BBC iPlayer and FX on Hulu
Halfway through episode two of Devs, there is a scene that caused me first to gasp, and then to swear out loud. A genuine WTF moment. If this is what I think it is, I thought, it is breathtakingly audacious. And so it turns out. The show is intelligent, beautiful and ambitious, and to aid in your viewing pleasure, this spoiler-free review introduces some of the cool science it explores.
Alex Garland’s eight-part series opens with protagonists Lily and Sergei, who live in a gorgeous apartment in San Francisco. Like their real-world counterparts, people who work at Facebook or Google, the pair take the shuttle bus to work.
They work at Amaya, a powerful but secretive technology company hidden among the redwoods. Looming over the trees is a massive, creepy statue of a girl: the Amaya the company is named for.
We see the company tag line as Lily and Sergei get off the bus: Your quantum future. Is it just a throw-away tag, or should we think about what that line means more precisely?
Sergei, we learn, works on artificial intelligence algorithms. At the start of the show, he gets some time with the boss, Forest, to demonstrate the project he has been working on. He has managed to model the behaviour of a nematode worm. His team has simulated the worm by recreating all 302 of its neurons and digitally wiring them up. This is basically the WormBot project, an attempt to recreate a life form completely in digital code. The complete map of the connections between the 302 neurons of the nematode was published in 2019.
We don’t yet have the processing power to recreate these connections dynamically in a computer, but when we do, it will be interesting to consider if the resulting digital worm, a complete replica of an organic creature, should be considered alive.
We don’t know if Sergei’s simulation is alive, but it is so good, he can accurately predict the behaviour of the organic original, a real worm it is apparently simulating, up to 10 seconds in the future. This is what I like about Garland’s stuff: the show has only just started and we have already got some really deep questions about scientific research that is actually happening.
Sergei then invokes the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics conceived by Hugh Everett. Although Forest dismisses this idea, it is worth getting your head around it because the show comes back to it. Adherents say that the maths of quantum physics means the universe is repeatedly splitting into different versions, creating a vast multiverse of possible outcomes.
At the core of Amaya is the ultra‑secretive section where the developers work. No one outside the devs team knows what it is developing, but we suspect it must be something with quantum computers. I wondered whether the devs section is trying to do with the 86 billion neurons of the human brain what Sergei has been doing with the 302 neurons of the nematode.
We start to find out when Sergei is selected for a role in devs. He must first pass a vetting process (he is asked if he is religious, a question that makes sense later) and then he is granted access to the devs compound – sealed by a lead Faraday cage, gold mesh and an unbroken vacuum.
Inside is a quantum computer more powerful than any currently in existence. How many qubits does it run, asks Sergei, looking in awe at the thing (it is beautiful, a bit like the machines being developed by Google and IBM). “A number that it is meaningless to state,” says Forest. As a reference point, the best quantum computers currently manage around 50 qubits, or quantum bits. We can only assume that Forest has solved the problem of decoherence – when external interference such as heat or electromagnetic fields cause qubits to lose their quantum properties – and created a quantum computer with fantastic processing power.
So what are the devs using it for? Sergei is asked to guess, and then left to work it out for himself from gazing at the code. He figures it out before we do. Then comes that WTF moment. To say any more will give away the surprise. Yet as someone remarks, the world is deterministic, but with this machine we are gaining magical powers. Devs has its flaws, but it is energising and exciting to see TV this thoughtful: it cast a spell on me.
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