Quantum conundrum

Should scientific funding emphasize basic research or technological applications? A discussion inspired by Alex Hutchinson’s “Breaking D-Wave” (Sept. 2007)

In a mediascape where even alleged human cloning by Raelians gets coverage as a scientific discovery, the February 13, 2007 demonstration of what British Columbia’s D-Wave systems billed as the world’s first commercial quantum computer was strangely unhyped.

A functioning quantum computer “would be a fundamentally transformative machine, capable of modelling and predicting the behaviour of almost anything in the universe” Hutchinson writes.

The implications are staggering. A quantum computer sounds like an all-seeing, all-knowing oracle — and, certainly, a cash cow. But because capital-oriented D-Wave and its chief technology officer, Geordie Rose, leapfrogged the science community by not submitting their research results to peer review, scientists have been underwhelmed by the company’s achievement. (Although, Rose has managed to create an online buzz.)

The media’s quantum silence may simply come from ignorance. Perhaps, as physicist Richard Feynman has suggested, no one really understands quantum mechanics — which makes discussion outside the techno-sphere (e.g. at The Quantum Pontiff and Quantum Algorithms) unlikely.

Quantum computing: Are we too thick to grasp the implications? Maybe, but we’re giving it the old Walrus try.

The old saw (disputed by M.I.T. computer scientist Scott Aaronson) is that the scientific community will snub research that doesn’t follow “ivory tower” rules.

And yet, the white coats don’t have clean hands: basic research has been largely funded by players such as the American military and National Security Agency, which have historically made large investments in science.

In whose hands does quantum computing belong? And in general, does science research only count when men with microscopes sniff at it long enough to write impenetrable journal articles? Or is D-Wave’s techno-engineering approach, which blurs the line between corporate suits and lab coats, the wave of the future?

The Walrus, of course, is of multiple opinions simultaneously. And you?