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Programming the Universe: A Quantum Computer Scientist Takes On the Cosmos Hardcover – March 14, 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
Lloyd, a professor at MIT, works in the vanguard of research in quantum computing: using the quantum mechanical properties of atoms as a computer. He contends that the universe itself is one big quantum computer producing what we see around us, and ourselves, as it runs a cosmic program. According to Lloyd, once we understand the laws of physics completely, we will be able to use small-scale quantum computing to understand the universe completely as well. In his scenario, the universe is processing information. The second law of thermodynamics (disorder increases) is all about information, and Lloyd spends much of the book explaining how quantum processes convey information. The creation of the universe itself involved information processing: random fluctuations in the quantum foam, like a random number generator in a computer program, produced higher-density areas, then matter, stars, galaxies and life. Lloyd's hypothesis bears important implications for the red-hot evolution–versus–intelligent design debate, since he argues that divine intervention isn't necessary to produce complexity and life. Unfortunately, he rushes through what should be the climax of his argument. Nevertheless, Lloyd throws out many fascinating ideas. (For another take on information theory, see Decoding the Universe on p.53.) 12 b&w illus.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
*Starred Review* Lloyd's specialty in physics is the hot topic of quantum information. And his book may do for quantum information what Brian Greene did for strings (The Elegant Universe, 1999) and Stephen Hawking did for spacetime (A Brief History of Time, 1988): popularize a far-out scientific frontier. Will Lloyd's listeners have the same head-scratching reactions as his MIT students do on their first encounter with the idea that information is a quantifiable physical value, as much as mass or motion? Or with the proposition that any physical system--a river, you, the universe--is a quantum mechanical computer? Not if they've read his book, which offers brilliantly clarifying explanations of the "bit," the smallest unit of information; how bits change their state; and how changes-of-state can be registered on atoms via quantum-mechanical qualities such as "spin" and "superposition." Putting readers in the know about quantum computation, Lloyd then informs them that it may well be the answer to physicists' search for a unified theory of everything. Exploring big questions in accessible, comprehensive fashion, Lloyd's work is of vital importance to the general-science audience. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
Top customer reviews
Black holes acting as incredibly accurate quantum computers? That's just a start. How about the universe itself being a computer?
This is the intriguing assertion of Seth Lloyd in his new book, Programming the Universe: A Quantum Computer Scientist Takes On the Cosmos.
"The Universe is a quantum computer. ...What does the universe compute? It computes itself. The universe computes its own behavior. As soon as the universe began, it began computing."
The idea, in various forms, has been around for awhile. Ed Fredkin has been developing the idea since the 60's. Though his website is a bit technical for the average reader, a superb article by Robert Wright in The Atlantic Monthly captures both the essential ideas and the man himself.
According to his theory of digital physics, information is more fundamental than matter and energy. He believes that atoms, electrons, and quarks consist ultimately of bits--binary units of information, like those that are the currency of computation in a personal computer or a pocket calculator. And he believes that the behavior of those bits, and thus of the entire universe, is governed by a single programming rule. This rule, Fredkin says, is something fairly simple, something vastly less arcane than the mathematical constructs that conventional physicists use to explain the dynamics of physical reality. Yet through ceaseless repetition--by tirelessly taking information it has just transformed and transforming it further--it has generated pervasive complexity. Fredkin calls this rule, with discernible reverence, "the cause and prime mover of everything."
This "prime mover of everything" is a class of computer programs known as cellular automata which were invented by John von Neumann in the 1950s. More recently Stephen Wolfram has explored cellular automata in great detail in his monumental work, A New Kind of Science, in which he sees this form of analysis and understanding as ushering in a new method of doing science. The cellular automaton is a lattice of cells, which can have a finite number of states. These states result from rules which advance in discrete steps and which simultaneously update the lattice. Wolfram explored hundreds of these rules through computer analysis.
So the universe could itself be a process of working out these computational processes according to some rule. And if so, then our picture of the nature of reality changes dramatically:
Fredkin believes that automata will more faithfully mirror reality as they are applied to its more fundamental levels and the rules needed to model the motion of molecules, atoms, electrons, and quarks are uncovered. And he believes that at the most fundamental level (whatever that turns out to be) the automaton will describe the physical world with perfect precision, because at that level the universe is a cellular automaton, in three dimensions--a crystalline lattice of interacting logic units, each one "deciding" zillions of times per second whether it will be off or on at the next point in time. The information thus produced, Fredkin says, is the fabric of reality, the stuff of which matter and energy are made. An electron, in Fredkin's universe, is nothing more than a pattern of information, and an orbiting electron is nothing more than that pattern moving.
This universe is no longer the continuous process that our perceptual system sees. Rather it is a discrete process of events. The physicist John Wheeler entitled an article on this understanding as "It from Bit"-a phrase that has become a popular way of encapsulating the idea.
Back to Seth Lloyd. He is working at this interface of computer science and physics-- what Robert Wright calls the "twilight zone of modern science". He surveys the basic
principles of quantum computing, exploring questions such as: How much information is there in the universe? How much was present at the Big Bang? Can we re-create it on a giant quantum computer? How is information related to entropy? He answers these questions with surprising clarity for ideas that are so foreign to our everyday understanding.
The strength in Lloyd's book is the presentation of the core ideas of quantum computing. Those of a more philosophical bent might have wished for more speculation on the implications of his model. However, he does end his book with a "Personal Note: The Consolation of Information," in which he describes the tragic death of his teacher and friend Heinz Pagels. They were hiking together in the Colorado mountains when Heinz slipped and fell. After the rescue efforts, he was left with trying to make sense of what happened. He concludes his book with this reflection:
Heinz's body and brain are gone. The information his cells processed is wrapped up in the Earth's slow process. He has lost consciousness, thought, and action. But we have not entirely lost him. While he lived, Heinz programmed his own piece of the universe. The resulting computation unfolds in us and around us: the vivid thoughts and outrageous behavior he impressed on us still flourish in our thoughts and behavior and have their own vivid and outrageous consequences. Heinz's piece of the universal computation goes on.
But there's the main thesis of the book: at least since the Greeks there have been two major propositions for what we may call "the principles" of the Universe: on the one hand Mathematics (Pythagoras, Plato) or the more popular dualistic notion of "form" and "stuff" (or matter) as given by Aristotle. The current statement of this dilemma is wonderfully expressed by John Archibald Wheeler's "It from bit". And like before the bet is set by those who lean to one or the other side, i.e to the "it" side or the "bit" side. I think that the beauty, the Occam's razor simplicity of this book in dealing with the fundamental concepts (the laws) of physics is a clear sign that the "bit" party has the advantage now. So, really, we might be ready for a new change of paradigm that will be significant for new development, not only of physics, but of our knowldege of reality as a whole.
As for myself, I've just ordered "Quantum Computing and Quantum Information", the basic text by Nielsen and Chuang. And also "Quantum Aspects of Life" by Abbott, Davies and Pati. This is the "new way" now to explore ...
The book is a good read if your into those things, it goes into a bit more detail and isn't without that Seth humour :)
Thanks Seth, love your work!
This book takes a more physics-oriented apporach to the issue of universal quantum computing, and omits a fair amount of detail about computation itself. This book is not for peer consumption, but rather for the general public. It is an idea to which I subscribe, given what little I know.
If you want more details, read Deutsch, or various websites on quantum computing ([...] This is a vast, technical area of science that cuts across almost all disciplines. The implications of a working quantum computer are staggering, as are its implications with respect to time and time travel.
My only gripe with this book is Lloyd's own self promotion and friendly attempts to poke holes in Deutsch's ideas of the multi-verse. I am not interested in academic ego contests - save them for the conferences. State your case, offer some unamed alternatives, and write up a good bibliography. Thats all I ask!
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