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Detect uncertainty: Google uses quantum mechanics in the California lab

Google shows off quantum computers that can do ‘impossible’ calculations.

Outside, the balmy September sun warms an idyllic coast, while California basks in another perfect day. Inside, it’s minus 460 Fahrenheit (-273 Celsius) in places, cold showers buzzing with the impossible physics of quantum mechanics — a science in which things can co-exist, not exist, and also be something in between.

This is Google’s Quantum AI lab, where dozens of super-smart people work in an office equipped 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’s a new type of computer that uses quantum mechanics to perform calculations and allows us to solve problems that would otherwise be impossible,” explains Erik Lucero, chief engineer on the campus at Santa Barbara.

“It’s not going to replace your cell 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 help limit global warming, design urban 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 them, with the help of some of the greatest brains out there. – Schrödinger’s Cat – Old-fashioned computers are built on the idea of ​​binary certainty: tens of thousands of “bits” of data, each of which is certain “on” or “off”, represented by a one or a zero.

Quantum computing takes advantage of uncertainty: its “qubits” can exist in both a unity and zero state in what’s called a superposition.

The most famous illustration of a quantum superposition is Schrödinger’s cat – a hypothetical animal locked in a box with a bottle of poison that may or may not shatter.

While the box is closed, the cat is alive and dead at the same time. But once you get involved in the quantum state and open the box, the cat’s life or death issue is resolved.

Quantum computers use this uncertainty to perform many seemingly contradictory calculations simultaneously — a bit like going through all the possible routes in a maze at once, rather than trying them all in series until you find the right one.

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

As soon as something bothers them – noise, mud, the wrong temperature – the superposition collapses and you get a random and probably nonsensical answer.

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

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

That temperature — just a touch above absolute zero, the lowest possible temperature in the universe — is vital to the superconductivity Google’s design relies on.

While the layer cake computer isn’t huge — about half a person in size — a fair amount of lab space is taken up with the equipment to cool it — pipes whiz overhead with dilutions of helium that compress and expand, using the same process. that keeps your fridge cold. – Future – But… what does it actually do?

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

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

The key to its growth will be solving the superpositional collapse problem – opening the litter box – to allow meaningful calculations.

As this process of error correction improves, problems such as city traffic optimization, which is incredibly difficult for a classic computer due to the number of independent variables — the cars themselves — may come within reach, Lidar said.

“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 pain.

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

“And if we want to go out and solve these really challenging problems, to help save our planet, and things like climate change, then have a computer that can do just that, I’d like to.”

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