Revolt! Scientists Say They’re Sick of Quantum Computing’s Hype

This spring, a mysterious figure by the name of Quantum Bullshit Detector strolled onto the Twitter scene. Posting anonymously, they began to comment on purported breakthroughs in quantum computing—claims that the technology will speed up artificial intelligence algorithms, manage financial risk at banks, and break all encryption. The account preferred to express its opinions with a single word: “Bullshit.”

The provocations perplexed experts in the field. Because of the detector’s familiarity with jargon and the accounts it chose to follow, the person or persons behind the account seemed be part of the quantum community. Researchers were unaccustomed to such brazen trolling from someone in their own ranks. “So far it looks pretty well-calibrated, but […] vigilante justice is a high-risk affair,” physicist Scott Aaronson wrote on his blog a month after the detector’s debut. People discussed online whether to take the account’s opinions seriously.

“There is some confusion. Quantum Bullshit Detector cannot debate you. It can only detect quantum bullshit. This is why we are Quantum Bullshit Detector!” the account tweeted in response.

In the subsequent months, the account has called bullshit on statements in academic journals such as Nature and journalism publications such as Scientific American, Quanta, and yes, an article written by me in WIRED. Google’s so-called quantum supremacy demonstration? Bullshit. Andrew Yang’s tweet about Google’s quantum supremacy demonstration? Bullshit. Quantum computing pioneer Seth Lloyd accepting money from Jeffrey Epstein? Bullshit.

People now tag the detector, @BullshitQuantum, to request its take on specific articles, which the account obliges with an uncomplicated “Bullshit” or sometimes “Not bullshit.” Not everyone celebrates the detector, with one physicist calling the detector “ignorant” and condemning its “lack of talent and bad taste” in response to a negative verdict on his own work. But some find that the account provides a public service in an emerging industry prone to hyperbole. “I think it does a good job of highlighting articles that are not well-written,” says physicist Juani Bermejo-Vega of the University of Granada in Spain.

The anonymous account is a response to growing anxiety in the quantum community, as investment accelerates and hype balloons inflate. Governments in the US, UK, EU, and China have each promised more than $1 billion of investment in quantum computing and related technologies. Each country is hoping to become the first to harness the technology’s potential to help design better batteries or to break an adversary’s encryption system, for example. But these ambitions will likely take decades of work, and some researchers worry whether they can deliver on inflated expectations—or worse, that the technology might accidentally make the world a worse place. “With more money comes more promises, and more pressure to fulfill those promises, which leads to more exaggerated claims,” says Bermejo-Vega.

It’s not clear that quantum computing will end up benefiting society, says Emma McKay, a graduate student at York University in Canada who studies the societal impacts of the technology. If quantum computers are to be broadly available to users, the computers will need a lot of environmentally unfriendly infrastructure for storing data, adds McKay. According to physicist Sabine Hossenfelder, writing in The Guardian, a future quantum computer capable of simulating new chemicals would produce 10 terabytes of data per second and “require a supporting cast of conventional computers and other devices to program, operate, and monitor them.”

“I have yet to see evidence that any quantum technology is worth the amount of resources we are putting into it,” says McKay.

Most quantum researchers take a softer public stance than McKay, but they too have begun to voice their anxieties, particularly in response to a specific hyped announcement: Google’s quantum supremacy demonstration, in which the company’s researchers performed a largely useless mathematical problem on a quantum computer faster than a supercomputer. Since reports of this demonstration first leaked in September, many researchers have expressed concern that the word “supremacy” suggests quantum computers are now better than conventional ones, which is patently false. While Bermejo-Vega thinks Google’s demonstration does provide scientific value of the technology’s viability, she emphasizes their success was “narrow.” In addition, all quantum computers, including Google’s, perform inconsistently because they are prone to errors that researchers don’t know how to correct. “Google’s computer is mostly still a useless quantum computer for practical purposes,” Bermejo-Vega says.

In addition, many researchers object to the phrase quantum supremacy because it evokes white supremacy. “We are now presenting ourselves to the world with that word,” says chemist Leonie Mueck, who works at Riverlane, a UK-based quantum computing startup. “While I think the scientific milestone we have defined by the word is totally legitimate, I think this word has consequences for how the quantum computing community might be seen by others.” Mueck and others want people to switch to the term “quantum advantage.”

What’s more, Mueck worries the word “supremacy” will turn talented scientists away from quantum computing. “There’s already a paucity of people,” says Mueck. “There are so many startups, a lot of money, and a lot of academic posts to fill. We can’t afford to alienate women and minorities. We really need to work hard to attract them to the field, and I think we need to build it into everything we do.”

On Wednesday, Mueck, Bermejo-Vega, and 14 other signatories, including two quantum researchers at Microsoft, sent a letter to the editor at Nature, which was published and titled “Supremacy is for racists—use ‘quantum advantage.’” In the letter, they made the case for changing the language. “We consider it irresponsible to override the historical context of this descriptor, which risks sustaining divisions in race, gender, and class,” they wrote.

Physicist Carmen Palacios-Berraquero, who coauthored the letter with Mueck, says it’s about more than just the word “supremacy.” “I want the letter to start a conversation about the responsibility of scientists and companies, and the ethics that should start from the core,” says Palacios-Berraquero, the CEO of UK-based startup Nu Quantum. She thinks the community’s current embrace of the word “supremacy” represents a carelessness that, if unchecked, could lead to poor decisionmaking down the road. “It’s like ‘Oh yeah, people will be uncomfortable and hurt and alienated by this,’ but the community can’t be bothered for two seconds,” she says.

In the letter, the authors cautioned that the use of the word “supremacy” parallels callous behavior in the space science community. Although they don’t name it specifically, coauthor Divya Persaud says one issue was a recent controversy over the construction of a new telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii. A group of activists led by native Hawaiians opposed the telescope, as they consider the volcano a sacred site. Despite their protests and a petition with over 100,000 signatures against the project, construction began in July. “There is this impatience to achieve without considering human impact,” says Persaud, a planetary science graduate student at University College London.

After the Nature letter ran, the authors have continued to collect signatures via a website. Within a day of publication, they now have 64 signatures total, says Mueck, although she still needs to verify the entries.

These scientists are hoping their efforts will spur industry leaders to proceed with the technology more thoughtfully. Meanwhile, the Quantum Bullshit Detector tweets on as the community’s self-appointed watchdog. (The account did not follow through on requests for comment.) This week, the account fired out a burst of commentary. “Bullshit,” it cried eight times within a single hour. The target of its exasperation? A conference in Silicon Valley titled “Practical Quantum Computing.”

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