Thursday, April 08, 2021

Quantum Stories

Scott Aaronson wrote last month about the hype over quantum computing. I'd thought I'd drop a few stories.

I was once asked to review a grant proposal (outside the US) that claimed it would find a quantum algorithm for NP-hard problems. I wrote a scathing review but the grant was funded because I failed to prove that it was impossible. I replied that they should fund my research to teleport people from Chicago to Paris because they couldn't prove I couldn't do it. I never got a response.

I was at an NSF sponsored meeting on quantum computing. I suggested, as a complexity theorist, that we need to explore the limits of quantum computing. A senior researcher said we shouldn't mention that in the report or it might hurt our chances of funding the field if they think quantum computing might not be a complete success.

I went to a Microsoft Faculty Research Summit which had a big focus on quantum computing. I complained of the quantum computing hype. My friends in the field denied the hype. Later at the summit a research head said that Microsoft will solve world hunger with quantum computing.

I was meeting with a congressional staffer who had worked on the National Quantum Initiative which coincidentally was being announced that day. I said something about high risk, high reward. He looked shocked--nobody had told him before that quantum computing is a speculative technology.

Quantum computing has generated a large number of beautiful and challenging scientific questions. Thinking about quantum has helped generate classical complexity and algorithmic results. But quantum computing having a real-world impact in the near or mid-term is unlikely. Most scientists I know working directly in quantum research are honest about the limitations and challenges in quantum computing. But somehow that message is not often getting to the next layers up, the policy makers, the research managers, the university administrators, the media and the venture capitalists. 

But who knows, maybe some quantum heuristic that doesn't need much entanglement will change the world tomorrow. I can't prove it's impossible.


  1. Nice synopsis. a lesson on how to write things neatly.

    By the way, I'm more interested in the competition of programs
    China vs US. While we shouldn't think competitively in the field of academia and our fellow collaborators; a lot of hype on who's leading the competition, and which institution and/or program in China is at the frontier.

  2. And here's Fields Medal winner Prof. Borcherds on the hype:

  3. quantum compting won't solve world hunger.
    But my work on the Muffin Problem will.

  4. Is it possible to know which grant agency funded the aforementioned proposal?

  5. See