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Should Scientists Use the Phrase “Quantum Supremacy”?

For someone outside quantum computing, who has encountered “supremacy” mainly in the context of political or current affairs, its meaning can’t help but be loaded. Image by BeeBright / Shutterstock

Forget for a moment that you know the meaning of “quantum supremacy,” the idea of a quantum computer outdoing its conventional counterpart. What does the phrase instantly bring to mind? Perhaps the idea that the quantum world, with its electrons, neutrons, and quarks, is, somehow, better than ours—more dazzling and awe-inspiring. Or perhaps it’s the claim that exploring quantum phenomena is more worthwhile, in a socioeconomic or in a personal, life-fulfilling sense. Or perhaps it’s the suspicion that quantum beings exist, and exert absolute control over everything we do. The point is, with “quantum supremacy,” you can imagine many ways to erect a quantum-first hierarchy. Remarkably, it’s precisely that sort of thinking, prompted by the word “supremacy,” that some scientists are wary of popularizing.

A few months ago, after Google made headlines with its announcement that it had achieved quantum supremacy, the scientific journal Nature received and published a letter with the headline, “Supremacy is for racists—use ‘quantum advantage.’” The authors of the letter—a quantum computing researcher, a planetary scientist, and a former Nature editor—argued that, in a world riven by sexism and racism, it would be irresponsible for scientists to allow an “inherently violent” term like “supremacy” to permeate popular culture, which could risk “sustaining divisions in race, gender and class” and ward off some from pursuing computer science. This is because “supremacy” has “overtones of neocolonialism and racism through its association with ‘white supremacy,’” they wrote. “Instead, quantum computing should be an open arena and an inspiration for a new generation of scientists.”

Quantum ascendancy? (Sounds like “we’re a UFO cult.”) Quantum inimitability? (“Who can pronounce that?”)

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The letter has a number of signatories, yet some found the message risible. “This sounds like something from The Onion,” Harvard psycholinguist Steven Pinker said on Twitter. The call to stigmatize “quantum supremacy” reminded him of a similar episode of rebranding, which saw the acronym for the Neural Information Processing Society (NIPS) change to NeurIPS. The sort of criticism “supremacy” got in the Nature letter instanced “a familiar linguistic phenomenon,” Pinker said, “a lexical version of Gresham’s Law: bad meanings drive good ones out of circulation.” “Booty” and “prick,” among others, came to Pinker’s mind as examples. He wants scientists to resist banning words in this manner. “It dumbs down understanding of language: word meanings are conventions, not spells with magical powers,” he said, “and all words have multiple senses, which are distinguished in context.” (After Pinker’s remarks on Twitter, Nature issued a correction, changing the letter’s headline to “Instead of ‘supremacy’ use ‘quantum advantage.’”)

Julie Sedivy, a psycholinguist who has taught at Brown University, struck a less dismissive tone when I asked her about “quantum supremacy.” She said the Nature letter authors “have a point, at least partially.” It has to do with the contingent way in which each of us relates to particular words.

“This letter points to an interesting aspect of human language: Namely, that the meanings, connotations, and associations we attach to words are heavily dependent on our own experiences with them; to the extent that people’s experiences diverge, we are limited in our ability to evoke those same meanings, associations, etc. in the minds of others,” she told me in an email. “Thus, imperfect convergence in our experiences with words imposes an inherent limitation to human communication. The authors argue that it’s irresponsible not to consider the experiences that other people are likely to have with the word ‘supremacy.’ In principle, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that if readers’ experiences with a word are likely to set off negative, unintended resonances, that is a sound argument for finding an alternative way to express the same idea.”

What about in practice? Sedivy said she would need answers to certain questions before deciding to do away with “quantum supremacy.” Who is the intended audience? What are the likely experiences of that audience with the term? “In this case,” she said, “the argument is weakened by the fact that the term appears in a technical scientific article. Is the term ‘quantum supremacy’ in common use among the targeted readership? If so, this will skew the representations that the audience is likely to have of the term away from the negative associations that the authors worry about.” Also: What is the context in which the term is used? “We know from psycholinguistic studies that context strongly influences the particular representations of a word that are activated—not all memories and associations are equally active, as some are promoted and others are suppressed by the specific context of use,” Sedivy said. “Again, the scientific context in which this term is used will weaken activation of the more political associations of the word.”

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Scott Aaronson, a theoretical computer scientist at the University of Texas at Austin, admitted that, when the term was coined by theoretical physicist John Preskill in 2012, he thought it was awkward but wasn’t bothered by it gaining wide currency in the scientific community. On his blog, “Shtetl-Optimized,” Aaronson wrote:

The thinking was: even as white supremacy was making its horrific resurgence in the US and around the world, here we were, physicists and computer scientists and mathematicians of varied skin tones and accents and genders, coming together to pursue a different and better kind of supremacy—a small reflection of the better world that we still believed was possible. You might say that we were reclaiming the word “supremacy”—which, after all, just means a state of being supreme—for something non-sexist and non-racist and inclusive and good.

In the world of 2019, alas, perhaps it was inevitable that people wouldn’t leave things there.

When Leonie Mueck, the former Nature editor who co-authored the letter, asked Aaronson, before it published, what he thought of “quantum advantage,” he told her that as the father of a “math-loving 6-year-old girl,” he empathized with her feelings on “supremacy.” But he also couldn’t come up with another way to express the significance Preskill wanted to get across. Preskill meant “quantum supremacy” to “refer to a momentous event that seemed likely to arrive in a matter of years,” the time when quantum computers would first outpace the fastest classical supercomputers, Aaronson wrote. “And … ‘the historic milestone of quantum advantage’? It just doesn’t sound right. Plus, as many others pointed out, the term ‘quantum advantage’ is already used to refer to … well, quantum advantages, which might fall well short of supremacy.”

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On his blog, Aaronson entertained several replacements. Quantum ascendancy? (Sounds like “we’re a UFO cult.”) Quantum inimitability? (“Who can pronounce that?”) What about quantum superiority, dominance, or hegemony? These don’t avoid supremacy’s problems. “What word does the English language provide to describe one thing decisively beating or being better than a different thing for some purpose, and which doesn’t have unsavory connotations?” Aaronson wondered. We may be stuck with those connotations—for now. Perhaps someone will coin a creative alternative. Aaronson welcomes suggestions. “I currently regard it as an open problem.”

Sedivy underscored the difficulty. “Representations of words are essentially containers for memories of all of the uses of that word that we encounter, with more recent uses having particular weight,” she said. For someone outside quantum computing, who has encountered “supremacy” mainly in the context of political or current affairs, its meaning can’t help but be loaded. That’s a fact scientists can’t ignore. 

Brian Gallagher is the editor of Facts So Romantic, the Nautilus blog. Follow him on Twitter @BSGallagher.

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