Quantum computers have been on my mind a lot lately. A friend who likes investing in tech, and who knows about my attempt to learn quantum mechanics, has been sending me articles on how quantum computers might help solve “some of the biggest and most complex challenges we face as humans,” as a Forbes commentator declared recently. My friend asks, “What do you think, Mr. Science Writer? Are quantum computers really the next big thing?”
I’ve also had exchanges with two quantum-computing experts with distinct perspectives on the technology’s prospects. One is computer scientist Scott Aaronson, who has, as I once put it, “one of the highest intelligence/pretension ratios I’ve ever encountered.” Not to embarrass him further, but I see Aaronson as the conscience of quantum computing, someone who helps keep the field honest.
The other expert is physicist Terry Rudolph. He is a co-author, the “R,” of the PBR theorem, which, along with its better-known predecessor, Bell’s theorem, lays bare the peculiarities of quantum behavior. In 2011 Nature described the PBR Theorem as “the most important general theorem relating to the foundations of quantum mechanics” since Bell’s theorem was published in 1964. Rudolph is also the author of Q Is for Quantum and co-founder of the quantum-computing startup PsiQuantum. Aaronson and Rudolph are on friendly terms; they co-authored a paper in 2007, and Rudolph wrote about Q Is for Quantum on Aaronson’s blog. In this column, I’ll summarize their views and try to reach a coherent conclusion.
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