#2 - JRL 7020
From: "Gideon Lichfield" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Delivered-To: mailing list email@example.com
Date: Thu, 16 Jan 2003
Subject: Gideon-Moscow #22 - The Quantum Theory of Putin
The Quantum Theory of Putin
The other day, among a small group of Russia observers who had gotten momentarily bored with talking about Russia, someone asked me to explain quantum computing. Those present apparently found it helpful when I said that a good analogy to a quantum computer was Vladimir Putin. Mutatis mutandis, if you have trouble understanding Putin, maybe you can make sense of him as a quantum computer.
In a normal computer, the memory is made up of a huge array of "bits", tiny switches that are either off or on, and thus represent either zero or one in the memory. In a quantum computer they are replaced by quantum bits, or "qubits". A qubit is an even tinier switch. It could, for instance, be something like an atom in a magnetic field that only allows the atom to point in one of two directions. When you observe it, it will always be pointing in one of those directions - so, like a normal computer bit, it will represent either zero or one. But when you're not observing it, it drifts off into something called a "superposition of states".
It's hard to describe what a superposition of states is. It doesn't correspond to the categories of everyday experience. Those categories are the "classical" states, zero and one. They are the only descriptive labels we have because any interaction with a qubit, any attempt to observe it, brings it back to zero or one. What's more, thanks to the so-called Uncertainty Principle, until you do observe the qubit you cannot tell which result you will get. The closest you can come to describing a superposition of states without getting technical is to say that it is somehow both zero and one, and neither, and somewhere in between.
However, the superposition does determine the probability that the qubit will be zero or one when you look at it. One way to learn something about the superposition, therefore, is to repeat the same test on the same qubit many times. Some of the tests will give you zero; in others you get one. The number of times you get each result allows you to piece together some knowledge of the superposition - that is, of what the qubit is really like.
Vladimir Putin is rather like a qubit. Some people in the West look at him and see a total Zero: a reactionary, authoritarian enemy of human rights and freedom of expression, carrying on a vicious war in Chechnya. Others see a great One: a reformer who supports free markets and has shifted Russia's geopolitical stance firmly towards the West. Some find this puzzling. They think he has a moral double standard, or is schizoid, or irrational.
In fact Putin, like a quantum superposition of states, does not correspond to the categories of everyday experience. Not Western everyday experience. The West is used to classical labels like reformist and reactionary. Putin's observable behaviour, like a qubit's, can fall into either category. This leaves people with the uncomfortable feeling that he is somehow both reformist and reactionary, and neither, and somewhere in between. The truth is that, just as zero and one are inadequate markers to describe the true nature of a qubit, reformist and reactionary are poor concepts for the true nature of Putin.
People who have observed him for a while, like scientists observing a qubit, have seen him in one state or the other enough times to piece together some knowledge of what Putin is really like. They understand that both kinds of behaviour are perfectly self-consistent aspects of the same person. Putin sees market reform and rapprochement with the West as being in Russia's interests, because he believes that statist economics and non-alignment would hinder her development. He also sees a powerful central government, merciless crackdown on separatism and limiting of dissent as being in Russia's interests, because he believes that too much liberalism would threaten her integrity and ability to function. Sometimes this combination of factors produces zero; other times it leads to one.
The difference between quantum computing and quantum comPutin is that our categories for observing a qubit are constrained by the laws of physics, which are immutable. You cannot observe a superposition of states without collapsing it into zero or one, and the result of the observation is inherently unpredictable. Our categories for observing Putin, though, are constrained only by preconceptions, which can be broken. We don't need to collapse him into a reformer or a reactionary. It is possible to look directly at the heart of the Russian state, observe its true nature, and make some predictions about its behaviour as a result.
Endnote: If you found this helpful in explaining quantum computing, you are a Russia specialist. If you found it useful to understanding Russia, you are a physicist. If you merely found it baffling and pointless, I apologise for the inconvenience.
- Disclaimer: these opinions are mine entirely. The Economist does not endorse them. - Previous bulletins are at groups.yahoo.com/group/gideonlichfield - To unsubscribe, send a blank email to firstname.lastname@example.org