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Theoretical physicist Chiara Marletto: ‘The universal constructor could revolutionise civilisation’ | Physics

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Chiara Marletto is a research fellow at Wolfson College, University of Oxford. Her research is in theoretical physics – especially quantum computation, thermodynamics and information theory. Her broader interests include theoretical biology, epistemology and Italian literature. The Science of Can and Can’t: A Physicist’s Journey Through the Land of Counterfactuals attempts to forward a new foundational basis for physics. It is her first non-academic book.

You argue for a radically different approach to physics, which you call the science of can and can’t. What does that mean?
It’s a new mode of explanation. Since Newton, traditional physics has been using laws of motion, describing how objects move in space and time – what happens to an apple if you set it in motion in this or that way. With one exception: thermodynamics. The laws of thermodynamics prescribe the impossibility of perpetual motion; by doing so, they put powerful constraints on all laws of motion – those known and those yet to be known. Constructor theory follows the same logic, but it extends to a much broader context. We express all fundamental laws as constraints about what transformations are possible and impossible. This apparently simple switch is very powerful. For example, it can capture entities that traditional laws of motion cannot handle exactly: information, the physics of life, and even the mind.

For much of the past century a debate has raged in physics about how to reconcile quantum theory and general relativity. Is your book a step towards an answer to that question?
The science of can and can’t is at a deeper level than general relativity and quantum theory. It was proposed by quantum computing pioneer David Deutsch to expand on the quantum theory of computation. Like the latter, it consists of deeper physical principles – guidelines for consistently putting together different laws of motion, such as quantum theory and general relativity, while still preserving their respective core features. So it provides key new tools to help with that question. And that’s good. It’s like with Covid: you want to try all possible ways to solve the problem.

Many scientists have explored complex theories, like string theory, as a means of bridging these two apparently irreconcilable worlds. Why don’t you mention that kind of theoretical physics?
My research isn’t into finding a candidate to merge general relativity and quantum theory, so those proposals didn’t fit the focus of the book. I think one difficulty with them is that they find it hard to provide testable predictions. The science of can and can’t is helpful here, because it provides new paths to testable predictions, even in domains relevant to quantum gravity.

You talk about the “counterfactual” in the book. What do you mean by that term?
The way I think about counterfactuals is specific to physics. Counterfactual statements refer to what is possible or what is impossible, as opposed to what happens. Take Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle: it’s impossible to build a perfect measurer of both position and velocity for an electron. It’s not about the fact that a perfect measurer will not happen given a particular initial condition; Heisenberg says that it can’t happen at all, no matter what the initial condition. That’s a much stronger requirement.

Would you say your book was as much about the philosophy of science as it is an argument for a particular kind of physics?
It has lots of philosophy in it. I would say the best physics arguments are very philosophical. But the book is primarily about physics.

You argue against reductionism, the idea that everything in the universe can be reduced to the dynamics of elementary particles. Is there any danger of the supernatural creeping into an anti-reductionist conception of things?
I think there’s this misconception that the only way to remove the supernatural from our explanations is to reduce everything to microscopic dynamical laws and initial conditions. That is simply one possible level of explanation. But there are other things that are also explainable in scientific terms, without appealing to the supernatural, but they can’t be reduced to that level of explanation. An example is the laws of computation: they aren’t microscopic laws of motion, but they are compatible with them. They’re not saying that computers are magic: they are physical laws that capture some phenomena in nature, at a different explanatory level. If you stick solely to microscopic laws, you will miss those regularities in nature that allow for classical and quantum computers.

What is the relationship between quantum computing and quantum theory? Which is leading the other?
Quantum theory came first, historically. But in the 80s, some scientists realised that the perplexing aspects of quantum theory actually made a lot more sense in relation to computation theory. It turned out that by studying the properties of the universal quantum computer – a theoretical development of the Turing machine – we could actually understand quantum theory much better. So I regard the theory of quantum computation as more fundamental because it captures the (counterfactual) foundations of quantum theory.

Chiara Marletto at Oxford science dept
Marletto outside the University of Oxford physics department. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

What do you imagine might be the practical applications of the science of can and can’t?
The most spectacular application is the universal constructor, a machine that can be programmed to perform not just all possible computations, but all physical transformations that are allowed by the laws of physics. It’s an all-powerful 3D printer. There could be an era, far in the future, where the universal constructor is part of our lives as computers are now; this could revolutionise our civilisation.

You’re talking about extraordinary computational power. Are you anxious about where such power might lead as we enter the age of artificial intelligence?
Yes, I think as a scientist you do have these worries. But I place great value in the knowledge that humanity can create, and what I’m hoping is that as we make progress in science, our society can also make progress to look out for potential problems that might come out of new science applications, and solve them.

How far away are we from quantum computers becoming reliable working computers?
Closer than ever, but we don’t know how far. The initial goal of building the universal quantum Turing machine has been subdivided into smaller goals of building special purpose quantum computers that can address specific tasks, one at a time – cryptography is an example. These quantum technologies are already here and can be used in all sorts of fields, from engineering to biology and medicine.

Physics is traditionally a very male-dominated field. Was that a discouraging image when you were deciding to enter the field?
When choosing physics I didn’t feel that there was a problem, because my parents empowered me. They always treated me as an individual, so the way I interact with the world is not primarily through the fact that I happen to be a woman. I’m a scientist and I’m interested in physics, that’s all. Sometimes I’ve encountered residual incredulity about the fact that there are women in physics. But if we persist at it, a culture shift will occur. Girls will then realise they can do anything they want (provided it’s allowed by the laws of physics).

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Privacy proves elusive in Google’s Privacy Sandbox • The Register

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Google’s effort to build a “Privacy Sandbox” – a set of technologies for delivering personalized ads online without the tracking problems presented by cookie-based advertising – continues to struggle with its promise of privacy.

The Privacy Sandbox consists of a set of web technology proposals with bird-themed names intended to aim interest-based ads at groups rather than individuals.

Much of this ad-related data processing is intended to occur within the browsers of internet users, to keep personal information from being spirited away to remote servers where it might be misused.

So, simply put, the aim is to ensure decisions made on which ads you’ll see, based on your interests, take place in your browser rather than in some backend systems processing your data.

Google launched the initiative in 2019 after competing browser makers began blocking third-party cookies – the traditional way to deliver targeted ads and track internet users – and government regulators around the globe began tightening privacy rules.

The ad biz initially hoped that it would be able to develop a replacement for cookie-based ad targeting by the end of 2021.

But after last month concluding the trial of its flawed FLoC – Federated Learning of Cohorts – to send the spec back for further refinement and pushing back its timeline for replacing third-party cookies with Privacy Sandbox specs, Google now acknowledges that its purportedly privacy-protective remarketing proposal FLEDGE – First Locally-Executed Decision over Groups Experiment – also needs a tweak to prevent the technology from being used to track people online.

On Wednesday, John Mooring, senior software engineer at Microsoft, opened an issue in the GitHub repository for Turtledove (now known as FLEDGE) to describe a conceptual attack that would allow someone to craft code on webpages to use FLEDGE to track people across different websites.

That runs contrary to its very purpose. FLEDGE is supposed to enable remarketing – for example, a web store using a visitor’s interest in a book to present an ad for that book on a third-party website – without tracking the visitor through a personal identifier.

Michael Kleber, the Google mathematician overseeing the construction of Privacy Sandbox specs, acknowledged that the sample code could be abused to create an identifier in situations where there’s no ad competition.

“This is indeed the natural fingerprinting concern associated with the one-bit leak, which FLEDGE will need to protect against in some way,” he said, suggesting technical interventions and abuse detection as possible paths to resolve the privacy leak. “We certainly need some approach to this problem before the removal of third-party cookies in Chrome.”

In an email to The Register, Dr Lukasz Olejnik, independent privacy researcher and consultant, emphasized the need to ensure that the Privacy Sandbox does not leak from the outset.

It will all be futile if the candidates for replacements are not having an adequate privacy level on their own

“Among the goals of Privacy Sandbox is to make advertising more civilized, specifically privacy-proofed,” said Olejnik. “To achieve this overarching goal, plenty of changes must be introduced. But it will all be futile if the candidates for replacements are not having an adequate privacy level on their own. This is why the APIs would need to be really well designed, and specifications crystal-clear, considering broad privacy threat models.”

The problem as Olejnik sees it is that the privacy characteristics of the technology being proposed are not yet well understood. And given the timeline for this technology and revenue that depends on it – the global digital ad spend this year is expected to reach $455bn – he argues data privacy leaks need to be identified in advance so they can be adequately dealt with.

“This particular risk – the so-called one-bit leak issue – has been known since 2020,” Olejnik said. “I expect that a solution to this problem will be found in the fusion of API design (i.e. Turtledove and Fenced Frames), implementation level, and the auditing manner – active search for potential misuses.

“But this particular issue indeed looks serious – a new and claimed privacy-friendly solution should not be introduced while being aware of such a design issue. In this sense, it’s a show-stopper, but one that is hopefully possible to duly address in time.” ®

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Government plans €10m in funding for green and digital business projects

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The Government and Enterprise Ireland are providing two funds to regional Irish businesses in a bid to help them transition to a greener, digital economy.

The Government has today (29 July ) announced it will provide €10m in funding through Enterprise Ireland to projects supporting digitalisation and the transition to a green economy.

The Regional Enterprise Transition Scheme, worth €9.5m, will provide grant funding to regional and community-based projects focused on helping enterprises to adapt to the changing economic landscape due to Covid-19 and Brexit.

Leo Clancy, CEO, Enterprise Ireland said: “The Regional Enterprise Transition Scheme is aimed at supporting regional development and the regional business eco-system, helping to create and sustain jobs in the regions impacted by Covid-19.”

Grants of up to €1.8m or 80pc of project cost are available to businesses. The projects should aim to address the impact of Covid-19 and improve the capability and competitiveness of regional enterprises.

The call for the Regional Enterprise Transition Scheme will close on 8 September 2021. The successful projects will be announced in October and all funding will be provided to the successful applicants before the end of the year.

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A separate funding scheme, the €500,000 Feasibility Study fund, will provide financial support to early-stage regional enterprise development projects.

Launching the funding schemes, Minister of State for Trade Promotion, Digital and Company Regulation, Robert Troy TD said the funds would “help stimulate transformational regional projects to support enterprises embrace the opportunities of digitalisation, the green economy as well as navigate the changed landscape arising from Covid-19.”

Minister of State for Business, Employment and Retail, Damien English TD commented at the launch that the funds would help “build Covid-19 and Brexit resilience and enable applicants to support enterprises and SMEs to respond to recent economic and market challenges which also includes the transition to a low carbon economy, digital transformation and smart specialisation.”

The Feasibility Fund is open to new projects, with grants available of up to €50,000 or 50pc of project cost and will allow promoters to test their project concept and deliver virtual or site-based solutions to their target audience.

Applications for the Feasibility Fund close on 1st October 2021.

For more information and details on how to apply for the funds, see here and here.

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CEOs told to ‘think before they tweet’ after Just Eat spat with Uber | Twitter

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Chief executives are being warned to “think twice before they tweet” after the boss of takeaway company Just Eat Takeaway was told his Twitter spat with Uber threatened to undermine the firm’s reputation.

Jitse Groen this week became the latest in a growing list of chief executives to be rebuked by customers, investors and even regulators over ill-judged tweets.

Cat Rock Capital Management, an activist investor which has a 4.7% stake in Just Eat, highlighted Groen’s Twitter battle with Uber boss Dara Khosrowshahi as an example of outbursts that damaged the brand. The investor said Groen’s tweets had partly led to the firm being “deeply undervalued and vulnerable to takeover bids at far below its intrinsic value”.

Earlier this year Groen had a rant at financial analysts on Twitter, claiming that “some can’t even do basic maths”. He tweeted that he was “amazed how bad these analysts have become … All of them mix up definitions. It’s unbelievable.”

Brand and marketing expert Mark Borkowski said Groen’s case highlighted the difficulty executives face when trying to engage with customers on the platform.

“Everyone sees Twitter as a huge marketing opportunity that can drive a business forward, and it really can,” Borkowski said. “But these bosses must stop and think twice before they tweet, as just one misjudged tweet can send their share price plunging.”

Possibly the most expensive tweets ever sent were posted by Elon Musk, the maverick boss of electric car company Tesla, in 2018. The US Securities and Exchange Commission fined Musk and Tesla $20m each after he tweeted that he had “funding secured” to take the company private at $420 a share. The regulator said the tweet, which sent Tesla’s share price up by as much as 13%, violated securities law. As part of the settlement, Musk was ordered to step down as Tesla’s chairman.

Musk’s tweets continued to anger some investors. Pirc, an influential adviser to shareholders including the UK’s local authority pension funds, last year recommended that investors voted against Musk’s re-election to the Tesla board because his tweets posed “a serious risk of reputational harm to the company and its shareholders”.

Pirc said his controversial outbursts on Twitter had cost Tesla millions of dollars in settlements, but Musk easily won the vote, and has continued to tweet several times a day to his 59 million followers.

“Twitter is all about personality,” Borkowski said. “While Musk’s tweets can be very controversial, they fit with his brand. Twitter is perfect for renegades, mavericks and disruptor brands. It’s much harder for well-established brands with solid reputations, if something goes wrong for them they risk damage to their hard-earned brand.

“People now think that to run a successful business, you have to be on social media and every brand has to have a Twitter account,” he said. “The chief executives see that the bosses of their rivals have a Twitter profile, and they feel they have to have one too.”

Borkowski said some bosses have been very successful at building a presence and personality on Twitter, and using their platforms to promote social issues such as LGBTQ+ rights and the Black Lives Matter movement (as well as promote their brand and products).

James Timpson, the chief executive of cobbler Timpson, this week celebrated passing 100,000 followers on his account on which he weaves photos of his colleagues working in shops with posts tackling tax avoidance and prisoner reform.

This week, he responded to Boris Johnson’s proposal to create “fluorescent-jacketed chain gangs” of people found guilty of antisocial behaviour with a tweet suggesting offenders should be helped into work instead.

Tim Cook, the chief executive of Apple, has won praise for using Twitter to successfully pressure the governor of Indiana into revising proposed legislation that had threatened to allow discrimination against gay people on religious grounds.

Researchers at Harvard Business School and Duke University said Cook “effectively framed the debate using social media at a time when opinions were being formed and the impact went beyond the political”.

Borkowski suggested that before chief executives tweet they should “consider whether they have the personality and temperament to get the tone right each time”.

“There is nothing more inelegant than a chief executive going after rivals publicly on Twitter,” he said.

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It was exactly that sort of behaviour that Cat Rock had accused Groen of undertaking. When Uber Eats announced earlier this year that it would take on Just Eat in Germany, Groen lashed out in a tweet directed at Khosrowshahi, accusing him of “trying to depress our share price”.

Khosrowshahi replied that perhaps Groen should “pay a little less attention to your short term stock price and more attention to your Tech and Ops”. That sparked Groen to reply “thank you for the advice, and then if I may .. Start paying taxes, minimum wage and social security premiums before giving a founder advice on how he should run his business”.

Alex Captain, Cat Rock’s founder, said: “The response should not happen on Twitter. It should happen on a credible forum with the facts, data, and analysis that the company has at its disposal.”

A Just Eat spokesperson said: “Just Eat Takeaway.com has a regular dialogue with all its shareholders and we take all their views very seriously.”



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