Few things go together as poorly as science and politicians. Whether it’s Senator Ted Stevens describing the internet as a “series of tubes” during a net neutrality debate or Republican representatives reveling in their own ignorance about climate change, it’s clear that scientific illiteracy is a rampant problem in our nation’s hallowed halls of government.
Yet this was precisely why it was so refreshing to see Canada’s recently elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau explain the difference between a “normal” computer and a quantum computer completely off the cuff during a press briefing at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Ontario, thereby proving that politics and science need not be mutually exclusive.
Although Trudeau was at the Institute to announce $50 million in funding which will allow those working at Perimeter to continue their work on fundamental physics, he took the time to breakdown the essence of quantum computing for a clueless journalist:
“Normal computers work either with power going through a wire or not, a one or a zero,” Trudeau said. “They’re binary systems. What quantum states allow for is much more complex information to be encoded into a single bit. A regular computer bit is either a one or a zero, on or off. A quantum state can be much more complex than that because as we know things can be both a particle and a wave at the same time, and the uncertainty around quantum states allows us to encode more information into a much smaller computer. That’s what’s exciting about quantum computing.”
While most applauded Trudeau’s remarkably “clear and concise” explanation of quantum computing, others deemed his description as totally off the mark. I decided to ask some experts on quantum computing what they thought of the Prime Minister’s explanation to settle the debate once and for all:
Romain Alléaume—Associate Professor at Telecom ParisTech and Paris Center for Quantum Computing
“The beginning of Justin Trudeau’s explanation, about the difference between a classical bit and a quantum bit is absolutely correct. To be frank, the argumentation of Justin gets gradually more ‘uncertain’ when he says that the uncertainty principle implies that we can encode more information into ‘smaller computers’. Maybe he wanted to say that quantum computers can process information ‘in superposition,’ which allows to speed up some computations (i.e., solve some problems on smaller computers), but I am not certain about that. It is great to see a high level politician show enthusiasm for one of the biggest challenges in modern science.”
Amr Helmy—Director, University of Toronto’s Center of Quantum Information and Quantum Control
“His account of the distinction between a classical and quantum state is accurate. This is impressive that Canada’s PM has given this some thought. His comment on how superposition aides in storing information is an argument that can be equally made to explain the power which quantum computing possesses to process information in a fashion that is distinctly different from the classical paradigms. These are insights that are rarely considered by a Prime Minister. The rest of the world should be jealous!”
SCORE: Too complex an issue to rank
Michele Mosca—University Research Chair and Co-founder, Institute for Quantum Computing, University of Waterloo. Founding Member, Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics
"The task is to explain quantum computing to a lay audience in a 100 words or so. It’s extremely hard, for even the best scientists and communicators, to get something like this both correct and interesting, especially in 100 words. He doesn’t say anything wrong. He conveys the essence of what quantum computing is, and why it might be more powerful. It’s understandable, and succinct. Also, keep in mind that this was something he said live, on the fly, in response to a joke from a reporter. Room for improvement? Hard to find. Can he next explain how encoding that more complex information in quantum bits leads to a more powerful computer? I’d love to hear his explanation."
Aephraim Steinberg—Professor of Physics at the University of Toronto and member of Center of Quantum Information and Quantum Control
“He zeroed in on the importance of how information is stored in a physical system, what a bit is, and the difference between classical bits and ‘quantum bits’ or ‘qubits’. This hinted he may have appreciated something very deep: the field of quantum computing is not just about trying to figure out how to speed up one task or another, but about understanding the fundamental role information has in the laws that govern the universe, how much information it takes to describe a physical system, and, on the flip side, what it means to store information in a physical system.
“He faltered when trying to explain why a qubit is so much richer than a classical bit and threw in a few tangentially related buzzwords like ‘uncertainty’ and ‘particle and wave,’ in a way that made it clear that although he had the (accurate) sense that these concepts had something to do with quantum information he had to admit that he didn’t know what the connection was, but would throw caution to the wind and stir up some buzzword soup.
“To put it bluntly, if you think about the level at which any scientist given a few minutes to try to explain quantum computing to him would have tried to pitch it, he probably got the gist and explained it back as well as you could imagine anyone doing. In any case, my joy is not because I believe our Prime Minister has become an expert at quantum physics. It is because he showed that he is ready to listen to scientists and try to understand what they are saying, what they believe is important, and why they demand support for basic research.”