Quantum Computing . . . This Side of the Event Horizon?

As with so many things, the legendary — and ofttimes apocryphal — Yogi Berra said it best: “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” Still, there are developments that seem to be certainly portentous, even if we can’t say what shape the portents will assume tomorrow and the day after that. All of which wriggling is appropriate to a discussion of quantum computing, if only because the very nature of quanta is elusively probabilistic.

But what might any of this have to do with law? Here’s the simple thought: we can see that as information technology becomes more sophisticated it has been able to play an increasing role in the practice of law; to the extent that this past is any guide, we may assume that this role will continue to increase in step with IT development, essentially a function of growth in computing power; computing power looks to be about to take a massive leap ahead, thanks to quantum computing.

Recently Google announced the creation of a Quantum Artificial Intelligence Lab where, together with NASA, it will begin experimentation with a form of quantum computing, making use of a quantum computing device developed by a Canadian company, D-Wave. For the first time, the public has been invited to see quantum computing as something other than a notion for incomprehensible experimental physicists to play with, and so it behooves us to pay attention and to begin the process of learning what we can about it.

Which won’t be very much, alas: the mathematics is beyond all but the few, leaving the rest of us with a few clumsy metaphors. Then, too, physicists themselves are flummoxed when it comes to theories to explain observed quantum behaviour.

Nevertheless, I’m hoping in this post to point to a couple of resources that might pique your interest in this phenomenon and help you, as they’ve helped me, grope towards a sense of what’s happening. Let me start with a video in which physicist Lawrence Krauss explains something about quantum computing:

Two things to note, perhaps: his sensible skepticism — he is, after all, a theoretical physicist, not an experimentalist; and his summation of the possible benefit: “We’d be able to do computations in a finite time that would take longer than the age of the universe now.”

If you like your explanations printed, you might take a look at this article by the Economist, “What is a Quantum Computer?

One thing that becomes clear here, and from Google’s own explanatory video, is that we don’t yet know how to make use of the computing power of quantum computers, even the limited one currently developed by D-Wave. Or, to put it another way, we don’t know what questions to ask a quantum computer, what algorithms to make use of. Clearly, as computational ability leaves poky old Moore’s Law in the dust, we’ll be entering a world of a change in kind, not simply in quantity.

At which point it’s appropriate to end this post with another quote from Mr. Berra: “If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else.”

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