Paul van Gerven

1 November

The quantum hype is ready to sink into the trough of disillusionment, observes Paul van Gerven.

In the spring of 2019, a mysterious Twitter account called Quantum Bullshit Detector started commenting on all sorts of news from the quantum world. Company announcements, research breakthroughs and even lectures from respected scientists were ruthlessly scorned with a single word: “Bullshit.” Only on rare occasions, a tweet would be met with an approving “Not bullshit.”

The anonymous twitterer has never been identified (the Quantum Bullshit Detector was eventually sold to a quantum startup), but the accounts he or she chose to follow suggest it was an insider of the quantum community who knew his/her stuff. “So far it looks pretty well-calibrated, but the sample set is small and vigilante justice is a high-risk affair,” commented US computer scientist Scott Aaronson, who focuses on quantum computing, on his popular blog.

Indeed, the Quantum Bullshit Detector was no mere troll in a world unaccustomed to such brazenness. It had a serious message to convey: companies and scientists are woefully overselling quantum computing. This is no different today. Solving the world’s energy woes and climate change, banishing hunger and curing disease – “there isn’t a single problem humanity faces that couldn’t be addressed by quantum computing,” according to an upcoming book about the “quantum computer revolution.” Next, they’ll claim quantum computers will figure out what women want.

It’s an all too familiar dynamic. Scientists aren’t as dispassionate and objective as they’d like to think they are and they’re willing to turn a blind eye to a little (or a lot of) embellishment if that gets them the publicity that might land them their next research grant. Journalists are not nearly familiar enough with the subject matter to appreciate the claims being made, if they’re critically minded to begin with. If they phone a researcher that wasn’t involved in the work that’s being reported on, they’ll get some polite criticism but won’t often hear it’s bullshit.

Journalists can’t get it right because quantum computing is hard. Scientists can’t get it right either, because they aren’t the ones writing the articles. Meanwhile, both benefit from the hype, and both have plausible deniability for cutting corners. Companies, of course, are piling on with full-blown PR.

Recently, however, more serious pushback on the quantum babble has started to appear. “I’m as pro-quantum-computing as one can be (…) but I’m disturbed by some of the quantum computing hype I see these days, particularly when it comes to claims about how it will be commercialized,” quantum physicist Sankar Das Sarma from the University of Maryland wrote in MIT Technology Review.

In the Financial Times, University of Oxford’s Nikita Gourianov went as far as likening the state of affairs to a financial bubble, powered by purposely created misunderstanding and driven by greed. “The quantum computing trade has but to show any sensible utility, regardless of the fanfare,” Gourianov noted. Neither the Oxford physicist nor his Maryland colleague sees a way to build a useful quantum computer anytime soon.

Look, I won’t pretend to understand quantum computing on anything more than a very basic level. But I do know a bit about technology development and the media, and I know a hype when I see one. I don’t doubt quantum computing harbors potential. But the road to practical use will be much longer and harder to traverse than we’re led to believe right now. “We’re talking about a complex technology that takes a lot of time. There will certainly be a phase of disillusionment because everything will take much longer,” Trumpf CTO Peter Leibinger told German newspaper Handelsblatt in an interview during which he announced a 100-million-euro investment in quantum computing.

It’s time that the quantum computing community owns up to the harsh reality that the technology is still in an embryonic stage. Unlike quantum sensing and possibly quantum communication, quantum computing likely has decades of work ahead of it.

Main image: Google’s Sycamore quantum computer. Credit: Erik Lucero/Google