Quantum Computing and “Singes Dactylographes”

Thursday, April 20th, 2006

As a popular science anorak, I listen to several scientific podcasts geared towards enthusiasts. This morning, while catching up on the Science Friday Podcast, I had the great pleasure to listen to Ira Flatow interview Seth Loyd on Quantum computing. The dialogue is witty, thought provoking and easily accessible. Seth Loyd, who jokingly describes himself as a quantum mechanic, excels at popularizing this complex and fascinating topic. I hope not to betray his ideas in what follows.

In man made quantum computers, we coax atoms and elementary particles to perform specific computations. Seth Loyd’s argument is that the universe is a quantum computer. Indeed, every atom and elementary particle carries bits of information that can flip following collisions. In effect, the universe is already computing. This reminded me of an excellent book by David Deutsch: “The Fabric of Reality”. If my memory serves me well, he too considers the universe — or should I say multiverse — to be a quantum computer. What made me think of this book is Loyd’s reference to Borel’s “singes dactylographes” towards the end of the interview.

In 1913, Emile Borel, a french physicist, illustrated how unlikely the occurrence of a particular event is — to be precise: how unlikely it is to observe a noticeable difference from what is the most likely outcome of statistical mechanics — by comparing it with the likelihood that a million monkeys using a million typewriters ten hours a day for a year would produce the exact copy of each and every book in the world’s most famous libraries. I should point out that this quote is also attributed to Aldous Huxley, the English biologist (he would have been only 19 in 1913, so I tend to favour Borel as the originator). Check out the Parable of the Monkeys for a rather long list of related quotes.

Seth Loyd points out that if the monkeys were to use a quantum computer the result is far more likely:

if you take a computer, we have a computer because the universe is computing and it’s a quantum computer, and if you take a bunch of monkeys, here the monkeys are these little tiny quantum fluctuations that tell the universe to do this or that. […] These little accidents program the universe and it’s this process of programming the universe with quantum fluctuations that gives rise to the computation we see around us which produces all sorts of complexity, and structure, and beautiful things, and horrible things, and most of all amazing things.

While listening to this, I could not stop thinking we have already run the monkey experiment. It turns out that monkeys do write the collected works of Shakespeare rather quickly. What takes a lot of time is waiting for the monkeys to self assemble. Indeed, it took roughly 14,000 million years for the quantum computer we are part of to come up with a proto-monkey. It took a further 5 million years for this proto-monkey to evolve into William Shakespeare and approximately 36 years for Shakespeare to write Hamlet. Typewriters turn out to be the hardest thing to get as they only appeared 300 years later.

Rounding up, 100% of the time is spent waiting for the monkey, 0% waiting for the books to be written.

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2 Responses to “Quantum Computing and “Singes Dactylographes””

  1. ismael Says:

    i just discovered your blog and I am already enjoying the hell out of it.

    Said that, I think your conclusion (by which typewriters are evolutively “harder” to get than everything that precedes them) is a bit simplistic: evolution is not a linear improvement of things. Nor is history.


  2. Hi Ismael,
    thanks for the elative comment, I badly needed it today!
    I intended the conclusion of this post to be tongue-in-cheek. Of course, I do not believe that typewriters are the culmination of millions of years of natural selection.


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