The scientific term “quantum” has been associated with everything weird and is often applied to denote something mysterious, somewhat scientific and which covers all sins. The word is derived from “quanta” — packets of light that Swedish physicist Nils Bohr (1885-1962) and others discovered to explain why light is both a wave and a particle.
The classical physicists thought the most basic particle was the atom. But Einstein, Bohr and others, at the turn of the 20th century, discovered that atoms comprised moving particles called protons, neutrons and electrons that revolved around each other, so much so that it was only possible to measure them probabilistically.
Because a quantum particle could appear dualistically and non-locally (two or more places at the same time), it behaved exactly like a wave as well as a particle at the same time. Even more weirdly, the particle could leap through barriers as if the barrier was non-existent, hence the term “quantum leap” — a flight of imagination that defied classical or intuitive thinking.
When I was growing up, qi or “force” and “teleporting/warp speeds” were flights of kung fu novels and science fiction. Today, computer-generated graphics enable us to see such “action” as if it was real. Once these ideas entered the popular imagination, it was possible to accept quantum behaviour much as the Christians accepted the virgin conception of Jesus.
How can non-scientists like me learn quantum physics since the mathematics behind quantum mechanics is, until today, still taught mostly at post-graduate level? The answer is that the idea behind quantum may be weird to Western-educated thinkers but they are not alien to anyone who has studied I Ching, Daodejing or even Dharma. The concept is now explainable in lay language by superb physicists such as Richard Feynman (1918-1988) and Carlo Rovelli.
Classical Western thinking is derived from the Greeks and later the Christian/Judaic/Islamic religions, which believe in the perfection of One God. Reality is, therefore, objective and there is a perfect world with a rational explanation (principle of causality) and things are independent of each other (for example, atoms are distinct). Humans are imperfect and subjective but seek to find reality and truth and everything is deterministic. This line of thinking evolved into science, particularly classical physics and mathematics, the foundations of modern technology. There is, in this line of thinking, an “optimality”. The ultimate goal of science is to discover “The Theory of Everything”, as Stephen Hawkings sought to do.
Asian culture, particularly Chinese and Indian, has many gods or saints but it understands that life is ephemeral, the world is ever-changing, humans are imperfect and you seek truth through inward meditation and moving onto higher planes of understanding. No optimality exists, only something that you can grasp and which may be gone forever — the Tao (way/process) that can be known is not the eternal Tao ¹. Everything changes and nothing is forever.
Bohr may have been a Swedish scientist but his own Nobel emblem was the yin-yang emblem of duality with the motto: opposites are complementary. In classical physics, opposites are distinct identities (binaries) but in quantum, opposites interact and form something completely new. Daodejing says one forms two, two forms three and three forms everything. Life evolves into complexity.
How can quantum behaviour at the microcosm (atomic) level explain macrocosmic behaviour at the human and day-to-day levels?
One possible answer is that Chinese Taoists did not have the mathematical tools to have predictive power. Using Tao, Han philosopher Dong Zhongshu (179-104 BC) invented the five elements, agents, movements, processes and ways that integrate with each other. This was a method of crude analysis drawing on elements of Daoism, Legalism and Confucianism to classify life into the categories of fire, wood, metal, water and earth. Later, Chinese strategists used this in politics, warfare and even business for analysis and decision-making but the methodology was, at best, pseudo-science because no one went deeper into what was behind these elements.
But today, mathematical tools are available as well as quantum computing power to change the whole ball game of analysis and prediction. Human beings compete with each other in terms of knowledge, technology and available resources (power in the form of land, capital, labour and know-how).
With global access to resources, there is growing recognition that the company or country that has the best technology may be the global winner. For example, Google just announced its first quantum computer, which is able to calculate faster and crunch through larger databases than classical computers, which work on bits (0-1) of information. Quantum computers use “qubits”, which are large pairs of bits that enable complex calculations to be undertaken beyond the capacity of current computers.
Artificial intelligence is therefore the ability to “self-learn”, in the sense that the computer not only crunches databases but also plays games with itself so that it can out-think and remember more games than human chess masters. Human beings equipped with AI tools and large databases, therefore, will be able to outperform competitors because they have better predictive power.
The quantum idea that intelligence is the cumulative interaction between parts that are more than the sum of the parts individually means that those companies and countries with the scale, scope and speed are the champions in the global economy. China has been able to evolve companies like Huawei, which now has the scale and R&D in 5G hardware and software that can power its users. The US accounts for roughly 40% of R&D in AI while China accounts for 20%. This is why the US wants to slow down Huawei before it becomes the winner-takes-all leader in 5G and also AI applications.
The point in the AI and quantum computing race is that it is not always the big tech platforms that win. The cost of entry into the Big Game, such as the behemoth semiconductor chip foundries in the US, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, now amounts to billions so that small countries and new companies find it tough to break into these high investment projects.
But as these giants gain scale, they also need to tailor-make chips for their users, which means the barriers to small companies to access designer-chip combinations that meet their needs may actually be coming down. But it takes highly trained and skilled software engineers with access to AI tools to compete effectively. So, no country can afford not to train more computer-intensive graduates in diverse fields.
What this implies is that picking which winning supply chain of products or services to join will make or break emerging market companies and economies. It is all about focus, focus, focus. You need imagination and daring to succeed in the quantum world. To stay where you are and business as usual is a dead end.
The legendary Intel CEO Andrew Grove was right. Only the paranoid will survive.
The arrival of AI does mean that technology would be able to help mankind deal with the problems of climate change. It is easy to be over-optimistic that technology will solve everything but that does not mean we should not try.
If quantum thinking means reality is not what it seems or that everything is possible, it does mean that we can make judgements inter-generationally of what is right or wrong for the future. Certainly, the future generations will not be able to see animals or species that would have disappeared with climate change. The environment will not be the same. The future will unfold, whether or not we like it. The Taoist or Dharma thinks that life will emerge and evolve. We cannot say it will be better or worse but we cannot also resist that change.
To understand that, we can take our flights of imagination if we meditate and elevate that imagination beyond our present level of comprehension. Reality can, therefore, be shaped by our imagination and how we teach others to reach similar levels of understanding.
Beyond that we can do no more.
¹ Writer’s own translation of original Chinese text
Tan Sri Andrew Sheng writes on global issues from an Asian perspective