The world laughed at Donald Trump this week. When the bombastic US president boasted at the UN of his achievements, he was greeted with a ripple of derision. But rather than sneering at Mr Trump, we should perhaps be studying him. He may be one of the first leaders to have grasped the essence of quantum politics.
That arresting phrase has been developed by another president, Armen Sarkissian of Armenia, to explain how politics now works. Mr Sarkissian has been studying this phenomenon in practice and in theory. Since being elected president in March, he has tried to calm political turmoil in Armenia. He is also one of the very few heads of state to be a theoretical physicist.
The 65-year-old was a winner of the Lenin prize for science back in Soviet times and a former colleague of the late Stephen Hawking at Cambridge university. For good measure, he was also one of the inventors of the Tetris computer game.
In his view, our interpretation of how politics traditionally works should be updated to reflect the way that physics has been reimagined. The classical world of post-Newtonian physics was linear, predictable, even deterministic. By contrast, the quantum world is highly uncertain and interconnected and can change depending on the position of the observer.
“A lot of things in our lives have quantum behaviour. We are living through a dynamic process of change,” he says. “I think we have to look at our world in a completely different way.”
Mr Sarkissian explains that the way that pandemics spread, with one case popping up in Hong Kong and then a second in Argentina, exhibits quantum characteristics. So do terrorist attacks, as an initial atrocity triggers unpredictable consequences around the world. Even the way we understand politics depends on who is viewing what and when — we all receive individualised newsfeeds on Facebook serving up different interpretations of events. The very act of observation changes our reality.
One doubts that Mr Trump has as good an understanding of quantum politics as Mr Sarkissian. But the US president seems intuitively to grasp its implications. In this new world, political parties, institutions, and reason-based processes appear less important than popular movements, beliefs, emotional connectivity, and social media impact. Mr Trump largely bypasses formal institutions and operates via Twitter, projecting his own version of reality to his 54.7m followers.
Recent events in Armenia are a good example of how quantum politics works in practice. Just weeks into Mr Sarkissian’s presidency, the Caucasian nation of 3m people was rocked by political crisis. Serzh Sargsyan, the former president, who had switched offices to become prime minister, was forced to resign after mass protests against his “power grab”.
Many of the demonstrators were what he calls “arbitrary soldiers” mobilised on Facebook, rather than members of an organised opposition. Armenia’s 10m-strong diaspora also influenced events from abroad by pitching into the social media maelstrom. “Armenia is a small state and a global nation,” Mr Sarkissian says. “Those living in California can see what is happening in their beloved country and react. This is another example of a new quantum quality.”
Although he has been testing his theory to explain these political dynamics, Mr Sarkissian is still searching for a solution as to how best to manage them. But, as you would expect from a scientist, he still strongly supports the force of reason, evidence and established truth. “You have to lead by your example and vision and ideas,” he says.
The concept of quantum politics is certainly intriguing. But not all are convinced it is valid. Jim Al-Khalili, physics professor at the University of Surrey, is sceptical of the parallels being drawn between quantum theory and modern politics. But he does agree with Mr Sarkissian that our world is becoming so hyper-complex that it is increasingly difficult to manage.
His preferred comparison is with chaos theory, which tries to detect underlying patterns in apparently random complex systems, such as weather or stock markets. “That is what we see in our really messy world,” he says.
One way to deal with hyper-complexity, as Mr Al-Khalili suggests, is to use artificial intelligence systems. AI can deal with complexity that humans struggle to get our heads around. The complex and chaotic patterns of this new world seem too difficult for us to recognise and interpret — hence the feelings of disorientation.
“There is nothing uniquely magical about humans,” says Mr Al-Khalili. “Ultimately if AIs know enough about us they will be able to make decisions for us without any of our irrational human biases.”
This post originally appeared on FT