Is quantum supremacy a flying car?

A standard field trip in elementary school was the aerospace museum.  They had two flying cars that had been built in the 1930s.  Looped videos of grainy black and white footage ran showing them driving down the street, then flying over San Diego.  As we sat in traffic on the way back to school, students and teachers alike wondered aloud about what happened. Who wouldn’t want to fly back and save time?  It had been done ages ago, and nothing had happened since.

Quantum supremacy has aroused some skepticism.  Sean Stein Smith at the American Institute for Economic Research writes that Blockchain has about 10 years left before it will even be threatened.  From there, he points out that threats breed responses, and economic competition continues.

On the other hand, Scott Aaronson at the Quantum Information Center at the University of Texas at Austin writes, “The calculation doesn’t need to be useful: much like the Wright Flyer in 1903… it only needs to prove a point.”  This is an excellent analogy, because it cannot be said that the Wright Brothers’ first flight was useful.  Their flight lasted 59 seconds, for a distance of 852 feet. At an average walking speed of 4.6 feet per second, this journey would have taken 185 seconds.  The Wright Flyer saved 2 minutes and 6 seconds over walking.

The Wright Brothers and flying cars gave wing to dreams.  The dreams that launched the Wrights were prehistoric, and the dream of a flying car arguably goes back as far as Pegasus, the Ancient Greek flying horse that went on into modern times as the emblem for an oil company and an influential car company. Once built, the machines went on to different fates.  The Wright Flyer changed the world as soon as it took off.  Flying cars remain curiosities that never even enjoyed the limited use of the autogyro or gas powered refrigerators.

The answer to why things worked out this way lies in looking at events in reverse. Ending heavier than air flight would mean giant steps backward in endeavors such as map making and transportation. Much of the way we live depends on flight, even if we avoid flying ourselves.  There is no benefit to returning to flight’s nonexistence.  By contrast, the rationale for flying cars falls apart when viewed the other way.  How many air passengers are looking down at traffic and wishing they could drive in it?  Would they like to fly more slowly, so that driving to their destinations is also an option?  Building a plane that doubles as a car or bus requires compromises without an upside.  

We can consider quantum computing in a similar way.  Did this website load too quickly?  Would a slower computer help?  A quantum leap in speed has been achieved, and it will most likely be refined and improved upon.  The impact of quantum supremacy is comparable to the Wright Flyer.  Although we still use old tools, we are in a new era.

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