This and Next Year’s Hype

I normally try and avoid getting into the vast topic of the hype problem in other subjects than string theory, but a couple things I’ve seen recently make it hard to resist. So, just this once…

Quantum Computing

Michio Kaku has a new book coming out next year, called Quantum Supremacy: How the Quantum Computer Revolution Will Change Everything. The publisher’s summary tells us that quantum computing “may eventually unravel the deepest mysteries of science and solve some of humanity’s biggest problems, like global warming, world hunger, and incurable disease.” More concisely:

There is not a single problem humanity faces that couldn’t be addressed by quantum computing.

For a very different take, see The quantum computing bubble at the Financial Times, where Nikita Gourianov argues that there’s a speculative bubble going on in this field, and:

Well, when exactly the bubble will pop is difficult to say, but at some point the claims will be found out and the funding will dry up. I just hope that when the music stops and the bubble pops, the public will still listen to us physicists.

For a response to this, see a later article at the Financial Times: Separating quantum hype from quantum reality.

I think Gourianov makes an important point for physicists to keep in mind. Having this sort of hype blow up in physicist’s faces is not going to help with the credibility problems physics already has with the public due to decades of hype about non-existent breakthroughs in fundamental physics.

Nuclear Fusion

Attempts to build a nuclear fusion-based power reactor have been going on for 70 years or so. Decades ago it had already become a joke that success was always “30 years off”. One would think that because of this there would be overwhelming skepticism about new claims in this field, but there’s continual new hype all the time. The Guardian recently had a long article about The race to give nuclear fusion a role in the climate emergency. If you read the article carefully, there’s no evidence of any change on the “30 years off” front, with one expert describing magnetic confinement-based reactors as highly unlikely before “after 2050” and laser-based schemes “another 50 years to go, if at all.”

One project that has been getting a lot of press is SPARC, a collaboration between MIT and a private start-up. Their claim seems to be that they’ve got a workable reactor design all ready to go, last year finished developing the needed 20T high temperature superconductor-based magnet, and by 2025 will have a working reactor putting out more energy than goes in. Then:

On this path, how long would it take before fusion energy is on the grid?

MIT scientists and their collaborators believe that ARC — a fusion power plant that would produce electricity continuously — could be built and operating by early 2030.

This all seems highly implausible to me, but Bill Gates is putting money into the the project and I guess we’ll find out soon. For a skeptical take, see here.

About nuclear fusion, Michio Kaku tells us that:

Quantum computers could allow us to finally create nuclear fusion reactors that create clean, renewable energy without radioactive waste or threats of meltdown.

Two more items:

Getting back to the sort of claims about physics that don’t work out that I usually write about, the IAS website points to two recent items:

Update: Theoretical physicists are making a contribution to the energy crisis, see here.

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24 Responses to This and Next Year’s Hype

  1. Alex says:

    Just wow. It’s amazing how these people are simply incapable of communicating anything without uber hyping it at the same time. It’s beyond pathological, it’s in the community’s fabric now. It’s a way of life. Is there any way (or even hope) of coming back to rational after we passed such event horizons of delusion, but also of lack of scruples? I’m really pessimistic, to be honest.

  2. steve blazo says:

    I do not agree with the appeal of nuclear fusion over nuclear fission. The safety record of fission is amply demonstrated by any serious analysis on the line of deaths per megawatt hour and third and fourth generation plants will be improvement over older designs and they are available now. The high level waste issue just seems a red herring, there just is not that much of the stuff generated. Uranium reserves (or thorium) are ample. I just do not see the point in investing 10’s of billions in the hope you will be able to solve some very difficult, perhaps practically impossible problems with fusion when you already have a solution staring you in the face.

  3. Rohan says:

    I wonder what people think about the prospects of nuclear fusion startup Helion? How seriously is it taken in this space?

  4. Nuclear fusion needs chaos control which is a strongly non-linear problem. Last time I looked no one knew how to efficiently solve non-linear equations on a quantum computer. I warned of quantum computing hype some years ago here:

    https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/aug/02/quantum-supremacy-computers

  5. Hans says:

    My partner’s father worked on fusion. For 50 years he told him that fusion will come within 50 years. He got quieter when he got older.

    My colleague questioned quantum computing at work. His boss got angry in away he had never seen.

    Peter, I admire your energy, but be careful not to open too many battle fronts.

  6. Peter Erwin says:

    I suppose that if you wanted some tenuous source of optimism about fusion, you could look at how the value of N in “fusion power is N years away, and always will be” has been gradually creeping down. I mean, I remember quite clearly in the early 1990s hearing it as “40 years away, and always will be”, and here’s a recollection of an earlier version: “I first heard the standard joke about fusion as an undergraduate physics student in the 1960s: Fusion power is fifty years away – and probably always will be.”

    A simple linear extrapolation tells us that we’ll reach the state of “fusion power is zero years away” around 2110! Progress!

  7. Anonyrat says:

    “As John Preskill said at the Q2B conference organized in December 2021 by QC-Ware, “There is a line between setting ambitious goals and fanning inflated expectations… for us as a community, we’ll be better off if we try to stay on the right side of that line”.”

    “As Victor Galitski states in his already mentioned paper, the ethics of science communication is at stake in the current quantum hype.”

    From: https://arxiv.org/pdf/2202.01925.pdf

  8. AcademicLurker says:

    In the linked Symmetry magazine piece, there’s an interesting quote from David Kaplan about how before Particle Fever he used to pick projects that could be “wrapped up in six months”. Since making the film he says he’s changed how he works and now realizes that worthwhile questions might take longer to answer.

    Peter and Lee Smolin in their books back in 2006 both mentioned how career incentives force theorists to work on short term projects, and Sabine Hossenfelder mentioned it again in her more recent book. There apparently is very little will to change how the incentive structure works. It’s funny, because you would think it would be obvious that fundamental problems like the ones HEP theorists work on won’t be solved in 6 months.

  9. Alan Post says:

    The new high-field magnets will allow existing fusion device designs to work better. The idea with SPARC and ARC is to do this with the currently best-performing design (H-mode tokamak). Of course, many others are applying the new magnets to other designs that are less proven or have performed less-well in the past. Hopefully one or more of these approaches will pan out. I doubt something the scale of ITER will ever be cheaper than renewables plus storage.

    I do wish everyone involved would avoid making misleading claims about “net energy” or “gain”, though.

  10. Varun Chauhan says:

    I remember studying nuclear fusion for nuclear engineering the common understanding is it is always 50 years away.

  11. David J. Littleboy says:

    Given that the number of problems that can be solved (that is, actually known algorithms) using quantum computation is tiny (this year, the folks working on it finally came up with a third algorithm, as I understand it the first new algorithm since Shor’s and Glover’s algorithms* of the 1990s), Michio Kaku’s comments on what QC will do for us are more than over the top.

    Even people who claim that the “problem” being used for the quantum supremacy demonstration actually demonstrates that admit that it has absolutely no conceivable practical (meaningful in real life in any way) use. And all this is in the context of Sabine Hossenfelder’s comment on the expected arrival time of a QC that can actually run those three algorithms as being “not in our lifetimes”.

    The universe is becoming more and more devoid of reality checks, it seems…

    *: That almost no new quantum algorithms have been forthcoming was a surprise here: Shor’s algorithm, as I understand it, is essentially a quantum-fast Fast Fourier Transform, which ought to be useful for all sorts of things. One would think.

  12. Peter Woit says:

    For enthusiastic coverage of some of these new startups, see this article by Philip Ball in Nature last year

    https://www.nature.com/immersive/d41586-021-03401-w/index.html

    Ball recalls the usual “30 years away” (I recall always hearing 20-30 years away, not 50), and notes that nowadays it’s often “10 years away”. That would normally make one more optimistic, but he also writes:

    “Private companies say they’ll have it working in ten years, but that’s just to attract funders,” says Tony Donné, programme manager of the Eurofusion consortium which conducts experiments at the state-run Joint European Torus, established at Culham in the late 1970s. “They all have stated constantly to be about ten years away from a working fusion reactor, and they still do.”

    Timelines that companies project should be regarded not so much as promises but as motivational aspirations, says Melanie Windridge, a plasma physicist who is the FIA’s UK director of communications, and a communications consultant for the fusion firm Tokamak Energy, in Culham. “I think bold targets are necessary,” she says.”

    It may just be that when you’re looking for private investors rather than government funding, you have to claim shorter time horizons, even if they’re nonsense. If you need to claim “ten years” to get money, and your choice is do that or don’t get funded and shut down, the only sensible thing to do is to claim “ten years”, and deal with the fact this is not going to work out that way later.

  13. Peter Woit says:

    AcademicLurker,
    I was interested to read that comment by Kaplan also. The problem of all the incentives being aligned to push people into short-term unambitious projects are still all there. The problems of this kind Smolin, Hossenfelder and I have pointed out a long time ago are just as bad if not worse now. Everyone agrees that the field is in a difficult state, with new ideas needed, but no one wants to change anything about how research has always been organized and funded.

  14. Can someone please stop giving Michio Kaku a megaphone? His brand of popularization does more harm than good, in my view. BTW, if you want to see an excellent and thought provoking talk about quantum computing, I recommend this one by Garnet Chan (Caltech) about whether quantum computing gives an exponential speed up for problems related to quantum chemistry (where a priori one might imagine a real benefit from quantum algorithms): https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=DZPH7ENcRLU

  15. DrDave says:

    Surely there must be something in the book about how quantum computing will make–and test–predictions using string theory?

  16. @David J. Littleboy

    Can you give us a name for and a link to this third algorithm?

  17. Mark Hillery says:

    For anyone interested in what quantum algorithms are out there, have a look at the Quantum Algorithm Zoo: https://quantumalgorithmzoo.org .

    As someone who has worked in quantum information for 25 years, I can say that the last thing the field needs now is more hype. There is way too much already. Back in its early days, it was a small field that encountered a lot of skepticism from people working in more established fields. I remember a reaction to one talk I gave, which was, “Is this physics?” Well, things have changed. The American quantum information community adopted the APS March Meeting as its annual meeting. I don’t like March Meetings, too big, but I did go to the one in 2019 in Boston at the behest of Physical Review. I was amazed at how many people were working in quantum information/computing and the level of interest from industry. I guess when big money gets involved the danger of hype increases, but making promises you can’t keep is a really bad idea. The honest answer about the future of the field is that while there is a lot of interesting work going on, both theoretical and experimental, no one knows where all this is going to go.

  18. David J. Littleboy says:

    David Roberts asks for a link to the third algorithm.

    Quanta was on it:

    https://www.quantamagazine.org/quantum-algorithms-conquer-a-new-kind-of-problem-20220711/

  19. Masoud Kamgarpour says:

    Regarding credibility problems of physics with the public, I would say your concern is misplaced. The public has very short memory and are hardly going to remember what string theory did or did not promise 30 years ago. I mean we are talking about the same public half of whom believes that Trump had the highest number of spectators in his inauguration, amongst other absurdities…

    As an outsider mathematician interested in physics, I would characterize the issue not as a lack of credibility but as disappointment. Creating hype about string theory led to many great young minds going into that direction only to find themselves lost after enormous amount of effort. We see many of these examples of former string theorists coming to the math departments and unfortunately, cannot accommodate many smart ones. One would hate to see history repeating itself now under the guise of quantum computing.

  20. Stef Roux says:

    A comparison between quantum computing and string theory is like comparing apples and oranges. While string theory has no connection with physical reality, there are already some quantum computers in operation. They are small and not very reliable, but there is no fundamental stumbling block to prevent them from becoming big enough and reliable enough to be useful. It will take time though. Most people in the field say it is still several decades.

    There are more than just three algorithms for quantum computers. It is true that quantum computers are not suitable for all computing applications, but there is enough that they can do to make them useful.

    So, while it is unfortunate that there is a lot of hype about quantum computing, it does not mean that it is not a viable technology. The challenges are significant but not fundamentally insurmountable.

  21. SRP says:

    The skeptical quotes about the private fusion efforts mainly come from publicly funded no-hope-for-practical-use project members. These self-licking ice cream cones have no urgency internally and a strong interest in denigrating more-innovative and more-focused private programs that might lead to questions about their own funding and progress. Outfits like TAE and Helion have been hitting milestones along well-defined research and development paths over a number of years. Perhaps their trajectories will hit a wall in their next-stage machines (currently under construction), but no obvious physics or engineering showstoppers have yet cropped up.

  22. Mark Hillery says:

    Me again. For an interesting perspective on the state of quantum algorithms see https://arxiv.org/pdf/2209.06930.pdf by Scott Aaronson. And yes, there are a lot more than 3 quantum algorithms.

    It should also be pointed out that quantum computing is only part of the ongoing quantum project. You can buy off-the-shelf quantum crypto systems from established companies, and the Chinese have demonstrated quantum cryptography using a satellite link. There is also research into quantum networks, whereby one can send quantum rather than classical information. Research into enhancing the performance of sensors and sensor networks by using entanglement and nonclassical states of light (LIGO is doing the latter, though the original theoretical proposal is 4o years old) has been a long term project. All that said, there is still way too much hype in the field, and probably too many startup companies. On the other hand, from someone who has been in the field not from the beginning but from early days, from an intellectual point of view it has been a fun ride.

  23. Joseph Healy says:

    AI was vastly over-hyped in the 80’s and much nonsense still surrounds the technology today. And while one might wish a different trajectory for quantum computing, hype like Michio Kaku’s appears an embedded and inescapable facet of money chasing technology and technology chasing money.

  24. Mark Hillery says:

    Depending on your opinion of the Breakthrough Prizes, you can decide how you want to interpret this, but it is an excellent choice of winners.

    Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics Awarded to Charles H. Bennett, Gilles Brassard, David Deutsch and Peter Shor.

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