The Roads Not Taken

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Many paths diverged in a wood
Entangled, I could travel as each goeth
But collapse at the end of only the best,
Set forth and traveled each as far as I could
To where each lead, past the undergrowth

Hiked them all, starting just as fair
But finding one had the better claim
Of the greenest grass and wanting wear
After passing far enough from there,
None was at all the same

And all that morning only one trail lay
In leaves no step had trodden black
I had no care for another day
Knowing how way interferes with way,
I never have to look back

I chose my path with a Psi(gh),
Somewhere ages and ages hence
Many trails diverged in a wood and I,
Regretted the method I chose by,
Evading destructive interference

Authors Note: This is the lead into Noa Powers, a story about free will and qu-peeps (quantum people).

Noa Powers

Reading Time: 17 minutes

Article from The Full Court Press:

The Quantum Spin: Noa Powers Entangled with Will Power and Psi Co.

Closing arguments finished in the divorce case of Will Powers v Noa Powers yesterday. Noa Powers claims that her estranged husband used Psi Co. technology to trick her into agreeing to his terms of the divorce. Psi is the symbol in quantum mechanics for the wave function. Psi Co. is a legal firm that employs quantum computers. A Psi Co. spokesman claims the quantum technology finds an optimal financial solution and nothing more. “The technology is not on trial. This divorce case is about two people that genuinely hate each other, just like any other divorce case.”

When asked why she agreed to the terms, she says “The building is evil, the room is evil, Psi Co. people are evil. I was coerced and they did it with that computer.” Of course, you are thinking by now, that Ms. Powers is a complete wack job. But she also happens to have a master’s degree in software engineering and this is where it gets really wack. She claims that Psi Co. has perfected the technology to quantum entangle people for short periods of time, but a long enough time to find the one solution where she agrees with her husband, at least long enough for her to sign the papers.

While the odds of her winning her case are one in a trillion, (unless she has her own quantum computer entangling that courtroom), she has created a media frenzy. Everyone has joined in the fray. Conspiracy Theorists have reanalyzed every major decision of the last decade with the idea that such a computer exists.

Heavyweight physicists such as Hawking and Deutsch have weighed in. Hawking says, “The idea is theoretically possible, but the practical applications are still a couple of millennia in the future.” Hawking certainly has his tongue in his cheek as he has already predicted the end of humanity within the next hundred years. Deutsch recommends that we stay focused on qubits; the technology of “qu-peeps” is still a long way off.

Philosophers say, in the multiverse, every possible permutation of the universe exists. So there are no real choices, just a lot of universes. Would good and evil have any meaning in all possible universes? Or is morality just the happenstance of which universe you happen to be looking at?

Even the pope has joined the proceedings. Physicists have long speculated that the universe is a giant quantum computer. “If the universe is an entanglement of multiple universes each proceeding in parallel, what is it that God is computing?” asks the pope. Douglas Adams might have said “42”. The pope claims “It is God’s will” answering his own question. “I have no problem with being an instrument of God’s computation.”

On a more down to Earth scale, say that of two people engaged in a divorce, if one surreptitiously entangles them both in the quantum computer to find an outcome that suits one best, is it coercion? After all, the victim has consented in at least one version of their free will. Neurobiologists and cognitive scientists who study decision making say that extremely small differences in the mind are amplified to make a decision. Dr. Phi, a cognitive scientist at Stanford says, “one small difference, one idea sensed slightly differently, a smell in the room, a sound, the slightest nuance of an idea, the flap of the wing of a butterfly, can completely reverse a decision, at least until enough new sensory information is provided to challenge it.” A quantum computer is ideal for searching through all those possible brain states and amplifying the difference to find one that resonates with the outcome desired by the perpetrator.

Perhaps the real victims in this trial are the jurors, ordinary people with ordinary backgrounds, that will have to make an informed judgment based on whatever understanding they have of quantum physics, neurobiology, technology, and all the attempts by the Psi Co. defense team to obfuscate the issue. It’s almost like the defense team is running its own entangled program by throwing all possible scenarios at the jurors: he didn’t do it; but if he did, she assented anyway; the technology doesn’t exist; the technology doesn’t work; the technology is no different than advertising; free will is an illusion; and so on.

Even the building is against Ms. Noa Powers. Psi Co. has a home-court advantage in the “Evil building” as Ms. Powers puts it. Its parent firm constructed the beehive building, so-called for its glowing amber hexagon patterned roof that cuts at a forty-five-degree angle, each hexagon capping off a sleek hexagonal tower clustered in the beehive. The expansive tower houses both government offices such as the court system and other subsidiaries of Psi Co.

“Somebody has to take a stand,” she says. “If you tolerate it, you insist on it” quoting a core tenet from her software discipline. “I knew as soon as I walked out of that room that I did not feel right about that decision. I was violated. I wasn’t sure how until my husband bragged to me about the computer. He even claimed he used the machine to get me to marry him. My whole adult life is a lie and it’s eating me up inside. I have no choice but to fight this. It would kill me if I didn’t.”

And therein lies the complexity of the case. Her free will gives her no choice. And her lack of free will gives her no choice. And I can’t help but watch this one to the end, to what most likely will be, a bitter defeat for Ms. Powers.


We enter the deliberation room. It’s a strange room, the cast iron door looks more like it belongs in a submarine than a jury room. The room has an ozoney smell to it. There are no windows. Just a long table with five chairs on either long side and one each at the ends. The table and chairs are not wood, not metal, maybe ceramic? In any case, not very comfortable, like the room was designed to force a decision as quickly as possible.

I follow Sarah in. Sarah has platinum blonde hair, big brown eyes, smooth alabaster skin, amazing cleavage in her low-cut maroon cotton shirt showing off a rack that has every man in the room drooling out the side of their mouths, and maybe even a few of the women. Not surprisingly she is a fitness instructor. I tried to talk to her on the breaks but she was perpetually lost in her cell phone. I want to sit next to her at the table in the deliberation room. I figured I had an inside track because I sat next to her in the jury box. That klutzy, nerdy guy Lewis trips in front of me, and f**king Ramon takes the open seat next to Sarah. It pisses me off that I probably lost what little opportunity I had with Sarah. And all because Lewis tripped over his own dropped books and papers. F**king idiot. I take a seat looking diagonal from her, on the other side of the table. Damn.

The judge told us, gave us very explicit instructions to discuss the evidence of the case before voting. Sure enough, the first thing that happens when we walk and sit down is that everyone wants to take a vote. I protest, “The judge just told us not to do this. I’m not going to vote. Doesn’t this bother anyone else? Aren’t we supposed to elect a foreman first?”

Only Pam volunteers. “I think I should be the foreperson, after all, it’s what I do for a living.” Pam elects herself as the foreman. She is a project manager at some high tech firm. She has the personality of a project manager, probably the only personality type that I really detest. They always have to be in charge. Qualified or otherwise. Pushy. Self-important. Always political savvy. Quick to judge and blame never looking in the mirror when they do.

“Let’s take a vote. We’ll make it secret for now”. Pam hands out the pens and paper for ballots. I refuse to take it. Pam tallies the vote, 6 say not guilty, 5 are undecided, one not voting. Five people teetering on the edge?

“So you wanted to talk, talk” Pam starts.

“Sure,” I say. “Let’s talk about the evidence.”

Helen jumps in, “I don’t like either of them. He’s about as sleazy as they come, just looking at him makes me feel dirty. And she’s a wacko, believing in all this quantum mumbo jumbo.”  Helen is a nurse. Talked a lot about her trip to Sedona. Never been married. 

Everyone on the jury is either single or married. All except for me. I’m the only divorced person on the jury. I’m sure I would have been thrown off the jury if I had been selected early. The two criteria for jury selection, as far as I could tell, were age and marital status. At fifty, I’m pretty sure I’m the oldest juror too. But with more divorced people than not and more old people than not, the attorneys quickly exhausted their dismissals. I saw the defense lawyer looking over at the prospective jurors. He only had one dismissal left. The next guy in line was at least seventy. So he was stuck.

“Quantum mechanics isn’t mumbo jumbo,” pipes up Lewis. “It’s the most accurate description of the world ever produced.” Lewis is the science guy.

“Quantum mechanics isn’t on trial here,” I say.

“But the practical application of it on the scale of humans is,” says Rudy. Rudy is himself a trial lawyer. He’s never been on a jury before. Usually, lawyers are the first to go. It’s not that I trust Rudy, but he seems like the only person in the room capable of making a rational argument. I can tell that a number of people have already gravitated to him. 

I asked him later why he didn’t speak up about the initial vote. He said he wanted to observe the process to see what actually happens in a jury room without interfering. Very un-quantum mechanical of you, I told him.

I point out, “As for Mr. Powers, I think your description of him is spot on. He never once answered a question with a straight answer. Did you see how white his attorney turned when he asked him point-blank if he used some kind of device to influence the decision of his wife?”

“He said, ‘I don’t need no machine to get that bitch to do whatever I want’,” Pam says.

Rudy asks, “So what evidence presented is sufficient for reasonable doubt?”

“All her testimony,” says Helen. “I still think she’s a certifiable wack job.”

I counter, “She’s not a wack job if the technology is real. She seems pretty smart too. And pretty tech-savvy. She’s a software engineer with a background in physics.”

“Software people are pretty weird. I should know; I’ve dated half a dozen,” says Helen.

I say, “It’s not like Ms. Powers is some new age freak meditating at energy vortexes in the mountains.” A split second after I say that, Helen’s necklace comes into focus as she leans into the table. Her pendant suggests that she is a Libra. She stretches, her hands clasped, arms straightened, reaching back over her head. I see the ink on her arms and abdomen under her blouse. Sedona. Power spot. That’s why she went to Sedona. I just walked right into my own trap and sprung it. I’m usually pretty observant. I can’t figure out how I missed that. Helen is new age through and through. And I just inadvertently called her a wack job. Sh*t.

The arguments go round and round. The general consensus is that Will Powers is an asshole and Noa Powers is a wack job. I don’t get it. The man is sleazy, conniving, and unpleasant. She is well-spoken, rational, open. And yet it’s 50-50 at best in the room.

“Let’s take a poll, see if we are getting anywhere.” Pam tallies the votes, 7 not guilty, 4 undecideds, 1 guilty. Did I just swing Helen’s vote the other way? Damn.

At the last secret ballot, only one of us voted against Powers and Psi Co. I can’t keep a secret from myself. It was me. They’ll figure it out soon enough. I’m sure they will all gang up on me like sharks at a feeding frenzy. I’m trying to keep an open mind, but I can’t see how this will be anything but coercion. I tell myself I’m ready for the blood bath. It pisses me off that I’m going to be assaulted. Still four undecided votes to turn the tables and get some backup.

Maybe I’ll catch a break from Sarah. Having a nice rack doesn’t make Sarah dumb. She’s asked a lot of good questions so someone is minding the store. During jury selection, I was surprised she didn’t get dismissed right off the bat but now it is starting to make sense. A self-involved, man magnet. She probably doesn’t have a single girlfriend. Not a real one anyway. Of course she would identify with the man more than the woman. She knows enough about technology, having a purse full of commercial gadgets including headsets, two phones, and an iPad. 

I ask her, “What do you think, Sarah? Could the machine have coerced Mrs. Powers?”

“I have three computers, an iPad and an iPhone. The only thing that coerces men is me.” She giggles. So much for Sarah. I think the prosecuting lawyer lost her when she found out she couldn’t buy a quantum computer at Costmo.

She pulls out an iPhone. “Shoot. Doesn’t seem to be working.”

Ramon pulls out his phone. “Neither is mine. No power. Suppose they could be blocking it?”

“Blocking the power?” Lewis rolls his eyes. “Ship of fools,” he says under his breath.

As far as I can tell, Ramon is more vacuous than even the prototypical dumb blonde. He certainly isn’t a match for Sarah. He is giving blondes a good name. He’s done nothing but agree with everything Sarah has said. I understand the attraction but dude, show some backbone. She might actually respect you for an honest opinion or an argument based on some reasoned position. F**k, who am I kidding? I keep thinking that way and it never works out for me, but always for that other Ramon.

Pam says, “You aren’t supposed to have those in here anyway.”

And then there is Todd. I asked him about the book he was reading during a break in the trial. It was some medieval book on lyric poetry. I tried to ask some questions. The closest thing I could think of was Greensleeves. I would have found more connection talking to a dolphin. I tried to resist judging, but I mean seriously, what kind of a man reads lyric poetry? I was doing OK until his statement to me during a break in the deliberations, “I just can’t be responsible for putting a man in jail.” I don’t know if it showed but I turned about three shades of red in anger inside. We swore to a judge that we would deliver a fair verdict and find a man guilty if we believed he committed the crimes. Now I’ve got this spineless medieval minstrel telling me he can’t convict. I think it could be grounds for a mistrial if I could get him to say it to the judge. If I could swing the vote the other way, I still would never get a conviction with an attitude like that.

There must be somebody, I can swing.

Rudy breaks his silence again. “Do you think that machine on exhibit can entangle people?” The machine he refers to is the quantum computer. It’s the size of a brick, with a black powder-coated surface, and a glass plate that covers the lower quarter of the front, housing 10 black equi-spaced dots on a white plastic background.

“The expert testimony from Scott Aaronson seems to think it is possible with the state of the technology today.”

“But we heard some guy say the very thought of it was ridiculous,” says Shawon. Shawon drives a bus during the day, never went to college, and plays guitar in a garage band on the weekends. 

“Their expert witness was from Oxford college in Montana. Oxford is supposed to be one of the best schools in the world, isn’t it?” he asks.

I nearly gag. “Not the one in Montana.” Trying to put it in terms he would understand, I say “Think of Oxford as the Rolling Stones. Think of the one in Montana as a high school cover band playing the Rolling Stones.” Shoot, I might have just pissed him off too. He still plays in his high school cover band. He’s just ten years older now.

“Science isn’t about the who. It’s about nature. Nature decides, not the scientist,” says Lewis.

I protest, “Well, we don’t have the luxury of proving the science.”

“So you have reasonable doubt then?” asks Rudy.

“No. I’ve never been to Alaska yet I have confidence that it is there. I have never measured the speed of light in a vacuum. Yet I don’t doubt the number. I judge things all the time on their reasonableness. And you do too. And so does everyone in this room. No one has time to validate everything.” I did the two-slit experiment in college. I did the mathematics of the wave function. I remember calculating the Hamiltonian of Psi for the two-slit experiment. The same psi that Psi Co. named themselves after. I didn’t know how to make my laser shoot out one photon at a time so I don’t really know if the observation would still show an interference pattern using one photon at a time, but I’ve read descriptions of it in textbooks. So, yeah, I trust it, unless someone gave me reasonable doubt not to. And then maybe I’d read more.

“But do you think that little device can entangle people?” presses Rudy.

 I’m starting to not like Rudy so much. 

“The brain has about 100 billion cells each with a 1000 connections changing firing at about 200 Hertz. If you held the superposition for 3600 seconds, the duration of the settlement meeting, then.” Lewis is writing feverishly in his notebook. After a minute he says, “About 10^20 states per brain!” He scribbles some more. “That could be held simultaneously in 70 entangled qubits.”

“Slow down there Einstein,” says Pam. “Let’s stick to the expert testimony.”

“Well, the experts said 70 was technologically feasible with current technology,” I say.

“Yeah, at 0 degrees Kelvin and with high energy lasers,” Lewis snorts.

“Zero degrees Kelvin?” I know that zero degrees is forbidden in quantum mechanics because then you would then know a particle’s position and velocity perfectly, a violation of the uncertainty principle.

“A few degrees Kelvin, it’s an expression,” squeaks Lewis. “No one has solved the decoherence problem at room temperature and at the scale of people.”

“The only one incoherent in this room is you,” snickers Shawon.

Helen says, “Well I read that someone has to look to see what happens, like that cat in the box. Nothing happens until you look, anyway.” 

Lewis rolls his eyes. The quantum potential of the room deteriorates rapidly from there. How does a jury debate advanced physics when seventy-five percent of the room didn’t even take high school physics? 

The rest join in the rambling conversation that seems to have nothing to do with physics, the evidence, or the trial anymore. I so wish I could quantum tunnel out of the room. Nothing to do but sit here and suffer. 

Todd says, “I wished we lived in a simpler time.”

“Okay, let’s take a poll,” Pam says, finally cutting off the rambling conversation. “Let’s see if this is getting us anywhere.” She collects the ballots and tallies them. “Eleven say not guilty, one says guilty. Okay. We have one holdout. Let’s vote by show of hands. We might as well know who it is,” says Pam.

“OK. Who is for conviction?” No one raises their hands. “No one?” she looks around the room eyeing each of the jurors suspiciously.

“OK. Who is for dismissal?” Everyone raises their hands. Everyone but me.

“So you are the troublemaker,” Pam says to me. “From the moment you walked into that jury box,” she adds accusingly. “Well, you didn’t vote for conviction. Does that mean you haven’t made up your mind yet?”

“I’m pretty sure he’s guilty.”

“Well, why didn’t you vote for conviction then?”

“Because beyond reasonable doubt is a tough criterion.”

“Any other explanation is more likely than the one she gave. What’s so tough about that?” I hear a couple of snickers.

I suppose that pushy crap works when you’re the boss. But she’s not my boss. It takes every shred of control I have to resist telling her to f**k off. 

“I’m here to deliberate, not to be made fun of. It seems to me that every shred of evidence indicates the story is true. The only real defense is whether or not the technology is sufficiently advanced or not to do what she claims it can do. So she just made it up? That doesn’t make any sense.”

“Divorce does weird things to people,” Sarah says. “My mom took an ax to my dad’s Ferrari because she said he paid more attention to it than her.”

“Sorry about that. But that is kind of my point. If she wants to f**k him over, she calls him a pedophile or says he hit her or says he cheated on her. Making up some weird hi-tech story just doesn’t make any sense.”

“You are the one that said she is smart,” Rudy is using my own words against me. Bastard.

I try to argue against the skilled lawyer, “She believes it. Her ex believes it. So that means either they are both telling the truth or they both were duped. Who would dupe them? Why?”

“More to the point, if they were both duped, then isn’t he innocent?” Rudy crosses his arm and freezes his pose. I think it is for effect. I feel as if he is cross-examining me on the witness stand. I wonder if it is one of his ploys at trial.

“Whaaaaaaat?” Ramon says.

“If they both were duped, then Will Powers didn’t manipulate the outcome. Someone else did. But someone else isn’t on trial here,” argues the lawyer.

“Maybe not innocent but certainly not guilty,” says Pam. “I think that pretty much settles it then. Should I call the bailiff to tell him we’ve reached a decision?”

My jaw drops. I hate it when people try to put words in my mouth. My tongue rejects the bitter metallic taste of the forced words. “What decision?”

Pam sits back in a huff crossing her arms.

“It’s possible, but not on that little computer,” says Lewis. My mind flashes back to Will Powers holding up the hand-held device like OJ after he put on that glove and acted like it didn’t fit. The expert witness, the quantum computing guy himself said it would take megawatts of energy and a machine the size of a small building to maintain an entangled state for that long in even a room of small size.”

The other sharks tear into me from every angle but I don’t feel a thing. All except the one seed. The one seed of doubt. How could that little machine harness that much power without incinerating itself like the puff of smoke before a disappearing magician? Could they run the machine without that much power? Now I am speculating. I have to stick to the evidence provided. The seed grows. Is Lewis right about the number of qubits? More speculation. A doubt. Is it a reasonable doubt? Enough to acquit the sleazy defendant?

There is something. Something in my mind about that machine. I’ve seen it or at least a picture of it somewhere before. It’s not coming to me. I hate my memory. I hate having to google for something every time my memory fails. I hate when something comes to me four or five days later. Like, what the f**k was my brain doing for four or five days? In my frustration, I snap a pencil in half between my fingers not realizing how tense I am.

Sarah stands up. Reaches across the table, bending over, her breasts hanging down in front of me. She holds out her hand. “Let me throw that one out for you.” I hand her the two snapped halves of the pencil. She hands me a new one and sits back down. The moment is gone. What was I thinking about? I can’t remember. It’s not coming to me. I hate my memory. I hate having to google for something every time my memory fails. I hate when something comes to me four or five days later.

Rudy asks, “So do you think it’s possible that the quantum computer could entangle people?”

He’s got me there. Something just isn’t adding up but I don’t think it is Ms. Power’s story. I just can’t put my finger on it. It gnaws at me. I don’t think she is lying but I have this one little detail that I can’t fit into my mental model. I have the seed of a doubt; a reasonable doubt. I concede “No. No, it doesn’t seem possible.”

“Lets vote.” Pam takes the tally. “12 for acquittal.”


“So say you all?” asks the judge.

“Yes,” we each answer in turn.

The judge slams the gavel on the desk and says, “Case dismissed.”

So that is that.

As we walk out of the trial room, I have a pit in my stomach. I don’t understand how I could have voted to acquit. It feels wrong, like I didn’t do it, like somehow, my left brain and right brain both wanted guilty but some hidden brain fragment got the better of me. Like that jury was evil, like this building is evil. Just like Ms. Powers described. I was there. I know what I voted for. I can’t figure out why. Can’t turn back now, that wave function has collapsed.

On the way out of the building, I pass a newsstand. I see a Scientific American magazine, the front cover boasts of “Quantum Computing the Universe” with an artist’s rendering of a Hubble deep space picture inside an image of what presumably is a quantum computer of the future, a quantum computer with an array of black dots each one representing a qubit.

It hits me like a bolt of lighting, the faulty wiring in my brain jumping back to a lost thought in the jury room. The box they showed WAS a fraud! That’s where I’ve seen it. It’s an artist’s rendering. F**k! I wished my brain worked when it was supposed to, my life an endless stream of treppenwitz moments. So I should feel okay then. Lewis and Rudy were right. But I feel worse. Why?

Is Psi Co. defrauding their clients? Why would they bother with a fraud? Why tell your client it’s the real thing when you don’t have to tell them anything? I walk a bit; the thoughts swirling in my head, no Sarah to distract them at the moment. Maybe they are just protecting themselves from dipshit clients like Mr. Powers. If they spill the beans, Psi Co. brings out the fake little box.

Lewis said it, “a machine the size of a small building.” I stop. I look back at the Psi Co. complex. The building. The government section of the building only occupies the bottom three floors. That weird smell in the room. People’s devices not working. Could the room be a quantum computer? Or part of it? The building? The hair on the back of my neck is standing on end.

I always said, on any given day, even the same jury could reach a different conclusion. Justice is blind! Not to prejudice but to consistency. Who knows what tips the scales of randomness one way or the other: dropped papers, a broken pencil, ill-timed comments, a buxom distraction, a perfectly timed rational argument. A whole cascade of events and if you had the power to choose the events that lead to the outcome you want? Especially keystone events in people’s lives, like the outcome of a trial?

I can’t get my head around it. Was I quantum entangled? Was the version of reality that presented the realization of the one chain where I voted the wrong way? Was I coerced of my own free will? Of my own free will did I choose coercion? Has Psi Co.. figured out how to commoditize free will? Beyond a reasonable doubt, I think I’ve been duped. Of only two things am I certain. If Psi Co. has the power to control free will, I wouldn’t want to be Will Powers. And I no longer can afford to take my free will for granted.