Love and Uncertainty

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It was close to the end between Bob and me. “There are only two possibilities: yes or no,” he said.

“But Bob, yes or no to what?”

“You figure it out, geek head.”

Yeah, I’m a geek, always most comfortable when I can calculate things and make them work. What’s wrong with that? Bob seems to like it, most of the time. He’s not like me that way.

When faced with conundrums, I call my cousin Alf. Alf is an expert in uncertainty. Many people deal with uncertainty. Some of them are scientists, who hate uncertainty and tame it by standardizing deviations and subjecting it to principles. Some people don’t give a damn about science, but love uncertainty and know a lot about it. This group calls managing uncertainty making odds. Alf makes odds in Las Vegas.

“Alf, it’s steak and lobster on me if you can help me out with this one.”

“Hiya Alice, my dearest cuz. What’s the big mystery this time?”

“The toughest kind. I know the answer, but not the question.”

“Oooh, that’s a pain like a right jab. So, what’s the answer?”

“ ‘There are only two possibilities: yes or no.’ ”

“Has it occurred to a mathematical type like you that there could be an infinite number of such questions?”

I’m not a mathematician, or even a scientist, just an engineer. I manage systems support for a quantum computing project backed by big money that wants it quiet. But I can tell you we’re keeping several hundred ion qubits in superpositions simultaneously and our machine could play chess with everyone on earth at the same time and win every game.
“It’s splitsville with Bob if I don’t have the right answer. You always see an angle, at least one, on every question. I was hoping maybe your worldly knowledge could give me a start on the question, Alf. Maybe I could take a chance and just say either yes or no, if you can give me some odds on the right one.”

“Oh Alice dear cuz, give me an aspirin! But for a steak and lobster, I’ll think about it overnight. Why don’t you just say yes anyway? My ‘worldly knowledge’ tells me that’s likely to be the right answer.”

“I really want a better handle on it before I answer him. Could you think about it?”

“OK, cuz. I never can say no to you.”

He gave me an idea. The scientists I work for had been talking about computing infinities. It seems some are bigger than others and you really can compute meaningful things with infinities. Anyway, maybe if I can hijack some slices of time on the quantum computer, I can identify the odds on the right answer being yes or no.
I instructed the artificial intelligence installed on our quantum computer to identify all important yes-or-no questions asked by a boyfriend to a girlfriend, and then select those associated with “right answer” for “yes” and “no”. We’d established a general procedure for the machine to search literally all data on all internet connected databases. Cleverly, I thought, I asked it to first identify for me the most relevant specific additional information that would help narrow the odds for “right answer.” The machine came back with several questions, including several about Bob that it couldn’t find in databases. This was good, I thought, it must be on the right track. Then it asked some embarrassing questions about my recent behavior. OK, of course that’s relevant, and getting more anxious I gave it the answers. Then it asked me if I had any updates for the mass of a muon, post-2012. This was worrying. So I told it no, and then it stopped asking questions. It continued operating for 12 minutes. That’s an unbelievably long time for a quantum computer, and it strained my resources to keep all the qubits in gear, not to mention my nerves. And then it gave me the answer: “Yes” was associated with “right answer” for 75% of all questions likely to be asked in my situation. Unfortunately, the top 14 questions had an almost equal likelihood of being asked, given the facts available. So I still didn’t know the question, but I could make a bet on the right answer anyway.

I called Alf. “Well, cuz,” he said, “I thought and thought, then I thought about all my friends and their troubles, and did some pencil and paper calculations. I give you odds of 3 to 1 that “yes” is the right answer.”

“3 to 1, that’s the same as 75% to 25%!”

“You are a genius, kid.”

“Alf, I stole some time on the quantum computer last night and I got the same answer! I wasn’t sure about it, but now I am.”

“Just call me the quantum bookie, cuz.”

My next call of course was to Bob. “Meet me for dinner.”

“Tell me your answer now, Alice, then we’ll see about dinner.”

“YES,” I said, with assurance.

“Alice dear, I love you,” he warbled. Whew! I didn’t care what I was committing to, if that was the result.

“Are you certain?” I asked to cover my own uncertainty.

“101% certain.”

Later that day I got back to Alf to arrange our surf and turf dinner and thank him.

“Alf, tell me, how did you figure those odds?”

“Well kid, I have to admit, I lied. We have computers here in Vegas too. We like to make sure we’re on top of the odds, you know. You don’t need to know much more though. We like to keep it quiet.”

About the Author: 
Thomas Kraemer is a recently retired civil/environmental engineer who lives near Seattle. He's spending some of his newfound free time studying the science topics he never had time for before.