Physics prof wants to ban the term 'quantum supremacy.' Can you guess why?

The term "quantum supremacy" is commonly used in the fields of quantum computing and physics.

A new op-ed claims the term makes minorities feel less welcome, while presenting no evidence.

A new opinion editorial published by the Scientific Americanco-authored by physics professor Ian Durham of St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, argued that the term “quantum supremacy” should be abandoned because it shares a word with the term “white supremacy.” 

Durham wrote that given the lack of diversity in physics and computing, the use of “’quantum supremacy’ can come across as adding insult to injury.” 

The piece suggested the use of “quantum primacy” instead. 

[RELATED: These are the words colleges don’t want you to say]

Quantum supremacy has been used since Professor John Preskill coined it in 2012 to describe the concept of quantum computers being able to perform tasks that traditional computers, even supercomputers, would take years or even infinite amounts of time to complete. 

In October 2019, Preskill justified his decision in Quanta Magazine, writing that he “failed to foresee” an association of the term with white supremacy and that he considered using “quantum advantage” but thought the term did not capture just how massive the difference is between regular computing and quantum computing. As Durham and his co-authors note, Preskill has said himself that the term he invented isn’t wholly satisfactory. 

Earlier that month, Google and NASA announced they had demonstrated quantum supremacy, unlocking a new speed of computing. 

[RELATED: Oklahoma student gov ditches ‘Boomer’ and ‘Sooner’ for more ‘sensitive’ words]

Durham and his co-authors mentioned that the legal field uses a similar term, called “judicial supremacy.” Judicial supremacy is the idea that the Supreme Court has the final say on whether or not a law is constitutional, as first established in Marbury v. Madison.

The piece claimed that greater diversity in STEM fields might have been prevented by “quantum supremacy” from sticking around in the lexicon for this long. Durham told Campus Reform he aimed “to continue the dialogue” in a positive direction. 

”I don’t know if the term ‘quantum primacy’ would necessarily lead to a more inclusive environment or not. But it is clearly a less problematic term, and I think it does a better job of capturing exactly what’s happening physically than the other alternatives that have been proposed. But in the end, it’s really about keeping the dialogue going,” he said. 

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @AngelaLMorabito