Review — Decoding Reality: the Universe as Quantum Information

“Information” is one of those words (in English and other romance languages) that are blessed/cursed with a deliciously filigreed constellation of meanings.  It’s not that it’s lacking a definition, but rather that there exist any number of definitions, each context-dependent, that are largely mutually exclusive.  Information theoreticians will, from a technical perspective, think of Shannon’s work — whilst mortal humans will recall aphorisms such as “information is power,” and ponder on the relationship between information and wisdom.

Irrespective of this, there’s broad consensus across a variety of au courant academic and applied fields of research that “information” is an increasingly fundamental concept of study.  This is surely no news to fields whose very nomenclature encapsulates the term (viz., “information theory,” “bioinformatics,” etc.) — but is also equally true for fields as diverse as computer science, systems theory, synthetic biology, and linguistics.

One need not, as a former doctoral professor of mine quipped, carve the universe into “stuff” and “stuff-free” components (with the latter mapping to an idea of information) in order to be more and more convinced over time that this variegated-definition concept to which we refer as “information” is taking a central role across fields and thus is, at some more fundamental level, a concept whose moment has genuinely arrived.  So, it is into this seething — though promising — morass of conflicting definitions and usages that Professor Vedral casts his book-length treatment of the emerging field of quantum information theory, Decoding Reality.

Yes… another sub-field of study that organizes itself around some concept of “information” — and despite reservations as to the multiplicity of such subfields, we must grant that quantum information theory is ripe for increased explication.  Dr. Vedral brings to this effort impressive academic credentials: he’s currently a professor of quantum information science at Oxford, and his dissertation was on the subject of “Quantum Information Theory of Entanglement.” He’s a working physicist, and as we’ll see later, that grounding in the empirical realities of quantum theory proves essential in his approach to his chosen field.

But, before we delve too deeply into that field, let us jump to the end and present the following summary of the book in Dr. Vedral’s own words: “What we can say, following the logic presented in this book, is that outside of our reality there is no additional description of the Universe [yes, he prefers the capitalized version] that we can understand, there is just emptiness.  This means that there is no scope for the ultimate law or supernatural being— given that both of these would exist outside of our reality and in the darkness.  Within our reality everything exists through an interconnected web of relationships and the building blocks of this web are bits of information.  We process, synthesize, and observe this information in order to construct the reality around us.  As information spontaneously emerges from the emptiness we take this into account to update our view of reality.  The laws of Nature are information about information and outside of it there is just darkness.  This is the gateway to understanding reality.” (p. 218)

That said, what is this “quantum information theory” and why do we grant it the authority of an emergent field of study? Before we can answer that, we must step back and review the basic tenets of quantum theory as it applies to the consideration of information.  Dr. Vedral summarizes as follows: “From the point of view of information we can summarize two of the most important features of quantum theory: first, that qubits [see below] can exist in a variety of different states at the same time; and, secondly, when we measure a qubit we reduce it to a classical result, i.e. we get a definitive outcome.” (p. 132)

As to qubits, they are the “quantum equivalent” of the classical 1/0 bits of information.  However…”[t]he number of states a qubit could occupy is infinite because in principle we can tweak the ratio of probabilities in which the states 0 and 1 occur to any desired accuracy.  When with certainty we have either 0 or 1 then this reduces to the classical [i.e. binary] case.” (p. 137)

This, then, is the starting foundation of quantum information theory.  Rather than bits — which have the ability to occupy one of two states (either, not both) — qubits are able to occupy, within a single qubit, an infinite number of states, which states “decohere” to 1 or 0 only upon measurement.  From here, we can step forward to concepts of quantum computation — in which qubits replace bits — as the basic unit of computational processing; and quantum cryptography — in which the inherently “unstable” status of qubits with respect to outside observation makes them the perfect canary-in-the-coal mine to determine if a message in transit has been intercepted or viewed.  Not surprisingly, computational systems in which each qubit can encapsulate an infinite number of potential states simultaneously can be seen to exhibit dramatically divergent behavior from those of binary computation (i.e.Turing universal) computational regimes.  The former are able to do things like factor large prime numbers in tiny time increments, and execute massively parallel database searches in a single computational step.  Such behaviors, needless to say, turn on their head such hoary issues as NP completeness and public key cryptographic computability…  to name but two.  So, yes, there is a “there there” when it comes to quantum information theory.  We do, it seems clear, need a new way of looking at “information” when we’re dealing with qubits which themselves behave probabilistically, encode a multitude of simultaneous states, and behave delicately with respect to external observation.

However, there are no shortcuts for getting at such a theory.  Before we can jump right into a revision of Shannon’s findings on (binary) information transmission — a task Dr. Vedral accomplishes with alacrity in this work — we need to face directly into the maw of quantum weirdness.  And, yes, there’s weirdness aplenty — and substantial promised benefits.  Dr. Vedral summarizes: “Shannon’s information theory has been extended to account for quantum theory and the resulting framework, quantum information theory, has already shown a number of advantages.  The greater power of quantum information theory is manifested in more secure cryptographic protocols, a completely new order of computing, quantum teleportation, and a number of other applications that were simply not possible according to Shannon’s view.  However, as quantum information theory is ultimately an extension of Shannon’s information theory, under the right conditions the quantum information theory reduces to Shannon’s.” (p. 190)

Anyone even tangentially familiar with modern physics will surely be aware of quantum strangeness.  Cats simultaneously alive and dead… photons simultaneously reflected and passed along… entanglement across considerable (real-world) distances leading to (fully functional) “quantum teleportation” systems… the list is long and well-established via decades of peer-reviewed empirical research. Quantum behavior is weird: counterintuitive, unpredictable, just plain strange.  Indeed, Einstein is certainly not the only great mind to rebel at the very foundations of quantum theory (“God does not play dice,” he — inaccurately — scoffed before his death.)

Only a physicist conversant with these empirical realities — and accepting of their inevitable overturning of our “common sense” views of causality and temporal stability — has the qualifications to approach an information theoretic extension of quantum concepts, and Dr. Vedral delivers.  One of the most valuable elements of the extant work is a well rounded, well written — albeit layman-targeted — review of the general foam of quantum weirdness.  Dr. Vedral steps through the most basic quantum findings, drawing forth from them the essential elements that carry into the information-theoretic extension of that quantum world.  That accomplished, he turns to what — to this reviewer, in the event — is the most impressive part of the work: the synthesis of information, entropy, and quantum theory.  Here’s a teaser: “When we ‘delete’ information all we actually do is displace this unwanted information to the environment, i.e. we create disorder in the environment.  The dumping of this information into the environment, by definition, results in an increase in the entropy of the environment and therefore an increase in its temperature.” (p. 73) …thereby neatly explaining why computation — any form of computation that involves dumping memory of some bits of generated information — gives off heat.  Clever — and profound.  Now, I’ll not make claims that I can effectively summarize the synthetic efforts to which he bends a substantial part of the book; that’s best left to the curious reader, in her own investment of time and attention in Dr. Vedral’s writing.  His work in integrating elements from the Second Law of thermodynamics, Bekenstein’s bound, Chaitin’s work on randomness and order, and even a glancing encounter with Kolmogorov’s algorithmic information theory is powerful — if, inevitably, limited by his intended audience and the relative terseness of the book.  How powerful?

Here’s a summation of what falls out of this synthetic effort: “[T]hings and events have no meaning in themselves [and] only the shared (mutual) information between them is ‘real.’ All properties of physical objects, including their very existence, are only encoded in the relationships between them and hence in the information they share with other physical objects.’ “[Emphasis added] (p. 199) In other words: “[a]ll quantum information is ultimately context dependent” (p. 193).  This is deeply profound, and one cannot help but be reminded of the work of Derrida and the deconstructivists in arguing that “il n’y a pas du texte” — all meaning is relative.  How strangely satisfying to see similar conceptual frameworks appearing out of the shy uncertainties of quantum theory! For this reviewer, it’s this context-dependent redefinition of information (and entropy, incidentally) that is the highlight of Decoding Reality.

Perhaps I’m alone in this, but I’ve never seen such a compelling and novel recharacterization of the fundamental nature of this multifariously variegated word: information.  Whether Dr. Vedral’s summary is the final word on the subject, or not, it leads to doors of inquiry being opened that can only lead to interesting new avenues of thought.  That said, despite its many strengths, there are some rather mysterious vacancies in the book.  Time and again, I found myself writing in the margins: “Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem” (pps. 174, 192, 218); surely I’m not unique in this sentiment.  Any researcher with Dr. Vedral’s solid mathematical footing must be aware of Gödel’s seminal work, and I’m left at a loss as to why it’s not directly referenced — even in a layman’s overview such as this.  More disturbingly, Vedral avoids all mention of Dr. Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science (ANKoS) as well as other publications by a veritable swarm of systems researchers.  Indeed, this absence is all but inexcusable.  He goes so far as to refer to scientists as seeking to “find the shortest program that represents reality” — all but a rephrasing of Wolfram’s ultimate argument in the conclusion of ANKoS.  It’s certainly not a lack of systems theoretic applicability of quantum computation tools that hinders Dr. Vedral’s engagement with the literature of complex systems analysis.  Indeed, he comments that: “[s]imulating other systems with quantum computers is a subject in its infancy.  It lies in such uncharted territory that we don’t even know any of its borders or limitations.  I personally think that this area will explode in the future, but its real power is difficult to fully grasp at this stage.” (p. 143) We find no reason to disagree with him in this observation.  Indeed, as a systems researcher myself, I cannot but be fired with excitement at the new vistas available using the newfound capacities of quantum-computational systems.  Finally, and sadly, we must take Dr. Vedral to task for some sloppy — and easily avoidable — failures in Decoding Reality‘s earlier chapters.  In these, he slides distressingly close to proposing quantum information theory as a cure-all for the daily woes of life faced by middle-class, Westernized two-leggers.

Referencing the reality of human-caused global climate change, Vedral blithely states that…”[t]o prevent this there is only one way — you must not do anything (though try telling that to your boss).  Quit living and there won’t be any global warming — at least none as far as man-made causes are involved (now there’s a tall order for extreme environmentalists).” (p. 64) While I’m not exactly sure what constitutes an “extreme environmentalist,” we must have no such uncertainty about the mechanisms underlying the so-called greenhouse effect.  And, were every human being alive in the world today to simply “not do anything” and thus lessen the conversion of chemical energy to heat, not one whit of substantive change in the centuries-long accretion of human-driven atmospheric changes would result.  Global climate change is about reckless — willfully so, at this point — human destruction of atmospheric stability; it’s unrelated entirely to how hard people work.  I’ve no doubt Dr. Vedral understands this.  His attempts at being cute fall short of the mark when addressing issues of serious global concern and subtract from the overall quality of the book as a whole.  Then again, there may well be some deeper issues in Vedral’s non-physics polemics.  Pondering human-driven global climate change, he opens foot and inserts mouth by blithely stating that.. “The whole point of environmentalism is to make sure that if anything kills us — as a species — it is the First Law, not the Second Law (i.e. we run out of natural resources before we reach a boiling point).” (p. 66) Were such a crass statement facetious, it’d be in poor taste.  Alas, we’re not in the realm of satire here, and it sadly appears that Dr. Vedral simply has no grasp whatsoever of the fact that there are other species who share our planet, and that are affected by our reckless, selfish, short-sighted human decisions.  His moral compass seems pointed solely at H. Sapiens — the rest of the living world vanishes before his embrace of the Solipsistic Fallacy.  Still, one cannot help but feel environmental pioneers from John Muir to Arne Naess roll noisily in their graves when “informed” that the goal of environmentalism is to ensure that humans destroy our shared, living planet via one path versus another.  Destruction of global ecosystems isn’t a platform of any environmental agenda, as far as I’ve ever been informed.  As a former Earth First!er, I might reasonably be expected to be aware of any such goals — perhaps even more so than would Dr. Vedral himself.  Alas, no such goals exist within the environmental community.

Signs that Vedral has fallen prey to the Solipsistic Fallacy — i.e., the assumption that life on our planet is focused solely and primarily on the celebration and perpetuation of the human species as the pinnacle of evolutionary “progress” — run even deeper than his frightening misunderstanding of the concept of environmental awareness.  Again and again, he casually references “complexity” — a term hotly-contested amongst complex systems researchers, and far from subject to a consensus definition let alone a quantitative measurement protocol — and places human beings at the top of the imagined complexity ladder.  For example: “It seems that the tendency of entropy in physics is from order (low entropy) to chaos (high entropy).  In biology, on the other hand, life generates order and the tendency of living beings is to become less and less chaotic and more ordered (complex).” (p. 67)

Since when are “ordered” and “complex” synonymous? Alas, they aren’t.  They may be related at some deeper level, but surely the coefficient of correlation between the two falls far short of one.  Worse yet, he comments that: “[T]he relevant DNA content of bacteria, frogs, humans, and all living beings is roughly the same.  Roughly (only!) 20,000 genes suffice to make any living being.  But humans are clearly more complex than bacteria, and so it cannot all be in the DNA.” [emphasis included in original] (p. 54)

Whilst it may be that human beings are “clearly” more complex than other living beings — despite the absence of a consensus definition or quantitative measurement of complexity at hand — to Dr. Vedral, it’s both bad biology and bad science to make such blanket statements that fly into the teeth of empirical reality and extensive published literature.  Unless we enter into the recursive logical loop that states that “humans are the most complex species, therefore humans are more complex than other species,” we must honestly recognize that human “complexity” is neither measurable at present, nor the a priori nadir of the living Earth.  These, again, are rather fundamental points and it’s a shame that Vedral swings and misses so comprehensively.  Simply stating that “[a]nother important feature of life is that it becomes more complex,” or that “more complex [life] forms appear over time” — as he does on p. 89 — doesn’t make such true.  Even apart from the aforementioned issues with respect to the word “complexity” itself, the several instances of mass extinction events in our planetary past put the lie to such simplistic claptrap.  Indeed, the entire (well-supported) edifice of punctuated equilibrium flies in the face of this almost Biblical oversimplification of what we understand regarding the evolution and continuation of life on our planet.

Vedral also stumbles badly when he veers into the terrain of economics, as when he states that: “We all like to win.  No one likes to be a loser.  So can information theory guide us and maximize our chances of success? Astonishing though it may seem, the answer is a definitive ‘yes.’ Maximizing profit in financial speculations is exactly the same problem as maximizing the channel capacity for communications.” (p. 80) The sociopathic “win-at-all-costs” fallacies of classical economics, particularly with respect to financial speculation, should by now be comfortably dead and buried, post global financial crash.  While Vedral may be forgiven for misunderstanding essential elements of the efficient market hypothesis — let alone the central assumptions and goals of economics itself — the boosterish language he uses to “sell” the power of information theory to make an easy fortune on the stock market is simply sad.  Better editing would have eliminated these exceptionally weak passages entirely… if not the entire chapter in which they are found (tellingly-entitled “Place Your Bets”).  Perhaps he’s simply been bamboozled by the fact-free expositions of Thomas Friedman; he cites favorably Friedman’s notoriously counter-factual The World is Flat and it’s entirely possible he’s mistaken Friedman’s work for that of an educated, competent, well-read journalist… let alone a respected economic theorist.  In that case, Vedral must invest considerably more time in his economic education before he writes on such subjects in the future.

Finally, in terms of nagging doubts, Vedral finishes off his detour into the terrain of the Solipsistic Fallacy with as clear-eyed a statement of the Fallacy as can be found most anywhere.  To wit, he ponders…  “…the human element we call ‘free will’ — a property that we strongly feel distinguishes us from non-living matter (and other animals).  It is also seen as the basis of our consciousness.” (p. 153) However much Dr. Vedral feels that ‘free will’ distinguishes H. sapiens  from the rest of the sentient species — to which he, tellingly, refers to dismissively as “animals” — decades of published research in cognitive ethology say otherwise.  As a scientist, he is held to a higher standard when making such statements of “fact” that fly in the face of scientifically derived factual data.  While we might, perhaps, grant him some license in missing entirely the fundamental threads of modern research into the question of consciousness (no, ‘free will’ is not assumed by any but the most retrograde researchers to form the basis of “consciousness,” and hasn’t for decades), no such license is available when it comes to his deeper misunderstanding of humanity’s inclusion in the superset of sentient, living beings who share our planet.  Whether humans have “free will” or not is a question not uniquely human, in any but the most simplistic sense; one can profitably ask identical questions of dolphins, or wolves, or raptors, or ant colonies.  We forget this to our desperately high cost.

These criticisms held in balance, it is nevertheless this reviewer’s opinion that Dr. Vedral has produced an important, well-argued, and readable treatise in Decoding Reality. Yes, his detours into the Solipsistic Fallacy are all-too-common for a certain sort of academic physicist: those who see humans as central to the Universe (in Vedral’s spelling), even as their own research emphasizes — with increasing emphasis — that our reality, as hairless primates, is no more privileged than that of countless Others.  However, we can grant him some leeway insofar as he overcomes such cognitive self-limitations when he rolls up his sleeves and gets down to the real work of quantum information theory.  In that area, his writing truly shines.

Early in the book, Dr. Vedral cites the phrase “information is physical” as a catalyst in setting him firmly on the road towards his current fascination with the subject of quantum information theory.  Throughout the book, he does excellent work of drawing together the “physical” and the “informational” — stuff and stuff-free, if you will — into a coherent framework which definitively favors connectedness as the core issue rather than mere (in)corporeality.  Insofar as Vedral’s epiphany holds — information is physical — we can state with equal certainty that the physical is, itself, information.  Seeing that essential congruity between information and physicality is a bracing tonic to decades of perhaps-deluded dualism on the subject.  For this, and for his efforts to explore this fascinating field in his future research work, we owe our thanks to Dr. Vedral and to Decoding Reality. Let us end with a quote, shared by Vedral and originally credited to the quantum pioneer Neils Bohr: “A shallow truth is a statement whose opposite is false; a deep truth is a statement whose opposite is also a deep truth.” (p. 193) Is this the superposition of an otherwise-binary duality, or just one of those sayings that erupt from those amongst us whose familiarity with quantum phenomena runs worryingly deep?  I leave it to our readers to ponder this question in their own time.

 

Douglas Bryan LeConte-Spink is a co-founder of Baneki Privacy Computing (baneki.com) — a no-compromise provider of world-class network security and privacy services -—and is a longtime activist in the field of cross-species empathetic symbiosis. Currently, he is — according to his own words  — “a political prisoner within the United States Bureau of Prisons: as a result of my longtime academic interest in orthogonal models of human/non-human emotional bonding and social connectivity (and my no-compromise support of free speech, anti-censorship, and customer-friendly encrypted network services) I was targeted by ideologues within the federal criminal justice system, and was sentenced to 36 months imprisonment in order to ‘teach him a lesson.’ Appeals are pending, in several jurisdictions.”

Mr. LeConte-Spink carries an MBA from the University of Chicago, a B.A. in cultural anthropology from Reed College, and has studied complex systems theory at the doctoral level. He is a fixed-object jumper who has opened many new exitpoints worldwide (BASE 715), a practising Zen buddhist, a successful mentor to several International-level showjumping stallions, and a former member of a US/Canadian helicopter smuggling crew. Currently, he pursues his academic interests as an independent researcher, and has published on a variety of topics and in a broad range of specialist and general-interest publications and discussion forums. He is the author of the “Old Blood Manifesto” (available at symbioticminds.org), and he continues his research career from with the U.S. federal prison system; he can be contacted via colleagues at wrinko@hushmail.com.

Mr. LeConte-Spink offers his most sincere appreciation to the many friends, colleagues, associates, and supporters who have stood by him during his ongoing fight against extra-legal, witchunt-style persecution by federal authorities… and he remains steadfastly devoted to his family, his community, and to positive social transformation.

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