Bored? Why not build a quantum computer?

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MEEKER | Looking for something to do in a pandemic? Isaac Newton invented calculus and classical physics while in isolation during the Great Plague of 1665-66. On that example, a science team in Meeker took a notion for research, though on a scale much lower than Sir Isaac’s.

Investigators at MIASMAS (Meeker Institute for Advanced Study in Mathematics and Science) including the Institute dogs Uno, Dos, and Dixie, along with the cat, Cat, and myself have constructed what we presume to be Meeker’s first quantum computer. Elaborating on the laser optical system developed by my former students, Dylon Merrell and Charley Adams, for their International Science Fair competition, MIASMAS team recently completed a quantum computational device that can solve Deutsch’s Problem.

Some background is in order. What is a quantum computer? (The other obvious question, ‘and so what?’, we’ll get to that later.)

Quantum mechanics is the underlying mathematical model that physicists use to understand nature. Among its many unusual and counterintuitive features is that a system can exist in a superposition of states. For example, until you look for it, an atom can be in box A, right here, or in box B nearby. More precisely, the atom is in a superposition of being in both boxes at the same time. Weird but true, as proven by countless experiments.

So while your standard computer (or cell phone or car’s ignition system or any other typical digital calculating device) calculates with 0’s and 1’s, a quantum computer calculates with superpositions of 0’s and 1’s. It is calculating probabilities for landing on zero or landing on one. And there’s a whole lot of probabilities between zero and one. There’s 0.1, and there’s 0.15 and there’s 0.6582307 and . . . You get the picture. There’s an infinite amount of information you can pack between zero and one.

Among other applications, a cleverly designed quantum computer can crack the RSA code, the security code that keeps eavesdroppers from figuring out your credit card number when you order online. Even in its encrypted form, that number is sitting in there between zero and one, and a properly designed quantum computer can find it. (Not to worry. We’re still a ways from a quantum computer that will break the RSA system. Meantime, other unbreakable security systems, using other features of quantum mechanics, are under development.)

For the foreseeable future, quantum computers will be dedicated devices, each of them designed to solve a restricted set of problems. It’s not likely you’ll see a generally programmable quantum device like the digital machine in your pocket or on your desk top, one that can word process documents, calculate sums on spreadsheets, and link you to the internet. But for the appropriate tasks, quantum computers will outperform even the best conceivable conventional machines.

Which brings me back to Deutsch’s Problem. A standard digital computer takes at least two steps to solve Deutsch. No matter how advanced, no matter how fast, any digital computer requires at least two steps. MIASMAS two-qubit quantum computer, on the other hand, can solve Deutsch’s Problem in a single step. Bam! Quantum Supremacy! (Never mind that the good ol’ digital computer can complete its two steps in a few billionths of a second.)

Okay. Solving Deutsch’s problem isn’t particularly useful. If you have a mathematical function that produces pairs of zeros and ones (i.e. 00, 01, 10, or 11) Deutsch tells you whether you’ll get a ‘balanced’ pair ( 01 or 10 ) or ‘constant’ pair ( 00 or 11 ) when you feed different combinations of zeros and ones into that function. That’s not going to help you calculate your bank balance. But it’s a building block for bigger and better.

In the foreseeable future, quantum computers will most likely be used to study nature’s quantum world. Nature runs on quantum mechanics. Quantum computers run on quantum mechanics. You should be able to run nature on a quantum machine. So, for example, early quantum computers in chemistry research labs today are calculating optimal reagents for certain chemical reactions and optimal chemical structures for new drugs. Future research hopes to address problems like ammonia production: the Haber process of present-day fertilizer production is enormously energy intensive. Nature makes ammonia all the time, on the cheap. A quantum computer should be able to figure out how. And on the frontiers of spacetime, a seven-qubit quantum computer recently re-created conditions that exist inside a black hole and proved that black holes are nature’s fastest information scramblers (Landsman, 2019). Think of it. Little bench-top machines probing the strangest and most extreme environments in our universe.

That’s cool.

References:

Landsman, K.A. et al. 2019. Verified quantum information scrambling. Nature. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-019-0952-6
Lloyd, Seth. 2006. Programming the universe. Vintage


By BOB DORSETT, MD | Special to the Herald Times

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