35: Balaji Srinivasan - The Heretic & The Virus
Investor Balaji Srinivasan is a highly original thinker in Silicon Valley on Biotech to Blockchain and everything in between. Most recently, he was quite early in warning us about the Corona virus and was ridiculed for his efforts by many in the world of institutional sense-making. That is before people realized he was not wrong, but simply early.
In this episode Eric talks to Balaji on the topic of what it was like to see the future before it arrived and what his crystal ball suggests about what is likely to happen next. As Balaji understands our world, the Corona virus presents a complex set of challenges that will strongly discriminate between those who can pass it's tests and those who will fail them. He sees this resulting in functional Green Zones which will become dominant in the future and Red Zones which will be characterized by dysfunctional responses. Presumably this new divide will then be expected to take over from the "North-South" divide between industrialized and developing nations.
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Table of contents
Eric Weinstein: The Portal Episode 35 - Balaji Srinivasan: The Heretic and the Virus
Eric Weinstein: Hi, it’s Eric with some thoughts for this week’s audio essay on the topic of superposition. Now, to those of you in the know, superposition is an odd word in that it is the scientific concept we reach for when trying to describe the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat and the theory and philosophy of quantum measurement. We don’t yet know how to say that the cat is both dead and alive at the same time rigorously, so we fudge whatever is going on with this unfortunate feline and say that the cat and the quantum system on which its life depends are a mixture of two distinct states that are, somehow, co-mingled in a way that has defied a satisfying explanation for about a century.
Now, I’m usually loathe to appeal to such quantum concepts in everyday life, as there is a veritable industry of people making bad quantum analogies. For example, whenever you have a non-quantum system that is altered by its observation, that really has nothing to do with the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. Jane Goodall’s chimpanzees are almost certainly altered in their behavior due to her presence, but there is likely no competent quantum theorist who would analogize chimps to electrons and Goodall to an omniscient observable executing a quantum observation. Heisenberg adds nothing other than physics envy to the discussion of an entirely classical situation such as this. However, I have changed my mind in the case of superposition as I’d now like to explain.
To begin with, superposition isn’t a quantum phenomenon. For example, imagine that you’d come from Europe to Australia and had both Euros and Swiss Franks in your pockets. You might, then, be said to be in a superposition, because you have pocket change in both Euros and Franks rather than a pure state of only one currency or the other. The analogue of the physical observable, in this situation, would be something like a multiple choice question found on the landing card about the contents of your pockets. Here it is easy to see the danger of this set-up. Assuming you have there times as much value of Euros that you do in Franks, what happens when you get a question that doesn’t include your situation as an answer. What if the landing card asked, “Is all of your change in A) Euros or B) Swiss Franks?” with no other options available. Well, this, as stated, is a completely classical superposition problem having nothing to do with quantum theory.
Were you to have such a classical question asked of you like this, there would have been no way for you to answer. However, if the answer were on the multiple-choice menu, there would be no problem at all and you would give a clear answer determined by the state of your pockets. So, if the state in question isn’t on the multiple-choice menu; the classical world is forced to go mute as there is no answer determined by the system. Whereas if it is found on the list of allowable choices, the answer is, then, completely determined by the system’s state at the time that the question was asked.
Oddly, the quantum world is, in a way, exactly as deterministic as the classical one just described, despite what you may have heard to the contrary. In order to understand this, we’ll have to introduce a bit of jargon. So long as the system, now called the Hilbert space state, is on the list of answers, technically called the system of eigenvectors, corresponding to the question, now called a quantum observable, the question will return a completely deterministic answer, technically called the eigenvalue corresponding to the state eigenvector. These are, in a sense “good questions” in quantum theory, because the answer corresponding to the state of the system actually appears as one of the multiple-choice options.
So, if that is completely deterministic, well, then what happened to the famous Quantum Probability Theory and the indeterminacy we hear so much about? What if I told you that it were 100% confined to the situation which classical theory couldn’t handle either.? That is, Quantum Probability Theory only becomes relevant when you ask “bad” quantum questions which say that the system isn’t on the list of multiple choice answers. When the landing card asked if all of your change were completely in Euros or only in Franks, the classical system couldn’t answer because three times your value of Swiss Franks were held in Euros, so no answer could be determined, but if your pocket change were somehow quantum, well, then you might find that 75% of the time your pocket coins would bizarrely turn into pure Euros and would bewilderingly turn into pure Franks 25% of the time just by virtue of your being asked by the landing card. In the quantum theory, this is due to the multiple-choice answers of the so-called observable represented by the landing card question, not being well-suited to the mixed state of your pockets, in the superposition between Euros and Franks.
In other words, quantum theory gets probabilistic, only where classical theory went mute. All of the indeterminacy seems to come from asking bad multiple-choice questions in both the classical and quantum regimes in which the state of the system doesn’t fit any given answer. Quite honestly, I’ve never heard a physicist re-work the issue of quantum probabilities in just this way, so as to highlight that the probabilistic weirdness comes only from the quantum being overly solicitous and accommodating really bad questions. For some reason, they don’t like calling an observable that doesn’t have the state of the system as an allowable answer a bad question, but that is precisely why I do like it. It points out that the quantum is deterministic where the classical theory is deterministic and is only probabilistic where the classical theory is mute. This is because it is weirdly willing to answer questions that are, in a sense that can be made precise, “bad questions” to begin with.
That doesn’t get rid of the mystery, but it re-casts it so that it doesn’t sound so weird. The new question is: “Why would the quantum system overcompensate for the lousy questions imposed while the classical system seems to know not to answer?” So, why bring any of this up? Well, the first reason is that I couldn’t resist sneaking in personal reformulation of the quantum measurement problem that most people will have never considered, but the second reason is that I have come to believe we are wasting our political lives on just such superposition questions. For example, let’s see if we can solve the abortion debate problem right now on this podcast using superposition. as it is much easier than the abortion problem itself.
The abortion debate problem is that everyone agrees that, before fertilization, there is no human life to worry about, and that after a baby is born, there is no question that it has a right to live. Yet, pro-choice and pro-life activists insist on telling us that the developing embryo is either a mere bundle of cells suddenly becoming alive only when born, or a full-fledged baby the moment the sperm enters the egg. You can guess my answer here, the question of, “Is it a baby’s life or a women’s choice?” Is agreed upon by everyone before fertilization or following birth, because the observable in question has the system as one of the two multiple choice answers in those two cases.
However, during the process of embryonic development, something miraculous is taking place that we simply don’t understand scientifically. Somehow a non-sentient blastula becomes a baby by a process utterly opaque to science, which, as yet, has no mature theory of consciousness. The system in-utero is in a changing and progressing superposition tilted heavily towards not being a baby at the beginning and tilted heavily towards being a baby at the end of the pregnancy, but the problem is that we have allowed the activists, rather than the embryologists and developmental biologists, to hand us the life versus choice observable with its two terrible multiple-choice options.
If we had let the embryologists set the multiple-choice question, there would be at least 23 Carnegie stages for the embryo before you even get to fetal development, but instead of going forward from what we both know and don’t know with high confidence about the system, we are instead permanently deranged by being stuck with Schrödinger’s embryo by the activists who insist on working backward from their political objectives.
So, does this somehow solve the abortion issue? Of course not! All it does is get us to see how ridiculously transparent we are in our politics that we would allow our society to be led by those activists that would shoehorn the central scientific miracle of human development into a nutty political binary of convenience. We don’t even think to ask, “Who are these people who have left us at each other’s throats debating an inappropriate multiple choice question that can never be answered?” Well, in the spirit of The Portal, we are always looking for a way out of our perennial problems to try to find an exit, and I think that the technique here of teaching oneself to spot superposition problems in stalemated political systems brings a great deal of relief to those of us who find the perspective of naive activism a fairly impoverished world view.
The activist mindset is always trying to remove nuanced selections that might better match our world’s needs from among the multiple-choice answers until it finds a comical binary. Do you support the war on drugs? Yes or no? Are you for or against immigration? Should men and women be treated equally? Should we embrace capitalism or choose socialism? Racism, systemic problem or convenient excuse? Is China a trading partner or strategic rival? Has technology stagnated or is it, in fact, racing ahead at break-neck speed? Has feminism gone too far or not far enough? In all of these cases, there is an entire industry built around writing articles that involve replacing conversations that might progress towards answers and agreement with simple multiple-choice political options that foreclose all hope. In general, we can surmise when this has occurred, because activism generally leaves a distinct signature where the true state of a system is best represented as a superposition of the last two remaining choices that bitterly divide us handed to us by activists.
So, I will leave you with the following thought: the principle of superposition is not limited to quantum weirdness and it may be governing your life at a level you have never considered. Think about where you are most divided from your loved ones politically. Then, ask yourself, when I listen to the debates at my dinner table, am I hearing a set of multiple choice answers that sound like they were developed by scholars interested in understanding or by activists, who are pushing for an outcome. If the latter, think about whether you couldn’t make more progress with those you love by recognizing that the truth is usually in some kind of a superposition of the last remaining answers pushed by the activists, but you don’t have to accept these middlebrow binaries, dilemmas, and trilemnas. Instead try asking a new question: “If my loved ones and I trash the terms of debate foisted upon us by strangers, activists, and the news media, could we together fashion a list of multiple choice answers that we might agree contain an answer that we all could live with and better describes the state of the system?”
I mean, do you really want open or closed borders? Do you really want to talk about psilocybin and heroin in the same breath? Do you really want to claim that there is no systemic oppression or that it governs every aspect of our lives? Before long, it is my hope that you will develop an intuition that many long-running stalemated discussions are really about having our lives shoehorned by others into inappropriate binaries that only represent the state of our world as a superposition of inappropriate and simplistic answers that you never would have chosen for yourself.