‘What’s next?’ Man goes from pong to quantum computing

Some of you are probably old enough to remember when the very first video game, Pong, was introduced in the early 1970’s. For those too young to remember, it was a black screen with a multipixel square dot bouncing around. Players controlled a stick, a short line that moved up or down your screen.

The object was similar to air hockey. You tried to hit the pixel ball past your opponent. The screen was black – the dot and the sticks were white. That’s it.

The game was fascinating.

Maria Spiropulu, a physicist at the California Institute of Technology, made a quantum leap forward a few weeks ago, announcing that a team of physicists in a consortium called Quantum Communication Channels for Fundamental Physics had managed to use a quantum computer to calculate a two black holes connected by a wormhole and have successfully transmitted a message through it.

Well damn it. Luckily, the physicists’ work was purely theoretical and took place in a two-dimensional simulation inside the quantum computer. In other words, they didn’t actually create two true black holes or a wormhole. It was all some kind of high-level computer deception.

I breathed a sigh of relief. Every bad sci-fi movie I’d ever seen came at me with the idea that scientists could have unleashed all kinds of weirdness that shouldn’t have been published. But then they used a quantum computer. Did you get that?

I didn’t know we even had quantum computers. Think again of the bad sci-fi movies and some not-so-bad ones – think The Terminator and the evil SkyNet. In the novel Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton, the character Ian Malcolm says: “Scientists are actually concerned with achievement. So they focus on whether they can do something. They never stop asking if they should do something.”

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I’m already wondering if this might not be one of those cases. I mean, it’s inevitable that we’re going to enforce any discovery. We were concerned with nuclear energy long before we understood the implications of using nuclear energy as a weapon or as a source of energy. Radiation, it turns out, isn’t our friend. As a weapon, nuclear weapons are terrifying. As an energy source, nuclear doesn’t have any emissions like burning coal, but the nuclear waste is pretty hard to get rid of and we have caves filled with the stuff somewhere out west and we have no idea what to do with it long term.

Likewise, we have no idea where the use of quantum computers will take us. They are orders of magnitude more powerful than your laptop or beefed up gaming computer. I read that breaking codes with a quantum computer would become so effective that no nation’s nuclear codes would be safe. Neither do your bank accounts. Of course, other quantum computers would presumably secure the codes and accounts against attacks by the first quantum computers, and we’re right back to the SkyNet nightmare where the machines rise up to wipe out humanity.

To put it more realistically, computers have come a very long way. I assume the first effective computers were developed during World War II. One, created by Alan Turing, was used in efforts to crack the German Enigma codes in time. Target computers were developed for use on ships and submarines. The door was opened that would eventually make a computer many times more powerful than the one NASA used to put a man on the moon right there on your lap. I’ve even heard that your smartphone is more powerful than those Apollo-era NASA computers.

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And we use them to look at cat videos, social media, and some less savory stuff. We hope SkyNet isn’t developed in some lab by some scientist who didn’t heed Ian Malcolm’s advice.

A hundred years ago, 102 years to be exact, on November 2, 1920, KDKA, Pittsburgh’s Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Co., broadcast the first scheduled commercial radio broadcast. Likewise, in 1920 almost no one owned a car. Flying in an airplane was still unknown to the masses and only daredevils or military pilots regularly took to the air.

Here we are at the end of 2022, opening theoretical wormholes between theoretical black holes with a computer I didn’t even know existed outside of science fiction. One of my grandfathers was born in 1899. The world has changed so many times since then, humanity has come so far that it begs the question, “Where do we go from here?”

Wherever we go, and innovation is happening so fast that no one can really keep up with it, I hope someone will bother to stop and ask if we should go there before we muddle over a blind technological cliff into an abyss of no return. Black holes may actually be waiting for you, and where they will lead no one knows.

Gary Cosby Jr. is the picture editor of The Tuscaloosa News. Readers can email him at [email protected]

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