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Tracing uncertainty: Google harnesses quantum mechanics at California lab

Google shows quantum computer capable of ‘impossible’ calculations.

Outside, crisp September sunshine warms a beautiful coastline as California basks in another perfect day. Inside, it’s minus 460 Fahrenheit (-273 Celsius) in some places, pockets of cold that jibe with the impossible physics of quantum mechanics — a science in which things can simultaneously exist, not exist, and be something in between.

This is Google’s Quantum AI Laboratory, where dozens of super-smart people toil in an office and climb walls with electric bikes and shape the next generation of computers — a generation unlike anything users currently have in their pockets or offices. will be .

“It’s a new type of computer that uses quantum mechanics to perform computations and allows us … to solve problems that would otherwise be impossible,” explains Eric Lucero, principal engineer at the campus near Santa Barbara.

“It’s not going to replace your mobile phone, your desktop; it’s going to work in parallel with those things.”

Quantum mechanics is an area of ​​research that scientists say could one day be used to 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, hiring some of the biggest brains around. – Schrödinger’s Cat – Old-fashioned computing is built on the idea of ​​binary certainty: tens of thousands of “bits” of data that are each certain ” On” or “Off”, represented by one or zero.

Quantum computing uses uncertainty: its “qubits” can exist in both one-ness and zero-ness states called superposition.

The most famous image of quantum superposition is Schrödinger’s cat — an imaginary animal locked in a box with a flask of poison that may or may not break.

While the box is closed, the cat is alive and dead at the same time. But once you open the box by interfering with the quantum state, the cat’s life or death question is solved.

Quantum computers use this uncertainty to perform many seemingly contradictory calculations at the same time — like being able to go down all possible routes in a maze at once instead of trying each one in series until you find the right one.

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

As soon as something interferes with them — noise, muck, wrong temperature — the superposition breaks down and you’re left with a random and possibly illogical answer.

The quantum computer Google showed to reporters resembled a steampunk wedding cake hanging upside down from a support structure.

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

This temperature — just a shade above absolute zero, the lowest possible temperature in the universe — is critical to the superconductivity that Google’s design relies on.

While the layer-cake computer isn’t huge — about half a person tall — it takes up a decent amount of lab space with the equipment to cool it — using the same process of compressing and expanding helium dilution in pipes whizzing overhead. Your refrigerator keeps it cold.- Future- But… what does it actually do?

Well, says Daniel Leader, an expert on quantum systems at the University of Southern California, it’s a field that holds a lot of promise as it matures, but it’s still a baby.

“We’ve learned how to crawl but we haven’t yet learned how to walk or jump or run,” he told AFP.

Key to its growth will be solving the superpositional collapse problem — opening the cat box — to allow meaningful computation.

As this process of error correction improves, problems like city traffic optimization, which are fiendishly difficult on a classical computer because of the number of independent variables involved — the car itself — may come within reach, Lieder said.

“In (an error-corrected) quantum computer, you can solve that problem,” he said.

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

“Quantum mechanics is one of the best theories we have for experiencing nature today. It’s a computer that speaks nature’s language.

“And if we want to go out and figure out these really challenging problems, to help save our planet and save things like climate change, a computer that can do exactly that, I want it.”

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