Monday, December 22, 2014

Quantum GDP


"It's been only half jokingly said that today a third of GDP is attributable to quantum mechanics," -- former Lockheed CEO Norm Augustine.
I've heard the one third or 30% of GDP figure from time to time, but have never seen a detailed analysis. A list of modern technologies that arose from quantum mechanics would include: transistors, microprocessors, lasers, sophisticated chemistry and materials science, nuclear energy, memory chips, hard drive storage, LEDs, LCD displays, etc. These certainly account for a significant fraction of GDP.

Estimates of expenditures on communications and information technology alone in developed countries are typically in the 5-10% GDP range, which provides a lower bound. While the actual figure may be less than 30% it is certainly substantial. See here for a history of physics contributions to information technologies.

The huge (but poorly understood) impact of quantum mechanics on modern life is an example of the tremendous long term impact of fundamental research. There is every reason to think that increased world research expenditures would enhance productivity and quality of life, with very high ROI. However, there is little careful thinking about the "right" level of research investment as a fraction of GDP. Instead, we get:



Perhaps the most amazing aspect of the history of quantum mechanics is not its technological and practical impact, but rather how it led to deep changes in how we think about the universe. See, e.g., Two slit experimentBell and GHZWeinberg on quantum foundations, and On the origin of probability in quantum mechanics.

Early pioneers doubted whether humans were smart enough to understand quantum physics:
[Wigner] Until 1925, most great physicists, including Einstein and Planck, had doubted that man could truly grasp the deepest implications of quantum theory. They really felt that man might be too stupid to properly describe quantum phenomena. ... the men at the weekly colloquium in Berlin wondered "Is the human mind gifted enough to extend physics into the microscopic domain ...?" Many of those great men doubted that it could.
Quantum mechanics, which made possible the modern age, is nevertheless only understood by at most a fraction of a percent of the population. See also Psychometric thresholds for physics and mathematics, Chomsky: genetic barriers to scientific progress, and Beyond Human Science.
Beyond Human Science: [This Ted Chiang short story envisions a future in which science has become the province of genetically enhanced "metahumans" -- leaving non-enhanced humans to gape from the sidelines.]

... imagine if research offered hope of a different intelligence-enhancing therapy, one that would allow individuals to gradually "up-grade" their minds to a metahuman-equivalent level. Such a therapy would offer a bridge across what has become the greatest cultural divide in our species' history ...

We need not be intimidated by the accomplishments of metahuman science. We should always remember that the technologies that made metahumans possible were originally invented by humans, and they were no smarter than we.

7 comments:

BobSykes said...

I think the 30% figure is a serious over estimate, but the impact of the quantum mechanics is undeniable. As to who does of doesn't understand it, the list should include Einstein and some modern physicists like Smolin. The people, especially physists and philosophers of science, who are confused and mystified by quantum mechanics are intellectually and emotionally committed to classical Nineteenth Century physics. Lubos Motl's rants are a welcome cleaning wind.


PS. Historically the dollar sign is an abbreviation for pesos, and it is written with a single vertical stroke, not two.

Jan said...

One or more soldiers in Afghanistan are stuck in a state similar as that of Schrödinger's cat:
( http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2014/12/22/372479980/army-refers-bergdahl-investigation-to-courts-martial-panel )
"Some of Bergdahl's former comrades were bitter that he walked away. They say the long search for him in Afghanistan resulted in some soldiers being killed or wounded."
Since it is unknown whether they were killed OR wounded, and the article did not write some were killed and some wounded, the actual outcome must still be unknown!

David Coughlin said...

I thought the US Dollar sign was a U overlaid on an S, with the bottom of the U cut off.

BobSykes said...

No. And if you go to Mexico and buy anything the bill will be $xx, meaning pesos.

5371 said...

A list of modern technologies that arose from quantum mechanics would include: transistors, microprocessors, lasers, sophisticated chemistry and materials science, nuclear energy, memory chips, hard drive storage, LEDs, LCD displays, etc. These certainly account for a significant fraction of GDP.

But we always hear from fans of "tech" that only a tiny part of the "value" in Apple products comes from the components, it's all in the wondrous designing skills of the company's "creative" employees. So very little must be left for quantum mechanics.

Cornelius said...

You are both correct. The single stroke and double stroke versions arose independently.

lukelea said...

Was an understanding of quantum mechanics necessary for the invention of the transistor? Lubos Motl's suggested not. In which case the same might be said of the microprocessor. Not sure about the other technologies you mention.

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