Can Quantum Computing Solve the Climate?

Probably, actually, yes!

This one might seem random – “what does this have to do with centrism?” – but I’m actually trying to make a very specific point: The thing about breakthroughs is you never quite know where you’re going to find them.

Take the climate. Today’s solutions for this problem are typically approaches to reducing emissions: carbon capture, carbon markets, etc.

The problem is, all the approaches in this neighborhood are going to be extremely difficult and ultimately… unsuccessful.

This is not a new revelation, of course. It’s well known that every one of these policies faces economic and political headwinds, making implementation tough to say the least. But worse than that, it’s also just too late. There’s already too much carbon in the atmosphere.

We need to figure out how to get it out of the air. And yet… we can’t. We know the math we need to solve, but existing computers would take thousands of years to churn out an answer. We’ve got time, but not that much time.

And that’s where quantum computing comes into play.

These types of problems are very, very hard to solve and study on digital computers, even super computers. But a quantum computer actually promises to be able to solve some of these problems, or help solve some of these problems, like identifying a catalyst that would allow us to more efficiently capture carbon and help solve global warming.

The reason behind this is that with traditional computers, we have to try out each potential answer one at a time. And there are trillions upon trillions of them. Probably more. That adds up fast, even with our most powerful modern processors. With a quantum computer though, you can effectively try all of them at once. The right answer simply jumps out.

From there on out, things are easy! Well, not really. We’d still have to cross several hurdles on the road to mass manufacture of carbon filtration technology. But the biggest unknown, by far, would be out of the way.

The point I’m trying to make here is that we should make no assumptions about either the nature of problems or the nature of solutions. Will quantum computing be the answer? Maybe. But I actually think it’s more likely to come from somewhere else that’s just as surprising.

History is full of examples of people finding unexpected fixes in unexpected places, and I very much expect this kind of outcome when it comes to climate change. At the end of the day, you never know when penicillin might show up in your Petri dish.

If you support an any-and-all approach, you maximize the chances that you’ll find these kinds of solutions. I call this “seeding breakthroughs.” Fund multiple avenues of problem solving wherever a solution seems remotely possible.

Sometimes we overwhelm problems with large-scale, coordinated effort. Sometimes we flank them with an individual spark of genius. Sometimes we only treat the symptoms until the problem is no longer quite so problematic. Generally, the best approach is to support a wide range of solutions that each have some non-zero chance of success. Maybe one solution will crack the problem with a unique approach. Maybe multiple solutions will align to mitigate the problem until it is barely noticeable. We can’t know unless we try.

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