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This post serves as an in-depth introduction to the Systems Research Group (SRG).  The SRG is part of the Information Experience Design programme in the School of Communication and therefore the outcomes and research sit between fine art and commercial design, in the expanding space called experimental design.  In setting up the SRG, it was my intention to create a group that moved away from an established curriculum and pushed into new territory at the intersection of art, design, quantum physics and technology.  Therefore, the work we make is exploratory, developing new methods and theory as well as ‘final’ artworks and design research.

Libby quantum maths

Quantum physics and quantum technologies in general are an interesting area of focus, due to their counter-intuitive and post-experience properties.  However, quantum concepts are often misrepresented and miscommunicated by the lay person, through no fault of their own, but rather because of the lack of an established language around quantum science and the corresponding emerging technologies.  Hence, one aim of the SRG is to begin to explore and develop new modes of communication of quantum physics.  This is achieved through metaphor, analogy and collaboration.  As a research tutor in Information Experience Design with a background in art and theoretical quantum physics/quantum information science, I aim to bring rigorous quantum thinking to art and design disciplines.

So why set up the Systems Research Group to achieve these aims?  How do we define a system in any case, and how does this relate to quantum physics?  Why should these projects take place via a research group comprising staff and students, rather than established researchers alone?  And what can we learn from my background working in research groups in theoretical physics?

Systems

Let us think first about systems.  A system is a collection of entities that exchange information and/or energy in some way.

This is probably the most general way to describe a system, even though these entities will emerge and disappear over time (as most things eventually do) and even though energy and information are related to each other (see Maxwell’s demon and Wheeler’s ‘It from Bit’).

Screen Shot 2017-02-23 at 12.35.20 PM

Hence a system could be formed by the energy/information exchange between two things to everything. Speaking of everything, the universe is the only system I can think of that might be isolated, totally alone and absolute; everything else in the universe is likely connected with something else somehow, hence forming a system.  So the idea of a system is very general, and what is important is developing models of a given system (through  science/art/design) that has an adequate level of abstraction. One requires enough information in the model for it to usefully describe something, but too much information will only make things confusing.  Knowing which approximations to make is crucial.

Furthermore, all systems can be broken into or comprised of two different types:

1) Procedural

  • “a set of principles or procedures according to which something is done; an organized scheme or method”
  • Algorithm/Instructions
  • Time-based sequence
  • Spatially indistinct entities

 

2) Structural

  • “a set of things working together as parts of a mechanism or an interconnecting network; a complex whole”
  • Spatially distinct bodies/entities/elements
  • Interaction between various different bodies – energy and/or information exchanged
  • Depending on the size of the system, different levels of description needed.
  • More spatial than temporal (different time scales).

Examples of procedural systems would be businesses, institutions, cultural systems, code for computers, etc.  The individual entities within a system all participate in enacting the instructions—for instance many different bits work together to compute each line of a computer program.  On the other hand, structural systems tend to have distinct entities such as ants in a colony or the atoms in a snowflake.  While the structure of these systems may change over time, the individual entities remain distinguishable and often follow simple rules themselves.

So how does a quantum system fit within these categories?

Things start to get very blurry.  The notion of system as defined above partly breaks down.  In quantum systems the notions of time and space, as well as other physical properties, need to be (re)visited and revised.  Histories can be altered through measurement, and individual entities no longer possess their own properties, which can be smeared across space and time.  Energy and information are exchanged like in classical systems, but in entirely new ways (which has led to quantum computing).  Quantum systems provide a basis for entirely new ways of thinking (as Karen Barad and others have already pointed out).  Hence quantum systems provide a fertile ground for developing innovative research in art and design from both theoretical and practical starting points.   How might the System Research Group facilitate this development?

Daria Jelonek

Research Group:

Given my background in quantum physics, the starting point for setting up the Systems Research Group was to review how theoretical physics research groups run, and to transform elements of this to a research group in the School of Communication at the Royal College of Art.  In physics a research group is usually led by a permanent member of staff, a lecturer or a professor, or even a researcher with a long term fellowship—they lead the overall direction of research aligned with their specialisation.  People seems to work much more collaboratively in physics than in the arts and also across wider stages of careers.  For instance, a MSc student may work with DPhil and post-docs as well as a Professor all on the same research paper.  One paper detailing research from CERN’s Large Hadron Collider has over 5000 authors on it.  Different projects within the same research group tend to be aligned to the larger overall aims of the group, i.e. to develop a plan for a prototype quantum computer using a chain of ions, which is usually broken down into many stages and simultaneous paths along the way.

Researchers typically work in close proximity, often in the same office space, but have networks across the world, enabling discussions to spontaneously emerge and new collaborations to form both online and offline.  Weekly group meetings where group members talk about their own work, as well as a stream of outside visitors, keep the research at the forefront of the field.  Research is often exploratory, using established mathematical methods/theories to push boundaries and exploring alternative avenues of enquiries at once, which is similar to research in art and design, where the mathematical techniques become the artistic medium and the physical theories the methods.

Libby Heaney -the beautiful and the nice

Transforming these in the Information Experience Design programme, the Systems Research Group aims:

  • To function like a (quantum) system – regular group discussion to enable the easy transfer of information and energy and external voices to keep new content driving the systems.  Never settle.
  • To have a coherent identity – all research by members (groups or individual) should emerge from an overall research direction within each project and should draw on previous projects.
  • To focus on the development of new languages around quantum technologies and quantum physics.
  • To have exploratory and experimental outcomes—since aspects of quantum physics are inconceivable even with the mathematics, it is important to push the boundaries by developing outcome from the bottom up through methods also derived from quantum thinking.  If you can imagine it to begin with, then you’ve become classical.
  • To give members space to pursue the overall research direction of a project through their own individual or group practices. It is important to diffract quantum ideas through one’s own background and current research in order to take the research/outomces into areas others are not thinking of.
  • To encourage members to work together by facilitating the exchange of ideas and outcomes through group meetings/discussions/blogs and to curate and plan external events/exhibitions/catalogues.
  • To train students to become independent researchers in between quantum physics and art and design.


I will revisit this post again when the first two research projects are complete to analyze the (de)coherence.

Radical Transparency

Libby Heaney