Yesterday, in a comment on this site, reader Invisible Airwaves called attention to a letter to the editor in Nature about an innocuous phrase used in computer lingo. It’s unbelievable what things will offend people these days—even innocuous phrases—and it’s starting to get me down as I see no corrective in the future.
So, a group of scientist Pecksniffs have taken issue with the phrase “quantum supremacy“, which means this, according to Wikipedia:
In quantum computing, quantum supremacy is the goal of demonstrating that a programmable quantum device can solve a problem that classical computers practically cannot (irrespective of the usefulness of the problem).
And here come the termites, gnawing away at this term, a term we’ve all heard often these days. Why do they object? Because. . . . well, you’ve probably already guessed. The complete letter, which is indented, is below, and if you don’t believe me you can click on the screenshot:
We take issue with the use of ‘supremacy’ when referring to quantum computers that can out-calculate even the fastest supercomputers (F. Arute et al. Nature 574, 505–510; 2019). We consider it irresponsible to override the historical context of this descriptor, which risks sustaining divisions in race, gender and class. We call for the community to use ‘quantum advantage’ instead.
The community claims that quantum supremacy is a technical term with a specified meaning. However, any technical justification for this descriptor could get swamped as it enters the public arena after the intense media coverage of the past few months. [JAC: I seriously doubt it.]
In our view, ‘supremacy’ has overtones of violence, neocolonialism and racism through its association with ‘white supremacy’. Inherently violent language has crept into other branches of science as well — in human and robotic spaceflight, for example, terms such as ‘conquest’, ‘colonization’ and ‘settlement’ evoke the terra nullius arguments of settler colonialism and must be contextualized against ongoing issues of neocolonialism. [JAC: Note the postmodernist language here.]
Instead, quantum computing should be an open arena and an inspiration for a new generation of scientists. [JAC: It’s not an “open arena”? Really? How so? And it is already an inspiration for people working on this promising new technology.]
Well, maybe the term has that resonance in their view, but not in mine—or in many other peoples’. You have to be on the lookout for this kind of “offense” to find it, and then, when you do find it, you tell everyone that it has “overtones of violence, neocolonialism and racism through its association with ‘white supremacy'”. But it has no association with white supremacy save that one of the words in the two phrases is the same. If you’re going to play that game, why not also ban the term “white”?
In fact, the term “quantum advantage” is not a good replacement, for Wikipedia, at least, says it means something different from “quantum supremacy”:
By comparison, the weaker quantum advantage is the demonstration that a quantum device can solve a problem merely faster than classical computers.
Beside the three authors listed above, Nature also lists thirteen others in the “supplementary material”:
Syed Mustafa Ali Open University, Milton Keynes, UK.
Steve Brierley Riverlane, Cambridge, UK.
Hope Bretscher Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge, UK.
Juani Bermejo-Vega University of Granada, Spain.
Helmut G. Katzgraber Microsoft, Redmond, Washington, USA.
Chris Granade Microsoft, Redmond, Washington, USA.
Alan Aspuru-Guzik University of Toronto, Canada.
Sabine Wollmann University of Bristol, UK.
Dominic Horsman Université Grenoble Alpes, France.
Anne Broadbent University of Ottawa, Canada.
Ariel Bendersky University of Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Cecilia Cormick National University of Córdoba, Argentina.
Shazeaa Nisa Ishmael University of Oxford, UK.
Readers with spare time might want to look up who these people are.
I have two questions here. First, why did Nature publish this overheated and ridiculous attempt to police language? Second, is there any way to stop this tsunami of virtue-flaunting before it inundates science, academia, and the rest of us?