Neil Turok on the quantum (r)evolution

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To say that Neil Turok’s book, The Universe Within: From Quantum to Cosmos , is a little disconcerting is an understatement. Fear of change is a constant in humans, but what Turok is proposing is a mind-blowing transformation of what it means to be human and what lies beyond our conceptual grasp of the universe.

The world-class physicist (his name is on a theory with Stephen Hawking) and head of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario, however, prefers to focus on the positives when it comes to upending our current technological state: it’s coming and we better start talking about it.

“I think the first thing I would say is that it’s kind of unstoppable,” says Turok over the phone from Vancouver. “It’s like trying to stop time, we don’t know how to stop time. And yes, we could all relax if we all knew that absolutely nothing was ever going to happen again, but we’re marching forward into the future, we can’t stop it, the universe is expanding and we can’t stop that either. There’s not much we can do but try to, I think, appreciate the capacities we have for benefiting from that progress.”

To be specific, Turok is talking about the coming quantum revolution, where quantum computers will be able to shed light on the most hidden aspects of our universe and change the way we think, operate and evolve.

Trying to explain quantum theory, or quantum computers, is difficult. Turok, who admits it’s a challenge to bring these ideas to a broad audience, says to think of the comparison between a digital bit, and the quantum equivalent — a qubit. Whereas a bit is either a zero or a one, and hammers through equations in a mechanical way, a qubit is both a zero and a one. It is essentially taking a piece of the universe and using its natural function to tackle the largest of puzzles. The spin of an electron, for example, contains an almost limitless amount of information compared to our traditional view.

“An example I gave in the book is on your laptop, in 10 years, or at most 20 years, if Moore’s law (the theory which predicts increasing capacity in chip technology) continues, we’ll be able to put every book that has ever been written on a laptop. On a quantum laptop, one will be able to store every book that ever could be written.”

Here’s the best analogy I’ve heard for understanding the power of quantum computing. Picture the computer as a hotel with a thousand doors. In a digital computer, if you ask it to search for information, one bellhop goes to each door and opens it, one at a time. In a quantum computer, there is one bellhop for each door and, when given the command, they open all the doors simultaneously.

Turok argues that this will not only change our view of the universe and open previously closed avenues of exploration, it will change the way we evolve as humans — a sort of symbiosis between the power of quantum machines and humans. We ask the questions and the machines guide us to the answers.

To make matters more interesting, each quantum computer will be unique.

“They can be the same,” says Turok of copying quantum computers. “But you cannot make multiple copies. If you have a quantum computer in a certain state, you could actually transfer that state to another computer, but then losing the initial state in the original computer. You can’t make multiple copies. Again with digital information it’s easy to just replicate; quantum information doesn’t work like that.”

Of course, this raises the spectre of a quantum divide unlike anything the digital world could produce. If we gain quantum knowledge, how do we fit into our natural world?

“If humans form this sort of partnership with quantum computers and are able to experience the universe on a different level, what’s going to happen to the rest of life?” says Turok. “I think it’s a great question. I love nature, I love living beings and I don’t want to leave anything behind, but I think this is going to happen. Something like this is going to happen and it’s better for us now to think about it and try to plan for it as best as possible and as non-destructively as possible. I think we’re only just beginning to think about it; what it will mean.”

When it comes to the more traditional concept of a divide — within human society — quantum computing offers a way out. “The wonderful thing about quantum computers is that they’re just doing what nature does all the time,” he says. “So, this is how atoms work. In principle you can make a quantum computer out of anything and there’s nothing inherently expensive. It’s just the universe and any piece of the universe works this way.”

The Universe Within , however, doesn’t spend all its time in the ether. Turok also talks about the need for society and science to better understand one another, to break down the wall between them — a wall first erected in ancient Greece.

“The split between the arts and humanities and science is a very destructive thing. It means, unfortunately, that scientists think much too little about what the implications are of what they’re doing, positive as well as negative,” says Turok.

“They end up being, in some cases, used as sort of technicians, for purposes for which they would not necessarily want to support.”

Turok believes that we urgently need a new Renaissance or Enlightenment to guide us through the coming storm, and he thinks Canada is the best place for this to happen. Diplomatically dodging the assertion that there is a war on science in this country, led by the Conservatives, Turok is firm in his belief that Canada is a sort of promised land for scientific study.

“Canada has somehow established a society that is extremely respectful of diversity,” says Turok, who grew up in Africa and the U.K. before moving to the U.S. and, finally, Canada. “I think that’s probably the key, because if you want great advances in science or in arts, or music or whatever, the key is to allow the oddballs space to do something unexpected. And I think Canada really has that.

“I’m extremely positive about Canada… if only it can be a little more ambitious.”

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