We’ve had lab guys create a huge number of computers from very, very strange things. We’ve had one that runs off electricity and the way quartz crystals vibrate (the modern PC), computers based off DNA and we’ve even had people try to save Schrodinger’s cat by creating a quantum computer. And this week, the advancements in quantum computing took another leap.
For those of you not familiar with the theory of quantum computers, I’ll start with the oft-mentioned experiement known to physicists as Schrodinger’s Cat (also the most annoying one). Erwin Schrodinger theorised in 1935 a basic experiment that would solve the problem poised by contemporary theories of quantum mechanics in his era. Imagine you’ve gone and stuck a cat inside a sealed box (that poor cat!) along with a vial of deadly, lethal gas. That gas could, at any moment, become inert and completely harmless to the animal, or it could also be in its lethal state, ready to kill. Lets say that vial breaks when the cat’s tail brushes against it and knocks it over while inside the box.
Okay, so you might now have a dead cat. It could have exploded from the inside out, spilling guts and gore everywhere. That furry feline has gone to Jesus, and you’re left with the remains of a cruel experiment!… Or the gas could have been inert, and the cat lives on. Which is it?
Quantum states allow the cat to be alive and dead at the same time, and without knowing the fat feline’s true fate we can only assume both possibilities are true. This is the basic, school-boy version of quantum mechanics as best can be described without pulling in some very advanced mathematics, LSD and some very smart people into the same room. Why did Erwin come up with the idea? Contemporary theories only tried to quantify the fate of the cat after a certain period of time. Erwin’s theory required that the cats fate be ambiguous immediately once it entered the box and the box was sealed off.
Its a perplexing thought for some. Trying to quantify which fate the cat has is quite difficult without opening the box. Once you do, the state of the cat is quantified and one of the possibilities are true. While death is extremely probable, the cat still has a chance of survival, even though its statistically a lower one because we’ve seen what lethal gases can do. It still has a chance of revenge.
A quantum computer doesn’t actually kill any cats. It uses the states of molecules called quibits to perform analysis on a data set that needs to be analysed. There are computers based on traditional binary mathematics that use non-deterministic and probability theories to do the same thing, but a quantum computer reaches the finish line far quicker than both.
You know that old fact that you can’t divide by zero? Well, you can’t do that on a normal binary computer. A traditional computing model can’t actually figure out the answer because dividing by zero actually gives you two things – zero, which is a real number, and nothing, which is actually quantifiable using special relativity theory. Which one you land up with is an easy answer for us: you get both states. But binary information can’t exist as both 0 and 1 at the same time. Its the best kind of paradox you could ever give to an artificially-intelligent train that knows tons and tons of riddles and wants to commit mass suicide with you.
But I’m going off-track here (and so did the train) and we need to get back to the breakthrough researchers made this week. Quantum computers use molecules called quibits to generate data and feed that data off into an answer to our calculation that we’ve given to the computer. A quibit is the quantum manifestation of an atom with electrons around it and the computer is composed of dozens of these quibits in order to reach the answer scientists seek in the most reliable fashion. With quibits, scientists had the problem of reading the states of those surrounding electrons without very quickly losing that information. Quibits have the same problem as the cat in that we can’t quantify its state without opening the lid and looking inside.
If you read your science texbook properly, electrons lose their energy states very quickly. You’d have to keep them constantly charged with electricity (thus, information) in order to not lose their information and thus complete the quantum calculation. Previously a few clever white coats who may or may not have perfectly trimmed beards and carried crowbars around threw some nuclei into the mix. Nuclei are extremely slow compared to electrons, but can preserve energy states for far longer.
The nuclei absorb the same energy states of the electrons, allowing us to reach the end of the calculation without bothering the quantum state of the charged electrons. Up until now, quantum computers operated using an Unprotected quantum gate – with a direct link to the environment, it would be the equivalent of having a window in the box the cat died in open for all to see during the experiement. Trying to complete the quantum calculation would be impossible when reading the electron’s state, causing information loss.
But last week in their labs, the U.S. Department of Energy had a breakthrough in their Ames laboratory. Using electrons and nuclei together, they were able to take the environmental factor out of the equation and preserve the quantum state of the molecules, enabling the calculations to take place with more precision than previously capable. This was a major stumbling block in the past for adoption of quantum computing into the modern idea of the computer.
Previously it was demonstrated how quantum teleportation and coupling could allow for super-fast transfer of information between hardware over varying distances, eliminating the lag introduced using electrical circuits. With the decoupling of quibits without a loss of information, quantum mechanics and science can now team up and use the tech for the next generation of solid-state devices designed for enterprise and home usage. Only time will tell when the tech reaches us or our walk-in hardware stores, but for the moment its an interesting branch of science and definitely warrants some late-night Wikipedia browsing.
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