Project Q

Project Q, Q4

QC3I: 4th Annual Q Symposium

No Comments

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.

Project Q

Quantum Economics

No Comments

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

1 Comment

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.

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

No Comments

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?”

No Comments

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

No Comments

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

Project Q, Q Research

A sneak preview of ‘Project Q: The Question of Quantum’

No Comments

At a special roundtable at the International Studies Association (ISA) meeting in Baltimore, James Der Derian, Director of CISS at The University of Sydney, presented the teaser for the documentary film Project Q: The Question of Quantum. Click above to watch.

The teaser takes us from the subatomic to the cosmic to ask the question of what happens when quantum computing, communication and artificial intelligence go online. The film is a part of a transmedia project funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York that will include a special issue of the Security Dialogue journal; a collected volume of multidisciplinary essays; and an e-book for policymakers.

All four will be tied together by the Project Q website, which acts as a hub for the latest news stories, short video features, interviews and archival material from past events.

The roundtable, ‘What’s Quantum Got to Do with It?: A New Philosophy for the Science of International Relations’ will feature presentations by William E. Connolly (Johns Hopkins University), Larry N. George (California State University, Long Beach), Jairus V. Grove (University of Hawaii, Manoa), Alexander Wendt (Ohio State University), Colin Wight (University of Sydney), Shohini Ghose (Wilfrid Laurier University) and Stephen Del Rosso (Carnegie Corporation of New York).

Recently, Stephen Del Rosso from the Carnegie Corporation of New York wrote a piece on quantum philanthropy which highlighted Project Q’s work to better understand quantum’s far-reaching implications. The piece is now available to read without a pay wall here via the Carnegie Corporation website.

Project Q, Q Research, Q3

Project Q is highlighted in this new piece on ‘quantum philanthropy’

1 Comment

Program director for international peace and security at the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Stephen Del Rosso, writes in The Chronicle of Philanthropy on the increasing need for philanthropists to help further public understanding of the societal implications of quantum innovation, highlighting Project Q’s leading role in the effort.

Del Rosso writes, “Quantum presents a ripe target of opportunity for foundations that have long supported efforts to explore and explain complex notions rooted in science — from nuclear security to climate change — that affect our everyday lives. Moreover, through its grant making to scholars and policy experts and increasing interest in broadly disseminating their findings, philanthropy is well-positioned to take on this challenge.”

The article describes research endeavours by tech giants Microsoft, Google and IBM, as well as government agencies and major universities such as the University of Sydney’s Australian Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology (AINST) who are working on different developmental paths to a fully functioning quantum computer.

“Philanthropy is unhindered by the crisis-to-crisis mode of government operations or the disciplinary imperatives of the academy, so it is ideally suited to sponsor investigation into the relevance of quantum approaches today and in the future.” (more…)

Project Q, Q Research

Project Q interviews leading figure in Microsoft’s new quantum computing initiative

1 Comment

On the cusp of the New York Times’ announcement that Microsoft was going all in on quantum computing, the Project Q team was in Copenhagen to interview Villum Kann Rasmussen Professor Charles Marcus at the Niels Bohr Institute, where the quantum revolution first began.

Professor Marcus along with Leo Kouwenhoven from the Delft University of Technology and David Reilly from the University of Sydney, all leading figures in the field of quantum computing, have been brought in by Microsoft in a combined effort to create the first scalable quantum computer using topological qubits.

Watch a clip from the interview below.

Image: From left, Leo Kouwenhoven and Charles Marcus attend the 2014 Microsoft’s Station Q conference in Santa Barbara, California. (Photo by Brian Smale)

Project Q, Q Research, Q3

Quantum Leap: China’s satellite and the new arms race

No Comments

Q3 speaker Taylor Owen recently wrote a piece for Foreign Affairs that explores the effects and implications of new quantum technologies on international relations, which features Project Q’s work and research.

The piece looks at the recent launch of China’s quantum satellite into orbit, the private and public partnerships in the development of quantum computers, and if in understanding these new quantum technologies we are able to better understand the universe.

Taylor Owen is an assistant professor of digital media and global affairs at the University of British Columbia and a Senior Fellow at the Columbia Journalism School. Listen to his talk below on the final roundtable event at the third annual Q Symposium last February.