If you believe in first principles thinking, you need to know some basic facts about the quantum world.
Quantum effects can be really strange. So many things we know from experiments just seem totally irrational, illogical and are downright befuddling. But understanding quantum effects can give you advantage in business. How? By empowering your ability to embrace first principles thinking.
Reasoning from first principles is a method of problem solving that involves breaking down complex problems into their most basic, foundational elements, then reassembling them from the ground up. It is a way of thinking that allows you to construct your understanding and solutions based on fundamental truths vice relying on assumptions. This approach to reasoning has been strongly endorsed by Elon Musk. But credit for the method really belongs to Aristotle, who defined a first principle as “the first basis from which a thing is known.” The approach encourages critical thinking and questioning of established beliefs and is especially important in innovating.
The essence of the first principles approach is to:
- Identify and define your first principles: the basic undeniable truths that are the building blocks of your reasoning.
- Deconstruct the problem at hand into these principles
- Reconstruct the problem from the ground up using these principles to seek the optimal solution.
Now let’s consider the role of quantum mechanics in first principles reasoning.
- Quantum mechanics is the fundamental theory in physics that provides descriptions nature at the scale of sub atomic particles. Understanding what can be known about quantum mechanics allows us to build up reasoning from the most basic level. This is the essence of first principles thinking.
- The strange world of quantum mechanics has implications across many fields. For example, it helps us understand why chemistry works the way it does, why so many mechanisms in biology must occur the way they do, and why certain design choices in microelectronics, energy science, material science and other hard engineering disciplines must be made.
- Understanding the fundamentals of quantum science can inform judgements and research into information science and engineering including quantum computing, quantum sensing and quantum security.
- Quantum mechanics also helps in first principles reasoning by the fact that it often defines classical intuition, presenting phenomena that seem to violate the principles of classical physics. This encourages a mindset that questions assumptions and looks beyond conventional wisdom, which is also a key aspect of reasoning from first principles.
- Quantum mechanics itself was the result of first principles thinking, as deep thinkers like Max Plank and Albert Einstein challenging the established norms of classical physics. So the history of quantum mechanics itself is a study in first principles reasoning.
Here are my recommendations for what to know about the strange world of quantum mechanics to inform your first principles thinking:
- Quantum Foam: This is a concept in quantum mechanics that suggests that at extremely small scales, space-time is not smooth, but “foamy”. At the quantum level temporary particles are constantly forming and vanishing. This concept was first articulated by the Manhattan project physicist John Wheeler (who is also known for popularizing the term Black Hole). Everything we can know is above quantum foam, making it the perfect place to begin reasoning from first principles.
- Entanglement: One of the most bizarre theoretical concepts and later observations of quantum theory is entanglement. It is a way that the state of two small particles can stay entangled even when separated and at a distance. The state of one of these particles can depend on the state of another. This ability of two separate objects to share a state is what Einstein colorfully called “spooky action at a distance.” Don’t ask anyone to explain it. But it has been proven to work even from Earth to a satellite in space. The challenges are that these entangled particles are very small and hard to manage, manipulate and measure (there is no indication that this can ever lead to communication at a distance, that is only seen in SciFi).
- Superposition: This principle states that a quantum particle can exist in multiple states at once until it is measured. This is a key principle in quantum computing, where quantum bits (qubits) can represent multiple states simultaneously, potentially enabling massive parallel computation.
- Tunneling: At a quantum scale, sometimes particles can appear to move across boundaries. This effect has been known to science for 100 years and is accounted for in modern microelectronics (many devices count on this feature to function). Quantum tunneling is also responsible for the nuclear fusion that powers our sun, so is a very good thing for us! This capability is important to some security devices that use quantum tunneling to generate high entropy encryption keys.
Those who are not shocked when they first come across quantum theory cannot possibly have understood it.
–Nils Bohr, Copenhagen Lecture, 1954
We might never understand why things work they way they do at a quantum scale. But over 100 years of research, repeatable experiments and high tech engineering is telling us how things work at that scale. And knowing a bit about that can inform your first principles reasoning.
For Additional Insights
- Decision Intelligence and the Intelligent Enteprise: More on reasoning and decision-making.
- The Executive’s Guide to Quantum Computing: What the board needs to know.
- The New Tech Trinity: Artificial Intelligence, BioTech, Quantum Tech: Will make monumental shifts in the world. This new Tech Trinity will redefine our economy, both threaten and fortify our national security, and revolutionize our intelligence community. None of us are ready for this. This convergence requires a deepened commitment to foresight and preparation and planning on a level that is not occurring anywhere.
- Quantum Computing and Quantum Security Sensemaking: A reference to key OODA research on all things quantum.
- The Executive’s Guide to Quantum Security: A reference to steps to take now to ensure quantum security including protecting against Harvest Now Decrypt Later attacks.
- Is Quantum Computing Ushering in an Era of No More Secrets?: Context from OODA’s Matt Devost on the very near future of quantum computing.
- What To Do About Quantum Uncertainty: Guess what, besides uncertainty at a quantum level there is great uncertainty among business and policy makers regarding Quantum Computing.
- Quantum Computing That Can Crack Modern Encryption More Than a Decade Away: When we see reports like this we wonder what qualifies the experts to say this. But in this case the experts are the National Academies of Sciences.
- Could quantum computers render current bitcoin and most blockchain cryptography powerless?: There is a worry that new algorithms that could run on quantum computing could attack blockchain and asymmetric encryption.