Have you ever gone online, read something, and then wondered why someone else who has read the ‘same’ thing seems to have apparently read something completely different?
In general, you might think that this is because other people read carelessly or with different assumptions (or that they’re stupid…), and of course that could be true, but it’s not all there is to it.
The truth is that you experience an ever-so-slightly-different version of the internet to everyone else. In fact, everyone experiences their own unique version.
This is a relatively recent development that has come about due to quantum computing.
As some of you know, I have a PhD in Quantum Field Theory, so I thought I would try to guide you through the basics behind this cool new development. (This is my thesis, if you really must know, but don’t read it; no one else has…)
To understand how using quantum mechanics in computing has led to such an odd outcome for the internet, we need to understand a few basic things about quantum mechanics. (Follow the inline links for far more detailed and complicated explanations.)
The Science-y Stuff
Firstly, let’s talk about Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. What this tells us is that you can’t completely know everything about a pair of properties of some thing. For example, the more you know about the position of a particle (for example, an atom) the less you will know about its momentum, and vice versa. The particle is basically a bit fuzzy. You’ll know stuff about it, but you can’t know everything.
The second, related, thing you need to understand is the Schrödinger equation. Back at the beginning of the 20th century, experiments proved that particles (atoms and suchlike) actually behave like waves. They weren’t like, say, a tennis ball, that you could pin down exactly. Schrödinger came up with his equation to tell you mathematically how likely at particle is to be at a particular position.
The final things you need to know about are Wave Function Collapse and the Observer Effect. Basically, if you observe or measure a particle (or set some instrument or machine to do it) then the uncertainty in the Schrödinger equation for the thing being measured disappears. The wave “collapses”. Before you observed it, the particle was in a lot of different places. When you observe or measure it, it is just in one place.
This isn’t just a philosophical principle. You can actually prove it with experiments. No doubt most of you have heard of Schrödinger’s cat, where a cat locked in a box is both simultaneously alive and dead until you open the box and find out which. Physicists are not (in general) horrible enough to actually experiment on cats, but you can do the same thing with atoms or electrons and prove that this is something that really, really happens.
Want more on this by someone much smarter than I am? Watch this video:
By this point, you may well be wondering what the hell this has to do with anything, particularly the internet.
Well, quantum computing makes use of exactly the same principles. The information on the internet is saved in quantum states. Until they are observed, these quantum states and the information in them exist as a waveform. The information could be anything. When you observe it, it collapses into a fixed form.
How do you observe ‘the internet’? Well, you simply connect to it using your computer or phone or whatever. That very act of connecting (observing) collapses the waveform of the information on the internet into a single, fixed, measurable (readable) form. The exact nature of the information on the internet was previously a bit ‘fuzzy’ (remember the Uncertainty Principle?). Now it has been observed, it is exact. You can read it.
Of course, the wave function of the internet, is quite a narrow one. Remember, the wave function is basically the probability that something will have some property, that an atom will be in a particular location, for example. The probability that the information on the internet will be a particular thing is actually very high, but it’s not 100%. There is some uncertainty.
Now, of course if you collapsed the entire internet, you would lose those important quantum mechanical properties that quantum computing relies on to be so powerful. Take those away, and the computing power of the entire internet would be massively reduced just by someone connecting to it, which would be crap.
So what do the quantum computers do to avoid this problem? Well, it’s quite simple. They generate a ‘child universe’ that isn’t part of our universe at all, but is connected to it through a wormhole. Now, these child universes are not massive things like our universe. They are absolutely miniature. All they contain is the information in the collapsed version of the universe. (This isn’t difficult to achieve; the universe is basically just information, and you can argue that our universe is simply a quantum computer.) Like all observed quantum systems, they maintain their state until they are no longer being observed (or connected to, in this case), after which they decay.
So the quantum computers that run the internet keep their waveforms intact, and your particular version of the information in the internet exists in its own child universe that your computer is connected to. The next person to access the internet then causes the waveform to collapse again into another child universe. But this time, because of the uncertain nature of the waveform, it collapses to a slightly different form.
In other words, the new user of the internet experiences a slightly different internet to the one that you are experiencing.
The difference could be tiny. A comma missing, for example. Or it could be massive. An article that says a completely different thing. And, because of the way probability works, there is an infinitesimal chance (which may occur only once in billions of years) that the internet you experience is 100% different to the one that someone else experiences, causing great confusion.
And this is why, when you read something on the internet, you genuinely may be reading something completely different to what other people are reading. It’s not just they are stupid (although they almost certainly are).