Project Q, Q4

QC3I: 4th Annual Q Symposium

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The fourth annual Project Q symposium (Q4), held 15-17 February, brought together international scholars to assess the societal and strategic impact of quantum innovation.   Any cross-disciplinary gathering faces a broad range of challenges, from finding a common vernacular to negotiating differing standards of ‘expertise’.  Capturing both the thematic complexity as well as the intellectual generosity of the event, Professor Steve Fuller, Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology at the University of Warwick, considers in this new Q posting one of the most controversial topics raised at Q4, the matter of quantum consciousness and scientific discovery.


Steve Fuller, University of Warwick

I had the privilege this year – courtesy of James Der Derian and Colin Wight — to participate in this year’s Q symposium, QC3I, in Sydney. This event brought together natural and social scientists interested in the implications of the emerging innovations related to quantum mechanics that are transdisciplinary import.

My observations are informed as someone who has recently written a searching but positive review of Alexander Wendt’s Quantum Mind and Social Science, which articulates an ambitious research programme that uses various aspects of quantum mechanics to model the socio-political world. Although the book was published only a couple of years ago, it has already proved very controversial among both natural and social scientists, which was evident from the start of the Q symposium, which featured a public ‘Q Forum’ event at the University of Sydney. The session began with a short film on Project Q, which included a soundbite from Wendt saying, ‘We are walking wave functions’ — to much audible laughter from the audience.

During the Q symposium itself, there was clear pushback to the very idea of Wendt’s programme, but it was nothing like the sorts of cross-disciplinary skirmishes that took place during the height of the Science Wars in the 1990s, when some of the ‘science warriors’ were calling for the sacking of humanists and social scientists for committing crimes against the intellect. An intervention by Der Derian reminded me of this when he sought reassurance that even if Wendt’s project is misguided, he wouldn’t be imprisoned by the scientific thought police. Such threats had been routine back then.

But generally speaking, the scientists at the Q symposium were sufficiently liberal to insist only on exerting a veto power over how social scientists interpreted or drew on their work when they got the science ‘wrong’ in some obvious sense. However, I do think that the cross-disciplinary communication remains less than ideal. And here it is interesting to observe how the scientists understand the history of science. I was especially struck by how clear it was to many of them that certain theories – such as quantum biology and quantum consciousness – have been already refuted, when I would say they are works in progress that admittedly face formidable evidential challenges. However, comparable challenges have been met in the past, which should lead one to be cautious not to take ‘empirically improbable’ as a proxy for ‘logically impossible’.

A more general point is that progress in science does not necessarily require a close tracking of the available evidence. Scientists forget that Galileo looks like a trailblazer only in retrospect – Newton basically redeemed him. In his own day, Galileo’s telescope was treated as a gimmick because he couldn’t explain its optics, his alleged experimental findings were too good to be true, etc. However, Galileo was a master of rhetoric who could conjure up in words what he lacked in technique and results. So while Galileo’s Inquisitors saw through him, the trial attracted sufficient notoriety to inspire others to follow up on his radical ideas. It was this history that led Paul Feyerabend to dismiss the idea that scientific inquiry must be led by some evidence-driven ‘method’.

One way to think about all this is that theorizing in science is really about establishing a credit line that may require some empirical down payment, which could be quite small, but then you use the credit line to recruit others who enable you to repay the original debt by producing the results you need. In this respect, Galileo is comparable to an entrepreneur in Schumpeter’s classic portrayal as the heroic speculator. (I’ve always thought about crowdsourcing as a downstream, democratised, digitised version of speculation.) Maybe this is the best way to evaluate Wendt’s project: namely, the proof will be in who is attracted to redeem it. Seen through the political economy lens, the preoccupation with ‘sticking to the evidence’ is a bit like the rentiers who make it difficult for land (read: concepts) to be productive by charging high rents and tolls for potential users. They may claim to be protecting the land (hence the ‘gatekeeping’ metaphor for peer review) but in the first instance they are exerting monopoly privilege, which has its own not so positive associations.

In the case of quantum mechanics, it is striking the difference in attitude between the founding theorists of the field (who did entertain ‘New Age’ metaphysical views about quantum reality) and latter-day researchers, many of whom are concerned with practical applications, which don’t depend on any of the more extravagant metaphysical views.

But this leaves open the question of how humanists and social scientists should appropriate quantum mechanics. Here a distinction can be made between the mathematical formalism of quantum mechanics, which has been the source of great intrigue and speculation, and the quantum level of reality for which the formalism was originally designed. One charitable way to read the scientists who are sceptical of our appropriations is that they conflate these two aspects of quantum mechanics. However, as Peter Bruza showed in his talk, it is possible to provide evidence for ‘quantum decision making’, in the sense of phenomena that conform to quantum formalism, without presuming the existence of quantum-level activity in the brain. Of course, his research begs the question of what exactly is responsible for the phenomena he’s observed. A Penrose-style story of nanotubules may – but need not – do the job.

I would have thought that this a pretty good way to split the difference between the natural scientists and the social scientists interesting in appropriating quantum mechanics for their own ends. However, it would require our side being more explicit about the empirical research programme that could redeem the equations, including its epistemological and ontological commitments.

I should add that there is nothing strange about this way of operating. Projects of reduction and integration in science have typically derived their conceptual scaffolding from mathematical formalisms that are either mirrored at several levels of reality or subject to incorporation through deduction. Kepler was perhaps the first scientist to appreciate this point – and he’s significant because his formulation of the inverse square law was an explicit attempt to use mathematics in the spirit of Plato to convert a metaphor into law – in Kepler’s case, the idea of cosmic gravitational attraction as akin to the heat that the Sun as the ultimate light source provides to planets at various distances. Like Galileo, Kepler’s scientific status was firmly established only in retrospect via Newton. (Kepler was known mainly as an astrologer in his day.) Nevertheless, Kepler’s mathematical explicitness enabled subsequent scientists to test the metaphorical intuitions on which his equations was based, some of which survived, some not. Wendt’s project is arguably at this Keplerian stage.


Prelude to Q3CI

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As a primer for Q3CI – 2018’s Q symposium – panelists from Our public forum were invited to appear on Australia’s public broadcaster, the ABC.

  • Firstly, two of our panelists, Sydney University Scientist Michael Biercuk & George Washington University and Obama advisor Alison MacFarlane joined Q’s director James Der Derian on A Matter of Facton the eve of our public forum to discuss drones, AI and the future of Quantum. Points were raise about the democratisation of quantum computing, and how open and collaborative public research would be if there was a breakthrough in terms of a military or security application of the technology. A recording of the broadcast is available here.
  • Q director James Der Derian also appeared on ABC Radio’s Breakfast program, discussing quantum supremacy, and what that means for the future of artificial intelligence, science, war and peace. We shall post a link here when available.
  • Will Quantum even happen? There is debate within the scientific community about the ability for quantum computing to ever be practically implemented beyond tech-demos. While we’ve seen in the flesh functioning 50-qubit chips perform in environments built for demonstration, their usage in practical terms outside heavily controlled conditions of these spaces, applied to real-world tasks is exposed to significant hurdles. Israeli mathematician Gil Kalai argues while we will never see a true quantum computer in this article hosted by Quanta Magazine here. A
  • Lastly, our public forum “STRANGE PHYSICS: OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB, DRONES, ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE AND QUANTUM COMPUTERS” is being held tonight at the University of Sydney which we will be live tweeting under the hashtag #q3ci. Tickets for those in Sydney will be available here –
  • A last minute update: an article on ‘Nature’ About efforts to build a quantum internet driven by Stephanie Werner similar to the classical internet precursor. The project, to be installed in four Dutch cities should be completed in 2020.

The Security Threats of Quantum Computing.

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While much of the talk about the post-quantum future concerns artificial intelligence, threats posed by quantum to encryption and data security have slid under the radar. As we and others have written about before, the dramatically increased computing power provided by qubits not only facilitates more efficient problem solving, but also impressively improves an attackers chances of breaching encrypted systems; providing what this Washington Post article calls a “skeleton key”, and render the current standard of the RSA encryption algorithm practically useless against a quantum-equipped attacker. This means that current security methods will need to be upgraded almost simultaneously with the first quantum computer coming online. Starting to implement quantum-proof systems is essential for the security of all our data to be maintained, and highlights the importance that both governments and private enterprise are placing on their research projects.

The issue of about quantum and encryption will be the subject of the Q Public Forum at 6pm, February 15 2018 at the General Lecture Theatre, University of Sydney, which kicks off the the fourth annual Q Symposium, ‘QC3I’:  Quantum Computing, Communication, Control and Intelligence.

Image licences under Creative Commons –


The Quantum AI Revolution.

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Some 200 years ago, the Industrial Revolution drove workers from farms to factories, and created the grand cities of the world, fuelled by the fires of industry.

The monumental shift generated by quantum will be the same, with complex AI programs able to take over many of the jobs which employ many of us today. Once the substance of sci-fi series, the field has seen rapid development in recent years, much of the progress happening in the background; great leaps and strides, occurring with little fanfare in the media or political discourse; being blurred together with the growth of smart devices and AI systems.

Indeed many of us are happy with our new AI pals; software like Siri, Alexa, Google Assistant and others are rapidly becoming part of people’s everyday routines. Smart devices and other ‘Internet-of-Things’ are becoming ubiquitous wherever we go. As powerful as these services may seem to the end-user in the street, they are still constrained by the limitations of processing power available. Of course the power in our phones and IoTs are nothing to compared to those that the quantum future will bring. Commentators have been shocked at the rate of development in the quantum field, just a few years ago the talk was quantum as a couple of decades way – at best; yet as of last year, multiple manufacturers have shown off functioning 50 qubit chips. While the practical applications of these chips are limited – mostly to weather modelling – they do show the viability of having a chip available for some commercial tasks in the near future.


A qubit short for quantum-bit, differ from that of a ‘classic’ computer chip. Whereas a classic chip is limited to returning a 1 or a 0 for each calculation, a qubit can exist in three states, 1, 0 or 1 & 0. This escalation of states vastly improves the rate in which calculations are made, and opens the door to new and potentially disruptive applications by exponentially increasing computing power.

So why is this important? As Friedman discusses in his recent New York Times op-ed; Quantum computing will open up the ability to process larger amounts of information, faster; revolutionising the way that we interface with artificial intelligence in our daily lives. Existing ‘unsolvable problems’ for classic computers, could with quantum assistance, see solutions in minutes, or even seconds. Experts predict that soon, many jobs will disappear fully to AI; trains, trucks and taxis are likely the first to be automated with the explosive growth of driverless or autonomous vehicles. Here in Australia, the same questions are being asked about other fields of work, what will end up automated in the near future?

While we aren’t there yet, the technology that quantum heralds will quickly be able to create AIs which can do most “routine and repetitive tasks”. This, as Friedman highlights, raises concerns about numerous economies’ middle classes reliant on this type of work for their livelihoods.  But also more worryingly, the same technologies will invalidate exist methods which we use to secure all our data. The same dramatically increased processing power can also be applied to breaking the encryption of our health records, bank accounts, and personal devices. This goes without saying the threat that quantum poses to state-secrets, and the vast troves of data that are held by governments, ripe for the taking if our ability to secure is taken away. With quantum automative AI, Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics – namely a Robot may not allow a human to come to harm – may no longer be a thing of fiction; rather a required tool in the near-future.

The issue of about quantum and artificial intelligence will be the subject of the Q Forum at 6pm, February 15 2018 at the General Lecture Theatre, University of Sydney, which kicks off the the fourth annual Q Symposium, ‘QC3I’:  Quantum Computing, Communication, Control and Intelligence.

Project Q

Quantum Economics

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Screen Shot 2018-01-15 at 12.58.45 pm Photo by Martina Birnbaum/EyeEm/Getty published online by Aeon

Twenty years ago, the idea of quantum consciousness was considered fringe science at best, or New Age quackery at worst. Today, the tables have turned. A quantum theory of mind is now recognized in psychology and philosophy as one of the more plausible explanations for consciousness to have emerged from a very spotty collection of conjectures. Elsewhere, many of the traditional Newtonian conceptions of reality that once informed the social sciences are being regularly challenged by their quantum counterparts. The latest casualty (but probably not the last) to this rising tide appears to be Economics.

Since the 2008 Global Financial Crisis  – an event which many conservative economists, including Robert E. Lucas Jr (a Nobel Laureate and the former president of the American Economic Association), thought impossible –  it has been clear that the field of Economics is in need of an overhaul. While there is a growing consensus that the foundations of Economics rests on a very thin model of the rational actor, there has been little  agreement on how to remedy the situation. Consequently, progress has been slow. David Orrell, in his recent article ‘Economics is Quantum’, argues that quantum mechanics provides means to overcome many of the failings of traditional Economic theory.

Citing social scientist Alexander Wendt (a Q Symposium participant) and psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky (founders of behavioural economics and subjects of Michael Lewis’ new book The Undoing Project), Orrell makes a compelling argument for money being the economic equivalent of quanta within physics. While the analogy may at first seem like a stretch, there are several surprising similarities:

‘[according] to quantum physics, matter is fundamentally dualistic in the sense that it is composed, not of independent, billiard ball-like atoms, but of entities that behave in some ways as ‘virtual’ waves, and in other ways as ‘real’ particles… the same can be said of money, which is also real and virtual at the same time. For example, a coin is made by pressing a stamp into a metal slug. The stamp specifies the numeric value of the coin, while the metal represents its value as an object that can be owned or exchanged. It therefore lives partly in the virtual world of numbers and mathematics, and partly in the physical world of things and people and value, which is one reason for its perplexing effects on the human psyche.’

In Laws of Media: The New Science, Marshall McLuhan wrote, ‘I do not think that philosophers in general have yet come to terms with quantum physics: the days of the Universe as Mechanism are over.’ While quantum is only just beginning to touch Economics (and other domains of human knowledge outside of physics), the future seems clear: quantum is coming. The full article can be read here.

Project Q, Q Research

The Race for Quantum Supremacy

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When Project Q began its investigations into quantum innovation in 2013, the prospect of a functioning quantum computer was often given, at best, as somewhere between 15 to 20 years out. With each passing year, the timeline began to collapse.

This month the Project Q team once again took to the road for its documentary film. We visited the big names in quantum computing (as well as some smaller start-ups) and interviewed some of the key thinkers in the field. The takeaway? Quantum supremacy – the moment when a quantum computer solves problems a classical computer cannot – could well be reached in the next six months.

For those unfamiliar with the differences, quantum computing represents not only a substantive jump from classical computing but revolutionises the very way in which computing processing takes place. Qubits, the quantum-bits that form the basic elements of a quantum computer, are able to exist in multiple states of 1 and 0, whereas classical computers use digital bits operating in on-off states of either 1 or 0. The superposition of states vastly improves the rate in which calculations are made, and opens the door to new and potentially disruptive applications.

One of the highlights of trip was our visit to the quantum Google Lab in Santa Barbara, California, where we interviewed chief scientist John Martinis in a meeting room named after Richard Feynman, the brilliant physicist who first came up with the idea of a quantum computer in 1981 (yes, there were bongo drums).

Project Q visits John Martinis at Google Lab

The development of a 49-qubit chip by Alphabet (Google’s parent corporation) was not only mooted but given a roll-out date of the end of the year. While a practical quantum computer for the end user might still be a decade away – and require hundreds of thousands of qubits and robust quantum error correction – a 49-qubit chip paves the way towards quantum supremacy in areas like the factoring of prime numbers (which keeps the NSA up at night) or the simulation of complex systems (which would be very useful in chemistry, medicine and weather prediction).

Upon landing back in Sydney, we found many of our findings confirmed in a lead article in the Wall Street Journal. Keeping one eye on the shrinking timeline for quantum computing, and the other on a growing need to bring the public up to speed, we decided it might also be a good idea to move up the delivery date of our documentary film, Project Q: The Question of Quantum.


Microsoft intensifying its presence in the higher education research field

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Last July, Microsoft and The University of Sydney announced a continuous partnership with the University’s Nanoscience Laboratory to develop quantum technology based computers. It is now confirmed that the IT giant has also established a Quantum Centre at The Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen. This seems to be following a trend of the implementation of research labs between the corporate world and institutions of higher education for which quantum physics and technology research has been a large recipient. Microsoft’s other experimental research sites are at Purdue University, and Delft University of Technology. There are only four labs of this kind in the world.


Professor Charles Marcus, head of The Niels Bohr Institute’s Centre for Quantum Devices (Qdev)
All, Project Q

Carnegie Corporation of New York announces award of major grant to the Centre for International Security Studies at the University of Sydney for Project Q

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Who will benefit from and who will be harmed by the advent of quantum computing, communications and artificial intelligence? Are social media, global surveillance, data-mining and other networked technologies already producing quantum effects in world politics? Will a quantum revolution present us with sentient programs, feral algorithms and non-human forms of intelligence? Who will ‘win’ the quantum race? When and how will quantum be ‘weaponised’? What are the implications for peace and security?

These and other pressing questions have been the key issues addressed by the first-ever multidisciplinary project on quantum innovations, ‘Project Q: Peace and Security in a Quantum Age’. Started three years ago by the Centre for International Security Studies (CISS) with funding from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, the School of Social and Political Sciences and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Project Q was created to assess the possibility, significance and global impact of new quantum technologies. (more…)

Project Q

“Is uncertainty the defining feature of our contemporary experience?”

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This past month the Centre for International Security Studies (CISS) held the inaugural CISS Global Forum, a two-day event that began with an evening roundtable at the University of Sydney, followed by a full day workshop to discuss peace and security under uncertainty.

The Global Forum series was designed to respond rapidly and critically to new and pressing global issues. This year’s Forum focused on assessing the impact of uncertainty on peace and security from the interstices of philosophy and politics, science and the humanities, journalism and history.


Project Q, Q Research

The Cyber Age Demands a New Understanding of War — but We’d Better Hurry

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Project Q Director, James Der Derian wrote an article for a special feature about war in the cyber age on the Berggruen Institute’s Zócalo Public Square. The article traces the history of ‘cyberwar’ and our understanding of it, but highlights the need to consider war in a quantum age.

Read the full article here via the Berggruen Institute’s website.

Image: Berggruen Institute website