Science & Technology

Serge Haroche: We must not make false promises about quantum computers

By Javier Castro Bugarin

Buenos Aires, Oct 25 (EFE).- Quantum computers are fascinating devices. Based on the connection of multiple “quantum bits” or “qubits,” these ultrafast machines could significantly exceed the capabilities of conventional computers, although that reality is still far from being realized.

“This is very difficult to achieve. There (are) a lot of challenges to be solved. It’s a very active field of research, but … I think it’s dangerous to oversell what we are doing and to make false promises,” said French scientist Serge Haroche, who traveled to Buenos Aires to participate in Science Week.

In an interview with EFE, the winner of a Nobel Prize in Physics was cautious in discussing recent advances in quantum computers, but at the same time he defended the role of basic science in developing devices capable of “revolutionizing” people’s lives.

In 2012, the Swedish Academy awarded the physics Nobel to Haroche (born in Casablanca in 1944) and US scientist David J. Wineland for pushing forward with innovative experimental methods that allow the measurement and manipulation of individual quantum systems, discoveries that is spurring research into the construction of future quantum computers.

In contrast to regular computers, which use ones and zeros (bits) in their operations, quantum computers use “qubits,” which are characterized by having an infinite number of superpositioned states. That is, instead of having a predefined value, a qubit can be either zero, one or any proportion of those two numbers such as 80 percent of zero and 20 percent of one, for example.

Using these qubits, which can be photons, trapped ions or atoms, opens up a universe of possibilities for the transmission and storage of information, although it is true that this will take “many years” of additional research, Haroche said.

“Quantum computers will be systems which will use the strangeness of quantum physics at the single-atom level to code information in single-atom or in artificial systems which behave like atoms. But you will need to have millions of them coupled together avoiding all kinds of perturbations in order to be useful, and it is very difficult to achieve,” he said.

Quantum computers, if they are ever created, will be “very large” machines that must work at very low temperatures, around absolute zero (-273 degrees Celsius), and they will have very specific functions for which the computers we use for everyday activities cannot be substituted.

They will be “rather specialized device(s) which will be for research, but I don’t think (this will occur) unless something new happens and there is an unpredictable breakthrough,” said Haroche, adding that announcements by firms like Google and IBM claiming that they have achieved “quantum supremacy” are nothing more than a lot of “marketing.”

In any case, research into quantum computers is having promising results in fields like communication, metrology (the scientific study of measurement) and quantum simulation, with interesting applications for navigation, early detection of earthquakes and the prevention of spying activities, Haroche said.

We must remember “that science, by definition, is unpredictable, and (in finding) new things, you don’t know exactly what you will find. That’s what makes the beauty and the excitement of science,” he said, defending the role of the “basic sciences” in the invention of now commonplace technologies like lasers.

“All physicists and scientists know that you cannot have aggregation, … instruments, applied science without the background of basic research. And all the great instruments which have revolutionized our lives, especially since the beginning of the 20th century, come from basic science,” he said regarding a discipline that pursues knowledge for knowledge’s sake, without a particular objective.

During the interview, Haroche emphasized the importance of having a real “symbiosis” between the applied sciences and the basic sciences, given that the latter, oftentimes, are looked down on by political leaders, who consider them to be a “curiosity” or simply a “luxury.”

“We have a lot of problems now, and these problems are long-term problems, but in democracies politicians focus on the short-term, on the election agenda. It’s really very bad, like in the climate issue, where it’s clear that we’re not on the right track,” he said.

Science is “absolutely necessary” for dealing with the problems of today’s world, but it’s often not enough, Haroche said, adding that he feels that the focus should be placed on “joining science with education,” since some of the problems of science, in France and in other countries, are due to the fact that “the level of education is dropping.”

“My feeling is that a good teacher is as important or more important than a good engineer, but in terms of salaries and … social status they are much below. As long as governments don’t understand that, there will be a big problem,” he concluded.

EFE jacb/cmm/ie/bp

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