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Sunday, February 5, 2023

Scientist Says Greedy Physicists Overhyped Quantum Technology

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Nikita Gourianov, a physicist at Oxford University, published yesterday a damning article full of wild, damning claims about the field of quantum computing and the scientists who work in it.

According to Gourianov, the quantum computing industry has been led astray by greedy physicists who have ramped up the technology’s capabilities to rip off VCs and get paid private sector salaries for doing academic research.

double double

According to Gourianov’s article, the real problems started in the 2010s after investors started noticing the hype surrounding quantum physics:

As more money poured in, the field grew and it became more and more tempting for scientists to oversell their results. Over time, salesperson-type figures, usually without any understanding of quantum physics, entered the field, taking senior positions in companies and concentrating solely on generating fanfare. After a few years of this, a highly exaggerated perspective on the promise of quantum computing reached the mainstream, leading to greed and misunderstanding and the formation of a classic bubble.

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Gourianov’s entire premise seems to depend on their claim that “despite years of effort, no one has come close to building a quantum machine that is actually capable of solving practical problems.”

They illustrate their argument by pointing out that Rigetti, IonQ and D-Wave (three popular quantum computing companies) together have failed to make enough profit.

According to Gourianov:

The reality is that none of these companies — or any other quantum computing company for that matter — make any real money. The little revenue they generate usually comes from consulting missions that aim to teach other companies “how quantum computers will help their business”, rather than really taking advantage of the advantages quantum computers have over classical computers.

Finally, Gourianov’s conclusion leaves no doubt about their feelings on the subject:

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

Pain and effort

In the words of the great Jules Winnfield, Samuel Jackson’s character from the classic film Pulp Fiction, “Well, allow me to answer.

I only have five words I’d like to say to Gourianov, which are: IBM, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Intel.

I don’t think we need to dig deep into the balance sheets of big technology to explain that none of those companies are at financial risk. Yet each of them develops quantum computers.

It is unclear why Dr. Gourianov would leave the big technology out of the argument completely. There are dozens and dozens of articles from just Google and IBM demonstrating breakthrough after breakthrough in the field.

Gourianov’s main argument against quantum computing seems, inexplicably, to be that they won’t be very useful for cracking quantum-resistant encryption. With all due respect, that’s like saying we shouldn’t develop surgical scalpels because they’re practically useless against chainmail.

Per Gourianov’s article:

Shor’s algorithm has been a godsend to the quantum industry, leading to untold amounts of funding from government security agencies around the world. However, the oft-forgotten caveat here is that there are many alternative cryptographic schemes that are not vulnerable to quantum computers. It would be far from impossible to simply replace these vulnerable schemes with so-called “quantum secure” schemes.

This seems to indicate that Gourianov believes that at least some physicists have misled governments and investors into convincing everyone that we need quantum computers for security.

This argument feels a bit childish and resembles a border conspiracy theory. Governments around the world have been working with experts from companies like Google spinout SandboxAQ and IBM for several years to address the encryption problem.

No serious person involved in decision making will be confused about how math works because of some crappy marketing hype or misleading headline.

Gourianov’s rhetoric reaches a climax when they seem to accuse physicists of manipulating the hype surrounding quantum computing out of sheer greed:

Some physicists believe, privately, that there is no problem here: why not take advantage of the situation while it lasts, and take the easy money of the not-so-advanced investors? After all, earning a salary at the private sector level while essentially doing academic research is a pretty good deal.

That’s quite the accusation.

Quantum computing bubble?

Overall, though, it feels like Gourianov’s main complaint isn’t that quantum computers don’t work, it is that they are not very useful. dr. Gorianov is not wrong. The technology is far from mature.

But make no mistake, today’s quantum computer systems do work. They just don’t work well enough yet to replace classic computers for many useful functions.

IBM's quantum roadmap, an infographic