There's more empirical evidence in the form of these quantum computers that I and colleagues like Dave Cory, Tai Tsun Wu, Ike Chuang, Jeff Kimball, Dave Huan, and Hans Mooij have built. They're actually computers. If you look at a quantum computer you don't see anything, because these molecules are too small. But if you look at what's happening in a quantum computer, it's actually attaining these limits that I described before, these fundamental limits of computation. I have a little molecule, and each atom in the molecule registers a bit of information, because spin up is zero, spin down is one. I flip this bit, by putting it in an NMR spectrometer, zapping it with microwaves and making the bit flip. I ask, how fast does that bit flip, given the energy of interaction between the electromagnetic field I'm putting on that spin and the amount of time it takes to flip? You find out that the bit flips in exactly this time that's given by this ultimate limit to computation. I take the energy of the interaction, divide by h-bar ­ if I want, I can make it more accurate, multiplying it by two over pi times h-bar ­ and I find that that's exactly how fast that this bit flips. Similarly, I can do a more complicated operation, like an exclusive or-operation where, if I have two spins, I make this one flip if and only if this spin is spun out, and then the other one flips. It's relatively straightforward to do. In fact, people have been doing it since 1948, and if they'd thought of building quantum computers in 1948 they could have, because they actually already had the wherewithal to do it. When this happens — and it's indeed the sort of thing that happens naturally inside an atom — it also takes place at the limits that are given by this fundamental physics of computation. It goes exactly at the speed that it's allowed to go and no faster. It's saturating its bound for how fast you can perform a computation.

The other neat thing about these quantum computers is that they're also storing a bit of information on every available degree of freedom. Every nuclear spin in the molecules stores exactly one bit of information. We have examples of computers that saturate these ultimate limits of computation, and they look like actual physical systems. They look like alanine molecules, or amino acids, or like chloroform. Similarly, when we do quantum computation using photons, etc. we also perform computation at this limit.

I have not proved that the universe is, in fact, a digital computer and that it's capable of performing universal computation, but it's plausible that it is. It's also a reasonable scientific program to look at the dynamics of the standard model and to try to prove from that dynamics that it is computationally capable. We have strong evidence for this case. Why would this be interesting? For one thing it would justify Douglas Adams and all of the people who've been saying it's a computer all along. But it would also explain some things that have been otherwise paradoxical or confusing about the universe. Alan has done work for a long time on why the universe is so homogeneous, flat, and isotropic. This was unexplained within the standard cosmological model, and your great accomplishment here was to make a wonderful, simple, and elegant model that explains why the universe has these existing features. Another feature that everybody notices about the universe is that it's complex. Why is it complicated? Well nobody knows. It turned out that way. Or if you're a creationist you say God made it that way. If you take a more Darwinian point of view the dynamics of the universe are such that as the universe evolved in time, complex systems arose out of the natural dynamics of the universe. So why would the universe being capable of computation explain why it's complex?

There's a very nice explanation about this, which I think was given back in the '60s, and actually Marvin, maybe you can enlighten me about when this first happened, because I don't know the first instance of it. Computers are famous for being able to do complicated things starting from simple programs. You can write a very short computer program which will cause your computer to start spitting out the digits of pi. If you want to make it slightly more complex you can make it stop spitting out those digits at some point so you can use it for something else. There are short programs that generate all sorts of complicated things. That in itself doesn't constitute an explanation for why the universe itself exhibits all this complexity, but if you combine the fact that you have something that's dynamically, computationally universal with the fact that you're constantly having information injected into the universe, — by the basic laws of quantum mechanics, full of quantum fluctuations are all the time injecting, programming the universe with bits of information — then you do have a reasonable explanation, which I'll close with.

About a hundred and twenty years ago, Ludwig Boltzmann proposed an explanation for why the universe is complex. He said that it's just a big thermal fluctuation. His is a famous explanation: the monkeys-typing-on-typewriters explanation for the universe. Say there were a bunch of monkeys typing a bunch of random descriptions into a typewriter. Eventually we would get a book, right? But Boltzman among other people realized right away that this couldn't be right, because the probability of this happening is vanishingly small. If you had one dime that assembled itself miraculously by a thermal fluctuation, the chances of finding another dime would be vanishingly small; you'd never find that happening in the same universe because it's just too unlikely.

Previous | Page 1 2 3 4 5 6 Next