Quantum Computing

What Are the Philosophical Implications of Quantum Computing?


“We’re stuck with technology when all we want is for things to work.” — Douglas Adams

For most people in the quantum computing community, quantum is a technology. It is based on science and realized through engineering. Beyond the tools of scientific materialism, there is little “philosophy” needed to build quantum-era hardware, software, and applications.

That might be a problem.

The emergence of new technology rarely impacts philosophy and religion — and vice versa. Agriculture sowed the seeds – the words unabashedly intended – that overturned human notions of property and rearranged social constructions. The printing press democratized philosophical and religious ideas, just to name a few. The machine gave rise to a clockwork universe.

Quantum computers — technologies that are hard to fully understand — could usher in seismic philosophical changes.

Here are some of the ways philosophers hope the spread and adoption of quantum computers in humanity.

Nature of Reality

“(Quantum mechanics) describes nature as absurd from a common sense point of view. However it fully agrees with the experiment. So I hope you can accept nature as it is – no sense. — Richard P. Feynman

When we refer to “seismic” change, there is no greater impact than the quantum potential to change the way we perceive reality itself. Quantum mechanics is a very successful theory that describes the behavior of the fundamental constituents of the universe. His findings, however, challenge our traditional concepts of reality, including those of causality, locality and determinism. The strange properties of quantum computing, such as entanglement and superposition, suggest that reality may be more complex than we previously imagined.

Calculation Limits

“The Church-Turing thesis states that any problem that can be solved by an algorithmic process can be solved by a Turing machine. Quantum computers violate this thesis by allowing certain problems to be solved much faster than classical computers.” – Scott Aaronson

Quantum computing promises to solve certain problems that are difficult to solve for classical computers. However, it also raises questions about computational limits and the nature of algorithmic complexity. Some theorists have proposed that the Church-Turing thesis, which states that any computable problem can be solved by a Turing machine, may not hold true in the quantum realm.

Understanding boundaries – or lack thereof – will definitely have an impact on humanity.

Observational Role

“The theory of quantum mechanics isn’t perfect, but it’s the best we have. It is a way of looking at nature that allows us to understand the behavior of the smallest particles of matter, but also gives us new perspectives about the observer, and ourselves.” – John Polkinghorne

Since Galileo and his telescope, science has pushed humanity farther and farther from the center of the physical universe. Our Earth is not the center of the solar system and, therefore, our solar system is not placed at the center of the galaxy. Many interpretations of quantum mechanics reverse this centuries-old trend and place not only humans, but observers as well, back to the center of reality.

In quantum mechanics, the act of measuring or observing is very important in determining the state of a system. This raises questions about the role of the observer and the nature of reality detached from observation. Some theorists suggest that quantum mechanics implies a form of subjective idealism, in which reality is created by the act of observing.

Implications for Cryptography

“Everything we do over the Internet today, from buying goods online to banking transactions, is encrypted. But once a functioning quantum computer appears that will be able to break that encryption… it will be able to wipe out bank accounts, completely shut down government defense systems – Bitcoin wallets will be drained.” — Ilyas Khan of Quantinuum and Harri Owen of Post Quantum, BBC, via Storm shield

Quantum computing has the potential to break many of the cryptographic protocols that support modern communication and commerce. This raises questions about the security of our digital infrastructure and the need for new cryptographic techniques that are resistant to quantum attacks.

When, Not If; How, Not Why

There’s no doubt that quantum computing challenges our traditional way of thinking about computing, information, and the nature of reality itself. The question may not be whether the adoption of quantum computing will influence philosophy, but when. In fact, the question is probably the wrong thing to ask. The real question is how do we prepare people for the philosophical shift of quantum computing to help them live better lives.


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