The unpredictable rise of quantum computing - have recent breakthroughs accelerated the timeline?

Neil Raden Profile picture for user Neil Raden August 18, 2022
It's strange days in quantum computing - but that might be a good thing. Quantum mechanics breakthroughs have brought more quantum weirdness. Could those breakthroughs also accelerate adoption, and change Google's ten year quantum timeframe?

fish jumps

Everyone knows by now how weird quantum mechanics can be. Things with quantum computers have gotten ten degrees of weirdness lately. First, a new kind of matter appears to have been observed with two time dimensions.

Let's think about that for a minute. Suppose we were aware of this in our physical world. Maybe there would be Miller Time and Half Time simultaneously.

Okay, maybe that’s not so hard to imagine, but suppose you existed in two different timelines, similar but different. Or, maybe everything is the same in one timeline but working in a coal mine in the other.

If you think that's mind-boggling, this weird quirk of quantum mechanics behaves as though it has two time dimensions instead of one; a trait that scientists say makes the qubits more robust, and able to remain stable for important lengths of time.

The work represents "a completely different way of thinking about phases of matter," according to computational quantum physicist Philipp Dumitrescu of the Flatiron Institute, the lead author of a new paper describing the phenomenon.

How did physicists figure this out? It seems they pulsed light on the qubits in a pattern mimicking the Fibonacci sequence. This is one of those things that is stunning, things were discovered in the thirteenth century, and they pop up in completely unexpected ways. The Fibonacci is a sequence in which each number is the sum of the two preceding numbers and graphically creates a beautiful spiral repeated in nature in a million ways. 

And by the way, as the Fibonacci numbers get large, the quotient between each successive pair of Fibonacci numbers approximates 1.612, known as early as the Greeks as the Golden Ratio of Beauty. This mathematical symmetry algorithm underlies our perception of attractiveness. It also appears in the shapes of spiral galaxies, hurricanes, snail shells, the distribution of flower petals and even in the proportions of the human body.

How they did this takes a little explanation.

Stability in quantum computers is called quantum coherence, and it's one of the main goals for an error-free quantum computer – and one of the most difficult to achieve. A central problem in quantum computing is decoherence, or the collapse of coherence. The qubits are an unruly bunch from environmental disturbance, failing to maintain temperature near absolute zero, and entanglement, where qubits affect each other. Enforcing symmetry is one approach to protecting qubits from decoherence. An example of symmetry is a square, which, when rotated ninety degrees, is still the same shape. Symmetry protects forms from certain rotational effects.. That’s where the two time dimension discovery comes in.

This is where it gets a little dense. Tapping qubits with evenly spaced laser pulses ensures a symmetry-based not in space but in time, a symmetrical periodicity. But these researchers theorized they could create an asymmetrical quasiperiodicity, allowing them to bury a second time dimension in the first. 

Net effect? For the periodic sequence, the qubits were stable for 1.5 seconds. For the quasiperiodic sequence, they remained stable for 5.5 seconds. The additional time symmetry, the researchers said, added another layer of protection against quantum decoherence.

So despite all the physics and terms like asymmetrical quasiperiodicity, the takeaway is that quantum researchers have made a significant achievement in the most daunting quantum problem, making the quibits behave long enough to solve a problem. If that isn’t enough to chew on, another startling discovery was just disclosed.

Multi state qubits

Everything we’ve understood about quantum computers was that a single qubit can have a state of 0 and 1 simultaneously (superposition), but apparently, that is not the case. They can have multiple states simultaneously. This dramatically increases the richness and complexity of a single qubit allowing for 

For decades computers have been synonymous with binary information -- zeros and ones. A team at the University of Innsbruck, Austria realized a quantum computer that breaks out of this paradigm and unlocks additional computational resources hidden in almost all of today's quantum devices. In an article, Quantum computer works with more than zero and one, researchers at Innsbruck, Austria, developed a quantum computer that breaks the 2-dimension operation.

In the Innsbruck quantum computer, information is stored in individual trapped Calcium atoms. Each of these atoms has eight different states. I have not been able to determine why it’s eight. The atomic number of calcium is 20. Typically only two states are used to store information in other quantum computers. Almost all existing quantum computers have access to more quantum states than they use for computation.

On the flip side, many tasks that need quantum computers, such as problems in physics, chemistry, or material science, are also naturally expressed in the qudit language (qudit provides a larger state space to store and process information).. Rewriting them for qubits can often make them too complicated for today's quantum computers. "Working with more than zeros and ones is very natural, not only for the quantum computer but also for its applications, allowing us to unlock the true potential of quantum systems, explains Martin Ringbauer.

My take

What’s the meaning of all of this? In an article two years ago, I wrote: 

Google plans to search for commercially viable applications in the short term, but they don’t think there will be many for another ten years - a time frame I've heard one referred to as “bound but loose.” What that meant was, no more than ten, maybe sooner. In the industry, the term for the current state of the art is NISQ – Noisy, Interim Scale Quantum Computing.

The largest quantum computers are in the 50-70 qubit range, and Google feels NISQ has a ceiling of maybe two hundred. The "noisy" part of NISQ is because the qubits need to interact and be nearby. That generates noise. The more qubits, the more noise, and the more challenging it is to control the noise.

But Google suggests the real unsolved problems in fields like optimization, materials science, chemistry, drug discovery, finance, and electronics will take machines with thousands of qubits and even envision one million on a planar array etched in aluminum. Major problems need solving, such as noise elimination, coherence, and lifetime (a qubit holds its position in a tiny time slice).

So the question is, is this moving faster than Google imagined, or was their 10-year projection just a head fake to slow competitors down? 

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