Friday, December 15, 2017

Arianne "Tex" Thompson's worldbuilding workshop at ArmadilloCon 2016

Subtitled "Escape From Clichea", Arianne "Tex" Thompson's worldbuilding workshop was the most remarkable event at the ArmadilloCon 2016, and was alone worth the price of admission. She gave a heap of good, practical, doable recommendations on how to improve your worldbuilding, storytelling, and characters. At a typical writing workshop you'll get vague advice like "show, don't tell", and "kill your darlings", but rarely will you hear specific recommendations what to do. But Tex Thompson's workshop was an avalanche of such implementable nuggets of goodness. She showed us how to look at your story material differently and tease the interrestingness out of it.

To be sure, this wasn't the kind of workshop where professional writers and editors critique your manuscript. This was 1.5 hours of Tex Thompson speaking. But I came out of it full of ideas of how to make my stories better.

I wrote them down to the extent I remembered them.

The workshop wasn't strictly just about worldbuilding, but also covered deeper aspects of writing, like how to find your identity as a writer, how to find what makes you unique, and use it to build your online presence.

On how to build your identity as a writer

Write down 3 things you have been paid to do. Then 3 things you could write an article about. If the things on those lists have nothing to do with writing, that's completely fine. Those are things that make you unique. They help you stand out between other writers. If nothing else, they could give you ideas for your blog posts, and a blog is a big part of how a writer attracts and keeps an audience.

Here is another way to mine ideas for blog posts.

Write a list of 3 stories that you want your work to be compared to. Then write down common elements between them. For example, Tex Thompson said that for her, those elements are: (1) ensemble cast / team effort; (2) people with different abilities or powers; (3) big, wild, slightly-ruined world. Such elements are great for mining ideas for your blog or convention panel topics. For example, combining (1) and (2) could lead to Top 10 teams in comics.

Other lists to tease out your identity

Things you would you do with your life if you won a million dollars

What you tend to get into arguments about

Worldbuilding exercises

Association exercise. What do the words "four kingdoms" remind you of, asks Tex Thompson.

Audience says: 4 elements, 4 directions, 4 seasons.

Tex Thompson. Take your first idea and place it carefully in the garbage. Because it is also many people's first idea.

What could be a fresher take on the "four kingdoms" idea? The audience replied:

  • Aliens come and the kingdoms have to unite to defeat them;
  • Economics arms race;
  • Each of the 4 lands has a princess and they are all supposed to be in a beauty pageant, but one of them has a prince and he wants to compete too.

Best practices for writers

Arianne 'Tex' Thompson at the Escape from Clichea worldbuilding workshop at ArmadilloCon 2016
"Arianne 'Tex' Thompson leads the Escape from Clichea worldbuilding workshop at ArmadilloCon 2016. More pictures from ArmadilloCon 2016 (39) are in my photo gallery.
  • Use the Triforce!
  • Triforce consists of: Education - something you know about; Passion - something you care about; Inspiration - something you are excited about. At the intersection of those things is a story that only you can write, says "Tex" Thompson.

  • Ask yourself: "what is the easiest, laziest thing I could do here?" Then do something else.
  • Start with Episode IV, and leave space for more stories as you go.
  • What happened in Harry Potter world before the HP started? All the Voldemort stuff, the Marauders. Your idea for the front story might make an awesome back story.

  • Question your assumptions.
  • Have you read a story about space travel that's set in the 25th century, but all the gender norms are from the 20th century? Or they have all the same notions of nuclear family and property?

    Everything that surprises you about another country / culture says something about your own. There is a book series CultureShock! that explains how to live in another country. In US it says, don't drop off at someone's house uninvited. It's OK to ask what people do, but not how old they are. You can call uninvited, but not after 9 pm. Never cut in line, that will not be good to you.

  • Give us something we expect and something we don't.
  • Many enormously successful TV and book series do that. Star Trek: a Western but in space. Game of Thrones: medieval fantasy, but gritty / realistic. Harry Potter: witches / wizards, but in high school. Another example. Chuck Wendig once asked: what would a vampire do in a zombie apocalypse? In "Double Dead", the vampire tries to make sure that the human race does not go extinct, because then he'll be out of food. So he herds human survivors through the apocalypse.

    In any scenario, ask:

    • Who benefits from the current state of affairs? Who tends to benefit in most zombie apocalypse stories? Zombies, warlords, gritty surrivors. Even in the worst of times somebody turns a profit. Doomsday preparers, escaping prisoners, drug companies? Gun manufacturer Colt?
    • Who loses out? Who is the first to go? The slow and the sick. The people on the front lines where the apocalypse started -- hospital workers who got blood sprayed on them. They are gone.
    • Who's trying to maintain the status quo? Usually people who are winning, or people who think they are getting a better deal than they would otherwise. How many of you stayed in a crappy job because its certainty was better than the uncertainty of the alternative?
    • Who is trying to change things? Someone who is losing, who has nothing left to lose.

Explore the timeline

While my memory of the workshop is already vague, I think this was a segue of the "vampires protect people from zombies" exercise. I assume this all means not that we, writers, need to explore all these time periods in our prose, it's just that perhaps the story could be built around not the event itself, but what happened n number of years later.

  • 3 months later: chaos, social collapse, ragtag survivors
  • 10 years later: status quo; the world is relatively stable. But what are we doing now that we weren't doing 3 months after the event? Maybe we are enslaving zombies. We have started to adapt to this new world.
  • 50 years later: the idea that there was something before this seems strange. You still have people who remember the old world, Kennedy's assasination, the days when presidents used to drive down the street in open convertibles. But also the current generation may not know or appreciate reasons for the current state of affairs. This leads to a possibility of a new conflict. They have no respoect for their vampires-elders. They don't understand why people submit to the vampire lords.
  • 100 years later: nobody remembers the way it was. Nobody alive today remembers the flu pandemic of 1918. From the 50s to the 90s our big preoccupation was the cold war and the Bomb. Now everybody has a bomb. We don't worry about Russians launching nukes so much. We are worried about people sitting next to us in a movie theatter. The Great War doesn't come up so much as it does in the fantasy novel prologues.

How much info to dump?

When Tex Thompson teaches at the DFW writers workshop, she tells writers: don't pack me a lunch, leave me breadcrumbs. If your mom packs you a lunch, you'll throw away the apple, trade the cookies, etc. You are more like T-Rex: you don't want to be fed, you want to hunt.

Give readers just enough information about your world to build something of their own

Consider how many bigger-than-big franchises -- Harry Potter, Star Wars, Marvel Universe, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, Pokemon -- give you enough information so that you can create your own Jedi, superhero, wizard school, etc. And they make the world vast and intriguing enough that you would WANT to! Ask yourself: what am I giving my readers to do while they wait for my next book? Fan theories about what is Jon Snow's real heritage, Rey's from Star Wars real heritage, etc. Can they make a costume of a character? In how many ways can they participate in this world? In what ways can you make it exciting to participate?

Tex Thompson enjoyed Harry Potter, but like many fantasy novels, the main character was a dude. She wanted to make her own hero. For example, in the world of Sugar Rush racers, who are all named after candy, Tex's friend made his own Sugar Rush racer, Molten Milk Toast. Does your world accommodate other heroes? Do you establish your world well enough for your fans to actively participate in it? And is it interesting enough that they would want to? If your wizard school is in UK, would the readers wonder what it would be like in the Caribbean?

A guy in the audience. Leave the rules a little open, that the people would wonder how much is possible.

Tex. Right. We need some rules at the outset, but we don't need them all right away. And a lot of the secret sauce is what is the right order of revelations so that they would let people build upon one another, etc.

Use the Triforce, Luke

"Use the Triforce, Luke! Triforce consists of Passion, Education, or Inspiration -- in other words, something you care about, something you know about, and something you are excited about. At the intersection of these three lies a story only you can write. More pictures from ArmadilloCon 2016 (39) are in my photo gallery.

Problem: infodumps are boring

Solution: do not let your story answer any questions the reader hasn't had time to ask!

Give out world details and exposition like treats. Instead of infodumping an explanation of how the star drive work, ask yourself, what question is that an answer to? The question probably comes up when the star drive is broken and needs to be fixed. "We need a new flux capacitor, or else the discombobulator won't work."

What excuse do they make for explaining magic in Avatar the Last Airbender? "Why is so-and-so special? Why can he control all 4 elements?"

Anything you are tempted to go on and one for 100 pages about, make it the focal point of your story. Make your story about how to survive on Mars, and hundreds of pages on growing potatoes will become relevant.

Problem: making a fictional world as detailed as the real wone would take forever, and also be super boring. What should you do?

Answer from the audience. Use the same cliches as in the real world?

Tex. Yes. Use the words "magic wand". Readers already know how it works. Or "hyperdrive". Everybody knows what it is.

You don't want to include things that are not relevant, things that have no emotion attached to it. But if I tell you what magic the blue crystal does, what will you automatically wonder about? What other crystals are there, and what magic they do.

Solution: imply that your world contains more detail than is explicitly given in the book.

Conservation of detail: if something is explained in depth, it's because it's somehow important to the story. (The Malazan series by Steven Erikson stomp on this idea. He explains everything about everything.) Respect your readers' brain cells. If I ask the reader to spend a brain cell, there should be a reward for it.

Using the real world responsibly

How to avoid stereotypes

In real life we have stereotypes about entire nations, about some states or even some cities. In fantasy it is easy to fall into the same pattern. Elves have stereotypes about orcs and vice versa. Their races do not get along. But in reality, within any nation, people are quite different from one another. There is enough internal variation between elves and between orcs. In real world, your biggest beef is usually not with the person across the ocean, but with a person across the street. Your fantasy world will be more detailed if you tell us what elves fight among themselves about. Is it what type of wood is best for bow crafting? Is it something as silly as what end of an egg to open from breakfast?

What kinds of people tend to get left out this kind of story? Can you find a way to include them?

Going back to the vampires-in-a-zombie-apocalypse example, what kind of people don't make it through a zombie apocalypse? The elderly and the sick. One of Tex's friend had said: "Why would I want to read stories about apocalypse? If power goes out, my fridge goes out, I won't get my insulin and I'll die. So why would I want to read it?"

One of the plot threads in your book could be about how a guy with diabetes makes it through the apocalypse. Will the vampire take care of him personally? Will he the vampire hunt pigs to make insulin?

Make a story that includes a category of people who are not commonly included, and you might have a whole new big group of fandom for yourself.

Smash the Monoliths!

Question. What is the easiest, laziest, most obvious, least-realistic thing I could do with my fictional people?

Answer. Create a monoculture.

You are probably wondering: but what if I mess up? What if I write a character outside of my own experience and get it wrong? Don't worry, says Tex: you WILL mess up. No matter what you write, someone will hate it. There is a famous quote: "If you're not pissing someone off, you probably aren't doing anything important." Use your fear of hurting people (from other cultures or marginalized groups) to motivate you to do your research. Listen to people, and solicit feedback -- even painful feedback.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Scott Aaronson at the Austin Quantum Computing meetup

We have heard that quantum computers are supposed to be much faster than classical ones. But what exactly does that mean, and why can't computers based on some other exotic physical models of computation be as fast? Scott Aaronson examined other models of computation and dispelled some popular myths about quantum computing at the Austin Quantum Computing meetup in May of 2017.

His talk might not have had a whole lot of new stuff for those who read his blog. It was a tour-de-fource of the topics he often addresses on his blog, and a synopsis of what a layperson needs to know about quantum computing. It was about what makes quantum computing so fascinating, but also how to keep your expectations of it realistic.

Scott started his talk with a look at some hypothetical alternative forms of computing. What physical models of computation would be alternative enough to violate the Extended Church-Turing thesis?

Church-Turing Thesis is closely related to the definition of computability: it says that all the computable functions are those and only those that could be computed by the Turing machine. Extended Church-Turing Thesis says that a Turing machine can simulate all other computers with at most a polynomial overhead. Are there forms of computing that challenge the extended Church-Turing thesis? On what kind of physics could a computer possibly be based to overturn it? Scott examined hypothetical computers based on exotic conditions where everyday laws of physics break down.

Relativity Computer

Scott's first example was a relativity computer. How come no one talks about relativity computer, he asks. The idea is simple: you start your computer working on some really hard problem, maybe NP-hard problem, and leave it on Earth, while you take off into space. From the computer's perspective, billions years have passed, the civilization has collapsed. But from your perspective, thanks to the relativistic time dilation, only ~ 20 years have passed. You come back and miraculously find your computer in the rubble, still connected to a power source, and you can read out an answer to your hard computational problem. So why hasn't anyone tried it? If you're worried that your friends will be dead in the distant future, just bring them on the spaceship with you.

Humor aside, the question is, would such a "relativity computer" (well, in this case the computer is ordinary, it's you travelling at a relativistic speed that makes the answer appear quickly) provide a fast solution to NP-complete problems? Would the problem be solved in polynomial time from your perspective?

The answer to that, Scott says, has to do with the amount of energy that would take to accelerate to relativistic speed. If you want to get an exponential speedup in only polynomial amount of time as experienced by you, you would have to accelerate so close to the speed of light that would take exponential amount of energy. So before your spaceship takes off, just fuelling it up would take exponential time.

It can sometimes seem like you could achieve exponential speedup for some problems by exploiting certain physical processes, but to really evaluate any such possibility you have to look at everything we know about physics, such as the energy involved in such a calculation.

Zeno's computer

Zeno's computer is a hypothetical computer in which each operation would take only half the time that it took for the previous operation. This scenario could occur at the so-called Omega Point. Omega Point is a theological notion, but according to some physicists, it could occur under some highly debatable conditions. (I don't think Scott mentioned Omega Point in his speech, I just remembered this trope because it seemed fitting.) For example, the founder of quantum computing, David Deutsch, envisions Omega Point happening near the time of the Big Crunch, as the universe oscilates faster and faster. By the time the universe collapses, the computations have achieved nearly infinite speed, and if you simulate the whole universe on the computational power of those oscillations, the world will never end for you. The closer the real thing comes towards the end, the faster the oscillations will go, the longer "subjective" time you'll be able to simulate. Here is a quote from the David Deutsch book "Fabric of Reality" where he discusses Omega Point. Scroll down to the paragraph "The key discovery in the omega-point theory...".

On the Omega Point computational substrate you would be able to solve NP-hard problems fast. But according to our best cosmological models, the universe is not going to end in the Big Crunch. Even aside from this particular scenario, Scott points out a fundamental problem with Zeno's computer. Zeno's computer relies on infinite amount of computational capacity, but any space-time region has only a finite number of information storage capacity. He says so in his own comment on his blog:

"Rahul #50:

Does Nature (or an existing proof) prevent undecidability in statements involving finite times / spaces / lattices & precision?

Mathematically, if we know that a problem only requires enumerating a finite list of possibilities, then essentially by definition that problem is computable. This is why, any time you see a new problem that's been proved at least as hard as the halting problem, that problem will always involve some element that goes to infinity (if the title and abstract aren't forthcoming about this, read the main text and see! ?? ).

Physically, it's conceivable that we could have lived in a universe where an infinite amount of stuff could get done in finite time (e.g., by what I call the "Zeno Computer," that does one step in 1 second, the next in 1/2 second, the next in 1/4 second, and so on). In such a universe, of course the halting problem could be solvable in finite time.

But the current conjecture in theoretical physics -- primarily because of the work of Jakob Bekenstein on black hole thermodynamics, which I blogged about before -- is that we don't live in such a universe. Rather, we seem to live in a universe that can be modeled as a quantum computer where each finite region of space stores at most ~1069 qubits per square meter of enclosing surface area (with the bound saturated only by black holes), and where those qubits are operated on at most ~1043 times per second. In such a universe, of course the halting problem would not be solvable."

Also, he says in an excerpt of his talk Big Numbers


While no one has tested this directly, it appears from current physics that there is a fundamental limit to speed, and that it's about 1043 operations per second, or one operation per Planck time. Likewise, it appears that there's a fundamental limit to the density with which information can be stored, and that it's about 1069 bits per square meter, or one bit per Planck area. (Surprisingly, the latter limit scales only with the surface area of a region, not with its volume.)

What would happen if you tried to build a faster computer than that, or a denser hard drive? The answer is: cycling through that many different states per second, or storing that many bits, would involve concentrating so much energy in so small a region, that the region would exceed what's called its Schwarzschild radius. If you don't know what that means, it's just a fancy way of saying that your computer would collapse to a black hole. I've always liked that as Nature's way of telling you not to do something!

One of the few things about quantum gravity that everybody agrees on, says Scott Aaronson, is that it places fundamental limits on how much computation you place in a bounded region.

Other models of computation based on physical world

Sometimes people suggest that soap bubbles could solve NP-hard problems in polynomial time just by finding the minimum surface when they are connected. Finding the minimum surface for connected soap bubbles is an NP-hard problem, but humans have observed that soap bubbles form a minimum surface very quickly, thus prompting the idea that a polynomial-time algorithm for finding the minimum surface does exist. And if we could encode an NP-hard problem as a soap bubble problem -- in effect "feeding" it to a soap bubble computer -- then we could solve them in polynomial time.

Scott Aaaronson giving a presentation at the Austin Quantum Computing meetup
Scott Aaaronson giving a presentation at the Austin Quantum Computing meetup

The problem with it is that bubbles do get stuck in local optima, says Scott. In other words, the surface they settle into is not guaranteed to be the absolute minimum but some kind of local minimum. Scott talks about it in more detail in his paper "NP-complete Problems and Physical Reality" (PDF).

In his teens, Scott experimented with the surfaces soap bubbles form. That was the closest in his life that he had ever been to an experimentalist. And in his experimments the bubbles got stuck in local optima. "But I haven't tried every possible brand of soap," Scott quipped.

Same is true about using protein folding for solving NP-complete problems. Finding optimal configuration for a protein can be modelled as NP-complete problem, and yet every cell in our bodies does it every second. Despite having been under enormous selection pressure to not get trapped in local optima, proteins still sometimes do that, and that can lead to prion- and amyloid-related illnesses.

That's the basic problem with all physics-based computations: systems in nature do get stuck in local optima. "This may sound silly," says Scott, "but every few months I get calls from popular science writers and they ask me, what about this? This violates Church-Turing thesis! But the things they suggest usually have the problems I mentioned."

When Scott Aaronson first heard about quantum computing as a teenager, he was similarly skeptical. He thought some physicist didn't understand Church-Turing thesis. So he had to find out about quantum mechanics for himself.

Does quantum computing bypass Extended Church-Turing thesis?

Does it? Skipping ahead, the smart people of the internet think it very likely does.

But back to Scott Aaronson's story. Setting out to learn quantum mechanics, Scott found out that quantum mechanics is not as hard to learn as it is commonly assumed. As he says, Quantum Mechanics turns out to be incredibly simple once you take the physics out of it. And no, he doesn't mean in a woo-woo New Agey sense. He adds: "The way I see it, it's a level below physics. It's an operating system that the rest of physics runs on as application. And what that OS is is probability theory with minus signs."

Scott Aaaronson's slide on quantum mechanics as probability with minus signs
Scott Aaaronson's slide on quantum mechanics as probability with minus signs. It shows the double slit experiment with a smiley-faced photon going through two slits and interfering with itself.

Probabilities with minus signs" is the concept of probability amplitude, which Scott has written about in more detail in this Quantum Computing Since Democritus series article. Here, Scott shows how the concept of probability amplitude (which is an entity that can be negative) explains the phenomenon of quantum interference. Interference is what causes some "paths" that lead to an observed outcome (e.g. photon going through either slit in the famous double-slit experiment) to cancel each other, because one has a plus sign, and the other has a minus sign.

"Probabilities as complex numbers come up in the double slit experiment," says Scott. "If I close off one of the slits, the photon appears in places where it doesn't want to appear before. By decreasing the number of choices, I can increase the likehood of an event. Physicists were eventually forced to say: the photon has some amplitude for going through the first slit, and some amplitude for going through the second slit. And amplitudes are complex numbers. You have to add the amplitudes of all the slots, and then take a square. That's a positive number."

This approach to quantum mechanics leads you to learning enough quantum mechanics from the "right angle" to understand quantum computing -- and you don't need differential equations and Schrodinger's wave equation to understand it. The latter is the traditional approach to teaching quantum mechanics, and, according to Scott, it scares people away from it. "Richard Feynman in his book "QED" doesn't even mention complex numbers. He says that each path has an arrow attached, and to compute how likely that path was, you stack those arrows together. So that's a perfect example how to boil it down to a bare minimum but not lower than that," says Scott. "I've given talks about this stuff at high schools. The smarter high school students can understand a lot of it without much difficulty, part of it because there is less they have to unlearn. To get into this field you don't have to take years and years of physics, you don't have to known how to do integrals or solve differential equations. But you have to understand vectors and matrices and complex numbers. So that's the bare minimum. But that bare minimum is accessible to a much larger population of people than the people that had been traditionally thought of as being able to understand quantum mechanics."

(To be fair, not all quantum physicists agree that quantum mechanics can be taught as "probability theory with minus signs" without first introducing the wave equation and such. Here is a discussion on Quora about what is lost when you approach it that way. -- E.)

Understanding interference will also inoculate you against the biggest fallacy that's being thrown around in the popular press when explaining quantum computing. A quantum computer does not "try every answer in parallel" to arrive at the right answer. If there is one thing Scott would like you to take away from this or any of his quantum computing presentations, it is this. The quantum computer does not try every answer in parallel. It's not a massively parallel classical computer.

It is interference that lets you get the right answer out of a quantum computer. You rely on the fact that amplitudes behave not like probabilities because they can cancel each other. For every wrong answer, you hope that each path leading to the answer to have equal positive and negative amplitudes, so they could cancel each other. For the right answer we want all the paths leading to it to have either all positive or all negative amplitudes. We need to to do something to boost the probability of the right answer, and quantum interference does that. That's one new tool quantum mechanics puts in our toolbox.

This is also his bare minimum standard for popular science articles explaining quantum computing, also known as the minus sign test. The article needs to mention interference.

Applications of quantum computing

Though we are used to thinking about quantum computers as something that would let us solve hard problems fast, the first application of quantum computing that its pioneers conceived wasn't that at all. Their initial reason for building quantum computers was to simulate quantum systems. "In the 1980s, Feynman, Deutsch, and others noticed that a system of n qubits seems to take ~ 2^n steps to simulate on a classical computer, because of the phenomenon of entanglement between the qubits. They had the amazing idea of building a quantum computer to overcome that problem," Scott says. And now, decades after Deutsch proposed that idea, Scott Aaronson still thinks that quantum simulation is a major, perhaps the biggest and most promising, application for quantum computing. It could have huge applications for energy.

For Scott personally, the number one application is to disprove people who come to his blog and argue that quantum computing is impossible.

What about cryptography?

When people say "quantum cryptography", they typically mean one of two things: (1) Quantum Key Distribution (QKD) -- a process that lets two parties exchange cryptographic keys while guaranteeing that the keys won't be intercepted by an attacker in transit, or (2) quantum-safe cryptography, that is to say, classical encryption algorithms that can't be broken by quantum computers any faster than they could be broken by classical computers. I'm not sure which one Scott meant when he said that quantum cryptography already exists today, but there is almost no market for it, because it's a problem that's already solved by private key encryption.

As far as public-private key encryption, it relies on computational difficulty of factoring large numbers, and that is actually vulnerable to Shor's factorization algorithm, but there are many symmetric encryption algorithms (that use the same key for encryption and decryption) that don't rely on factorization and thus can't be cracked by quantum computers.

(Here is a more detailed overview of quantum-safe encryption algorithms and QKD.)

But when it comes to using quantum computing to solve any kind of problems faster, as anyone who reads Scott's blog already knows, he is very doubtful that there will be real, practical applications for quantum computing in that respect. At least not soon.

Can quantum computers actually achieve exponential speedup? What about any other kind of significant speedup?

"If we were physicists, we would have declared P != NP to be a law of nature," Scott says. "But we use different terminology. Where physics have laws, we have conjectures."

Popular press sometimes states that quantum computers can solve NP-complete problems in polynomial time, but anyone who reads Scott's blog knows that's not true. The integer factorization problem that Shor's algorithm solves is not known to be NP-complete, and is suspected not to be. But can quantum computers do it at some point?

Scott Aaaronson's slide of the BQP problem class
Scott Aaaronson's slide of the BQP problem class

There is a complexity class called BQP, or bounded-error quantum polynomial time. Those are problems for which exists a bounded-error polynomial time algorithm for quantum computers. "Bounded error" means that the algorithm will give a wrong answer no more than a certain percentage of times -- that percentage probably being sufficiently low, or can be brought down to be sufficiently low for practical purposes. This class of problems is bigger than P, the class of polynomially-solvable problems, but it definitely does not include the NP-complete problems -- at least nobody at present thinks that it does, and there is a lot of evidence that it doesn't. So most likely polynomial-time algorithms for NP-complete problems, even on quantum computers, don't exist.

But it's not known yet where the boundaries of BQP lie. While it includes some problems in the intermediate zone of NP problems that are not known to be P, but not known to be NP-complete either, some of these problems are very special problems. We don't even know if BQP is contained in NP. So there may be problems that quantum computer can efficiently solve, but a classical computer might not even be able to verify the answer. For that you would need another quantum computer.

What about D-Wave's claims of exponential speedup?

D-Wave is a company that builds adiabatic quantum computers and that has claimed to achieve quantum supremacy, that is, made a quantum computer that achieves significant speedup over a classical computer for some type of problem. Scott has long been skeptical of their claims. Even if you were able to build a perfect adiabatics quantum computer, we don't know how well it would do. The quantum adiabatic algorithm was described in a 2000 paper by Farhi and other authors, and the general idea is shown in this slide by Scott. Farhi suggested that maybe it solves NP-complete problems in polynomial time, which would put NP in BQP. The iffy part is that the amount of time you need to run adiabatic algorithm depends on something called eigenvalue gap. As you vary the Hamiltonian, what is is the smallest gap between its first and second eigenvalues? If that gap becomes exponentially small, you need to run it for an exponential time. "And some people were able to construct problems for which this gap becomes exponentially small," says Scott.

"After you've seen problems with NP-completeness, you are tempted to elevated [computational] hardness as a fundamental physics problem. You would ask, what implication it would have for physics? And now we know some examples: for example, in condensed matter systems spectral gaps would have to become exponentially small," says Scott Aaraonson.

For the last some number of years D-Wave has been trying to find problems for which adiabatic algorithm would be exponentially faster than a classical algorithm. Scott is quite skeptical that they have found any. In the previous quantum computing meetup, though, Brian La Cour from UT Austin said he thought it wasn't so clear-cut, because the recent D-Wave advancements make it less apparent that there is a classical algorithm that would do just as well. But it's not that Scott is skeptical about adiabatic algorithms altogether. "We may not understand the potential of adiabatic algorithm until we have a real quantum computer," he says.

Scott Aaronson's areas of research

Scott's own research area is quantum supremacy, that is, finding quantum algorithms that for some types of problems provide a definite speedup over any classical algorithm. And by the way, he got a lot of comedic mileage out of that phrase during the Trump campaign year.

A year ago Scott wrote this paper connecting quantum computation to the black hole firewall problem. He briefly mentioned it and said that there wasn't enough time to discuss it at this presentation. This left me and some other people in the audience with a cliffhanger feeling. Just when we got to hearing something we had not heard about before, the lecture was over! Some of us asked Scott about that paper later after the talk, and he pointed us to more information about the paper on his blog.

Questions from the audience

Unfortunately, the questions were nearly impossible to hear, because the audience members didn't have a microphone. So I could only guess the general topic they asked about.

Q1. About quantum entanglement.

Scott Aaronson. I didn't say much about entanglement in this talk. In quantum mechanics entanglement is not a separate rule you have to postulate. It's just something that's there for a ride. It's just that entanglement means that in QM you can't write a state of a qubits as a product state.

If qubits are not entangled, you don't have a quantum computer. You can simulate it easily with a classical computer. Entanglement is a necessary but insufficient condition for QM.

Q2. About decoherence, the problem that makes quantum computing so hard to implement in practical terms.

Scott Aaronson. A crucial discovery from the nineties was that you don't have to get your decoherence rate down to 0. You just need to get it down to very very low rate. So even if some small number of qubits will leak out into environment, the quantum information that you care about is still there.

Q3. About machine learning and quantum computing.

Scott acknowledged that quantum computing might seem like a natural fit for quantum computing. "In a way, machine learning is all about linear algebra in high-dimensional spaces, and so is quantum computing. But you always have to ask, if someone can simulate a quantum machine learning algorithm with a classical approach, would they really a get a speedup from the quantum computing algorithm?"

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Advances in quantum computing: presentation by Dr. Brian La Cour

Dr. Brian La Cour from University of Texas at Austin gave a presentation on the latest state of quantum computing to Austin's Quantum Computing meetup in March of 2017. Here are some prominent points from it.

Several big companies are getting into quantum computing now: Google, Microsoft, IBM. There are significant differences between their approaches.

Google plans to solve a problem with 49 qubits, a problem that would demonstrate quantum supremacy (getting a clear speedup with a quantum algorithm over a classical algorithm), but is completely useless in real life. The problem with that is that when you progress to the quantum supremacy frontier, you can no longer check the answer with a regular device. Or it would take a very long time. So Google's argument will probably be based on asymptotic trend, with how they are doing with more qubits. But overall this problem of how to check the results will be more difficult in the future.

Brian La Cour talks at the Austin Quantum Computing meetup
Brian La Cour talks about Google's race to quantum supremacy at the Austin Quantum Computing meetup

We are a long way from solving Shor's algorithm and breaking internet's encryption. But quantum simulation is a near term application. It goes back to Richard Feynman's discussions of quantum computing. We can simulate things on a digital computer, but it's not very efficient. When you want to add another spin, another atom, you have to double the memory. What better thing to simulate a quantum system than a quantum system?

There is a difference between gate-based quantum computing (like what IBM and partially Google does) and quantum annealing, like what D-Wave does, and partially Google.

Gate-based device (that operates on gates, similar to classical gates) is a universal quantum computer. D-Wave's computer is specialized, it is only useful for certain optimization problems. And so far those problems have been pretty contrived, not necessarily corresponding to anything in real life. Even so there is no definitive evidence that the D-Wave's computer is advantageous for solving specific practical problems, as compared to classical solvers. There is a professor somewhere who, every time when D-Wave claimed that their quantum computer was solving some problems more efficiently, took it as a challenge to find a classical algorithm that would beat it. And so far he has been successful. But lately this has become less clear, because he has been, in Brian's words "exploiting what he knows about the problem". (Mathematicians and computer scientists can make it sound like it's a bad thing. But perhaps he means that while the professor is exploiting special knowledge about a problem, the quantum annealing computer can't make use of that knowledge, thus he is not comparing apples to apples? -- E.)

IARPA -- funding agency for intelligence community, analogy of DARPA -- is focused on developing next-generation quantum annealing, a universal quantum annealer. Their goal is, can you take benchmark projects and scale them to the thousands of qubits that D-Wave has?

Microsoft is looking at high-level languages for quantum computing. They are designing high-level languages that optimize what low-level languages do. They also do their own research into topological quantum computing, which is a very different approach than the qubit-based QC, but Brian thinks that's technologically so far away it's probably never going to happen.

This brings us to another Brian La Cour point, which is that now is a good time even for ordinary software developers to get involved in quantum computing, and you don't have to be a researcher to do it. There are people who are building interfaces in conventional programming languages to QASM, IBM's Quantum assembly language. This is where you as an individual can make a contribution: figure out how to do things in QASM and implement an interface to it in your favorite language. Also, individuals can play around with the IBM's Quantum Experience, a web interface to the IBM's quantum computer, and familiarity with it could put you in a position to get a job at some company that does quantum computing (not that there are many of those currently -- E.).

According to Brian, quantum gamification is also a trend. However, he used the word "gamification" not the way it is typically used (to incentivize certain user behaviors by making them seem like a game). He meant it more literally in the sense of games that teach you something about quantum mechanics. In some of those games people perform actions that help quantum researchers. Here are some examples:

  • qCraft -- a "mod" to the popular Minecraft game. It uses "quantum blocks" to teach superposition, observation, and entanglement.
  • There are even games that have been programmed on IBM Quantum Experience, such as Quantum Battleship.
  • Decodoku was developed to help researchers with quantum error correction. You are protecting researchers from errors.
  • cat-paper-scissors game (I could not find it by googling -- E.)
  • Quantum Cats from University of Waterloo, Canada. It's like angry birds, except cats can be in superpositions.

Brian La Cour noted that not only quantum computing research is strong in Canada, Canadian QC scientists also do a lot of educational outreach. US scientists don't do nearly as much, but they should.

As always, the least predictable part of any presentation is the audience's questions, and Brian got a few of those.

Audience member. Have you heard of neuromorphic computing?

Brian replied that he has heard about it, but that there wasn't any connection there to quantum computing. It was just another unconventional way to compute. Apropos of unconventional computing, quantum computing in a way is a throwback to analog computing: encoding information in continuous variables, except what comes out is still digital.

Audience member. Can quantum computing be used to mine bitcoins?

Aside from currently existing quantum computers being nowhere near powerful enough to mine bitcoins, Brian also noted that the value of bitcoin is based on the fact that bitcoins are computationally difficult to find. So if you find an algorithm to mine them fast and reliably, it will devalue them.

Audience member. How big a leap is it to go from classical programming to quantum programming? Is it a totally different beast?

Brian. It is a totally different beast. If you try to do things like conditionals and loops, you are doing it wrong. Instead of conditionals you have control gates, where value of one qubit controls what happens to another qubit. Which is sort of like conditional, but linear. A qubit in a superposition of 0/1 controls another qubit which is also in superposition.

The way you think about quantum computing is taking your entire data space, or state space, and think about it all at once.

You initialize all to 0 and apply Hadamard gates all at once. It puts them in superposition of all possible states, and then you do operation on them. You are looking at the whole haystack and apply operations to the whole haystack until you find a needle. You don't examine each value and look whether it's a needle.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Stumbling into BodyHackingCon on the last day

You walk into the BodyHackingCon on an early Sunday afternoon, and you are not sure if it's really still going on. You expect it to have a bigger, or at least flashier presence: shouldn't there be people with highly visible body modifications milling about? Instead, you see people in business casual whose name tags say "superintendent", and the hallways are plastered with signs for Texas School Boards convention. But you persist and walk around a corner, and then down a city-block-long corridor around another corner (that's Austin Convention Center for you), and you are finally rewarded by a hand-scrawled sign pointing towards an open door of a huge, warehouse-style expo room. But this is the last day of a 3-day convention, so naturally most of the vendors are gone.

Neosensory vest that is supposed to let you perceive words as vibrations on your skin, seen at BodyHackingCon 2017 in Austin
Neosensory vest that is supposed to let you perceive words as vibrations on your skin

There is still a thing or two happening; at one of the booths a visitor is trying to pull together the edges of a peculiar-looking vest around his torso; it clearly is not going to happen, since the vest is 3-4 sizes too small. "I'm sorry. We are planning to have larger sizes in the future," says a vendor at the booth, even though the guy is merely average size. But apparently the vest does not need to close to work. It is studded with small metal circles that make up some kind of haptic language interface. That's only my guess based on what I could glean from the snippets of conversation. Because who needs to ask how it works when you can speculate?

"Whip. Angle," says the booth guy. "Whip. Angle." Then he turns a phone screen to the guy who's trying out the vest. There are two circles on it, and he asks the guy to pick one to tap on. Apparently the booth guy made the dots convey some kind of haptic stimulation (e.g. buzzing?) -- and asked the wearer to recognize the word encoded in it. He praises the wearer for answering correctly. "So you see, it's not just the length of the word," he says. I guess he was saying that the vest made it possible, with some minimal training, to distinguish the actual word pattern, not just a longer word from a shorter word?

A jacket with a ribcage headpiece (?) from BodyHackingCon
A jacket with a ribcage headpiece? This would make a splash at a science fiction convention.

Then you look around some more, and even with most vendors gone and large patches of the expo hall square footage reverting to its post-convention beige bleakness, you still see something unusual. At another exhibitor's booth, flanking it on both sides, two women are lying on the tables, looking for all the world like wax statues. Their eyes are covered with something that could be a sleep mask or a VR headset. You glance at the vendor's name -- bio- or healing-something -- and think it's more likely to be a mask. By the way, the name matches a definite pattern: half of the exhibitors' names here have "bio", or "quantum", or something vaguely medical in a New Agey way. Which is fitting, given that half of them sell nothing more than nutrition drinks and supplements.

You stumble upon exhibits of clothes that wouldn't be out of place a goth or punk store, except they have patches with wires sticking out, like something that's placed on you right before a surgery. Some also light up. Many would make a stunning costume at a science fiction convention, if you could spawn off a third or fourth alter ego to explore your mild interest in costuming. Overall, this is the bodyhacking you could get behind -- the kind that stays entirely outside the body.

Most of those clothes are art projects. One dress claims to simulate dark matter: "Dark Matter inflates and deflates against your body to simulate the universe expanding against you, and the buzzing sculptural universal necklace, "Dark Energy", buzzes against your skin to simulate movement through the universe in time in accordance with events happening in VR". But you have read enough science fiction and imagined the vast cosmic space enough times that you know if you put on that dress (not that it's an option) the experience would fall very short of feeling at the center of the expanding universe.

A cape that goes over some sensor with wires that's placed on your chest, seen at BodyHackingCon 2017 in Austin
A cape that goes over some sensor with wires that's placed on your chest, resembling uncannily of surgical preparations.

Some of the clothes have VR content associated with it accessible through your phone; and perhaps you could spend some interesting minutes with it, but just downloading the app would take some time, and the WiFi connection in this building is iffy, and the event is winding down and you are sure vendors are anxious to pack up and leave.

Finally on the way out you get a glimpse of a more radical kind of bodyhacking: a guy you pass in the hallway has small, but prominent devil's horns under the skin of his bald forehead.