My son. Max who is now 11, is into his science in a big way. Yes – he is a geek and he is proud of it. His knowledge of particle physics is extraordinary and we have been attending some of the evening lectures at both the Royal Institution and Royal Society which are on our doorstep in central London. The birth of science happened here and many of the 118 elements in the periodic table were discovered in one or other of these august bodies.

BTW For any visitors to London it is worth popping into the Royal Institution on Albermale Street and Royal Society just off The Mall just to gaze at the incredible architecture that have been lovingly restored to its former glory.

There are the traditional educational lectures and the hugely successful Royal Institution Christmas Lectures for Kids, but we have also discovered a hotbed of science comedy events.  Yes, scientists making fun of each other.  Some are very organized such as the recent “Big Science / Small Science“ series at the Royal Institution, but there is also the science equivalent of the pub “Open Mic” where anyone can try their hand at science stand-up, one of which is called ScienceShowoff.

Max has become a bit of a celebrity at these events for a couple of reasons.  He is only 11, his wikipedic knowledge (the modern day version of encyclopedic knowledge), and he has started a t-shirt company called ElementaryStuff where science jokes or your name are printed using elements from the periodic table.

But, I digress. To appreciate these events you need to have a basic understanding of particle physics. You need to know your gluon from your charm quark and your neutrino from your electron.  And in a recent lecture by John Gibbon based on his book “Computing with Quantum Cats” I have to admit I was a little lost by the end. He talked about the evolution of computing from the Turing Machines of the 1940s through the Quantum Computers that are now commercially available from D-Wave.

In summary the reason that a quantum computer is so powerful is due to a quirk of physics what happens when you get down to subatomic particle level. It is called superposition. What this means is that a physical system—such as an electron – exists partly in all its particular, theoretically possible states at the same time.

Whilst all this computing power is hugely powerful and hugely impressive, I spent time in the lectures asking myself if this is really progress. Clearly it is scientific and computing progress. But is it making the quality of life for the general public any better?

That question could be asked of all technology with the greatest culprit being the invention of time – or at least the clock. The promise that computers will save us time by removing the drudgery of life has been there ever since I have been alive. I remember when there was a huge concerns that society would not know what to do with all the leisure time we would have.  But if I look at my life and my friends and colleagues it seems that the technology we carry around with us has made is even more busy, or time poor.  It has blurred the lines between work and non-work so badly that we are all “always-on”. Hell, I am writing this article on a beautiful sunny Saturday morning at my parents house, grabbing some time before we go out.

Now people look at their messages on their phone before they even get out of bed.  A recent statistic from the excellent “What the F*CK is Social Media” article by BrandInflitration. is that 1/3 of women aged 18-34
 check Facebook when they first
 wake up—even before going to the bathroom.

Progress is about reducing stress for employees and customers. About delivering better customer experience (CX). About employees enjoying their time at work, not clock watching and doing the minimum possible to get by.

But my observation is virtually every company has not even mastered the basics.  I have no shortage of material for my regular column called “Mr Angry rants about CX”. And the problems are could easily fixed with the technology that exists today.  In fact many of them could be fixed with the technology available in the 1700’s – pen and paper combined with the human brain AND ENOUGH TIME to do the job properly.  We claim that that multi-tasking is clever.  But there’s nothing cool about doing two things wrong at once.

So before we get too excited about the potential of Gartner’s Nexus of Forces, Big Data, event enabled enterprises, quantum computers, wearable applications and the rest we should take a hard look at what CX means for our customers and how we deliver that with the least amount of effort and stress for our employees. Do that and you have guaranteed competitive advantage. Why?  Because every other one of your competitors is still “banging the rocks together”.

Whilst I am starting to get my head around quantum mechanics and the potential of superposition and the lure of something being in two places at the same time, what I really want is the Sky engineer to be in in just ONE place. The place he told me he would be; my house on Thursday.  Which why I stayed in all day waiting for him.  But he didn’t appear and didn’t call. Which is not what I call progress.


4 thoughts on “Quarks and cats. But is this progress? @royalinstitution @scienceshowoff @BrandInflitration

  1. Ian, whilst I agree with you on negative aspects of modern life I must say that I do not agree that they have to do with technology. They have to do with modern business concepts. It is how technology is used by businesses. It is the short-sighted perspectives caused by the people who make money on stock markets.

    Social networking may cause life issues for some people but they do not displace other aspects they usually just fill the void. TV is the same. Many people would feel really lonely without the company of a TV and with Social Networks they are at least communicating with real people, but maybe time-shifted as it would be hard to be there in real-time. If the two of us would have to wait until I can sit in front of you to tell me all the things I have read on your blog then it simply would not happen. In any case, the Dunbar limit will stop all of us to deal with more than a 150 people at a time. My son and my daughter have both chosen to live abroad (UK and Canada) and that is quite normal given that we taught them to be world citizens. Due to social networks I have more or less daily contact with them. More than I would have would they live in the house next door. They actively keep the contact because of the sense of family that we instilled. We can be disconnected in many ways and my father had little interest in family life when there were no computers and networks. I missed it and that made be especially focused on it in my family. So I see modern technology as a great bonus in my life, but yes one has to try and use it productively.

    Re Quantum Computing: Let me point out that it will be a long time before quantum computing will do anything practical so there is no need to worry. Superposition is an observation paradox and won’t be usable on a large scale. A particle (which is just a name for a wave interference) is not really in two states at the same time, but depending on how we chose to interact it can display one of multiple probable states. We kind of decide what and where we want to ‘measure’. Yes, there may be some interesting quantum effects for computing but not the current approach IMHO. Scientists are somewhat stuck in old paradigms. The famous ‘Higgs Particle’ is not a particle at all but a non-local, timeless quantum field effect that transcends the limits of Einstein’s Relativity. Other ‘particles’ interact with this field and the interaction creates the ‘mass’ the we can measure. If a particle (i.e. a photon) doesn’t interact this way there is no mass to be measured. Therefore this universal field must also be responsible for gravity but scientists look for another ‘particle’. Causality is a key issue in mathematics as we don’t really have a means to describe it. I propose that It is not mass that causes gravity, but gravity allows us to measure mass and thus causes it. When particles (field waves) interact with the Higgs Field they cause gravity that interacts with other ‘particles’. That interaction between two particles we have named ‘mass’. It isn’t really there. But enough of quantum philosophy.

    I find it therefore great that your son has this interest and the ability to access all this information online. I share this interest but realized early that a scientists life is not much fun either (my son in law is a biochemist which is even more exciting than physics). He finds it hard to make family time next to his research into inter-cell communication. ‘Publish or Perish’ is in the way of radical innovative thought. Higgs was laughed at originally as he had no proof for his idea.

    The human problem you discuss is a political one and not a technology one. We are truly dumb in selecting the people who govern us and everything else derives from that. Also here the shortsightedness of most voters is the crux. Therefore politics and business is as shortsighted. This is where the change has to happen and not in avoiding technology progress. There is no way to hold back change as even stagnation means extinction. Democracy will falter when unproductive demographic groups (retirees, unemployed and government employees) have the majority to vote the productive populace money into their own pockets. These are the real problems, not technological progress. Let’s enjoy the way forward but extend our thinking beyond the immediate, upfront and obvious.

    PS: You son might like my Quantum Resoance blog:

  2. I’m confused. Now you live in London, la, and Petersfield.

    Is this some kind of quant effect?

    Best regards. Ian
    m. 07808 912373

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