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Is the quantum computing in ‘Devs’ really possible?

We take a peek at the physics behind Alex Garland’s new sci-fi offering Devs. Will quantum computers be able to tell us the future?

Alex Garland’s newest foray into sci-fi, the Hulu show Devs, is one of the most innovate programs to be screened on prime-time Television for a while. Displaying the same heady mix of strange soundscapes, unnerving visuals, and ambitious set pieces that made his first two works as a director, Ex Machina and Annihilation, popular if not exactly ‘hits’ in their respective genres, Devs is an eight-part mini-series that postulates on the future of tech.

I’m a huge fan of both of Garland’s movies, and his willingness to dig beneath humanity’s epistemological crust to the big philosophical questions beneath is either completely alienating or utterly compelling, depending on your sensibilities. Interestingly, the same can be said of his immediate contemporary Christopher Nolan – both North London lads born in the 70s to well-to-do families who have clearly experienced a lot of metaphysical angst.

Briefly, Devs focuses on a fictional tech giant, Amaya, run by archetypal enigmatic executive Forest (Nick Offerman), and its mysterious ‘development’ department, or ‘Devs’. When employee Lily (Sonoya Mizuno) witnesses a shocking event seemingly linked to Devs, she makes it her business to find out what goes on behind the closed doors.

As has been pointed out here and here, the show suffers from a maddeningly wooden lead performance, several cases of bad casting (though I disagree with Guardian reviewer Benjamin Lee that Offerman is unconvincing as a tech-mogul-turned-quasi-messiah), and an unfulfilling ending. Nevertheless, I’m tempted to give it far more credit than several other series of 2020 that I’ve ostensibly enjoyed more due to the boldness of its subject matter.

The most important thing about Devs, and it is important, is its meaningful consideration of a discipline that will undoubtedly come to influence human history: quantum computing. Whilst Interstellar grounded us in a quantum equation problem far into a dystopian future, and Endgame fleetingly used quantum mechanics to service its time travel plot (badly, according to physicists), Devs explores what the evolution of quantum mechanics could really mean in our immediate context. It postulates the very likely scenario that someone is going to ‘crack’ the mystery of quantum computing and change the very fabric of our universe, soon.

What is quantum mechanics?

Quantum mechanics is an immensely complex and very theoretical branch of physics that I’m far from understanding at an explanatory level but suffice to say that it deals with the universe at a sub-atomic level. The limited observations scientists have been able to make of the quantum world tell us that it’s a pretty freaky place, where ‘impossible’ things like superposition, which describes micro-particles existing in multiple physical places simultaneously in a ‘cloud of probability’, thus allowing some guys cat to be both alive and dead at the same time, are theoretically possible.

Scientists think that if we can ‘hack into’ this quantum world – figure out its equations and harness its energy – then humanity could create a supercomputer capable of limitless calculations and predictions. IBM and Google are already working on their own versions of such a machine. Dubbed the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ by Morgan Stanley, this is the next big horizon in tech, and when someone crosses it the world will change forever.

In Devs, it’s Offerman’s character who first synthesises quantum data, which he of course immediately patents, privatises, and shrouds in secrecy. We find out in the second episode that his company has created a quantum computer with the capability of projecting backwards and forwards in time with complete accuracy.

devs the machine explained - DEFFINITION

Whilst this may seem outlandish, it’s based on real and substantiated theories in quantum mechanics. If we live in a deterministic universe, all information about what a particle has been, and what it ever will be, is stored as information both within it and in the particle ‘system’ around it. The way one character in the show demonstrates this concept is by pushing a pen across a table. If you can collect all possible information about the movement of the pen (its velocity, direction etc) then you can both determine what caused it to roll, and where it’s going to end up. Theoretically, there’s only one possible situation in the world, only one person’s actual hand, that could have made the pen move in that exact way to that exact position.

In the same way, the particles that make you and me both have a past, and a predictable future that you could calculate with the right quantum ‘information’. The Devs team use this information to see accurate visions of Christ on the cross, dinosaurs walking the Earth, and themselves months into the future.

But is it really possible to create such a machine, and is this the direction Silicon Valley is likely to be heading at this present moment? Well, yes and no.

A history of determinism

The hypothesis that we can predict the future through information is actually not as modern as it might sound. For millennia, philosophers have been speculating about the universal relationship between cause and effect, and which (if either) exists at the service of the other. Does cause always precede effect? Or does the ‘potentiality’ of any substance already exist in its ‘actuality’, as Aristotle would have it? And, if so, is this knowledge accessible? The show itself references the rich history of the problem it taps into in episode 7, when physicist Stewart quotes French scholar Pierre-Simon Laplace. The quote is lengthy, and unattributed.

We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at any given moment knew all of the forces that animate nature and the mutual positions of the beings that compose it, if this intellect were vast enough to submit the data to analysis, could condense into a single formula the movement of the greatest bodies of the universe and that of the lightest atom; for such an intellect nothing could be uncertain and the future, just like the past, would be present before its eyes.

Though this sounds like the cutting edge of scientific thought, only rendered possible through the development of quantum mechanics throughout the 20th century, Laplace wrote the idea down in 1814.

The omniscient intelligence that Laplace imagines, which has come to be called ‘Laplace’s demon’, was probably conceptualised in his age of Enlightenment not as a demon, but as God. Religion has posited since time immemorial that our future is known and determined by a higher being. Whether the knowledge is held by God, an advanced civilisation as per the holographic principle, or by a machine as in Devs, humanity have always wanted to know whether we truly have free will. If Laplace or Forest are correct, and all of the information about our past and future is already stored in the quantum energy of the universe, then we do not. And the future can be known.

Devs' Creator Alex Garland on Series Finale - Rolling Stone

Is Forest’s machine possible?

There are two predominant theories in quantum physics that assume the complete determinism of the universe and they’re both mentioned in the show: The De Broglie-Bohm or ‘pilot wave’ theory, and the Many Worlds Interpretation. The logic of the first theory is used in the parable of the pen: there is one set course for history, and it can be ascertained through quantum information. The Many Worlds theory, however, states that every time a ‘decision’ is made at a particle level, time branches into separate realities whereby every possibility is realised, creating possibly infinite different universes. You might recognise this theory from such classics as Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse.

Whilst Forest’s team initially works under the premise that the pilot wave theory is correct, it turns out that the equation for Many Worlds holds the key to making the quantum computer run. If either turns out to be true in reality, however, Dev’s proposition that we could peer into our future potentially still holds.

These two theories of determinism are by no means fringe in the scientific community. They have a pretty hefty backing by a large number of modern physicists, and they’re gaining clout over time as scientists increasingly reject the Copenhagen interpretation.

However, just because the quantum theory bears up, doesn’t mean that Forest’s machine is possible.

As computer scientist Dr. Scott Aaronson points out in an interview about the show, a computer or algorithm of any kind, quantum or no, can only output information equivalent to the data it receives. In order for it to make calculations regarding everything that ever will be, it has to know the current and past situation of everything that ever was.

‘I doubt that reconstructing the remote past is really a ‘computational problem’ at all, in the sense that even the most powerful science-fiction supercomputer still couldn’t give you reliable answers if it lacked the appropriate input data,’ Aaronson says, adding ‘As far as we know today, the best that any computer (classical or quantum) could possibly do, even in principle, with any data we could possibly collect, is to forecast a range of possible futures, and a range of possible pasts.’

‘The data that it would need to declare one of them the ‘real’ future or the ‘real’ past simply wouldn’t be accessible to humankind, but rather would be lost in microscopic puffs of air, radiation flying away from the earth into space, etc.’

In other words, in order to predict the trajectory of a pen exactly, you’re going to need to know quite literally everything about the circumstances that made it roll in the way it did. The microscopic fluctuations of the dust motes around it, which in turn are affected by the weather in the local area, which in turn in affected by the position of the moon and on it goes. It’s an impossible amount of data.

Sergie: That's the machine? Forest: It's the Central Unit Sergie ...

So, in order to build a quantum computer like the one in Devs, Google or IBM would have to not only harness quantum energy but come up with a completely new and unprecedented system of information gathering that exceeds anything we have now by a silly order of magnitude.  It’s probably (and thankfully) not likely that any Musk type tech billionaires are going to be elevated to complete clairvoyance anytime soon.

What, then, can we expect from the first quantum computers inevitably heading our way?

A more likely quantum future

Well, the main selling point of quantum computing as we understand it is its ability to dwarf our current processing capabilities. Imagine the most powerful computer you could possibly build, then build a trillion identical copies each operating in parallel dimensions. This is the promise of quantum computers: they utilise principles of probability to perform an incomprehensible amount of equations simultaneously.

The most immediate implications this would have for society are in the fields of medicine, trading, and AI. The basic principle of AI is that the more feedback you give a computer program, the more accurate it becomes. With quantum computing, the ‘trial and error’ learning curve needed to push AIs into the Westworld model of sentience and comprehension will be significantly reduced. Quantum algorithms will be able to speed up language processing capabilities, enabling AI to understand human communication more robustly.

When you think about it, pretty much all areas of technological development – disease research, weather prediction, even election polling – are based on algorithms and data. A quantum computer could deal with all of this information in a fraction of a second and use it to make predictions just as fast. Whilst we may not be able to feed such a device atomic information on the entire history of the universe, we can input the history of the US stock market, results of drug trials, or current renewable energy modelling.

We would be able to use this information to determine an ideal ‘model’ for society – using student data and learning statistics to produce personalised curriculum, predicting job market growth and demand for skilled and knowledgeable workers with precision, and accurately predicting social indicators like income inequality to advise legislators.

Google has already made some headway in this with their 53-qubit quantum prototype (for reference, when a character asks Forest how many qubits his computer can process, he responds ‘a number that seems meaningless to put into words’, so Google has a way to go yet). Researchers performed a trial early in 2019, where they reportedly asked their computer to solve a calculation proving the randomness of numbers produced by a random number generator that would have taken the world’s fastest traditional computer, Summit, around 10,000 years to process. The quantum computer came up with an accurate proof in 3 minutes and 20 seconds.

Essentially, the result of quantum computers will be knowledge on an unprecedented scale. The most exciting applications of quantum computing are almost certainly things which we cannot yet conceive. Whilst it’s not possible now to create Forest’s vision of a complete all-knowing machine, knowledge and technological production tends to trend upwards exponentially. Unlocking the quantum realm will, in turn, give us far more questions to answer, and produce more keys to doors that we didn’t know existed. Maybe, behind one of these doors, it will be possible to predict the future.

For now, all we can do hope is that whomever finally commercialises the power of the quantum computer will do so at the service of humanity, not their bottom line.