How Smart Is Justin Trudeau?

Much has been made of Canadian PM Justin Trudeau’s recent exploits, avidly devoured by the press and lapped up by his dazzled acolytes. The latest installment in the Trudeau saga involves a photo just circulated of Trudeau balancing on a conference table in the advanced yogic Mayurasana or “peacock” pose, which has sent the media into yet another Trudeau frenzy and his fans swooning with adoration. Take a look at the image above.

One admirer tweets: “This guy is just too good to be true.” Another: “I’m so happy to be Canadian.” As CBC News puts it: “Photo of Justin Trudeau doing yoga makes the internet freak out — again.” In my estimation, this is not a posture befitting a head of state—but maybe that’s just me.

A few days earlier, media focus was on Trudeau’s apparently uncanny brain power, to wit, a “stunning” riff on the topic of quantum computing. The media, of course, failed to report that Trudeau’s Wikipedia stunt was set up by Trudeau himself, who asked to be asked so he could reel off a couple of boilerplate lines he had obviously memorized. According to the Daily Mail, “Justin Trudeau stuns room full of reporters and scientists with perfect answer to complex quantum computing question.” Here is Trudeau’s reply to a journalist’s stuttering query (“I was going to ask you about quantum computing, but ...”):

“Very simply, normal computers work by ...," he began before he was interrupted by the crowd's shocked laughter. "No, no, don't interrupt me, when you walk out of here you will know more — well no, some of you will know far less — about quantum computing. Normal computers work by ... either the power going through a wire or not. It's 1 or a 0. They're binary systems. What quantum states allow for is much more complex information to be encoded into a single bit. A regular computer bit is either a 1 or 0 — on or off. A quantum state can be much more complex than that because as we know, things can be both particles and waves at the same time. And the uncertainty around quantum states allows us to encode more information into a much smaller computer.”

So far as I can see, the question is neither “complex” nor the answer “perfect.” Note how Trudeau says nothing about the real problem, namely quantum indeterminacy and how to manage the superposition of incompatible states reliably and practically. Nor does he explain how the principle of uncertainty would allow us to compress and encode information, which is precisely the issue in question. Indeed, the limitations of quantum computing may well be insurmountable, owing to the scaling problem (working with qubits rather than bits), the inevitability of quantum decoherence effects, the famous observation factor which can change quantum behavior, and the probabilistic nature of quantum solutions—what Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw in The Quantum Universe  call “ethereal quantum fluctuations.” As science writer Jamie Condliffe admits in Gizmodo, “There isn’t a huge amount of advantage in using a quantum computer compared to a regular one.” Assuming that one could ever be built.