Schrodinger's Coin and Quantum Computing

Schrodinger's cat

A cat sits in a box along with some kind of poison that will be released based on the radioactive decay of a subatomic particle. Because these tiny particles are capable of being in multiple states at once (decaying or not decaying at the same time, that means the poison could simultaneously be released and not released. By extension, the cat could be dead and not dead.

In 1935, Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger spun this scenario. Though paradoxical, he didn't mean that cats can be simultaneously dead and alive, but that until you opened the box you'd have a cat that was simultaneously dead and alive.

When I first heard back in high school I thought of some Zen koans or stories that are equally paradoxical and maddening.  If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

Later, I read that Schrödinger was criticizing the "Copenhagen interpretation" which was the prevailing school of thought in quantum mechanics. The Copenhagen interpretation suggested that particles existed in all possible states (different positions, energies, speeds) until they were observed, at which point they collapsed into one set state. But Schrödinger thought that interpretation didn't scale up very well to objects in the visible world.

A clearer analogy for me was when I heard it explained as being like a spinning coin. While it is spinning, it can be heads or tails. We don't know what it is until it falls and stops spinning. No cats are injured in this version. 

I thought about Mr. Schrodinger's cat and about that spinning coin when I was reading something recently about quantum computing. Schrödinger's cat is often used to illustrate the concept of superposition -- the ability for two opposite states to exist simultaneously -- and unpredictability in quantum physics.

Quantum computing is about harnessing and exploiting quantum mechanics in order to process information. The computers we are used to using “bits” of zero or one. If we had a quantum computer, there would be quantum bits (qubits). The freaky Schrodinger's cat part of quantum computers is that they would perform calculations based on the probability of an object's state before it is measured. Not just 1s or 0s. That means they would have the potential to process exponentially more data compared to traditional computers.

It has been 85 years but people are still messing around with the whole cat thing. Some physicists have given Schrödinger’s cat a second box to play in. This cat lives or dies in two boxes at once in order to consider quantum entanglement. Entanglement means that observation can change the state of a distant object instantaneously - something that Einstein considered impossible and referred to as “spooky action at a distance.” 

Are we even close to creating a quantum computer? It depends on who you read

spinning topHere's a leap beyond cats and coins that came to me because I was surfing through channels on the television and saw that Christopher Nolan's film Inception. 

A character in the film returns home after a long time in the dream world and we are told that a little top that he sets into motion will keep spinning forever if he is still in the dream world. If it stops and falls over, that means he is back in reality. It's like the old pinch yourself to see if you're dreaming.

But the film has a frustrating final shot because it ends before we know what happens to the top. It wobbles but then the film ends. That ending was infuriating to most viewers. It was like the finale of The Sopranos. What happened?

Nolan once spoke at a Princeton University graduation ceremony and said that "The way the end of that film worked, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Cobb — he was off with his kids, he was in his own subjective reality. He didn’t really care anymore, and that makes a statement: perhaps all levels of reality are valid."

Nolan's point to the graduates? Don't chase dreams; chase realities because, unfortunately, "over time, we started to view reality as the poor cousin to our dreams".

Can you prove that you're not dreaming right now?

That "pinch yourself" thing isn't adequate proof. What if this is a dream that you're stuck in?  Does it matter? If it is, this dream is your reality. 

This sounds like some philosophical skepticism - that school of thought that I once had to study in school and that also sent my mind running in circles. It argues that we can't really know that anything is real. Why? Some would say because you deny the possibility of knowledge. The side I fell on as a college student was that we couldn't make that judgment of "real" because there isn't enough evidence.

That's enough circles to run around in for today. 


Even cats have been considering what Schrodinger proposed. (image via GIPHY)

Reading on Screens Revisited

1935 ebook idea
An electronic book as imagined in 1935

I recently came across an article in Smithsonian magazine that was rather deceptively titled "The iPad of 1935." The illustration above comes from that article and originally appeared in the April 1935 issue of Everyday Science and Mechanics magazine. At that time they were thinking that since it is possible to photograph books and also project them on a screen for examination, that perhaps this would be the way we would read. Their illustration is probably closer to watching a PowerPoint presentation than an iPad, but the idea of putting books on a screen is not just an idea of the 21st century.

That article made me do a search on this blog to see what I have written about ebooks. In 2012, I wrote about digital textbooks ("Can Schools Adopt Digital Textbooks By 2017?") I should have revisited that article in 2017 to see what had come to pass. In 2020, I can say that publishers, schools and students have adopted ebooks and digital textbooks, but there are still plenty of books on paper being used by students.

That 1935 contraption uses a roll of miniature film with pages as the "book." It reminds me of the microfilm readers I used as an undergraduate in the library. As the article notes: "microfilm had been patented in 1895 and first practically used in 1925; the New York Times began copying its every edition onto microfilm in 1935."

It took about 70 more years for handheld digital readers that we use to come on the scene and the transition is still taking place.

Though I have an iPad and a Kindle, my home and office are still filled with paper books and magazines. I would say that the bulk of my daily reading is done on a screen but the screen is on my phone and laptop. When I have taught college classes online or on-site, I have offered texts as ebooks when possible as an option. I still find that some students prefer a Gutenberg-style book on paper.

That 2012 post of mine referenced an article about the then Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski issuing a challenge to schools and publishers to get digital textbooks to students by 2017.

In 2012, there was a "Digital Learning Day" where there were discussions on transitioning K-12 schools to digital learning and using technology to transform how teachers teach and students learn inside and outside of the classroom. They issued "The Digital Textbook Playbook" guide which went far beyond textbooks and included information about determining broadband infrastructure for schools and classrooms, leveraging home and community broadband to extend the digital learning environment and understanding necessary device considerations along with some "lessons learned" from school districts that had engaged in successful transitions to digital learning. The 2012 playbook can be downloaded and it's interesting to see what has changed in the 8 years since it was written. Those changes would include a new administration with different objectives from the Obama era.

The playbook defines a "true digital textbook" as "an interactive set of learning content and tools accessed via a laptop, tablet, or other advanced device." Being that this effort was on K-12, the perspectives of key users was students, teachers, and parents.

 

Higher Education 2040 Looks Very Different

Serendipity35 crossed over the 14 year anniversary on February 2 this year as people were predicting the American football Supr Bowl and predicting the remaining weeks of winter based on a groundhog or the traditions of Candlemas. Usually, I look back on the previous year on this blog's anniversary, but this year I decided to look ahead.

2024Looking ahead and making predictions is a December and January tradition. I feel like most of the time those predictions don't come true, but we often don't look back to check them. In education and especially in technology, it's hard to predict what is coming in the year ahead. That is why I had to look at an article I saw that was titled "Five Predictions About U.S. Higher Education In 2040."

2040? It's hard enough to see ahead to the end of 2020. So the author of that piece, Sally Blount, is either crazy, has Nostradamus DNA, realizes that no one is going to check back on her predictions in 20 years, or she has analyzed real data.

She is a contributor to Forbes, former dean of New York University’s Stern Undergraduate College of Business and seems to specialize now in careers. She analyzed the data and marketplace of the U.S. post-secondary education along with Larry Shulman, senior partner emeritus at the Boston Consulting Group and they came up with 5 "not-so-crazy predictions" about how the U.S. market for four-year bachelor’s degrees will likely look in 20 years.

One prediction is that half of those college degrees will be awarded to students who have spent three years or less on a college campus. How will that happen? More courses per semester? Trimester years rather than bimester years? No. It's based on the number of college-level courses (Advanced Placement), tests and enrollments in college-level online courses that have been expanding "outside credits" by about 5-10% per year over the last decade. 

Their second prediction plays off #1. With three-year bachelor’s degrees becoming more of the new normal, private colleges and universities offering 4-year degrees will close. Less time on campus means fewer tuition dollars. Add slowing enrollment growth and more pressure to hold down tuition costs and they calculate a 30-40% contraction among private non-profits over the next 20 years. If you consider that as many as 20 private colleges closed in the past year and that trend just stays flat, for the next 20 years, that's about 500 schools disappearing.

And the third prediction follows those two by saying that the for-profit market for college education will account for 20% or more of college credits (not degrees) each year. That ties into prediction #1 about outside credits. We thought back in 2012 that MOOCs would make this happen. They peaked, leveled off, dropped some and are now coming back in a less "open" and free fashion. Some of the alternatives the article offers are quality virtual education in key content areas (for example, core courses in the social sciences), and others offering very specialized experiential learning programs (gap years; semesters abroad) with the focus on credits, not degrees.

Blount points to these firms (not colleges) as not needing the same infrastructure and other overhead typical of traditional higher education. This is not news colleges want to hear, but it is news they need to consider.

Blount points to NCES data, saying that for-profit degree providers currently register about one million students (7% of U.S. enrollments) each year. Despite a downturn among for-profit educators after a growth spurt from 1995-2010, private equity firms have been acquiring both struggling providers and long-time providers like DeVry University and the University of Phoenix and will take advantage of the market opportunity in offering credits.

Another prediction is that the gap between elites and non-elites in the college marketplace will only grow wider. Though high-demand schools won’t face the same pressure to accept outside credits, the boards and faculty at many of these schools will explicitly move to a three-year campus residency standard to create more slots for students. 

Finally, they predict that former college campuses will be bought by companies to be used as sites for-profit education, senior living facilities, healthcare centers, corporate campuses, residential learning sites, camps, training facilities, etc. In March 2018 Bloomberg reported that Chinese companies have already purchased at least four campuses in New England. 

And 5 conclusions:

  1. The restructuring of the U.S. higher education system is in motion
  2. Parents preparing to send children to college should make use of all opportunities available for your students to earn college credits while in high school or through a gap year experience between high school and college. 
  3. Looking at a private college? Ask about their policies for granting college credit for prior coursework and early graduation options
  4. Schools should consider metropolitan settings for adjunct teaching talent and employment options for dual-career faculty couples, gaining scale and sharing costs through potential mergers, roll-ups and other consortia options.
  5. Be realistic about the coming headwinds and prepare to offer the best possible array of educational options for future students. 

 

Tik Tok and To Tok

bannedA few recent banned apps in the news should be of interest to educational institutions where students may very well be using them - and even some schools themselves may be using them. Here are two summaries from The Newsworthy podcast:

The U.S.. Navy banned TikTok from government-issued smartphones. They say the video-sharing app could be a cybersecurity threat. The Navy didn't expand on the reason, but we do know the U.S. has opened a national security review into TikTok’s China-based parent company ByteDance. TikTok hasn’t commented but has said before it uses U.S. rules.
Read more: Reuters

And then I read that ToTok (not to be confused with TikTok) has been banned from Google and Apple’s app stores. The messaging app appears to have millions of downloads, but the government of the United Arab Emirates allegedly uses it to track locations and conversations. If you have it, experts say you should uninstall it.
Read more: NYTWired