The Quantum Pontiff

An interesting interview with Christos Papadimitriou (recent winner of the Katayanagi Prize for Research Excellence) on Dr. Dobb’s Journal. On chess and backgammon:

In chess, when you play like an idiot, you always lose, so you learn. In backgammon, you can play 10 games, not play well, and win. So you think you are great but you have made a great number of mistakes. Tragically, life is closer to backgammon, because you can play a perfect game and lose!

Which made me wonder which game is the closest game to “real life?” (Okay I’ll dispense with the obvious answer which is the board game “Life.” Bzzt! Disqualified for using little pegs that are always getting lost for people. I mean those damn blue and pink pegs get in more car accidents in a typical game of “Life” than most people get into in their real life.)

Christos on quantum computation:

Another paper I like my students to read is where Feynman proposed quantum computers. I’m interested in the mathematics of quantum computing. It’s a beautiful question in mathematics, it’s a beautiful question in physics, it’s a beautiful question in computer science.

You think quantum computing is about powerful computers, but quantum computing may prove to be about testing quantum physics, to find out why we cannot build these powerful computers. Who knows? Maybe there is something fishy with the theory. One of the reasons quantum computing is so interesting is that it looks at some extremely counterintuitive predictions of quantum theory.

If building quantum computers fails on a practical engineering basis, that will be a disappointment, meaning the idea dies of a thousand cuts, it’s too difficult, we can’t afford it, we stop trying. But what would be fascinating is if there is a theoretical difficulty! There are physicists who see quantum computing as the ultimate test of quantum theory.

This brings us back to where we started this conversation, the Algorithmic Lens. In some sense, Physics looks at itself and its most prestigious theory through the Algorithmic Lens. That’s a great triumph of the algorithmic programming way of thinking.

And we wonder why Berkeley has produced so many top quantum computing theorists: maybe part of it is that even someone who doesn’t spend his life in quantum computing understands why it is so interesting (that, and, oh, say, Umesh Vazirani :) )


  1. #1 Ian Durham
    July 10, 2008

    Okay I’ll dispense with the obvious answer which is the board game “Life.”

    I often wish my real life were as simple as that damn game. I played my daughter the other day and finished the game with over a million dollars.

    But a better game model for life might turn out to be Spore…

  2. #2 Jonathan Vos Post
    July 10, 2008

    Before summer arrived, and no summerschool teaching with it, I turned a classroom into a casino to teach basic Probability to high school students who were on the edge of dropping out.

    The students heard me speak of “Game Theory” and, at my urging, seen a DVD of “A Beautiful Mind.”

    I replied to a colleague who said: “branches or types of Mathematics are only related by terminology or historical accident, akin to: ‘someone very expert in chess not having any idea how to play bridge, or a poker player having no insight into sudoku…’

    I am not expert in any of these games. I’ve only once beaten a Strong Chess Master (a tournament away from his becoming International Msster) at a chess game in front of chessplaying eyewitnesses.

    But I do happen to personally know several professional Chess, Poker, and Bridge players, including the former U.S. Women’s
    Chess Champion. They tend to be VERY good at other games.

    Similarly, athletes tend to be very good in some sports where they do not formally compete. These (chess, bridge, poker) all have common skills, involving (as do Music and Math!) the rapid, reliable, disciplined perception and generation of order, sequence, structure, pattern, symmetry, and insight into how other people see these.

    It is well-known to Chess masters that it is good for them to also play Go, as some experience on a 19×19 board makes the 8×8 board seem much more “local” and the profound difference between the Asian view of war (Go, which starts with empty territory, where you must first locate armies and fortresses and walls one stone at a time) and the European (the Chess-battlefield begins with two equal armies, arranged, face-to-face, in place).

    Note that Chess is an “open game” where, at first approximation, ALL information is right there on the board, no secrets, obvious to both players and all spectators. But, second approximation, there is bluff and deception, because of the limited time and computational capability of each player.

    Poker and bridge are “closed games” where there is information in one’s hand about cards that the other players can’t see.
    Hence reading the opponent and psychologically stressing the opponent
    are necessary skills, as is understanding probability.

    I think these games gives some insight into life.

  3. #3 Derek James
    July 10, 2008

    I think Poker captures many elements from life. There’s a fairly large random component. You have resources that are known (chips) and those that are hidden to some degree (cards). You try to maximize your payoff, which requires periodic, intentional misrepresentation. You have to pay close attention to others in order to try to discern their actual strengths and weaknesses.

    Of course, there’s usually not an element of cooperation (unless you’re doing something illegal), so in that sense it’s not like real life…but there are lots of similarities.

  4. #4 JohnQPublic
    July 10, 2008

    Trivial Pursuit or Jeopardy. So much of office life, and life in general, entails placing high value on those who appear sharp with ready summarized information, which only requires only rudimentary understanding. The ability to summarize anything into palatable bites is a very useful skill. (Executives love metaphors for technical information.) Master the surface of a very broad range of topics, be quick enough to know when to use them, and you can do well in life.

  5. #5 Geordie
    July 10, 2008

    Come on people it’s obviously Press Your Luck.

  6. #6 Radge Havers
    July 11, 2008

    Tantrix might be worth a thought. Like backgammon there’s an element of chance, but rather than racing the object is construction. It’s probably better suited than backgammon to alternate modes (puzzles, solitare, team play). And it’s visual enough that the tiles can be manipulated as art.

  7. #7 Jeff Watson
    July 12, 2008

    I find that being good at “Games” is a prerequisite for anybody who wants to trade in the markets. Although this is anecdotal, I can say that I’ve never met a long term successful trader who wasn’t good at a game like poker, chess, checkers, Go, Backgammon, or any variation of rummy. Incidently, many options traders are world class backgammon players.

    I personally like to invent little games of chance, with the odds being heavily skewed in my favor, yet appearing at first glance to be in the other guy’s favor. They are usually simple little card games that offer me a 5-16% edge that I like to play in a freeze out fashion. Freeze out works, because it lets the old man percentage allow me to grind away. In a philosophical sense, I’ve argued that even God can’t beat a game with negative expectations(God can’t beat the odds). I’ve taken a lot of heat for that one.

    Great post, by the way.


  8. #8 Walt
    July 16, 2008

    Tit for tat, tat for tit, this for that, give and get.