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The first computer. Image source

Words have meanings. Some words have multiple meanings. Some can mean one thing when used by reasonable people, and quite another when used by the less reasonable. One of those words is supremacy.

Suppose you have something that is a bit better than the alternatives. There are many words that can be used to make the comparison. You could say it is preferable or advantageous, for example. You might just say it has more of whatever it is you want more of. None of these are likely to cause much offence.

But what if you have something that is much better than everything else? What if it blows the competition out of the water? Superior on all fronts, dominating in every way. In these cases, you need more powerful language.

This leads to a problem. There will always be those who wish to take that power for themselves. Such language will always have been used push agendas that you thoroughly disagree with. If a word becomes too associated with bigotry, does that mean we should abandon it?

This is a question currently debated by developers of quantum computers. These new computers will be so much better than normal ones, words like advantage significantly undersell their promise. They could do in an afternoon what a planet sized supercomputer would need the age of the universe to do. To sum this up in a short and snappy way, we need a word with some potency. That’s how we ended up with the term quantum supremacy.

For some people, this will immediately lead to thoughts of air supremacy. They would associate quantum computers with the speed and power of a dominant air force, while normal computers cower in their shadow. Other than the military implications, this is pretty much the impression we want people to have of quantum computers.

People might also associate it with the supremacy of a particularly good sports team, or the supremacy of parliament in certain systems of government, or some other innocuous use. None of these would pose any problems for our quantum terminology.

However, for many people the immediate association would be with white supremacy. Which would be bad.

This has prompted a significant backlash against the term. Some are using quantum advantage instead, even though it waters down the message. Others recommend quantum computational supremacy, to make sure everyone knows that it is only racism for computers. Some just preface quantum supremacy with something like the unfortunately named.

All this backlash has been by people in the quantum computation community. I’ve never seen anyone else offer an opinion. Whether or not the public actually cares about our jargon is currently a mystery. But it’s a mystery we should solve before long. Google promises to experimentally prove the awesomeness of quantum computers in a year or so, and whatever term is used at that time will probably stick for evermore.

So I bring this matter before the wise people of Medium. What do you think?

Written by

Wrangler of qubits. Drinker of tea. Father.

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