

  154. Tez Says:

    The Preskill Point (the point google just moved us past)

    The Kitaev Cliff (first logical qubit capable of say 1E8 logical gates, presumably using topological protection of some sort)

    The C-Shor (Several hundred logical qubits capable of enough logical gates that they solve a useful problem, the place from which our quantum explorations will truly be ready to set sail)

  155. Extranonymous Says:

    ShyGuy #152 – This is not authoritarianism, actual authoritarianism is enabled by political reaction to this kind of thing and its promoters probably fully realize that, betting that it would discredit itself sooner than later and they come out on top.

    Authoritarianism means you can be imprisoned or killed for not complying with the politics, here you can at most get shrilled at online and if your social or professional standing is vulnerable to this kind of “reprisal” then at this point in time it is still a problem with your local culture and society and possibly yourself – not whatever the “regime” is, unlike in far too many places.

    A brilliant paper being rejected for “ideologically inappropriate language” event needs to devalue the rejectors more than the authors and if that’s not the case its not because of whoever is in government. Ironically “Nature” and similar journals currently owe their existence almost solely to being seen as a brand of quality and prestige so can be expected to be more resilient to this kind of censorship for papers that actually matter.
    What scientists would need to do in such case is to embrace the good old “callout” whenever “Nature” and others fail in this and to establish alternatives venues to disseminate their output – the fact that this can and is being done is what distinguishes it from authoritarianism.

  156. Shtetl-Optimized » Blog Archive » NIPS vs. NeurIPS: guest post by Steven Pinker Says:

    […] The Blog of Scott AaronsonIf you take just one piece of information from this blog:Quantum computers would not solve hard search problemsinstantaneously by simply trying all the possible solutions at once. « Quantum Dominance, Hegemony, and Superiority […]

  157. HM Says:

    Let’s not forget that in “white supremacy”, there is also the word “white”. If a person is triggered by the word “supremacy” because it evokes the phrase “white supremacy”, there is a very good chance that the word “white” will also trigger that person for the same reason (maybe less often, but still…). In this context, I don’t see how one can be consistent in asking for a ban on the word “supremacy” without also asking to ban the word “white”. In fact, maybe there should also be a letter, signed by neuroscientists, asking to replace the phrase “white matter” with something else, don’t you think? While we’re at it “black hole” might also be triggering to some folks…

  158. Kenneth W. Regan Says:

    Dick Lipton and I use both terms in a new chapter on the physics of QC for the second edition of our textbook. Indeed the draft we gave to MIT Press says in the intro:

    “Complexity is central to the argument over \emph{quantum supremacy}, which is perhaps better called by the mellower term \emph{quantum advantage}: How can we tell when a quantum device has achieved a task that no classical device can feasibly emulate?”

    We do however use the title “Quantum Supremacy” for our section on Google’s claim, which is a tighter version of our post on it, and “supremacy” occurs more often in the chapter overall. I started to make a distinction that “advantage” pertains to NISQ devices whereas “supremacy” properly designates universal QC, but I commented it out in the draft we submitted.

  159. Anonim Says:

    How about “quantum hyperequality”? Very woke on the surface, but the hidden meaning is, all computation models are equal but some computation models are more equal than others.

  160. Joseph Shipman Says:

    I agree with much of what you are saying, Scott, but there is a fundamental core phenomenon going on here which is so important that all the other details hardly matter:

    (1) Many (and even if not “most”, they are the dominant faction) of the offense-takers are absolutely not arguing in good faith, they are bullies and bad people and it is very dangerous to appease bullies.

    (2) To fight the bullies there are really only two alternatives.
    (a) call them out by name and get personal and hope that the people who rally to your side are more powerful than the people who rally to their side
    (b) establish a principle and proclaim it and do not compromise on it no matter how convenient.

    For candidate principles, your best choices that I can see are either
    I. If it is clear to an ordinary external observer that no offense was intended, offense actually taken should be communicated privately and ginning up outrage mobs when it is clear no offense was intended shall be regarded as unacceptable misbehavior deserving of ridicule and contempt
    II. More specifically for lexical questions: nobody gets to rule out words and terms that have been used generally without ill intent because some people have begun to be offended by them. This is stronger than I. because it also protects people who have become aware that some subset of people have begun to take offense but regards this offense-taking as unjustified and wishes to continue using language as they always have
    III. (Strongest of all): No one shall be punished professionally for any speech that does not violate existing written laws or organizational regulations that are defined as unambiguously as is reasonably achievable.

  161. Peter Says:

    “You’re probably now wondering: what’s wrong with ‘ancilla’? Apparently, in ancient Rome, an ‘ancilla’ was a female slave, and indeed that’s the Latin root of the English adjective ‘ancillary’ (as in ‘providing support to’). I confess that I hadn’t known that—had you?”

    I took Latin in 8th-12th grade and ‘ancilla’ is a word used very often in most popular series of Latin text books in the US/UK; I will always remember that the paragraph where it was first introduced contained the sentence “Ancilla dominum placet” (literally, ‘The slave girl pleases the master.’). Believe me when I tell you that since I was 13, every single time I hear “ancillary” “ancilla” etc., including in the context of computer science, that sentence is the first thing that pops up in my mind.

    I feel very strongly that your and Pinker’s positions are wrong, but nothing anybody says in these comments, one side or the other, is going to meaningfully convince anyone, so I am not going to bother trying. I just wanted to share this piece of information because my honest to god reaction the first time I heard someone talk about ancilla qubits, many years ago, was “that’s an extremely unfortunate choice of words,” and I wondered how many people in this field took Latin and noticed what they were saying.

    It’s probably tautological to say that the correlation between the people you know who took Latin in school and the people you know who know that “ancilla” literally translates from Latin as “slave girl” is close to one to one, but I would wager the amount of people is a lot higher than you think.

  162. Kenneth W. Regan Says:

    Peter #161: Here’s a Christmas verse I grew up with, Luke 1:38:

    Dixit autem Maria: Ecce ancilla Domini: fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum. Et discessit ab illa angelus.

    KJV translates as: “And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her.” All versions I recall say “handmaid.” True, the Greek original δούλη (douli) does mean “slave” and the New American Study Bible translates “bondslave” there. But I did not associate “handmaid” with “slave” until just now, and I bet a lot of other Catholics would say the same.

    My larger position here is that “ancillary” is by far the most understood word and it has broken those etymological shackles to become generic, so that “ancilla” can be taken as a retronym from it.

  163. Simon Says:

    Peter, I have no problem to accept that if you knew the original meaning of ancila, it could be awkward to see its use in quantum computing. But the context here is far from slavery and surely the scientists who coined/use the term does not approve this term. I did not know the term and assumed it means auxiliary. Even after knowing its original meaning, my mind would still be seeing it as auxiliary. Meanings and connotations can change and change for good.

    No matter how hard you try you can not get rid of all words with different/negative original meanings. Apparently, seminar is derived from semen and some woke activists became awkward about it. Where do you see the end of it?

  164. Final word Says:

    Take the word “sex”. When (at 13 years) I (and many others) got to know about the word for the first time, it was in the context of the mysterious activity adult human beings engage in. Since then, we keep encountering the term in many places—sometimes in forms, where it means gender, in the biology classes when we heard sexual reproduction, our minds did not drift to the sexual activity of human beings, although it did when I was 13. Context and maturity matters.

  165. STEM Caveman Says:

    > “Trump supporters are backed by a powerful media empire, run by people who have discovered a weakness in democracy” (etc)

    The media footprint of open Trumpists is somewhere from tiny (a few percent) to infinitesimal. Of the remaining 95+ percent of media, most is openly and vociferously anti-Trump, to the point where the historical pretense of objectivity cannot be sustained and has been dropped.

    Trump is opposed by a similar percentage, say 90+ percent, of every sphere of power other than the rank and file of hard power: soldiers and police officers. So we are not yet at a point where the DNC can simply command that Deplorables be arrested and detained en masse. All other forms of institutional power, such as propaganda (media, universities and K-12 education, foundations), law and security services (judiciary, FBI, DOJ, CIA), political organs (DNC, RNC/RINOs, PACs, lobbyists), permanent civil service of 1M+ employees, government contractors and NGOs — are all in various states of resistance against Trump, including the entities that nominally support him such as the Senate and the RNC (which merely uses him for fundraising).

    Obviously, if Trump is not actually in charge of much and it’s actually his enemies who are running everything as they have been all along, it would be to the advantage of the enemies to get you to believe that the opposite is true, and Trump is this dangerously all-powerful racist, anti-Semitic warmonger firing up the nukes and the gas chambers any minute now. That you posit the Mighty Trump theory as reality, and that bright people like Scott find it necessary to constantly engage in off-topic anti Trump virtue signalling, suggests that the propaganda is effective, either in its own right or in creating the social pressure to signal by those who don’t actually believe in what they are saying.

  166. Ellen Says:

    I really respect D.L. Yonge-Mallo’s points and arguments, but I will have to respectfully disagree on some. There should be a fallacy for saying something is [xyz] fallacy, and then leaving it at that. The slippery slope fallacy is a real fallacy, but in some cases, it’s true that setting a new cultural precedent leads to further unintended consequences. It is true that if an arbitrary (and not logical) line is set and agreed upon, becoming convention, there will be less resistance to future similar movements, ignoring logic and rationality, since it’s already become a norm to ignore benign intentions, good logic, and attack people for using certain verbiage, and perhaps even more arbitrary than the original. This is a real phenomenon, and it is a slippery slope. Can you use that to argue against everything you don’t agree with or extrapolate hugely and wildly? No. Can you acknowledge that some expanding of overton windows and new culturally agreed-upon norms does create less resistance and more future probabilties of expanding ideas that are not based on solid logic and proper allocation of (collective) mental resources to fight actual problems? Yes.

  167. The Google Quantum Supremacy Demo and the Jerusalem HQCA debate. | Combinatorics and more Says:

    […] 23, 2019: Following some renewed discussion in the last days on the terminology I proposed to replace the term “quantum supremacy” […]

  168. Candide III Says:

    Ellen #166:

    There should be a fallacy for saying something is [xyz] fallacy, and then leaving it at that.

    Schopenhauer’s Art of Being Right could use an update. It will soon be 200 years old, and we have certainly plumbed new eristical lows since then.

  169. Bill Says:

    Scott, perhaps, one way to satisfy both sides of yourself — (a) change the name, and (b) not completely give in to language police — is to come up with a completely new word.

    For example, the current era can be described as: “Quantum Preskillfulness” .

    The next era of personal quantum computers can be called: “Quantum Skillfulness”.

    And whatever comes after that: “Quantum Postskillfulness”.

    Or how about “Quantum Suprimacy”? Another name that Gil Kalai might like, “Quantacy”.

  170. geodesic Says:

    The point I take from “ancilla” is that it shows that etymology doesn’t actually matter, it’s just a convenient club that is used to turn certain words into weapons, on purpose and selectively. Yarvin’s comment above is correct.

    It is astounding to see how much ink has been wasted on this debate. I imagine nothing pleases the bullies more to know that they just need to wave the magic offense wand, and all those icky nerds start bickering to appease or denounce them, giving them the power they so desperately lack in their own mediocrity, and their irrelevance in a world of bits.

  171. Ellen Says:

    Candide III #168: I propose an addendum with the “fallacy fallacy” or the “self-referencing fallacy.”

    It has gotten out of hand that people, instead of using their own mind and will to feel better about their lives, to attack those with real accomplishments like Scott’s, to somehow feel that they deserve merit via a response. It’s very easy and fashionable to go along with throwing people under the bus just to feel accepted.

    I respect (you,) Scott immensely for not giving in to this pressure, as it would be easier to simply over-apologize, and go along with the crowd, rather than maintaining a set of values courageously that are authentically yours. Justice without giving into cries for attention. and I am someone who has been harassed as a woman in physics, but at some point you have to be strong, choose your battles wisely, and care about true justice rather than irrational mob justice. Rational, moderate justice is better than the huge pendulum swing that is occurring.

    So, thanks for being an effective voice of reason.

  172. STEM Caveman Says:

    Ellen #166 > “There should be a fallacy for saying something is [xyz] fallacy, and then leaving it at that.”

    Great point. This happens a lot in online discussion; is unbelievably, narcissistically obnoxious; and is lacking a snappy term to isolate the behavior.

    False, fake, ironic, pseudo, anti, Imaginary or meta fallacy; “fallacism”; or some suitably sarcastic term like “fallatio” or “fullacy” might do the trick.

    There is also a variant where the accusation isn’t a clearly defined and well known fallacy of the sort that used to appear on lists taught in rhetoric classes, but only some obscure buzzword that floats around the Internet and media space.

  173. Shtetl-Optimized » Blog Archive » Quantum computing motte-and-baileys Says:

    […] the wake of two culture-war posts—the first on the term “quantum supremacy,” the second on the acronym […]

  174. Scott Says:

    STEM Caveman #172: I’m reminded of the satirical bingo cards, popular on social media, that try to refute an entire school of thought by simply cataloguing a bunch of phrases often used by members of that school. The “thinking” (such as it is) seems to be something like: “if we can categorize our enemies’ points into a few recurring patterns, then to whatever extent our categorization works, we win the debate automatically, with no need ever to answer the points.” I can’t right now find the post by Scott Alexander where he explains why the makers of these bingo cards are going to hell. 🙂

  175. Sniffnoy Says:

    Scott #174: You’re thinking of this post on his old blog.

  176. STEM Caveman Says:

    @Scott #174,

    On a larger scale this sort of inoculation-by-prediction is the function of “pounce alert” articles in mainstream media, warning somberly that Republicans, rightists or racists are expected to pounce (seize, fixate, troll, backlash, …) on the latest factual development that is politically useful for them or supports their worldview. Predicting the pounce and painting it as some feverish, petty, opportunistic and obsessive activity is somehow supposed to discredit the merits of whatever arguments and analyses might come forth, before they happen; and also to redirect attention away from the inconvenient events and toward the real issue, the seizing pouncing pouncers.

    Steve Sailer, who is one of the few bloggers as clever and deservedly influential as Scott Alexander, calls this “frontlash”: the chorus of preemptive invocations of a hypothetical backlash. The typical use case is when something that looks like terrorism or hate crime is done by (e.g.) an immigrant with Arabic name, no mainstream report dwells on the Arab or Muslim connections, but there will be a host of pre-emption articles worrying that the incident will be used to pounce against the local Muslim community, or to support Trumpish immigration restriction, and that such arguments (before any are actually made) would be the “real tragedy”.

    In the same spirit, *Republicans pounce*, used ironically, has become a Twitter meme.

  177. Arindam Pal Says:

    Now that NIPS has been renamed to NeurIPS, I suggest the following.

    Change the name of STOC, as some people may feel that this will encourage people to “stalk” others.

    Change the name of FOCS, as some people may feel that “fox” are too shrewd and cunning to be part of a conference.

    Change the name of SODA, as some people may feel that “soda” is associated with alcohol, and it is a sin to drink.

    Change the name of SOCG, as vegetarians may feel that “sausage” is for chicken, pork, and beef lovers, and they are being left out.

  178. Scott Says:

    Sniffnoy #175: Thanks, that’s the one!!

  179. Scott Says:

    STEM Caveman #176: Enlightenment will dawn if and when you realize that the right-wing Internet does exactly the same thing. Indeed, what was the whole right-wing excitement over “NPCs” if not exactly what you’re talking about: “if we can anticipate the sorts of objections our opponents will raise, it means that our opponents are just an army of brainless robots, so we don’t need to take the objections seriously or answer them!”

  180. Arindam Pal Says:

    Scott has the right to post his viewpoint on his blog and website. It is his space, and he is free to express his opinion, without fear of reprisal from anyone, even if they don’t like his ideas. This is what we expect from a liberal democracy, like the United States of America.

  181. Sniffnoy Says:

    I guess he’s probably no longer reading this, but the thing I’d say to Dr. Yonge-Mallo is, I’m not sure the “sides” of this argument are what you think they are.

    Like, you argue that the term “quantum supremacy” should be changed. Like, you actually provide real arguments for this! OK. But does that really put you on the same side as others who say the term should be changed? Or does it instead put you on the same side as people who make real arguments?

    Because — as I’m hoping has been already demonstrated sufficiently that I don’t have to argue for it myself — lots of the people pushing similar object-level positions as you are, are not making real arguments, but simply attempting to bully people into submission. The object-level positions aren’t even the real point for them; dominance is. These people, no matter how many conclusions they may share with you, are not on your side. They may seem like they are for the moment, but eventually something will put you in disagreement with them, and then you’ll see their nasty side a bit more directly.

    (For extreme examples, maybe I should just point to some relevant SSC blog posts…)

    Basically — don’t just look at conclusions, look at process, because that’s what matters in the long term; good conclusions backed by bad process are simply the result of luck and will not be followed by further good conclusions.

    So, consider that on the most important point — that arguments matter, and that these things should not be decided by contests of dominance — you may already be in agreement with Scott…

    I also had things I meant to post on the other thread which is now closed, but, eh, I should respect it being closed. Don’t really think I need to go getting into more internet arguments…

  182. Scott Says:

    Sniffnoy #181: That’s extremely well said; thanks so much! There are many, many people here who I regard as “on my side” regarding process, even if they say “quantum advantage” rather than “quantum supremacy” or disagree about 500 other issues. Conversely, I regard the SneerClub types as on the opposite side of me regarding process even when I happen to agree with them politically.

  183. A. Karhumaa Says:

    I’m a bit late here, but this debate reminds me of the recent renaming of 486958 Ultima Thule, (i.e. “Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69), 486958 Arrokoth, because the term (Ultima) Thule has some connotations with Nazism or white supremacy rock bands.

    At the time this was first suggested (spring or summer 2019), I checked that only about two or three meanings on those listed at the disambiguation-page of Wikipedia:
    clearly had some kind of Nazi or white supremacist connection, while the rest were neutral.
    And I thought how having in that list one more meaning unrelated to Nazism, would further “dilute” those Nazi-appropriations to where they belong, to the dustbin of the 20th century history.

    Now, when the renaming was officially announced sometime in November, I was mildly shocked (“Can they really be that stupid?”), but not really surprised. And I also thought about the Streisand-effect.

    But actually, maybe whoever is pushing for this name change, has some kind of masochistic attitude, that, yes, actually, instead of _reclaiming_ the term’s positive connotations (that of two millennia old Greek geographical concept), we instead _should_ obsessively _brood_ about its historically quite recent appropriation by Nazis, while at the _same time_, banning its use, because of that connection. Which starts to feel almost as some kind of _atonement_, perhaps?

    Moreover, I think the current Wikipedia-article https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/486958_Arrokoth
    rewrites history, trying to give an impression that the name “Arrokoth” had been anything but a second thought, after somebody made enough noise about the original “Ultima Thule”. On the other hand, it’s fun to see that the original name still lives in the names of two lobes of the asteroid.

    PS. Scott, I wonder, whether as a jew you find the name “(Ultima) Thule” objectionable in any way?

  184. Anon Says:

    “Wouldn’t it be awesome if, five years from now, I could say to Curtis Yarvin: you were wrong? If I could say to him: my colleagues and I still use the term ‘quantum supremacy’ whenever we care to…”

    I think it’s comical to give the smallest fig what Curtis Yarvin thinks about langauge. This is a guy who literally wants to destroy your right to vote. You know, one of the few remaining mechanisms to oppose bad governments who negatively impact your private life. He wants to replace that with absolute rule of a dictator. (Presumably one who “loves waterboarding”, as Trump is known to emphasize.) The only thing that anyone should ever say to the likes of Curtis Yarvin is, “We don’t cooperate with fascists.”

  185. y Says:


    I always found the term “quantum supremacy” off-putting, it’s way too aggressive for my personal tastes, and I never understood why it wasn’t just called “quantum breakthrough” or any of the many other suggestions above.

    It reminded my about your argument about hobbyists sending in P-NP proofs, where one sign that the paper is nonsense is when they start by explaining why the proof actually matters (.. as if something this big actually required explaining the motivation). If “quantum supremacy” is such a big deal, why not apply the same reasoning and give it some non-descriptive, technical name.

    Anyhow, I don’t feel triggered or anything; it just feels unnecessarily aggressive to me, and if I could, I would like to avoid the term. I’m not a researcher in your field, so I don’t really have this problem; but I can understand everyone in the field very well, who would love to have the choice of avoiding a term they dislike (for whatever reasons).

  186. Scott Says:

    A. Karhumaa #183:

      PS. Scott, I wonder, whether as a jew you find the name “(Ultima) Thule” objectionable in any way?

    As a Jew, I confess that I had to google to find out that Thule was some Norse thing that got co-opted by Nazi mythology. No, not objectionable to me. Thule away! 🙂

  187. Scott Says:

    y #185: The issue, for me, is that beating classical computation is the core of what we’re talking about—there were many, many previous claimed “quantum breakthroughs” that failed to beat classical computation—and it seems like any possible term for one thing beating another thing is going to have some unsavory connotations.

  188. y Says:

    Scott #187:

    When I first read about “quantum supremacy”, I really wondered why such an aggressive name was chosen. Was it chosen to express the supremacy of one field over another? Was it meant as an insult to those who research classical computers? I know it’s not the case, but to me it felt like it wasn’t about expressing a concept as accurately as possible, but about attacking someone.

  189. Viktor Dukhovni Says:

    A Ridiculously Optimistic History of the Next Decade | By David Brooks

    The Accountability Clubs bore the motto “Truth and Mercy.” Students wanted to restore a culture in which facts mattered. They were also searching for a way to judge others in a graduated and humane manner, allowing for repentance, forgiveness and restoration. Marshall McLuhan once remarked that “moral indignation is a technique used to endow an idiot with dignity.” Suddenly indignation, the keystone emotion of the Trump years, was lame. Empathy made a comeback.

  190. Mahdi Says:

    I think David (#70) and Boaz (#88) bring up interesting points. I don’t think Preskill actually went around and asked what the community thinks about the term. He just coined a term and put it in his article, and others followed, that’s what we do all the time. If there’s a feeling that the term isn’t appropriate, we can let the change happen organically (same as “traveling salesperson”). If somebody feels the term should change, they should: 1) work on the subject and produce an awesome result, 2) invent a better term and use that in their paper (with a discussion in the intro about the proposed change), 3) if both the result and the new term are sufficiently great, others will follow. That’s great for the advancement of the area too, a clear win-win!

    I’m all in favor of finding a better term. I’m not a native speaker, but the first time I heard the term I found it somewhat troubling and wondered if I’m overthinking. Do enough people subconsciously sense something odd about the word when they hear it? If the answer is yes, something is wrong about the word. It’s hard to deny that the word “supremacy” has bad connotation today (and I think *today* is the key word here, words change purpose over time, and besides, you don’t open your newspaper every day only to find a depressing story talking about, say, “ancilla”). At the very least, I would say that “quantum supremacy” is as bad as “traveling salesman”. Having said that, I’m not too sure about the alternative choice “Quantum Advantage” (otherwise, I would have signed the letter). The best alternative is a decent open problem that we should at least try to think about.

  191. Predicting Predictions For the 20s | Gödel's Lost Letter and P=NP Says:

    […] ago anyway. See how we flip things in our last prediction below. Incidentally, in regard to the argument over the terms quantum “supremacy” and “advantage,” we stand by the […]

  192. Naim Haar Says:

    It seems that “supremacy” connotes a fairly clear boundary, between the dominant and the dominated. In quantum computing, is that boundary actually that clear ?

    As Scott says, there are multiple QC architectures being researched that could eventually lead to quantum supremacy. Some, or even many of these architectures are specific to a narrow problem domain and not that useful.

    Is quantum supremacy in a narrow, not that useful domain something that we should regard as significant ? The holy grail, the ultimate objective, should be, of course, a general-purpose quantum computer.

    In that context, could a classification, a hierarchy of progression like the following be more suitable ?

    Classical Computer (CC) < Quantum Transcendent (QT) < Transcendent Computer (TC)

    The narrow, problem-specific QC architectures purporting to demonstrate quantum supremacy could be called "Quantum Transcendent".

    The narrowness of application would be somewhat akin to the fact that only a limited, narrow class of real numbers can currently be mathematically proved to be transcendental, even though we know that nearly every real number is a transcendental number.

    The performance, or capability boundary between the CC and QT stages would thus be a bit fuzzy and fractal — i.e. less clear-cut as a term like "supremacy" could lead people to believe.

    The holy grail, the Transcendental Computer would be a general-purpose, not a narrow, application-specific quantum computer. I think that most people would agree that such a computer, if one can ever be built — using quantum computing technology or something else — would really be a "transcendent" machine…

  193. Kenny Says:

    The previous comments are mostly excellent. I have two points that I didn’t see expressed:

    Changing language as a response or a reaction to one’s political opponents provides them with a weapon they can use against you. It certainly seems really easy for previously innocuous terms or phrases or gestures to be tainted! ‘Game-theoretically’, it seems strictly *better* to deny one’s opponents use of that weapon at all.

    It is arguably *good* for us to regularly reflect upon historical – and current – horrors. A ‘slave’ computation in a ‘master-slave’ system really *is* a slave, in a metaphorical sense (and almost all language seems to be metaphorical to some degree). Is it so bad to be reminded that some *human beings* have been subjugated too, or that some still are today? *Accurately* describing one computation that is completely controlled by another as a ‘slave’ also reminds us that total control of *some* things is totally fine and moral. *In a very real sense*, agriculture does NOT (currently and maybe only mostly) involve slavery – there are no ‘enslaved’ people. But in another, also very real, sense, the control that people have over the plants and animals they cultivate CAN be accurately described as slavery. Ultimately tho, the world is filled with horrors, even if we’ve completely or mostly extinguished others. Trying to shed *every* connotation to that reality *feels* like denial or even delusion.

    To follow-up on points already made, even the word ‘slave’ is ‘problematic’ – it originated as a term describing a *Slavic/Slavonic* captive. There is no (effective) end to historical horrors to plumb in a vain attempt to scour the entirety of our sordid history from language.

    I think Yarvin’s point about the origin of ‘family’ is *both* sad and hilarious, and should probably remind us that *people are weird*. Romans really did seem to consider their “servants” (which I would guess *surely* included slaves) as part of their ‘family’. And that, based on what little I ‘know’, seems to have been common then, and earlier, all over the world. I eagerly await the hilarity that will ensue when earnest linguistic vigilantes campaign to remove ‘family’ from accepted usage.

  194. Atheist Group Disciplines Employee For Criticising Religion | The Free Thought Prophet Says:

    […] by other people as a pejorative slur. A guilt-by-association for adjectives is not new though, as Scott Aaronson has described in his blog on quantum […]

  195. should scientists use the phrase quantum supremacy | Eduinfo – Eduinfo Says:

    […] Scott Aaronson, a theoretical computer scientist at the University of Texas at Austin, admitted that, when the term was coined by theoretical physicist John Preskill in 2012, he thought it was awkward but wasn’t bothered by it gaining wide currency in the scientific community. On his blog, “Shtetl-Optimized,” Aaronson wrote: […]

  196. Shtetl-Optimized » Blog Archive » QC ethics and hype: the call is coming from inside the house Says:

    […] the debates weren’t purely semantic, over the propriety of terms like “quantum supremacy” or “ancilla qubit,” they were always […]

  197. Shtetl-Optimized » Blog Archive » My ACM TechTalk on quantum supremadvantage Says:

    […] reasons—the social-justice people, it turns out, are actually serious about wanting to ban the term “quantum supremacy”—but my desire to point out all the difficulties with their proposal competed with my desire […]

Leave a Reply

You can use rich HTML in comments! You can also use basic TeX, by enclosing it within $$ $$ for displayed equations or \( \) for inline equations.

Comment Policies:

  1. All comments are placed in moderation and reviewed prior to appearing.
  2. You'll also be sent a verification email to the email address you provided.
  3. This comment section is not a free speech zone. It's my, Scott Aaronson's, virtual living room. Commenters are expected not to say anything they wouldn't say in my actual living room. This means: No trolling. No ad-hominems against me or others. No presumptuous requests (e.g. to respond to a long paper or article). No conspiracy theories. No patronizing me. Comments violating these policies may be left in moderation with no explanation or apology.
  4. Whenever I'm in doubt, I'll forward comments to Shtetl-Optimized Committee of Guardians, and respect SOCG's judgments on whether those comments should appear.
  5. I sometimes accidentally miss perfectly reasonable comments in the moderation queue, or they get caught in the spam filter. If you feel this may have been the case with your comment, shoot me an email.