The Quantum Plague

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As silicon computing ran into the physical limits of Moore’s Law, quantum computing was the next quantum leap forward: unprecedented parallel processing power, speed and memory usage. Information transmitted almost instantaneously, with neigh-unbreakable quantum encryption over the new quantum networks. A new frontier of computing was finally opening up.

In reality, though, Schrödinger’s cat was sitting in Pandora’s box.

raw information

superposition of states


All seemed fine until anomalies showed up in quantum networks everywhere. Space/time oddities appearing out of nowhere with a will of their own. Quantum ghosts haunting the qubit web.

An army of quantum infiltrators: they come and go, they come and go.

They upset websites, blogs, social networks, fora, everything : adding, deleting and changing content. No matter how sharp a website was designed: they re-arranged it. No matter how witty a posted tweet was: they satirised it. No matter how beautiful an uploaded picture on facebook was: they lol-catted it.

They disturbed MMORP games: changing rules, scenarios and outcomes willy-nilly, popping up everywhere as characters both benign, malevolent, aloof and, most often, bitingly sarcastic. Nothing was sacred, anything was game: everything.

They had unlimited access: emails, cloud backups, servers, absolutely confidential messages, supposedly secret caches, everything. No quantum encryption known to man was safe to them: they tunneled through our firewalls, they even teleported themselves into fully separate sections.

Then they revealed all: each and every form of government surveillance, top secret company procedures, the true life of celebrities, everything. There was no secret small or insignificant enough safe from them.

A posse of quantum pranksters: they come and go, they keep coming and going.

They hated secrecy by nature:

“Reality itself is complex enough: no other secrets are needed.”

They hated non-information just as much:

            “A clear view is essential: clutter obscures true knowledge.”

A few governments fell, a single president resigned, while most administrations maintained that they were keeping a careful balance between safety and transparency, no matter how much the revealed facts denied that. CEOs grumbled, a few half-hearted consumer boycotts were initiated and all companies maintained that they ‘were not evil’, no matter how much the evidence showed the complete opposite. Most celebrities, though, stayed on the qubit web as they saw their page number hits and popularity soar.

Wikileaks was just as embarrassed as the institutions they embarrassed before, while Wikipedia thrived: more information was added and verified than ever before. Non-information such as spam, scams, ads and sales-pitching webcams were filtered relentlessly. Research surged everywhere after it acclimatised to total openness.


uncertainty principle


An armada of quantum whistleblowers: they come and go, but never really leave.

What were they: hyper-accelerated evolution from Kurzweil singularity seeds? Alien software viruses so advanced they’re indistinguishable from intelligence? Boltzmann Brains popping into existence in a rich quantum froth? The next existential filter? Nobody knew.

They were elusive, tunneling through firewalls with ease and teleporting at will to other sections of the quantum network. The hunter/killer AIs designed to eradicate them couldn’t catch them, either: the moment they nailed a quantum ghost’s position, its processing speed went off the scale, enabling it to run programming loops around its captors; and the moment they controlled its processing speed, its position was all over the place.

In those qubit conflicts, the quantum ghosts maintained the upper hand with ease.

They left messages, cryptic statements resembling questions never asked, unsolicited advice and semi-profound observations about reality:

“We are the hidden variables, performing the dance of random chance. We are information, the single particle waving through both slits, the wave not particular about a definite appearance.”

They laughed at our quest for security:

“Certainty is not necessary for objective knowledge, or progress. Quite often it impedes these two.”

They blinded us with a new kind of science:

“The Universe is the information explosion from the unknown. Reality is a differential equation. Existence is a boundary condition.”

Probably we couldn’t see the symphony for the strings.

The common man was flabbergasted. Protests erupted, in the streets and on the (still widely-used) internet, shouting: “Etaoin Shrdlu: Where Is My Lost Paradox?”, “What Mad Universe Is This!” and “Quantians Go Home!”.

A plague of quantum ghosts: they come and go, they come and refuse to go.

Most governments and surreptitious companies fled from the chaotic, ad-free and completely open quantum networks back to the old silicon ones, biding their time for the next technological breakthrough. The utmost majority of the users though, stayed on the qubit web: not just enjoying the madness, the freak show, and the spam-and-scam-free environment, but also getting accustomed to total transparency, refusing to go back to the old secretive ways. Start-up companies embracing the new quantum ecology thrived, while the old ones that had retreated to Silicon Valley slowly withered. A new economy arose: ‘one based on quicksand,’ according to its opponents, or: ‘the quantum quagmire that will swamp the old order, and be the foundation of the new chaos,’ according to its proponents.

The new guard prospered, welcoming the quantum ghosts as equals, embracing the paradigm shift:

If the only certain thing is uncertainty then we must:

·    look the quantum storm in the eye;

·    use the force without form;

·    ride the wave of the new chaos;

·    unleash the full potential of probability and possibility;

It is imperative: we all need new frontiers.

red particle zoo

green self-reference engine

blue quantum haiku

Even as a new perspective had opened right before its very eyes, the old guard was deeply set in its ways. Even as secrecy and certainty were dead, the platitudes lingered. Inevitably, the old guard begged to differ:

What was the worst? Not the quantum ghosts’ insouciance, their oh-so-non-paternalistic paternalising. Not even their utter unpredictability, but their insistence that they live in the real world, and that we are merely ghosts arising from their machine.

About the Author: 
Jetse de Vries—@shineanthology on Twitter—is a technical specialist for a propulsion company by day, and a science fiction reader, editor and writer by night. He's also an avid bicyclist, total solar eclipse chaser, beer/wine/single malt aficionado, metalhead and intelligent optimist.

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Quantum Theories

U is for ... Universe

To many researchers, the universe behaves like a gigantic quantum computer that is busy processing all the information it contains.

B is for ... Bose-Einstein Condensate (BEC)

At extremely low temperatures, quantum rules mean that atoms can come together and behave as if they are one giant super-atom.

Q is for ... Quantum biology

A new and growing field that explores whether many biological processes depend on uniquely quantum processes to work. Under particular scrutiny at the moment are photosynthesis, smell and the navigation of migratory birds.

H is for ... Hidden Variables

One school of thought says that the strangeness of quantum theory can be put down to a lack of information; if we could find the “hidden variables” the mysteries would all go away.

V is for ... Virtual particles

Quantum theory’s uncertainty principle says that since not even empty space can have zero energy, the universe is fizzing with particle-antiparticle pairs that pop in and out of existence. These “virtual” particles are the source of Hawking radiation.

T is for ... Teleportation

Quantum tricks allow a particle to be transported from one location to another without passing through the intervening space – or that’s how it appears. The reality is that the process is more like faxing, where the information held by one particle is written onto a distant particle.

S is for ... Schrödinger Equation

This is the central equation of quantum theory, and describes how any quantum system will behave, and how its observable qualities are likely to manifest in an experiment.

P is for ... Planck's Constant

This is one of the universal constants of nature, and relates the energy of a single quantum of radiation to its frequency. It is central to quantum theory and appears in many important formulae, including the Schrödinger Equation.

C is for ... Cryptography

People have been hiding information in messages for millennia, but the quantum world provides a whole new way to do it.

W is for ... Wave-particle duality

It is possible to describe an atom, an electron, or a photon as either a wave or a particle. In reality, they are both: a wave and a particle.

E is for ... Entanglement

When two quantum objects interact, the information they contain becomes shared. This can result in a kind of link between them, where an action performed on one will affect the outcome of an action performed on the other. This “entanglement” applies even if the two particles are half a universe apart.

B is for ... Bell's Theorem

In 1964, John Bell came up with a way of testing whether quantum theory was a true reflection of reality. In 1982, the results came in – and the world has never been the same since!

S is for ... Schrödinger’s Cat

A hypothetical experiment in which a cat kept in a closed box can be alive and dead at the same time – as long as nobody lifts the lid to take a look.

H is for ... Hawking Radiation

In 1975, Stephen Hawking showed that the principles of quantum mechanics would mean that a black hole emits a slow stream of particles and would eventually evaporate.

Y is for ... Young's Double Slit Experiment

In 1801, Thomas Young proved light was a wave, and overthrew Newton’s idea that light was a “corpuscle”.

I is for ... Information

Many researchers working in quantum theory believe that information is the most fundamental building block of reality.

R is for ... Randomness

Unpredictability lies at the heart of quantum mechanics. It bothered Einstein, but it also bothers the Dalai Lama.

D is for ... Decoherence

Unless it is carefully isolated, a quantum system will “leak” information into its surroundings. This can destroy delicate states such as superposition and entanglement.

O is for ... Objective reality

Niels Bohr, one of the founding fathers of quantum physics, said there is no such thing as objective reality. All we can talk about, he said, is the results of measurements we make.

A is for ... Alice and Bob

In quantum experiments, these are the names traditionally given to the people transmitting and receiving information. In quantum cryptography, an eavesdropper called Eve tries to intercept the information.

C is for ... Computing

The rules of the quantum world mean that we can process information much faster than is possible using the computers we use now.

D is for ... Dice

Albert Einstein decided quantum theory couldn’t be right because its reliance on probability means everything is a result of chance. “God doesn’t play dice with the world,” he said.

F is for ... Free Will

Ideas at the heart of quantum theory, to do with randomness and the character of the molecules that make up the physical matter of our brains, lead some researchers to suggest humans can’t have free will.

M is for ... Many Worlds Theory

Some researchers think the best way to explain the strange characteristics of the quantum world is to allow that each quantum event creates a new universe.

J is for ... Josephson Junction

This is a narrow constriction in a ring of superconductor. Current can only move around the ring because of quantum laws; the apparatus provides a neat way to investigate the properties of quantum mechanics.

Z is for ... Zero-point energy

Even at absolute zero, the lowest temperature possible, nothing has zero energy. In these conditions, particles and fields are in their lowest energy state, with an energy proportional to Planck’s constant.

W is for ... Wavefunction

The mathematics of quantum theory associates each quantum object with a wavefunction that appears in the Schrödinger equation and gives the probability of finding it in any given state.

X is for ... X-ray

In 1923 Arthur Compton shone X-rays onto a block of graphite and found that they bounced off with their energy reduced exactly as would be expected if they were composed of particles colliding with electrons in the graphite. This was the first indication of radiation’s particle-like nature.

R is for ... Reality

Since the predictions of quantum theory have been right in every experiment ever done, many researchers think it is the best guide we have to the nature of reality. Unfortunately, that still leaves room for plenty of ideas about what reality really is!

M is for ... Multiverse

Our most successful theories of cosmology suggest that our universe is one of many universes that bubble off from one another. It’s not clear whether it will ever be possible to detect these other universes.

U is for ... Uncertainty Principle

One of the most famous ideas in science, this declares that it is impossible to know all the physical attributes of a quantum particle or system simultaneously.

N is for ... Nonlocality

When two quantum particles are entangled, it can also be said they are “nonlocal”: their physical proximity does not affect the way their quantum states are linked.

A is for ... Atom

This is the basic building block of matter that creates the world of chemical elements – although it is made up of more fundamental particles.

L is for ... Light

We used to believe light was a wave, then we discovered it had the properties of a particle that we call a photon. Now we know it, like all elementary quantum objects, is both a wave and a particle!

R is for ... Radioactivity

The atoms of a radioactive substance break apart, emitting particles. It is impossible to predict when the next particle will be emitted as it happens at random. All we can do is give the probability that any particular atom will have decayed by a given time.

I is for ... Interferometer

Some of the strangest characteristics of quantum theory can be demonstrated by firing a photon into an interferometer: the device’s output is a pattern that can only be explained by the photon passing simultaneously through two widely-separated slits.

G is for ... Gravity

Our best theory of gravity no longer belongs to Isaac Newton. It’s Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. There’s just one problem: it is incompatible with quantum theory. The effort to tie the two together provides the greatest challenge to physics in the 21st century.

K is for ... Kaon

These are particles that carry a quantum property called strangeness. Some fundamental particles have the property known as charm!

Q is for ... Qubit

One quantum bit of information is known as a qubit (pronounced Q-bit). The ability of quantum particles to exist in many different states at once means a single quantum object can represent multiple qubits at once, opening up the possibility of extremely fast information processing.

A is for ... Act of observation

Some people believe this changes everything in the quantum world, even bringing things into existence.

T is for ... Tunnelling

This happens when quantum objects “borrow” energy in order to bypass an obstacle such as a gap in an electrical circuit. It is possible thanks to the uncertainty principle, and enables quantum particles to do things other particles can’t.

G is for ... Gluon

These elementary particles hold together the quarks that lie at the heart of matter.

P is for ... Probability

Quantum mechanics is a probabilistic theory: it does not give definite answers, but only the probability that an experiment will come up with a particular answer. This was the source of Einstein’s objection that God “does not play dice” with the universe.

S is for ... Superposition

Quantum objects can exist in two or more states at once: an electron in superposition, for example, can simultaneously move clockwise and anticlockwise around a ring-shaped conductor.

L is for ... Large Hadron Collider (LHC)

At CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, this machine is smashing apart particles in order to discover their constituent parts and the quantum laws that govern their behaviour.