Tracing uncertainty: Google harnesses quantum mechanics at California lab

    Google shows off quantum computers capable of doing ‘impossible’ computations.
    By: AFP
    | Updated on: Sep 29 2022, 13:29 IST
    Top 10 Google Doodles of 2011
    image caption
    1/11 The 90th birthday of Gumby creator Art Clokey saw a Google doodle featuring characters from the Gumby series.
    image caption
    2/11 Queen's lead singer Freddie Mercury's 65th birthday was celebrated with a unique video doodle which played the band's hit song, Don't Stop Me Now
    image caption
    3/11 Google gave an opportunity to surfers to turn puppeteer for a day with a doodle celebrating the 75th birthday of Muppets creator Jim Henson.
    image caption
    4/11 Google celebrated author Jules Verne's 183rd birthday in February with a doodle allowing visitors to navigate underwater scenes straight out of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
    image caption
    5/11 Google created a musical stringed instrument in honour of American jazz and country guitarist, Les Paul's 96th birthday in June.
    image caption
    6/11 With an old-fashioned TV set playing footage from actress Lucille Ball's show I Love Lucy, Google's doodle celebrated Bell's 100th birthday anniversary on July 6.
    image caption
    7/11 On May 11, Google celebrated dancer and choreographer Martha Graham's 117th birthday, with dancing sillhouttes performing dance routines.
    image caption
    8/11 A colourful doodle showing a world of toy houses and animals riding bikes, was Google's way of celebrating the 92nd birthday of childrens' book author Richard Scarry.
    image caption
    9/11 Google went all out to celebrate what would have been children's author Roger Hargreaves' 76th birthday with 16 doodles!
    image caption
    10/11 In India, the most famous Google doodle was the one designed by Varsha Gupta, winner of Doodle4Google India contest. Her doodle illustrated the Google logo with Indian classical music instruments.
    image caption
    11/11 Google celebrated Charlie Chaplin's 122nd birthday with a video doodle.
    Google
    View all Images
    Google showcases its newly developed quantum computers that promises to solve problems earlier thought to be impossible to solve.  (REUTERS)

    Outside, balmy September sunshine warms an idyllic coast, as California basks in yet another perfect day. Inside, it's minus 460 Fahrenheit (-273 Celsius) in some spots, pockets of cold that bristle with the impossible physics of quantum mechanics -- a science in which things can simultaneously exist, not exist and also be something in between.

    This is Google's Quantum AI laboratory, where dozens of super-smart people labor in an office kitted out with climbing walls and electric bikes to shape the next generation of computers -- a generation that will be unlike anything users currently have in their pockets or offices.

    "It is a new type of computer that uses quantum mechanics to do computations and allows us. .. to solve problems that would otherwise be impossible," explains Erik Lucero, lead engineer at the campus near Santa Barbara.

    "It's not going to replace your mobile phone, your desktop; it's going to be working in parallel with those things."

    Quantum mechanics is a field of research that scientists say could be used one day to help limit global warming, design city traffic systems or develop powerful new drugs.

    The promises are so great that governments, tech giants and start-ups around the world are investing billions of dollars in it, employing some of the biggest brains around.- Schrodinger's cat - Old fashioned computing is built on the idea of binary certainty: tens of thousands of "bits" of data that are each definitely either "on" or "off," represented by either a one or a zero.

    Quantum computing uses uncertainty: its "qubits" can exist in a state of both one-ness and zero-ness in what is called a superposition.

    The most famous illustration of a quantum superposition is Schrodinger's cat -- a hypothetical animal locked in a box with a flask of poison which may or may not shatter.

    While the box is shut, the cat is simultaneously alive and dead. But once you interfere with the quantum state and open the box, the question of the cat's life or death is resolved.

    Quantum computers use this uncertainty to perform lots of seemingly contradictory calculations at the same time -- a bit like being able to go down every possible route in a maze all at once, instead of trying each one in series until you find the right path.

    The difficulty for quantum computer designers is getting these qubits to maintain their superposition long enough to make a calculation.

    As soon as something interferes with them -- noise, muck, the wrong temperature -- the superposition collapses, and you're left with a random and likely nonsensical answer.

    The quantum computer Google showed off to journalists resembles a steampunk wedding cake hung upside-down from a support structure.

    Each layer of metal and curved wires gets progressively colder, down to the final stage, where the palm-sized processor is cooled to just 10 Millikelvin, or about -460 Fahrenheit (-273 Celsius).

    That temperature -- only a shade above absolute zero, the lowest temperature possible in the universe -- is vital for the superconductivity Google's design relies on.

    While the layer-cake computer is not huge -- about half a person high -- a decent amount of lab space is taken up with the equipment to cool it -- pipes whoosh overhead with helium dilutions compressing and expanding, using the same process that keeps your refrigerator cold.- Future - But... what does it all actually do?

    Well, says Daniel Lidar, an expert in quantum systems at the University of Southern California, it's a field that promises much when it matures, but which is still a toddler.

    "We've learned how to crawl but we've certainly not yet learned how to how to walk or jump or run," he told AFP.

    The key to its growth will be solving the problem of the superpositional collapses -- the opening of the cat's box -- to allow for meaningful calculations.

    As this process of error correction improves, problems such as city traffic optimization, which is fiendishly hard on a classical computer because of the number of independent variables involved -- the cars themselves -- could come within reach, said Lidar.

    "On (an error-corrected) quantum computer, you could solve that problem," he said.

    For Lucero and his colleagues, these future possibilities are worth the brain ache.

    "Quantum mechanics is one of the best theories that we have today to experience nature. This is a computer that speaks the language of nature.

    "And if we want to go out and figure out these really challenging problems, to help save our planet, and things like climate change, than having a computer that can do exactly that, I'd want that."

    Follow HT Tech for the latest tech news and reviews , also keep up with us on Twitter, Facebook, Google News, and Instagram. For our latest videos, subscribe to our YouTube channel.

    First Published Date: 29 Sep, 12:28 IST
    NEXT ARTICLE BEGINS
    keep up with tech