Archive for May, 2012

Hippies kaiserImportant scientific progress is achieved through mathematical precision, rigorous experimentation and a no-nonsense dedication to strict methodology, right?  Well, sometimes.  Other times — like in the early-1970s in northern California, for instance — important scientific progress has been achieved through naked hot-tubbing, recreational drug use and a free-spirited dedication to Eastern philosophy and parapsychology.

We here at the Quantum Factory recently sat down with David Kaiser, a professor of History of Science at MIT and author of the 2011 book How the Hippies Saved Physics.

It turns out that cutting-edge research institutions such as the Institute for Quantum Computing are more closely related to the hippie counterculture than one might initially imagine. Unfettered curiosity about the universe and a thirst for discovery are common threads that link quantum research over the decades.

Check out the interview!

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Anne Broadbent IQC

IQC postdoctoral researcher Anne Broadbent (photo credit: Simon Wilson)

By Anne Broadbent, IQC Postdoctoral Fellow

When Christopher Columbus set out to discover a route to the orient, he conjectured that by sailing due West, he would find a more efficient route to the much-coveted treasures of the East. Conventional wisdom cautioned that, in the process, he would fall off the edge of the Earth.

Quantum information scientists are sailing in uncharted waters. How do we know we are going in the right direction? Akin to using a sextant to shoot the sun, we have developed a toolbox to help us evaluate progress and adjust our course when required.

This week, a group of scientists from around the world met for the 2012  “Quantum Characterization, Verification and Validation Workshop” in Bethesda, Maryland. Typical questions being discussed and debated were: “How do we know if we correctly built a quantum device?”, “Can we establish standard benchmarks for quantum technologies?” and “Could a small quantum device be used to verify a larger one?”

Breakthroughs occasionally require bold actions that defy conventional thinking. In the case of quantum characterization, verification and validation, this involves questioning some of the established techniques — such as the ubiquitous yet ill-motivated use of a technique called “maximum likelihood estimation.” The consensus at this workshop is that our common goal should be to somehow master a quantum system’s entropy (a technical term referring to uncertainty), thereby enabling smooth sailing towards our final destination of full-scale quantum computers.

En route toward the elusive quantum computers, however, we will unavoidably reach the point where computational intractability limits our ability to make predictions on quantum experiments (indeed, there is strong evidence that this day is fast approaching). One of the themes in this workshop is how techniques from complexity and cryptography can help circumvent these limitations.

Given the attendees’ varied backgrounds, conflict is unavoidable and even desirable. One memorable debate on verifying quantum devices in the presence of systematic errors ended in an exclamation from one experimentalist that “Numbers are only correct in theory!” A welcome addition to the workshop is the online collaborative site — a feature that has allowed participants to focus on key questions ahead of time, as some discussions were launched a week before the workshop.

Christopher Columbus did not, of course, fall off the edge of the Earth, but instead discovered a wonderful New World. This week’s workshop has aided our navigation toward the new quantum world.

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