The Unknown known

I thought I would lighten this blogs mood with a more esoteric experience that I refer to on a daily basis.

There are considered to be three conditions of knowledge:

  1. Known Known’s – things you know that you know
  2. Known Unknown’s – things you know you have no knowledge of
  3. Unknown Unkown’s – things you didn’t even know existed

However, in a famous speech given by Donald Rumsfeld on February 12th, 2002 about the lack of evidence connecting Iraq with WoMD he cited a fourth state:

  • There are unknown knowns – there are things you know, but they are untrue.

N.B. It has since come to light that this was a common idiom used by the U.S. Department of Defense and NASA and adopted by Donald during his tenure as Secretary of Defense.

I always think about business opportunities and threats in these terms, I also use and include the Donald Rumsfeld 4th option in my consideration. Primarily, do I know what I think I know? It’s a very useful idiom in Technology and Business.

A real world example of that 4th state has become more and more apparent within a new branch of computing just starting to emerge. It uses a theorem called quantum mechanics. This is the first technology that I do not fundamentally understand. What I mean by that is, I understand it, as you will see below, but I cannot accept it even though I know it to be true.

To explain Quantum computing, it is best to use an example; Schrodinger’s Cat.

Schrodinger’s cat was a thought experiment theorised by Erwin Schrodinger in 1935 to solve a paradox offered by the Copenhagen Institute’s interpretation of quantum mechanics.

The hypothetical experiment considers a cat placed in a box with a vial of poison gas that has a radioactive source eroding the container. Once the box is closed, we cannot know whether the cat is alive or dead without opening the box. Quantum theory proffers that the cat is both alive and dead and that opening the box forces the state to be decided.

Now, this is stupid, everything we know about the world leads us to know that this cannot be true, either the cat is dead or alive, we just don’t know which. Until recently, this was a thought experiment that sought to solve a specific paradox, however the field of quantum computing has been evolving using Schrodinger’s cat as a basis of operation.

So here’s the thing: Quantum computers work, they don’t do very much yet, but they work and they can only work if Schrodinger’s Cat experiment turns out to be true.

Let me explain further, a traditional digital computer works by calculating the one correct answer logically item by item, so for example in cryptography, to crack a password, with out any social engineering, you would use brute force. i.e.

  • Is the password 12345678?, no!
  • then is the password 12345679?, no!
  • then is the password rabbit?, no!
  •  and so on…..

This is done step by step and finding every possible combination could take years, centuries or even millennia using a conventional computer.

A quantum computer is different, very different, it considers every possible answer at the same time to determine which one is correct. So, in theory, with a powerful enough quantum computer even the highest grade cryptographic message could be cracked within 2 clock cycles (a fraction  of a second).

The NSA has got their hands on an operating quantum computer, it is probably the equivalent power of a pocket calculator currently and not really capable of much real world operation, but it is a start. But more importantly, what this means is that Schrodinger was right. A cat can be both alive and dead at the same time. That means you and I were wrong, our view of the world is wrong and the world does not work in the way we expect it to. It means that parallel universes become very likely, it means that we have to rethink our understanding of the world in the same way as society centuries ago had to re-evaluate the change from a flat world to a round planet.

What you knew was wrong, or it was an unknown know!

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