I overheard the following dialogue recently:

Letitia: Quantum what?

Josef: Quantum supremacy!

Letitia: Is that a game quantum theorists play to show who is supreme in quantum mechanics?

Josef: No, its about quantum computers.

Letitita: Not them again - so it's not about physics - like I said, its a game quantum supremacists play to show who is the quantum supremacist amongst quantum supremacists ...

Actually, I just dreamt up that bit of dialogue. Here's some actual dialogue from an interview from the Harvard Gazette describing 'quantum supremecy'.

Gazette: Now, this is not a new idea, or even — at this point — a revolutionary idea because it’s actually used in certain applications that people see every day, right?

Lukin: Yes. Even certain technologies such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) are based on this idea of superposition. So when you get an MRI in the hospital, superposition is being used.

Actually, if we described atoms classically as electrons orbitting a nucleus they would radiate energy and hence fall into the nucleus. Thus the robustness of matter already actually indicates the foundational aspects of quantum mechanics.

Lukin: [Quantum supremacy] points to one specific calculation and says, “We crossed the threshold.” I think, in practice, it’s not quite like that. There is no doubt that once quantum computers become large enough, classical computers cannot simulate them. That’s very clear. It is also clear that 50 qubits is a sort of threshold and the system that they built is very competitive with the best systems that exist around in the world, including one here at Harvard. What they’ve done is a great example of how to test for this so-called supremacy idea.

To 'cross a threshold' is not a physical idea -at least from physics as I know it. The analogy that comes to my mind is a break-even point in accounting when income matches outgoings. In other words, its a capitalist notion. What is a capitalist notion doing in physics? Sheldon Wolins Inverted Totalitarianism has this to say about the modern science embedded within capitalism:

The oddity of American Superpower is that while it readily exploits the power possibilities of science and technology, its ideology depends upon a crucial development, the puncturing of the cultural mystique formerly surrounding science as disinterested “inquiry,” leaving in its place a predominantly instrumental, market-oriented understanding.

Science is no longer the heroic adventure of loners who challenge orthodoxies but the consequence of a series of investment decisions.

This is the version we are taught in schools - but it is out-dated ...

... A half century ago the work of scientists was idealized. Typically science was depicted almost monastically, as pursued within a “community of scientists” that constrained their behavior in accordance with an unwritten code of conduct for protecting scientific objectivity and integrity. Scientists operated outside the marketplace; their autonomy, which was considered to be the necessary condition for scientific honesty, was subsidized by government and universities.

Wigner, for example, in his autobiography wrote of the same. When his father asked him about career plans as a young man and he replied 'theoretical physics'. His father then asked him, 'how many jobs are there for those?' And he then replied 'in the whole of Hungary ... four'. It was during his lifetime that science was transformed from a 'monastic discipline' to 'Big Science.'

Now, however, scientists, have become “incorporated,” either as entrepreneurs or as employees in research divisions of corporations and government bureaucracies. The integration of science into the culture and practices of corporate and governmental bureaucracies has destroyed the iconic status it enjoyed for more than three centuries, leaving scientists and their findings more vulnerable to political and corporate manipulation and attacks by religious and economic archaists.

Once scientists were universally revered as exemplars of independent truth seeking, of knowledge for its own sake,

This is why Einstein has the iconic standing that he does whereas it is hard even to recall the names of modern physicists ...

But in recent years they have been accused of fraud, misrepresenting their findings, and other forms of cheating reflective of a highly competitive, market-oriented culture. More significant, on virtually every major policy issue, from global warming to genetic engineering, apparently reputable scientists can be found appealing to scientific evidence and theories while defending diametrically opposed positions.

While some may welcome these revelations for eliminating the last holdout against postmodern subjectivism, there can be little question that they, along with the corporatization of science, further weaken public confidence in the possibility of disinterested policies and public trust in authorities.

Q. How can public trust be returned to 'Big Science'? Does this mean disentangling it from its corporatisation? And does this mean more specifically that Universities should return to their vocation as the nurturing and advocacy of learning instead of the incubators of start-ups and entrepreneurs?

  • i thought stackexchange had no sense of humor?
    – user38026
    Nov 2 '19 at 19:54
  • From what I can tell quantum supremacy isn't really a physics term but an engineering one, it just seems to refer to a point when real-world quantum computers can compute results that real-world classical computers would take impractically long to compute.
    – Hypnosifl
    Nov 2 '19 at 22:47
  • Instead of dreaming up what quantum supremacy is supposed to be why not read it up on Wikipedia? And science was "instrumental" and "entrepreneurial" since before Galileo and Newton, spyglasses, nautical clocks, cannons and steam engines came out of there, and is continued to be subsidized by governments and universities.
    – Conifold
    Nov 3 '19 at 0:01
  • 1
    @another_name: you thought right - it doesn't. Nov 3 '19 at 19:22
  • 2
    "Break-even point" isn't what quantum supremacy means, it means "providing a superpolynomial speedup over the best known or possible classical algorithm". That is a purely mathematical notion that Shor's quantum algorithm for factoring integers instantiates, for example. "Crossing the threshold" does not refer to quantum supremacy, it refers to minimal size to make a practical application of it. Practice isn't specific to capitalism either, it is as old as sin, and front and center in Marx. The bridge to Wigner is just a leap to a foregone conclusion by loose association to a misread quote.
    – Conifold
    Nov 4 '19 at 0:57

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