Quantum in the wild

Sometimes quantum appears out of nowhere when you least expect it.

From the September 2, 2018 edition of the New York Times Magazine.

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Quantum Computers Are…

Quantum computers are

  • Blue versions of classical computers [1] [2] [3][4]
  • Blue or grey abstract patterns [1] [2][3][4][5][6]
  • A bunch of connectors [1][2]
  • Blurred out chips [1]
  • What goes inside the dilution fridge [1][2][3]
  • Closed dilution fridges [1]
  • Part of a flag [1]
  • A button near the enter key [1]
  • Icy cold really big atoms [1]

Quantum computers are so many things (and no I will not add “all at once” to the end of this sentence)!  I’d be excited to hear about even more things that are quantum computers.

Posted in Funny Ha Ha, Quantum Computing | 5 Comments


Can pontiffs un-retire (un-renunciate)?  I mean, I retired from being a pontiff way before it was cool.  But now the sweet siren call of trying to figure out whether there is really a there there for noisy intermediate scale quantum devices has called me back.   I think it may be time to start doing a little bit of quantum pontificating again.  My goal, as always, will be to bring down the intellectual rigor among quantum computing blogs.  And to show you pictures of my dog Imma, of course.

Cue bad joke about unitary dynamics and quantum recurrences in 3, 2, 1, 0, 1, 2, 3, …


Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Quantum Advantage

Update (22 May 2017): This Scirate thread seems to have touched a nerve. Since this was previously buried in the comments here, it’s worth promoting to the top of the post. I think that “quantum computational supremacy” addresses the concern. Basically, we use “quantum” as an adjective for our peer group, which makes the analogy to “white” too strong. Adding “computational” emphasizes that it is the computation, not the people, that are supreme.

I’ve had quite a few conversations lately about a comment I left on Scirate. The paper at that link, “Quantum advantage with shallow circuits” by Sergey Bravyi, David Gosset, Robert Koenig, shows a provable separation between analogous classes of quantum and classical circuits, even when the quantum circuit is restricted to nearest-neighbor gates on a 2D grid. This is a fantastic result! My comment, however, wasn’t regarding the result, but rather the title of the paper. I’m just happy that they called it a “quantum advantage” instead of using that other term…

The term “quantum supremacy” is the fashionable name for the quantum experiments attempting to beat classical computers at some given task, not necessarily a useful one. According to current usage, the term (strangely) only applies to computational problems. The theoretical and experimental work towards demonstrating this is wonderful. But the term itself, as any native English speaker can tell you, has the unfortunate feature that it immediately calls to mind “white supremacy”. Indeed, one can even quantify this using a Google ngram search for *_ADJ supremacy over all books in Google’s corpus between 1900 and 2008:

None of these terms has a particularly good connotation, but white supremacy (the worst on the list) is an order of magnitude more common than the others and has, on net, been growing since the 30s. For almost every native speaker that I’ve talked to, and quite a few non-native speakers as well, the taint of this is hard to escape. (For speakers of German or French, this word is a bit like “Vormachtstellung” or “collaboration” respectively.)

The humor surrounding this term has always been in bad taste — talking about “quantum supremacists” and jokes about disavowing their support — but it was perhaps tolerable before the US election in November. Given that there are several viable alternatives, for example “quantum advantage” or even “quantum superiority”, can we please agree as a community to abandon this awful term?

This isn’t about being PC. And I’m not trying to shame any of the people that have used this term. It’s just a poor word choice, and we don’t have to be stuck with it. Connotations of words matter: you don’t say someone is “scrawny” if you mean they are thin, even though my thesaurus lists these words as synonyms. Given the readily available alternatives, the only case I can think of for “supremacy” at this point is inertia, which is a rather poor argument.

So please, say it with me now: quantum advantage.

Update: Ashley Montanaro points out that “advantage” should potentially be reserved for a slight advantage. I maintain that “superiority” is still a good choice, and I also offer “dominance” as another alternative. Martin Schwarz suggests some variation of “breaking the X barrier”, which has a nice feel to it. 

Posted in Quantum | 28 Comments

Seattle for QIPers

QIP 2017 is coming to Seattle, hosted by the QuArC group at Microsoft, January 16-20 (with tutorials on the 14th and 15th). If you have some spare moments, maybe you arrive early, or maybe you are planning for the afternoon off, here are some ideas for things to do around the wonderful city I call home.

Be a Tourist!

  • Take a trip up to the Seattle Center (approximately 1 mile walk from Hotel).  There you can take a ride to top of the Space Needle ($22), which has some great views when it is sunny (ha!).  Music or Star Trek fan?  Check out Paul Allen’s collection of toys and memorabilia Museum of Pop Culture ($30), which has two very geeky exhibits right now, Star Trek and Indie Game Revolution.  Or if you are secure in your ability to not knock over stuff worth more than it’s weight in gold, check out the Chihuly Garden and Glass ($22, combine with a trip to Space Needle for $36).  Kids and family in tow?  Can’t go wrong with the Pacific Science Center ($27.75 adults, $11.75 kids) and the Seattle Children’s Museum ($10.50).
  • Visit Pike’s Place Market (about 0.5 mile walk from Hotel).  See them toss fish!  Visit the original Starbucks (sssshhh it was actually the second).  Like your politics off the chart? Check out Left Bank Books which has a seriously eclectic collection of books.  While you’re at it, if you’re playing tourist, you might as well walk on down to the waterfront where you can take a ride on the Seattle Great Wheel ($13) or check out the Aquarium ($50 ouch) (we had a party there a few years back, yes we ate Sushi in front of the octopus.)
  • Architect buff on the cheap?  Check out the Seattle Central Library (a little over a half mile from Hotel).  Sculpture buff on the cheap?  Walk around the Olympic Sculpture Park (little over a mile from the Hotel).  These are in completely different directions from the Hotel.
  • Museums?  Seattle Art Museum has a nice collection ($25) but my favorite these days is the Museum of History and Industry (Little over 1 mile walk, $20).  The MoHaI is located in south Lake Union, a location that has been transformed dramatically in the last few years since Amazon relocated to the area.  Count the number of cranes!
  • So it turns out the Seattle you see today was built over the top of the Seattle that used to be, and, while I’ve never done it, everyone I know who has done it, loves the Seattle Underground Tour.  Note that if you combine this tour with reading about earthquakes in the PNW you might give yourself some anxiety issues.  Seattle is in the middle of boring a long tunnel under it’s downtown to replace the gigantic monstrosity of the viaduct, sadly I don’t think there are any tours of the tunnel boring machine, Big Bertha.

Be a Geek!

  • Ada’s Technical Books is in the Capital Hill Neighborhood (bus or Lyft).  It’s not as crazy as some university town bookstore, but has a good collection of non-standard science and tech books.
  • Elliot Bay Bookstore again in Capital Hill is no Powell’s but it’s still rather good.
  • Fantagraphics bookstore and gallery.  You’ll know if you want to go to this if you recognize the name.

See a Show!

Get Out and About!

  • We’ve a ton of snow right now.  Snoqualmie is closest, great for beginners or if you’re just craving a quick ski or board.  For the more serious, Baker, Crystal, and Stevens Pass are all recommended.  I like Crystal a bit more, on clear days the view of Mt. Rainier is spectacular.
  • Take a ferry over to Bainbridge Island.  This is one of my top recommendations in the summer, but even in the winter it’s a nice trip.  (Other summer recommendation is to rent a Kayak and kayak around Lake Union, but it’s too cold to do that this time of year.)
  • If you’re up for a nice stroll, head over to Discovery Park or take a walk on the Alki beach in West Seattle (both require a ride to get there from Hotel, though you could walk down and take the water taxi on weekdays.)  Closer by to the Hotel, head over to Myrtle Edwards Park.


  • Seattle is a city of neighborhoods, each of which, believes that they have their own style!  Each of these except Belltown or Downtown are a bus, cab, or rideshare away.  Really there is too much to cover here, but here are a few short notes:
    • Belltown: This is the neighborhood just north of downtown where the Hotel is located.  Used to be sketchy but now has lots of luxury condos.  Shorty’s is a dive with pinball and hot dogs.  People seem to love Tilikum Place Cafe though I have not been there.  If you want a traditional expensive steakhouse, El Gaucho is great, though I think the Metropolitan Grill in downtown is better (both pricey!)  Since this is a quantum conference, I would be remorse to not point out that Belltown is the site of Some Random Bar, which I believe has good crab nachos.  If you crave a sweet donut, Top Pot Donuts is literally just up the street from the hotel.
    • Fremont: Is still an eclectic neighborhood, though not quite as far out as it used to be.  It’s annual solstice parade is the only day it is legal to ride your bike nude in Seattle.   Tons of places to eat and drink here, I recommend Brouwers (great beer selection, frites), Revel (Korean fusion, no reservations), and Paseo (cuban sandwiches OMG delicious) but there are a ton more in the neighborhood.   Theo’s chocolate does factory tours and also supplies a great smell to the neighborhood (along with another smell from the nearby dispensaries!)  Also if you’re up this way you can see a huge troll under a bridge, a rocket ship, and a statue of Lenin (who sometimes gets dressed in drag).
    • Ballard: Originally a Scandinavian fishing community, these days it’s hip as Seattle hip gets.  Sunday year round farmer’s market.  When many people think of the Pacific Northwest they think of fish, but really I think where Seattle really shines is in shellfish.  The Walrus and the Carpenter is a great place to affirm this claim.
    • Capital Hill: East of downtown, Seattle’s most vibrant district.  Fancy restaurants: Altura, Poppy.
    • University District: Lots of cheap eats for UW students.  In the summer I recommend renting a kayak from Agua Verde, a Mexican restuarant/kayak rental joint
    • South Lake Union: Amazon land, totally transformed over the last few years. I’ve had good luck at re:public.  Shuffleboard at Brave Horse Tavern.

Morning Run

I’d probably head over to the Sculpture park and run up Myrtle Edwards Park: here is a mapmyrun route.


Enjoy Seattle, it’s a fun town!  I recommend, generally, shellfish, thai food, and coffee.  Also you can play the fun people guessing game: “software engineer or not” (advanced players can score points for Amazon or Microsoft sub-genres).  Also: if you don’t want to look like a tourist, leave the umbrella at home.  You know it rains more every year in New York city, right?

Posted in Quantum, Seattle | 5 Comments

5 Years!

Five years ago I (it’s me Dave Bacon former supposed pseudo-professor and one time quantum pontiff) jumped off the academic ship, swam to shore, and put on a new set of clothes as a software developer for Google. Can it really have been five years? Well I should probably update this blog so my mom knows what I’ve been up to.

  • I helped build and launch Google Domains. From quantum physics professor to builder of domain name registrar. I bet you wouldn’t have predicted that one! Along the way I was lucky to be surrounded by a team of software engineers who were gracious enough to tell me when I was doing silly things, and show me the craft that is a modern software development. I may now, in fact, be a real software developer. Though this just means that I know how much I still need to master.
  • We built a cabin! Well, we worked with wonderful architects and buiders to construct “New Caelifera” over in the Methow Valley (about 4 hours east of Seattle).
    New CaeliferaI have to say that this was one of the funnest things I’ve done in my life. Who knew a dumpy software engineer could also be an aesthete. Even cooler, the end result is an awesome weekend place that you have to drive through a National Park to get to. I’ve been super spoiled.
  • Lost: my sister, Catherine Bacon, and my dog, the Test Dog. Life is precious and we should cherish it!
  • Gained: a new puppy, Imma Dog Bacon. Imma dog? You’re a dog! Imma Dog!
    Imma Dog
  • Hobbies. arXiv:1605.03266. The difference between being a hobby scientist and a professional scientist is that when you’re a professional it’s “Fail. Fail. Fail. Fail. Fail. Fail. Fail. Fail. Fail. Success!” and when you’re a hobbiest it’s “Fffffffaaaaaiiiiiillllll. Fffffffaaaaaiiiiiillllll. Fffffffaaaaaiiiiiillllll. Fffffffaaaaaiiiiiillllll. Fffffffaaaaaiiiiiillllll. Fffffffaaaaaiiiiiillllll. Fffffffaaaaaiiiiiillllll. Fffffffaaaaaiiiiiillllll. Success?” Yes I’m that guy that reads your quantum computing papers at night after work for fun.

So maybe I’ll write another blog post in five years? Or maybe I should resurrect the Pontiff. I saw the Optimizer the other day, and he suggested that since it’s hard for me to blog about quantum computing stuff what with Google involved as it is, I could blog about stuff from the past. But I’m more of a promethean than a pastoralist. It didn’t occur to me until later that there is an alternative solution, one that is particularly appealing to a quantum dude like myself: maybe I should start blogging about an alternative universe? I’ve always liked Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.

Posted in Self: Meet Center. Center: Meet Self., Where's Dabacon? | 5 Comments

Hazards of “Shut up and calculate”

Three quantum physicists show why no interpretation is the worst.

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What If Papers Had APIs?

API is an abbreviation that stands for “Application Program Interface.” Roughly speaking an API is a specification of a software component in terms of the operations one can perform with that component. For example, a common kind of an API is the set of methods supported by a encapsulated bit of code a.k.a. a library (for example, a library could have the purpose of “drawing pretty stuff on the screen”, the API is then the set of commands like “draw a rectangle”, and specify how you pass parameters to this method, how rectangles overlay on each other, etc.) Importantly the API is supposed to specify how the library functions, but does this in a way that is independent of the inner workings of the library (though this wall is often broken in practice). Another common API is found when a service exposes remote calls that can be made to manipulate and perform operations on that service. For example, Twitter supports an API for reading and writing twitter data. This later example, of a service exposing a set of calls that can manipulate the data stored on a remote server, is particularly powerful, because it allows one to gain access to data through simple access to a communication network. (As an interesting aside, see this rant for why APIs are likely key to some of Amazon’s success.)

jdrzxAs you might guess, (see for example my latest flop Should Papers Have Unit Tests?), I like smooshing together disparate concepts and seeing what comes out the other side. When thinking about APIs then led me to consider the question “What if Papers had APIs”?

In normal settings academic papers are considered to be relatively static objects. Sure papers on the arXiv, for example, have versions (some more than others!) And there are efforts like Living Reviews in Relativity, where review articles are updated by the authors. But in general papers exist, as fixed “complete” works. In programming terms we would say that are “immutable”. So if we consider the question of exposing an API for papers, one might think that this might just be a read only API. And indeed this form of API exists for many journals, and also for the arXiv. These forms of “paper APIs” allow one to read information, mostly metadata, about a paper.

But what about a paper API that allows mutation? At first glance this heresy is rather disturbing: allowing calls from outside of a paper to change the content of the paper seems dangerous. It also isn’t clear what benefit could come from this. With, I think, one exception. Citations are the currency of academia (last I checked they were still, however not fungible with bitcoins). But citations really only go in one direction (with exceptions for simultaneous works): you cite a paper whose work you build upon (or whose work you demonstrate is wrong, etc). What if a paper exposed a reverse citation index. That is, if I put my paper on the arXiv, and then, when you write your paper showing how my paper is horribly wrong, you can make a call to my paper’s api that mutates my paper and adds to it links to your paper. Of course, this seems crazy: what is to stop rampant back spamming of citations, especially by *ahem* cranks? Here it seems that one could implement a simple approval system for the receiving paper. If this were done on some common system, then you could expose the mutated paper either A) with approved mutations or B) with unapproved mutations (or one could go ‘social’ on this problem and allow voting on the changes).

What benefit would such a system confer? In some ways it would make more accessible something that we all use: the “cited by” index of services like Google Scholar. One difference is that it could be possible to be more precise in the reverse citation: for example while Scholar provides a list of relevant papers, if the API could expose the ability to add links to specific locations in a paper, one could arguably get better reverse citations (because, frankly, the weakness of the cited by indices is their lack of specificity).

What else might a paper API expose? I’m not convinced this isn’t an interesting question to ponder. Thanks for reading another wacko mashup episode of the Quantum Pontiff!

Posted in Extralusionary Intelligence, Science 2.0, The Loony Bin Called Academia | 13 Comments

QIP 2015 Talks Available

Talks from QIP 2015 are now available on this YouTube channel. Great to see! I’m still amazed by the wondrous technology that allows me to watch talks given on the other side of the world, at my own leisure, on such wonderful quantum esoterica.

Here also are links to the Pontifical live-blogging and the QIP schedule of talks.

Posted in Quantum Computing, Science 2.0 | Leave a comment

QIP 2015 business meeting

A QIP 2015 epilogue: our notes from the business meeting. See also this post by Kaushik Seshadreesan.

Business Meeting Report

local organizing committee report

$193,545 – $191,467 = $2,478 profit!
registration income: $185,340
refunds, about $3,000
external sponsorships: $30,450, and another $5k due later
total income before tax: $212,900
after tax: $193,545

tutorial: $5,296
main program: $47,941
banquet: $120*270 = $32,400
admin: $10k
travel support for about 41 junior researchers: $34k+
invited speakers: $45k estimated
rump session: $10,600 estimated
best student paper prize: $700
other/misc: $5k
total: $191,467


total: 276
in 2014: 261 (early before 31 oct, 169; standard by 30 nov, 68; late by 31 dec, 29)
in 2015: 15 (on-site 10)
no-show: 10

It’s great that the budget was balanced to about 1%. However, what to do about the little bit of extra money? This is a perpetual problem. Runyao had a nice simple idea: just send it to next year’s QIP and use it for travel support for junior researchers.

Program Committee Report:

197 talk-or-poster submissions (1 withdrawn) (In Barcelona, there were 222 but this decrease probably reflects the distance to Sydney rather than anything about the field.)

3 PC members for each submission, and 25 submissions per PC member.
3 weeks of refereeing, 2 weeks of discussion.
Much faster than a typical theoretical CS conference

39 accepts, including 2 mergers 20% accept
SC invited 3 more speakers 40 talks in the program
6 of these recommended to SC for plenary status
one best student paper

There were 601 reviews, at least 3 per submission
There were 142 external reviewers and 220 external reviews.

In the first round there were 102 posters accepted. 5 poster-only submissions, all rejected talk-or-poster submissions

92 more posters 90 accepted… one out of scope and one wrong.

About 40 people withdrew their posters or simply didn’t put up a poster.

We could have accepted about 20-30 more good papers. Future choice: accept more papers? This implies parallel sessions (if we decide to accept all of those good-enough-for-QIP papers). There are pros and cons of this. Pro: more people will be happy, and better representation of research. The Con is that the community will be more split, the conference needs two medium-size lecture rooms (but what about the plenary talks?).

Anecdotal feedback from authors: some reviews were sloppy. On the other hand, with only 3 weeks of refereeing we cannot expect too much. CS reviewers are more detailed and more critical.

Do we want the 3-page abstract format? There was not much discussion on this point, but Ronald de Wolf said that the costs outweigh the benefits in his opinion. We don’t have strong opinions. Steve likes them but thinks maybe two pages would be enough. Aram thinks we could do without them, or could go to 4 pages so the physicists could use their PRL and the computer scientists could use the first 4 pages of their long version. Apparently no one in the audience had strong opinions on this either, since there was no discussion of this point. Hopefully the next PC chair at least thinks carefully about this instead of going with the default.

Do we want to have the abstracts on the website? Again, there was no discussion of this point, but RdW thinks this is generally a good idea (and us Pontiffs agree with him).

Should we make the reviews public (subject to caveats)? E.g., something like what was done for TQC 2014, where lightly edited reviews were posted on SciRate. The answer is obviously yes. 🙂 We made a case for partial open reviewing, and the slides are here. The “partial” here is important. I think a lot of people have misinterpreted our proposal and counter-proposed a compromise in which only edited summaries of reviews of reports are posted for accepted papers; this is funny because it is essentially what we did for TQC 2014! It is true that in implementing this the details are extremely important, including instructions to the PC & subreviewers and the explanations of the system to authors and the public (e.g. crucially including the fact that published reviews are not meant to explain acceptance/rejection or even to label as “good” or “bad” but rather to add perspective). Probably these points should be in a longer post.

QIP 2016 will be held in Banff, with Barry Sanders chairing the local organizing committee.

Bids for QIP 2017 are being put in by Zürich and Seattle with local organizing committee chairs of Rotem Arnon Friedman and Krysta Svore respectively. (I mention chairs because my understanding is that no matter how large the committee is, they do a \Omega(1) fraction, or even a 1-o(1) fraction, of the total work.) A straw poll of attendees shows slight favor for Zürich. Krysta said that MSR would probably still be interested in hosting in 2018, when the geographic case for Seattle would be stronger. Neither place will be as glorious as Sydney in January, but Seattle winters are pretty mild (although gray).

Stephanie Wehner presented the results of a poll that showed support for parallel sessions (about 50% of respondents favored this over options like dropping plenary talks, dropping the free afternoon, shorter talks or doing nothing). Others, like Daniel Gottesman, complained that the poll seemed to be asking how to increase the number of talks, rather than whether we should. A show of hands at this point (from an audience that by now had become pretty small, perhaps in part because there was free beer at the rump session at this point) showed an audience roughly evenly divided between supporting and opposing an increase in the number of talks. The Trinity of Pontiffs are divided on the parallel question, but of course it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. We might try an experiment doing parallel talks on one day (or even half-day) out of five, so we can see how we like it.

Posted in Conferences, Liveblogging | Leave a comment