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.