The Clash of Two Physics

June 11, 2015
By David E. Meadows

Uncertainty defines the changes that lie ahead with quantum mechanics.

Exciting, and sometimes terrifying, technological advances are appearing almost daily. Some of these include artificial intelligence, robotics and quantum computing. The Information Age as we know it always has surged forward along a line of constant change and flux. But these technological advances have been within the physics in which we live.

Well, that is about to change. We are embarking on a new era in the Information Age, and few know what the impact will be. You could call it the Quantum Age. We live our daily lives within physics governed by light, gravity and the four dimensions.

Quantum mechanics is the second world of physics. John Wheeler, who coined the term “black hole” and was professor emeritus at Princeton University until his death in 2008, once said, “If you're not completely confused by quantum mechanics, you don't understand it.” Welcome to the club.

Leonard Susskind, author of numerous books on quantum mechanics, is the Felix Bloch professor at Sanford University. Susskind, along with co-author Art Friedman, in their recent book, Quantum Mechanics: The Theoretical Minimum, differentiate the two worlds of physics as classical mechanics, where we live and breathe, and quantum mechanics, which deals with the property of objects so small humans have a hard time envisioning them. I have several of Susskind’s books, and to better understand quantum mechanics, I strongly recommend reading them.

The laws of physics differ at the quantum level. At the classical level everything is a bit with a single value—one or zero—capable of calculating one operation at a time. A quantum computer will possess the capability to represent both values of one and zero simultaneously, known as a quantum bit (qubit), thereby giving it the capability to calculate every conceivable operation instantaneously. As you add more qubits together, the computing grows exponentially. Just think, as Mark Ward, the BBC technology expert wrote in August 2014, “…trillions of calculations in seconds.”

Quantum computing is going to effect such things as personal security and privacy. For the individual, how secure are our bank and retirement accounts going to be? It is a worry.

But, it is going to happen. Quantum computing already is being researched by such commercial giants as IBM, Google, Microsoft and Lockheed Martin. All the defense research labs have some quantum research ongoing. Next month, July 6-7, the Army Research Lab Center for Distributed Quantum Information (CDQI) has its kick-off meeting, with registration open until June 22.

Why so much interest in quantum? It could be the technological holy grail that brings what is known as “entanglement,” which may hold the key to interstellar travel and teleportation. Jonathan Vanian of Gigaom reported in February that even NASA was using a basic quantum computer to support space travel and robotics.

Entanglement describes how two objects that were once one are able to maintain mirror-image metrics/qualities regardless of the distance separating them—even when one of the two has been intentionally changed. No one fully understands how they can act as a singularity when they appear fully separated. Go figure. Einstein referred to entanglement as “spooky action at a distance.”

The current Information Age brings with it one critical element into this new age—people. These people are bounded on the foundations of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Without them, the Quantum Age will be very, very challenging—and scary.

I invite your thoughts on the impact of quantum, because many definitely meet Wheeler’s definition of understanding quantum.

David E. Meadows, MBA, MS, is the author of The Sixth Fleet.

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