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Quantum Quandaries Emerging

November 22nd, 2021 by dk

The challenges and opportunities ahead as computers become ever more powerful are coming more clearly into view. Count me among those who are not surprised at how well novelist and humorist Douglas Adams anticipated them. Artists and comic often speak the truth before anyone else.

The bandwagon is getting fuller by the day. Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt has partnered with Henry Kissinger to author a book about the challenges. Kissinger is 98 years old. He’s strategizing the coming clash with Artificial Intelligence as if it will be the last war any of us will ever wage. He might be right.

I’ve written almost every year about how we are leaving behind the Age of Enlightenment, without any confidence about what will replace it. Kissinger, Schmidt, Elon Musk and others are warning us that AI will sneak up on us if we’re not careful, rewriting the rules for civilization without our consent.

I hope the next epoch is organized around empathy, a decidedly human trait that’s beyond the ken of calculations. As futurists become realists, it’s beginning to look like emergent properties may be the frontier we’re entering. It’s very like what Adams anticipated in his “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” in 1978.

Leave aside Artificial Intelligence for a moment . Consider the consequences of quantum computing. IBM announced this week it has built a quantum computer that couldn’t be matched with a conventional computer unless that computer was larger than our planet.

Although Adams anticipated that factoid quite accurately, it’s not the interesting part. According to IBM CEO Arvind Krishna, this super-duper-computer is not adept at computations in the traditional sense. That would be too easy. This quantum computer won’t calculate as much as ruminate.

We’ve used computers to solve problems but not to wonder how a problem could be solved. Big difference!

To review, Adams’s characters asked the most powerful computer to give them “the answer to life, the universe, and everything.” The answer was “42.” Understanding the question was exponentially more complicated, keeping his characters busy for three more volumes.

Kissinger and Schmidt posit that computers soon will give us answers before we understand the questions. Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin before anyone understood how microbes and cells operate inside the human body. We learned what works before we learned why.

With that in mind, mysteries abound. How do starlings execute their mesmerizing murmurations, flying like a three-dimensional marching band producing an amazing halftime show, but without a conductor? How can humans reverse or adapt to global warming? And everything in between.

Finding answers to unimaginably complex problems will be the easy part. Thoroughly understanding the questions being posed will be new. If quantum computing fulfills its promise, we may soon send it searching for the emergent properties behind self-organizing cities, coordinated starling flight patterns, and human consciousness.

Each is beyond the scope of calculations. The results emerge — as if by magic. The whole is literally greater than the sum of its (calculated) parts. We may soon be envisioning the most hopeful future for our planet since 1650 — and terrifyingly so.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at

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