Computing With Quantum Cats by John Gribbin (book review).

Before you ask, this book has nothing to do with pet cats, be they unknowingly alive or dead in a Schrödinger box, but it certain has a big splash of quantum mechanics and the transition of our current computer technology to using something smaller to do more functions faster. In other words, we are at the dawn of the next advances in computers, where things are done at atomic level. John Gribbin’s book ‘Computing With Quantum Cats’ with the suitable sub-title ‘From Colossus To Quibits’ begins with the exploration of the history of computers. Having reviewed a few books on this subject now, it seems compulsory to brief the reader on this, just in case someone has missed out. To be fair, Gribbin does a good concise version of this history and, indeed, looks at other factors like the design.


Just in case you didn’t know, in the UK, Alan Turing came up with the maths for code-breaking and Tom Flowers created Colossus, the earliest fast computer, using vacuum tubes rather than cogs to run the calculations. These early computers were monster room size but they revolutionised the world. When you remember early SF writers had similar sized computers, it was largely because no one could visualise that small silicon chip that could contain all that functioning power because they hadn’t been created yet. I mean, that would really have been far-fetched, wouldn’t it? Without these two men, we might have had computers eventually and definitely a prolonged World War Two but they made the most significant breakthroughs. These days, they would have been celebrity stars for their achievements and not nearly forgotten. As both were involved in Bletchley Park’s code-breaking which was kept secret for decades after, being closed-mouthed themselves kept it all hush-hush.

In American, John von Neumann and his involvement with IBM built upon this and instead of tickertape being used to program computers, they used cards instead, which at least made it harder to tear. All these moves were used towards telecommunication oddly enough. Computers like ENIAC, the first electronic computer after Colossus, were still huge sized. In the UK, we had EDVAC which did similar functions. Gribbin points out in an aside chapter that Moore’s Law where computers advance every three years was never likely to last because there would be a limit to how much more we can improve current computers.

A lot of this book goes into quantum mechanics again, mostly from the history aspect, but without it, the implications for use in a quantum computer would be harder to explain. Put in simple terms, the placement of a single electron to give binary code is all that’s really needed. For those of you who are computer savvy, that makes binary code possible and a check-sum to ensure accuracy. Looking objectively, this means a massive RAM or memory space in a tiny space which if you multiply up, it’s no wonder it can do massive calculations quickly. Gribbin pointed out at the end of the book that the first quantum computers are already out there now and working and like their forebears, are large room size at the moment. He further points out that won’t last long when you compare to the size of computers and mobile phones today. It does make me wonder if the RAM aspect could be hooked up to current computer technology but I’m sure someone is already thinking of doing that.

There are a lot of SF references made. I still think the answer ‘42’ in ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy’ was an error message though. The aspects relating to teleportation by quantum entanglement works simply by destroying at one point and reconstructing at another, which essentially means you can never have duplicates. Whether it will ever be done at the macro-level is anyone’s guess and processing power. Wouldn’t that need a quantum computer? There is also some conjecture with Bryan Josephson who thinks, contrary to other scientists, that quantum entanglement might go some way towards explaining telepathy. Personally, I think I would be approaching synergy given the choice, that is events being drawn together first because that looks like entanglement to me and at least being able to check off if that was possible.

I think there’s enough in here to bring you up to date with quantum computers and the possibilities beyond code-breaking. If you go back to how the computer you’re using here evolved, who would have thought of the gaming industry it created. For us SF writers, I think we have an advantage over our predecessors as we’ve seen where things can go. The best way to start thinking is what could you do with unlimited RAM to do calculations. If this is directed even into games, I could well believe a true holodeck would be possible and I haven’t even started thinking hard yet.

GF Willmetts

March 2014

(pub: Prometheus Books. 299 page illustrated indexed small hardback. Price: $28.95 (US). ISBN: 978-1-61614-921-5. Ebook: Price: $12.99 (US),
£17.49 (UK). 
ISBN: -78-1-61614-922-2)

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Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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