Archive for March, 2011

Quantum Cartooning

Quantum computers will almost certainly NOT look like this...

It’s no secret that quantum science can be a bit noggin-boggling.  The human brain isn’t intrinsically wired to comprehend things being in multiple states at once, or being mysteriously “entangled” across vast distances. If there’s one thing that everyone universally understands about quantum mechanics, it’s that quantum mechanics is not universally understood.

So we here at the Quantum Factory are always searching for easy-to-follow ways to explain quantum information science. Hence the  cartoon below, “Quantum 101.”  While it’s hardly a comprehensive examination of every facet of research at IQC, we hope it’s a helpful primer on the fundamentals behind quantum computing research.  Plus the characters sound like robots from 1980s sci-fi movies, which is fun.



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Jeff Goldblum demonstrates the fictional side of teleportation in The Fly.

First, the good news: in real life, teleportation does not result in the accidental creation of terrifying bug-human hybrids, as it did to the hapless (and naked) Jeff Goldblum in the 1986 sci-fi gross-out flick, The Fly. This is because it’s not currently possible — and perhaps never possible — to teleport solid matter such as apples or spaceships or Jeff Goldblums from point A to point B, much less intermingle DNA with insects in the process. The Fly is just one example of where Hollywood has gotten teleportation spectacularly, entertainingly wrong. From Star Trek to Quantum Leap to Lost, teleportation is usually depicted as a presto-change-o vanishing act in which a protagonist fully dematerializes at the atomic level, then reassembles someplace in a galaxy far, far away.

The truth about teleportation, at least thus far, is less useful as a mode of intergalactic transportation but no less fascinating. A couple of weeks ago, the co-discoverer of quantum teleportation, Gilles Brassard, visited IQC to deliver a guest lecture. We sat down for a chat with Brassard about all things quantum, from quantum cryptography (he’s also a founding father of that) to the reality of quantum teleportation. Here’s a snippet:


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One might assume that the origins of quantum cryptography — the method of information encryption whose security is ensured by the very laws of quantum mechanics — could be traced back to some high-tech laboratory full of lasers and crystals and other such gizmos. But one would be wrong.

Quantum cryptography actually got its start in the warm, azure waters off the coast of San Juan, Puerto Rico, where Gilles Brassard was having a lovely, solitary swim.  A complete stranger came paddling up to Brassard and launched into a diatribe about a new method for creating counterfeit-proof money. I won’t spoil all the details, but rather let Brassard himself explain the origins — and the incredible potential benefits — of quantum cryptography:

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There is perhaps no branch of science with a more suitable title than “Complexity Theory.”

Let’s be honest here: complexity theory is darned complex, particularly when you throw quantumness into the mix.  It takes a special breed of scientist to become a leading global authority on quantum complexity theory and its related disciplines — which is exactly what John Watrous is.

Watrous is a faculty member at IQC, and a leader in theoretical quantum computer science. His research, when you get down to the nitty-gritty of it, is concerned with determining which types of problems are efficiently solvable by a quantum computer, and which ones are hopelessly complicated.

After much work with collaborators, Watrous made an important breakthrough in the field, proving the equivalence of two classes of computational problems, QIP and PSPACE. This answered a longstanding puzzle in computer science, and was lauded as a highly significant breakthrough in the field. The paper Watrous and his collaborators wrote summarizing their results, titled QIP=PSPACE, won the prestigious”Best Paper Award” at the Symposium on the Theory of Computing last year.

Since the work was so groundbreaking (and complex), we decided to let Watrous tell you about it himself. Enjoy!

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Kudos to the organizers of yesterday’s TEDxWaterloo event, which saw an astronaut, a symphony conductor, a mountain climber and many other fascinating people speak to a rapt audience (in attendance at Centre in the Square and online).

Although the speakers and attendees came from a huge cross-section of society spanning the arts, business,  education and more, everyone shared a common trait: insatiable curiosity (speaking of which, check out IQC Director Raymond Laflamme’s speech from last year’s TEDxWaterloo, all about the power of curiosity).

IQC was proud to be a sponsor and exhibitor of this year’s event, which gave us a chance to show off some cool quantum computing equipment at our snazzy booth. Our manager of scientific outreach, Martin Laforest, along with student volunteers, spent all day explaining to curious visitors the awesomeness of quantum entanglement and superposition and dead/alive cats.

Among the eclectic group of speakers at the event were Canadian astronaut Roberta Bondar, Mount Everest mountaineer Jean-Francois Carrey, experimental musician Ben Grossman and marathon swimmer Vicki Keith.

The event concluded with a fascinating talk about “rebel music” by Edwin Outwater, music director and conductor of the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony (random trivia note: I once went surfing with Edwin in the “sharky” waters off San Francisco).

We at IQC were particularly interested in Edwin’s talk, as we are in the midst of collaborating with him and the KW Symphony for a quantum-themed concert in the winter of 2012. It’s called Quantum: Music at the Frontier of Science, and it will be a musical exploration of quantum concepts like superposition, entanglement and other wonderfully mind-boggling stuff. Stay tuned to this blog and the IQC website for many more details to come!

The concert is still in the early stages, but needless to say, we’re beyond exciTED about this collaboration as part of the KW Symphony’s amazing new season:

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