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)

Social Listening in Higher Education

social media sitesSocial listening (or social media monitoring) is paying attention to  your brand's social media channels for:
- customer feedback
- direct mentions of your brand
- discussions regarding specific keywords, topics
- those same things in your competitors and industry

For higher education institutions, not doing social listening is the equivalent of not listening to students (both potential and active), faculty and staff comments about your school. Some people refer to this as "conversational research" because it is kind of like listening in on other people's conversations about you - which in real life is hard to resist.

Of course, monitoring alone isn't of much value if it is not followed by an analysis to gain insights that you can act on. Though a starting place can be a simple "vanity search" on the name of your school, most colleges are using social listening tools that can filter the data into more granular grouping conversations. That could be geographical locations, online channels (Twitter, Facebook, blogs, forums, etc.), positivity, recency, language, and by specific groups based on sex, age and many other demographics.

Social listening is also a more advanced form of market research that can identify opportunities for courses, majors and new content creation or the amplification of existing content.  For example, comparing the top topics from social listening results to the top topics from a content audit can aid marketers in identifying opportunities to create content that will resonate with their audience.

The search function on networks like Instagram allows for hashtags, so my university would monitor #NJIT, but would also follow #highered #engineering #architecture #STEM and other tags.

It is estimated that there are about 80 million online sources for mentions. Higher education conversations occur in places like news articles, review sites, Reddit, all the big social networks and also higher ed focused sites like College Confidential which is self-described as "The World's Largest College Forum."

Social listening data about peer institutions is "competitive intelligence" and considered to be "brand benchmarking." It is important for admissions marketing, but also for reputation management. This becomes critical such as when there is a campus crisis that requires an instantaneous response.




Birds, Social Media and Scale-free Correlation

I wrote elsewhere about the beauty of the flocking of starlings that is called murmuration. Their murmurations that look like swirling clouds that pulsate, twist and get wider and thinner are intriguing to watch, but how do the birds do it?

I read online that this can be caused by a threat, such as a raptor nearby, but I have seen them flock while walking in a woods and in my backyard trees without any threats seen. In fact, I learned many years ago that if they were roosting in trees nearby and I clapped loudly they would usually take off. Maybe a loud clap sounds like a gun.

Beyond the beauty and wonder of the murmurations, there is interest among scientists who don't normally pay attention to birds by computer scientists and physicists. They are interested in how group behavior spontaneously arises from many individuals at once. Schools of fish are another group behavior studied.

Researchers call this "scale-free correlation." The studies indicate that, surprisingly, flocks of birds are never led by a single individual. You probably have seen flocks of geese that seem to have a "leader," but flocking is actually governed by the collective actions of all of the flock members. Watching these murmurations, as opposed to the straight-ahead flight of a flock of geese flying in formation seems so fluid that it approaches magic.


Information moving across the flock so quickly and with nearly no degradation is something I might talk about in communication courses as a high signal-to-noise ratio. Other communication terms that enter into murmuration study include scale-free correlation and effective perceptive range. Those terms can be simply explained as the ways that allow a starling on one side of the flock to respond to what others are sensing all the way across the flock.

A study on starling flocks led by George Young at Princeton determined that starlings in large flocks consistently coordinate their movements with their seven nearest neighbors. This immediately made me think of relationships online, especially in social media.

One thing that comes to mind is Dunbar's number which is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. That number was proposed in the 1990s by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who found a correlation between primate brain size and average social group size. By studying primates and sing the average human brain size, he proposed that humans can comfortably maintain 100-200 (often averaged out at 150) stable relationships. 

That number seems too high to me in real life but it might make sense with social media where words like stable, relationship and friends have other meanings.

That Princeton study also found that the shape of the flock, rather than the size, has the largest effect on the 7 number. It's like playing that game of Telephone. When one person passes a message along to the next person, who repeats it to another and so on, the message degrades as the size of the group increases. The starlings are playing telephone only with their seven nearest neighbors. They have made the shape of their group different, despite the large size of the flock.

I wonder if the studies of starlings might be extrapolated to explain social media behaviors. I may have 600 friends on Facebook, but I think that I "shape" my group of close friends much smaller, and that group connects me to other smaller groups within that 600. I use lists on Facebook, for example, one comprised of poets. (Lists is a feature that is not really promoted by Facebook these days.)  I really only have direct and active communication with about a dozen of them, but the group has almost a hundred members.

How starlings achieve such a strong correlation still remains mostly a mystery.  I suspect that social media networks are also researching these kinds of correlations.

Wikipedia, Ants and Stigmergy

herring swarm

Swarming herring

I like to discover new words, new fields of study - new things in general. My new one for today is STIGMERGY. According to Wikipedia (an apt source or the definition, as I will explain) is stigmergy is a "mechanism of indirect coordination, through the environment, between agents or actions.” That is not a very clear definition.

The concept of stigmergy has been used to analyze self-organizing activities. Those activities cover a wide area: social insects, social media, robotics, web communities, and the wider human society.

One principle of stigmergy is that the trace left in the environment by an action stimulates the performance of a next action, by the same or a different agent. This can explain the way an ant colony operates. It can also explain how Wikipedia articles are created and changed.

Social insects, like ants and bees, have long been a model of collaboration. Global knowledge sharing through asynchronous collaboration is a newer example. I believe I may have heard this word a or concept more than a decade ago when "Web 2.0" was a new and much-talked-about idea. Now, I hardly ever hear Web 2.0 mentioned - and that's not because we got past it and into Web 3.0.

The word is not all that new. It was coined in 1959 by French biologist Pierre-Paul Grassé in reference to termite behavior, from the Ancient Greek stigma, "mark”, “sign" + ergon "work”, “action."

You might hear the word used in a conversation about swarm intelligence. Swarm intelligence (SI) is the collective behavior of decentralized, self-organized systems, natural or artificial and it is employed in work on artificial intelligence and applications such as cellular robotic systems. It has been studied in the natural world in ant colonies, bird flocking, hawks hunting, animal herding, bacterial growth, fish schooling and the somewhat scary world of microbial intelligence.

The World-Wide Web is the first stigmergic communication medium for humans. The earlier telephone and even email don't count as stigmergic communication since they are only readable by the people on either end. Stigmergic communication means the messages are readable by everyone. And radio and TV don't fit the definition because they are read-only mediums for most people (until the Web emerges and the read/write of Web 2.0 takes hold). 

Wikipedia with its millions of contributors is an example of stigmergy. Its editors are a good example of how these traces of articles and edits left in the wiki environment stimulate the performance of a next action, by the same person or a different person(s).

I discovered (or possibly rediscovered) stigmergy from an episode of the podcast with guests Katherine Maher, the executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation and Clint Penick, an ant researcher and assistant research professor in the Biomimicry Center at Arizona State University.


"Stigmergy as a universal coordination mechanism I: Definition and components"