Monday, November 26, 2007

Introducing New Scientific Ideas, and D-Wave

Apropos of my last post on Digital Fountain is Scott's Aaronson's current report on D-Wave researchers giving talks about what's behind the hype of their building of quantum computers. For those who don't know the story, the short summary is that D-Wave Systems has claimed non-trivial advancements in the development of quantum computers, and many (most? all?) academic quantum scientists aren't buying it, based on the very limited evidence they've seen.

Why does this story remind me of Digital Fountain? I recall the early, early days going around giving talks about Tornado codes and their potential uses in networks, and in the beginning, the greatest skeptics were the coding theorists. One talk in particular, I remember, early on a very senior coding theorist insisted repeatedly that highly optimized Reed-Solomon codes could do anything we were claiming. The rest of the talk was a bit more difficult to get through after that argument. (I like to think by the end of the talk he thought that maybe there might be something new there...)

So is this to say that I think the academic crowd is being too hard on D-Wave? Absolutely not. It sounds like they're doing their job -- trying to figure out what's going on and asking tough questions. The point of my parallel is that the coding theorists had the right to be skeptical. (One reason for it was there was a huge language barrier, me not knowing what a "decibel" was, and them not really getting why linear vs. quadratic complexity was such a big deal. The divide being coding theorists and CS theorists has shrunk an awful lot this past decade.) It was our job to convince them that we had the goods. And we provided evidence with equations, papers, talks, and demos. While they took some convincing, the coding theorists listened to the evidence, and rapidly came around.

Here, the story seems to be (my interpretation!) that D-Wave is presenting painfully unconvincing demos and releasing not nearly enough information for experts to see if they have any new ideas. Then they're compounding this by excessive PR overstating what might eventually be possible with quantum computing. (There seem to be some arguments whether they themselves are doing the overstating, or uninformed journalists, in which case D-Wave is just failing to correct the press, but whatever.) Their excuse for this is that they're a private company so they have to keep their secrets. Understood! But they shouldn't then be surprised when knowledgeable academics studying the issue voice their opinion that the emperor has no clothes. I'm quite sure the scientific community has enough open-minded people that if they start producing convincing evidence, or give enough details on what they're doing so people can verify if the path they're taking is productive, they'll be understood and praised. Until then, the feedback they're getting is rightly telling them they have more to do.

1 comment:

Scott said...

Thanks, Michael! I couldn't have summarized it better.