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“Helgoland” delivers a quantum of solace

DigFin reads up on the quantum mechanics that are poised to transform finance, and much else.



Quantum computing is an exciting technology that is still over the horizon but coming into a view, like an approaching ship whose sails we can just make out. Just as the Information Revolution has transformed our lives, the coming Quantum Revolution could have an even bigger impact.

Banks like Goldman Sachs have recently made headlines with news that they are using prototypes that use some quantum-based ideas to improve classical computing.

We’re not yet at the point of an actual quantum computer being able to solve problems, which it could at a scale we can barely discern. But it’s coming, as labs around the world race to develop these machines.

DigFin has written about the practical use cases being developed for quantum computers, but let’s face it: we’re hardly experts in quantum physics. In fact, reading Helgoland, by quantum physicist Carlo Rovelli, it’s clear that even the experts barely know what’s going on.

If you’re looking for a business book that explains all the snazzy things these next-gen computers can do – from blockchain-busting cryptography to secure communications to pricing an option – then keep going. We’re not there yet.

If you’re interested to understand what “quantum-anything” means, where it came from, concepts such as superposition and entanglement, and what’s up with Schrodinger and that cat, then check out Helgoland. It’s a short, beautifully written book that discusses the science’s history, theory, arguments, and possible meanings.

The actual Helgoland is a wind-swept German island. It’s where a 23-year-old Werner Heisenberg had his eureka moment in 1925. His uncertainty principle was the first building block in understanding quantum mechanics.

Scientists, like businesspeople, feel uncomfortable with uncertainty. Another way to think of uncertainty, though, is as probabilities. Heisenberg achieved his breakthrough (in trying to understand why electrons jump orbit) by thinking of outcomes in tables of numbers rather than a direct line from A to B. Read the book to get what this means, but DigFin would like to share some of our own thoughts.

First, this uncertainty is why we need scientific thinking that constantly questions assumptions, rather than tries to fit facts into a preconceived notion.

This way of thinking seems important for anyone who is building a company or innovating a product. “It is thinking constantly in motion,” Rovelli says, “the power of which is precisely the capacity to always question everything and begin over again, to be fearless in subverting the order of the world in the search for a more efficient one, only to then put a further question mark over everything…Not to fear rethinking the world is the power of science.”

It’s also the power of the entrepreneur: one for all you fintech founders!

Second, the reality of a universe made of quanta is one of uncertainty, probability, and correlations. Classical physics speaks in terms of laws – like those discovered by Newton and Einstein – but these are actually probabilistic, although in our macro-space world we can trust them.

DigFin is reminded of  how technology has changed the way we measure and analyze things. It’s increasingly hard to identify causal relationships: did Elon Musk really cause the bitcoin market to crash? We’re relying a lot more on correlations of data and trends. Big data is all about correlations, while artificial-intelligence algos and machine-learning processes are driven by probabilities.

Third, Rovelli makes the case for quantum mechanics being relational. There is no such thing as this computer or your chair, except in how it is perceived and interpreted by everything else around you. This is a reality in which collaboration is not just valuable, but fundamentally required to get anything done – to exist.

There is something comforting in this, amid a description of reality that is not always easy to grasp, and whose ramifications may upset some. But isn’t this also the way technology is changing how we interact? Business models are going from closed and proprietary to open-source and collaborative. Blockchain has the potential to reframe our systems so that instead of relying on a central authority, we all become nodes. “Nodes” is an idea Rovelli uses too.

Rovelli cautions that the ideas unleashed in the mid-1920s by the daring physicists of Europe upend our ideas of self and being. It can feel like we’re in a funhouse of mirrors. He ends the book by interweaving physics with politics and economics, and concludes with early Buddhist writings in second-century India. But DigFin finds his framing of our world as one of quanta, all interrelating, as something to embrace.

Carlo Rovelli, Helgoland: Making Sense of the Quantum Revolution, translated by Erica Segre and Simon Carnell (Riverhead Books, New York, 2021).

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