In conversation: Libby Heaney & Kay Watson

Kay Watson, head of arts technologies at the Serpentine in London speaks with artist Libby Heaney about quantum computing, her new artwork Ent- and their shared belief that art and culture can have a role in the development of advanced technologies.

Kay Watson To begin, I want to talk about quantum computing, which seems almost magical (a phrase you have also used) in terms of our understanding of reality. What possibilities and challenges are we facing here? Where are we in terms of the development of that technology?

Libby Heaney It is mind blowing. The strangest thing is that not only do we have this weird version of reality, but scientists have learnt how to use it to build computers. You can actually take this complex mess and get something very practical out of it that gives tangible power to those with the resources to apply it.

Quantum computing is fundamental to what comes next and there is a huge amount of investment connected to the hype around Web31 – but we will go from Web3 to Web Q (Web Quantum) at some point. The problem is that most of the power and competition is between the big tech companies like Google and IBM. There isn’t even a good definition of what a noisy inter-mediate-scale quantum computer (NISQ)2 is because there are different ways of making them: Google and IBM use superconducting quantum bits (qubits); other companies, like Ion Q, use trapped ions; and companies like PSI Quantum use optics, and there are more. I always call the race towards a full scale quantum computer a quantum arms race.

‘This technology has the potential to be weaponised because a full-scale quantum computer in principle has the ability to decrypt all the RSA3 encryption we use. This is massive.’

Libby Heaney

As governments partner with tech firms and universities, geopolitics is involved. The West doesn’t want China to have the first full-scale quantum computer and vice versa. This technology has the potential to be weaponised because a full-scale quantum computer in principle has the ability to decrypt all the RSA3 encryption we use. This is massive. For instance, a full-scale quantum computer could destroy the integrity of Web3, which is based on blockchain4. And this is not in the public consciousness, in part because quantum computing – and the physics that underpin it – is very difficult to understand for lay people at the moment. The mainstream press barely covers it, and when they do it reads like an advert for IBM or other tech companies. I think it is really important to have these critical conversations outside the quantum world. Otherwise, it’s just the scientists and investors having the last word on everything as opposed to the wider public.

At the moment quantum computers are very noisy, meaning that they are prone to error. When I am working with a quantum computer, I’m really working with the quantum assembly code, so still with zeros and ones. Every time you manipulate the zeros and ones, there are errors that affect outcomes. And scientists don’t want errors, especially when you’re not just making art, but solving problems.

In terms of actually defining quantum computing and, in particular, a universal quantum computer5, there has been a definition of this for more than twenty years. It is theoretical and it gives you a list of things you need in order to solve any problem on a quantum computer: qubits need to be readable and addressable individually, you need to be able to do a universal set of logic gates6. Because companies building quantum computers are in a much earlier stage than universal quantum computing, scientists don’t have error correction yet, which will be essential. Every computer has some type of error correction in case a bit accidentally flips. With quantum computers this is especially important because quantum systems are really affected by noise. Current quantum computers are what scientists call noisy intermediate-scale. In some sense, Tech companies are only really in the early days. That’s why they don’t have a good definition of the current hardware they’re building. Say you take a quantum computer from Google and then one from Honeywell. Because they’re built on different architectures of physical hardware some might have really low noise, but only a few qubits, and some might have loads of qubits, but be quite noisy. Which one is better? They can’t agree on a measure. Within IBM, they have their own measure. It’s called quantum volume, but then no other companies use that, maybe because they look bad by that measure, and they’ll choose a measure that suits their system. So there’s no standardisation. They do know what a universal quantum computer is, but it’s all in theory. There is no benchmarking across the field right now, so they can’t decide on who has the best quantum computer. If you follow these tech companies closely, you can see that they’ve all got their own strategy for becoming the standard. And you can see how their business models work. Some take a more open approach, others are closed and making partnerships. Others are more collaborative and platform-based, bringing together software and hardware platforms whereas IBM has tried to do a whole stack themselves, and then there are lots of start-ups.

‘This idea that there’s a plural reality beyond the concrete world that we see every day really excited me.’

Libby Heaney

Kay Watson Because it is so difficult to understand, public interaction with a quantum computer is always via an interface. You’re really not seeing how it works. It is interesting that scientists are designing the interface at the same time as building the hardware.

Libby Heaney Scientists have learnt from the development of current digital technology like machine learning what you need for the full stack7. Developer’s kits, software kits for people who want to use a technology just for applications through to the assembly level and hardware. When the hardware is more sophisticated, you need to have the full package ready.

Kay Watson What is your relationship to this as an artist? You have a PhD in Quantum Information and completed three post-doctoral fellowships before training as an artist. Why did you make that shift and how do these two experiences of education, knowledge and formulating an understanding of the world impact your creative practice?

Libby Heaney Art was my favourite subject at school. It brought so much joy, escapism and calmness to my life. I would have happily gone to art school but I was also very good at physics and maths. I come from a working-class background and my teachers, friends and family recommended that I not study art because one would never make any money. So I went to university and studied physics, maths and German. I fell in love with quantum because it was really weird. I found it so difficult at first, but the concepts were really magical and strange. This idea that there’s a reality beyond the concrete world that we see every day really excited me. I was still making art, but it was always a matter of time and resources. That’s why I did my post-doctoral research in Singapore and was able to save up quite a lot of money to pay for myself to go through an arts degree.

I was reading Mark Fisher’s book The Weird and the Eerie (2016) not long ago. It states that the weird is what does not belong. Quantum is like that in relation to the Newtonian world we experience, but it’s part of us as well. It’s not like the ‘other’ is separate from us.

When you practice physics, you have to understand the field and then come up with what you think might be a good idea to research. In order to publish, it needs to be new, which is similar to art because what you think is interesting often comes from your own experience. But when you practice physics and mathematics, you need to follow logical steps in your process. Sometimes the outcome is interesting, sometimes it isn’t. And then you have to double check the maths to make sure all the steps are logically correct. This can be quite esoteric.

My area of expertise is in entanglement, in itself a huge field. I know a lot about one aspect of it. Practising physics became frustrating for me because it’s so specialised and you can’t talk to many people about what you’re doing. I had a desire to be able to have broader conversations. When I first encountered quantum, I couldn’t believe our microscopic reality was like what was being described. But as I practised the science the magic went away a bit; it became very rigorous and a bit dry. I didn’t know how quantum physics connected to art. I just knew I needed to express it from a wider viewpoint and bring in other conversations, to branch out and get that magic back.

‘I liked the idea of not finishing the word and allowing audiences to, keeping things open.’

Libby Heaney

Kay Watson I’ve spoken to artists over the years, who have come from research or academia, and then there are lots of scientists who would consider themselves to be artists as well. There is this need to create conversation that involves different voices and that seems more possible in the context of art.

Libby Heaney It is a matter of hierarchy. Scientists, or at least physicists, believe that scientific modes of knowledge are ‘true’ knowledge. Knowledge that relates more to our subjective experience or embodied knowledge is less valid to them. I didn’t know how to articulate that when I was in science, but I always felt it. I worked in super male-dominated spheres and I was quite shy in my twenties, so sometimes it would be difficult to have my voice heard. I explore all of these questions in my work now. My practice always has this implicit thread of feminism that comes from my experience and my past frustrations.

Kay Watson Could you tell us about your latest work Ent- and what the audience will experience?

Libby Heaney The work is commissioned by LAS in Berlin and will then go to arebyte Gallery in London, and because of that I was thinking about connections between the German and English language. I remembered there was a prefix in German, ent-, which means the beginning of an action or a separation. It occurs in words like entstehen or entdecken, which in German mean to arise or to discover. To me, this relates to where we are with quantum computing and its potential futures. But also in English, words like entanglement, enter on the keyboard or to enter an immersive space. I liked the idea of not finishing the word and allowing audiences to, of keeping things open, which I think is quite important when working with quantum concepts. That’s the title.

Kay Watson How does Ent- relate to your understanding of ‘thinking quantum’?

Libby Heaney The work is based on two and a half years of research with quantum computing. I’ve been coding with IBM systems and exploring how I can use data from entanglement within the quantum computers to manipulate digital images, their pixels and 3D structures. The main question was how to generate visual effects that could not be generated using digital technologies. What aesthetics can you make from using the pluralities embodied by quantum mathematics and quantum data? I realised that by revealing interference effects, you could show traces of the wave-like nature of quantum phenomena. I did lots of experiments, made animations, videos and some 3D simulations. All of these have been embedded within a wider environment in a 360-degree-projection that audience members will enter and within it experience a transition between what we have now and a quantum world, or my interpretation of one, but with a very critical edge to it, trying not to romanticise quantum.

Kay Watson You’re using data from entanglement. What is that data?

Libby Heaney I take a bunch of qubits in a quantum computer. You can apply quantum logic gates to entangle these qubits and create an entangled object inside a quantum computer. There are many different types of entanglement, probably an infinite number. This entangled object is in a high dimensional space and there are different ways in which you can measure it. Imagine if you’re in a gallery and you’re looking at a sculpture of a human body. Depending on where you stand in relation to this sculpture, you’re seeing a different viewpoint. You’re seeing different body parts, with different relations to each other. Only once you walk around the whole thing – maybe if you could see it from above – do you get a sense of its entirety. With entanglement, rather than it existing in 3D, it exists in a much higher dimensional space, depending on how many qubits you use. But you can still move around it. We can ‘see’ the entangled object from different perspectives. What I do is create many identical copies of this entangled state, and each one I measure slightly differently. I start to build a map of what that entanglement was. The data that comes out is just a list of numbers. It might not look particularly interesting. But then my process is to write some Python code8, and to understand how to go through this list of numbers and to use that list to push images, digital data of the pixels around. There are only a few lines of quantum coding; the rest is Python script that enables me to do something visually interesting with the quantum data.9

‘There is something about this black box that relates to us humans – it’s very theatrical.’

Libby Heaney

Kay Watson When you enter this exhibition space, are you experiencing a narrative of sorts? Is it fixed or shifting in real time?

Libby Heaney It will be on a loop. The audience encounters an interpretation of the central panel from Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights on one screen, which then envelops the entire space and you in this game world – a virtual environment built with Unreal Engine. As they move through this space, the forms start to deconstruct and become more quantum: you encounter my quantum animations, everything starts to shape-shift and distort. There are three scenes: the first is a sky scene where the audience fall from a quantum computer into this strange new world. The next is the architectural landscape that is more figurative and directly connects the piece to Bosch; and then an underwater scene. I am using elements in all of the scenes to talk about quantum in different ways. So there’s a structure – I don’t know if I’d call it a narrative, but you’re guided through this series of worlds.

Kay Watson At the centre of this work are multiple (quantum) reinterpretations of Bosch’s, a monumental triptych depicting Paradise (or heaven) and Hell that was created at a time of enormous shifts in the way we understood our place and role in the universe from Copernicus and so on. Why was it important to focus on this?

Libby Heaney I like to keep things open rather than fix the meaning. There are multiple layers to why I referenced Bosch, some quite straightforward and some to draw parallels between the painting and quantum computing in detail. On the most basic level, it situated the futures of quantum computing between heaven and hell, thereby posing the question as to which way the development of these technologies will go.

In my work previously, I have referenced pop culture as a starting point to talk about more complex ideas. As quantum computing is complex, a good way to introduce audiences to it is by using something really well known. I see it like a door handle. ‘Oh, there’s a door handle, let’s go in!’ – something to hold onto in the midst of these really new ideas. In my reading about Bosch’s triptych, I found so many parallels between ideas from quantum physics, quantum computing, Bosch and religion in general. It got me thinking about technology as a new religion. It promises us life beyond the body, it’s all seeing, it’s opaque, it’s kind of dogmatic. With current machine-learning systems underpinning a lot of decision-making systems today, people tend to defer to the machine predictions without thinking about what they really believe or if the machine is accurate. One use of quantum computing is quantum machine learning, it is a huge focus among big tech companies. I wanted to position quantum computing and quantum machine learning as an extension of what is already happening and place it in relation to the current discourse shaped by people like author and mathematician Cathy O’Neil and writer Jeanette Winterson, who have both written about technology and religion in terms of machine learning.

Bosch’s painting can also be interpreted in dual ways regarding desire: does it depict pure, untrammelled desire as an innocent expression of humanity or is it a condemnation of that desire as well? Depending on who you read on Bosch, you get different opinions. I pose a similar question towards quantum computing and our desires for new technologies, and our desires for immersive experiences – should we condemn it or celebrate it? Is it good that scientists tend to be only celebratory of the new? I’m talking in binaries here, but hopefully the work deconstructs these binaries and uncovers more complex relations.

Maybe we actually need to accept the hybridity of these questions. This is mirrored in the hybrid creatures that populate Ent-. In Bosch’s time, the understanding was that God had created the world with a specific order, with humans at the top, and monsters were used to depict social ills or something sinful. I created my creatures by using randomness from a quantum computer. When you measure entangled states in a certain way, you get a set of truly random numbers out. There is no way you could predict what will come out. Randomness created by digital systems is always pseudo-random and over a long period of time, some sort of pattern will always emerge. Einstein once said about quantum mechanics that ‘God doesn’t play dice’, rejecting this idea of true randomness in quantum physics. But he was wrong – physics really is random at its most fundamental, atomic level. In that sense, it really is indeterminate. I connect the idea of randomness as a fundamental element of the universe and the meaning of randomness in Bosch’s time to suggest new forms beyond everyday categories and taxonomies.

Kay Watson I’m really interested in the black box as the space within which processes are hidden, to use your quote, a ‘system which can be viewed in terms of inputs and outputs, without any knowledge of its internal workings’, and that you are asking people to enter that black box to see these quantum internal workings, not in order to be didactic but to show us many possibilities. Could you tell us more about this approach?

Libby Heaney It works on multiple levels. It’s a symbol for quantum computing, and of our minds as well. I ended up working with quantum really intuitively because I have a background in the field. When I was working in science, I was always creating these images in my mind’s eye to have an intuition about quantum. The images were super inadequate with weird colours, I don’t even know why they looked like they did. On the other hand, I worked very rationally when I was coding for the quantum computer. It’s not a medium like clay where you can get hands-on. You just have to write some code. But when we were putting it all together in the game’s engine with the developer of my work James B. Stringer and his team, everything was guided by this intuition. The artwork ended up really dreamlike, connected to my conscious and subconscious. Do you know the 1962 minimalist sculpture Die by Tony Smith? It’s this big metal box about the same height as a human. There is something about this black box that relates to us humans – it’s very theatrical. Or Anish Kapoor who uses this deeply black paint, and there is so much going on in there even though it could depict a void. And I haven’t even thought about Malevich’s Black Square (1915).

‘The idea is to move beyond the individual in such a strong sense that if you try to distinguish an individual in this entangled system, you end up destroying it.’

Libby Heaney

Kay Watson I’ve heard you talk about the quantum world, as like ‘entering a different world’ or enabling a new way of seeing/perceiving? Can you explain a little about what that means not just on a technical level but in terms of our systems, bodies, hierarchies and the paradigms through which we experience the (macroscopic) world?

Libby Heaney What I found fruitful so far is to take quantum concepts like superposition, entanglement and quantum measurement and rework them with other ideas to see how this combination pops out something new. If you read relational aesthetics or think about Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory, systems are very relational. Latour’s essay in e-flux journal (‘Some Experiments in Art and Politics’) in which he talks about Tomás Saraceno’s work Galaxies Forming along Filaments, Like Droplets along the Strands of a Spider’s Web (2008) illustrates this. Looking at quantum concepts leads to an even stronger sense of this. I’m a big fan of Karen Barad. Her book Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (2007) is the best reinterpretation of a macroscopic world through quantum that I’ve read so far: that all matter has agency, the ability to shape-shift and bring into being different forms depending on its relations with other things in the world. Barad writes that relations precede things essentially, and that things come into being through relations.

One of the things that I find most striking is how quantum is a non-local theory. This means that in Newtonian physics, in the macroscopic world, we usually imagine an object hitting another object and causing a force, so there’s a local cause and effect. Even forces like magnetism that act at a distance still propagate locally. And that is very linear. In quantum, objects can be entangled. Entanglement is essentially when two or more objects lose their own individual properties. Imagine you have a physical body here and another physical body over there, but all their properties – mass, position, momentum – are smeared over (across) the two. They become correlated, joined in this nonlocal way. The idea is to move beyond the individual in such a strong sense that if you try to distinguish an individual in this entangled system, you end up destroying it. There’s literally no way of getting an individual out. That moves us beyond most of the Western philosophy, which is quite exciting. Going back to this idea of non-locality and thinking of ourselves as existing in these entangled systems, as connected to other things, you end up with a non-local responsibility. I don’t just mean this materially but how any interaction (e.g. discourse, which is actually material too) within a phenomena can have an effect, even if you’re not directly touching it.

Right now this is just a metaphor to think through new ideas in the macroscopic world through quantum science. While there is a rigorous definition of entanglement in science, no one has yet discovered entanglement between macroscopic bodies like humans.

Kay Watson I think we have a shared belief that art and culture can have a role in the development of advanced technologies. Right now, why is it so important to engage with quantum computing and its infrastructure?

Libby Heaney The power is quite tightly held by the big tech companies and not many people are talking about quantum computing compared to Web3. If artists and anyone outside the quantum sphere start engaging with it in a sustained way, then we could start to develop more accessible languages. I’ve spoken a lot about ethics and moral implications of this technology, and having worked in science, and discussing this with lots of scientists, I know there is almost no discussion on this. One thing the critical art world does well, is think through the implications of new technologies as with AI. But with AI I think it was a bit too late to really affect change, because AI systems are really embedded within our lives now. Whereas if anyone who wants to engage with quantum computing shouts loud enough – like what happened with NFTs, where Memo Akten and Joanie Lemercier wrote about CO2 emissions and blockchain and it got picked up by Wired magazine and the New York Times – then artists can effect change. Artists have always been at the forefront of discussions around new technologies. I don’t see why we can’t effect change now. Because quantum computers are so difficult to build there is a bit of time.

1 Web3 is an idea for a new iteration of the World Wide Web based on the blockchain, which incorporates concepts including decentralisation and token-based economics.

2 The current type of embryonic quantum computer (i.e. one that is not yet fully developed).

3 RSA is a public-key cryptosystem that is widely used for secure data transmission. It is also one of the oldest. The acronym ‘RSA’ comes from the surnames of Ron Rivest, Adi Shamir and Leonard Adleman, who publicly described the algorithm in 1977.

4 A blockchain is a decentralised, distributed and oftentimes public, digital ledger consisting of records called blocks that are used to record transactions.

5 The essence of a universal quantum computer is that it enables the simulation of physics, including and especially quantum mechanics. It is a machine that can run any possible quantum algorithm.

6 Logic gates are the basic building blocks of any digital system, performing logical operations on the bits. The relationship between the inputs and the outputs is based on a certain logic. Quantum logic gates are an extension of this for qubits, and always have the same number of inputs as outputs.

7 Full stack technology refers to the entire depth of a computer system application, and full stack developers straddle two separate web development domains: the front end and the back end. The front end includes everything that a client, or site viewer, can see and interact with.

8 Python is an interpreted high-level general- purpose programming language. Its design philosophy emphasises code readability with its use of significant indentation. Its language constructs as well as its object-oriented approach aim to help programmers write clear, logical code for small and large-scale projects.

9 A Python script is a reusable set of code that is essentially a Python programme – a sequence of Python instructions – contained in a file.

Biography

Libby Heaney
Artist
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