In a preprint posted online last week (1), researchers at Google in partnership with physicists at Princeton, Stanford, and other universities claim that they have used Google’s quantum computer (Sycamore) to determine that a genuine “crystal of that” can be made for the first time.
Is it true? Well, we can’t say for sure yet. But if proven, then it is a big eureka for the scientific community and humankind.
Now, before we look further into the story, there are two things we need to make clear:
- Time crystals are difficult to understand and even more complex to explain. We have tried our best here.
- The Google team may have created time crystals. However, it is preprint research and has not yet received a full peer review. So, until the rest of the scientific community review it and replicate it, we can say that it is not yet “official.”
With no further ado, let’s get cracking into the world of quantum computers, time crystals, and the significance of the discovery for Google, Science, and us.
What Are Time Crystals?
Time crystals sound suspiciously like Dr. Strange’s Time Stone. However, they are not. At least not now.
In a simple term, time crystals are a new state of matter. It is a crystal with no entropy, meaning it can change its state without losing or using any energy. For eternity! Imagine its application…
Such a strange phase of matter was first theorized by the US-based Nobel laureate and physicist Frank Wilczek in 2012 (2). Wilczek proposed that it might be possible for atoms to change over time even at their lowest energy, similar to a superconductor (3).
Now, this is where the Law of Inertia, commonly known as Newton’s First Law, comes into play. As per the law, “An object at rest tends to be at rest, and one in motion tends to be in motion.” That is, an object keeps its state unless an external force or energy is applied. It means, as per the law, Time Crystals can’t exist.
Since time crystals also move in a regular, repeating cycle, and sustain the change constantly without burning any energy, they also turn the law of thermodynamics upside down, similar to a perpetual motion machine (4). Time crystals are also evading the second law of thermodynamics.
Time crystals are the objects to spontaneously shatter the time-translation symmetry or the traditional rule that a stable object would remain the same throughout time. Why? Because a time crystal is stable and ever-changing with special moments at period intervals in time. It has an order and perfect stability even though it is in an excited and evolving state!
So, now you know why the news is so big. But then again,
“Nothing violates the laws of nature (physics), Mulder. Only what we know about them.” – Dana Scully (5).
Watch the below video to know more about time symmetry:
Watch the below video for an interesting explanation about time crystals:
While some experts argue that time crystals are a “no go” zone, others believe that since these repeating crystals can’t be connected with anything to make a do, they are not technically machines, and hence they don’t break any laws (6).
Several debates are going around using these time crystals, whether for computer operations or calculating time (7).
Making Time Crystals
Since Wilczek first theorized time crystals, several researchers conducted experiments to demonstrate whether atoms could behave in ways to qualify them as time crystals (8).
A time crystal has three main elements:
- a line of particles, each with its own magnetic orientation trapped in a mixture of different energy configurations, also known as the “main body problem”
- then, the orientations of these particles are reversed to make mirror versions of each
- finally, applying laser light to switch states from normal to reflected and back and forth without using the energy of the laser itself, known as the time crystal of floquat
In 2016, a team of scientists from the University of Maryland and another from Harvard separately reported creating time crystals.
In August 2020, Nature Materials published Aalto University’s letter stating that they could observe interactions and the flow of constituent particles between two time crystals (9).
Google and a team of scientists from different universities used the tech giant’s quantum computer, named Sycamore, which used a chip with 20 kibits or controlled quantum particles to keep two states simultaneously. The researchers randomized the interactions by adjusting the strengths of interactions between these kibitz and achieved many-body positions. The microwave was then reflected and “unmirrored the particles.”
As per the researchers, “The scalability of our protocols sets a blueprint for future studies of non-equilibrium phases and phase transitions on complex quantum systems beyond classical stimulability. The efficient verification of eigenstate order can inspire a general strategy for establishing whether the desired property, like a particular phrase, is, in fact, present in a quantum processor.”
Notably, Google has demonstrated quantum supremacy using the same Sycamore machine in 2019 by completing a task in 200 seconds that a traditional computer would have taken over 10,000 years (10).
Before all else, if you are familiar with scientific latests and breakthroughs for a while now, you know that time crystals are essential building blocks for quantum computers, but why and how?
To answer that, first, let’s understand what quantum computers are and how they work.
Watch the below video of Google’s quantum computing demo at I/O 2021:
Our classic computers, including supercomputers, use bits, you know, our regular 0 or 1 – electrical or optical pulses. Au contraire, quantum computers use qubits. They are typical subatomic particles like photons and electrons.
These qubits have some peculiar quantum properties, and a connected group of these qubits can offer stupendous processing power than the same number of our 0 1 binary bits.
Two of those properties include superposition and entanglement.
- Superposition: Quibits can offer numerous possible combinations of 0 and 1 at the same time. Such an ability to be simultaneously in multiple states is called superposition. It allows a quantum computer with several qubits to process a huge number of potential outcomes simultaneously.
- Entanglement: Scientists can make pairs of qubits that are “entangled,” meaning the two members of a pair existing in a single quantum state. If you change the state of one of the two qubits, the other one will instantly predictably change its state. It happens even if a very long distance separates them. While no one understands why and how it works, it is the key to the power of quantum computers. Since quantum computers harness entangled qubits to work their magic, adding extra qubits to the machine would make an exponential increase in their processing power (11).
Yes, quantum computers are amazing. But there is a small catch.
Quantum machines are extremely sensitive and more prone to errors compared to our regular computers because of decoherence.
- Decoherence is the interaction of qubits with their surroundings in ways that cause their quantum behavior to decay and ultimately disappear.
It means their quantum state is highly fragile. Even the slightest vibration or change in temperature – disturbances are known as “noise” in quantum language can cause qubits to tumble out of their superposition before they can even finish the job.
That’s why scientists do their best to protect qubits from the outside world in those vacuum chambers and supercooled fridges. However, despite their best efforts, noise still causes numerous errors to creep into calculations. While researchers use smart quantum algorithms to compensate for some of these errors and even add more qubits, it will likely take thousands of standard qubits to create a single highly reliable, “logical” qubit.
And there is another rub: so far, researchers have not made over 128 standard qubits. It means we are still several decades away from getting quantum computers that would be broadly applicable.
Now, that’s where time crystals come into play.
We know that time crystals are good at protecting their coherence and are not easily thrown off by outside stimuli – an essential trait for sensitive quantum computers (12). And that’s the most exciting potential for these time crystals – ushering in a new era of “warm” or “non-absolute zero” quantum computing.
Researchers believe that using time crystals with qubits (quantum computers) to conduct computer processes would ensure quantum coherence. It means we can do away with extremely expensive and complicated cooling chambers for quantum computers to churn out more scalability and accessibility from the technology.
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Wait, Does it Mean Google has Solved Quantum Computing?
No, absolutely not! The discovery of time crystals and their existence is still in its infancy. It is similar to Antony Leeuwenhoek being the first individual to use a microscope to look at a drop of water under magnification.
What Google has done is prove that humans can make time crystals. Potentially.
Here is what researchers have written in the paper: “These results set up a scalable verge to study non-equilibrium states of matter on currently available quantum processors.”
In short, they believe they have proven the theory, and now it is time to see what we can do with it. And we have a myriad of work to do before anything comes to fruition.
But if it Does Come to Success, There are Plenty of Applications
Quantum computers’ one of the most significant applications is stimulating the behavior of matter down to the molecular level. Automakers such as Daimler and Volkswagen are using them to simulate the chemical composition of EV batteries to find new ways to enhance their performance. Pharma companies are leveraging them to compare and analyze compounds to create new and effective drugs.
Quantum machines are also excellent for optimizing problems because of their ability to crunch huge numbers of potential solutions extremely fast. For instance, Airbus is using them to calculate the most fuel-efficient paths for aircraft. Volkswagen has unveiled a service that counts the optimal routes for taxis and buses in cities to minimize congestion (13).
Several researchers also believe that quantum computers can accelerate artificial intelligence. According to Wilczek (14), time crystals would allow us to measure distance and time with extreme accuracy if successfully made. They can also revolutionize mining, telecommunication, and even how the universe works.
While it is all in theory, nothing is proven yet (15). Still, if these exotic quantum computers live up to their promise, they can transform industries, supercharge global innovation, and humanity as we know it.
What Does The Demonstration Mean for Google?
Even though the study still awaits peer validation, if Google has found a way to create them, the next generation of quantum computers can come with time crystals in them. It would allow anyone to make them since these crystals would bring quantum coherence to a place where there is a lot of decoherence.
We still need decades of research into quantum computers to build the one with time crystals. But if the study turns out right, Google would be the first company to bring the world a decisive technological advance for the future and create a kind of the quantum computer that has never been invented before.
What Does it Mean for Us?
It means a lot to us. Time crystals can literally be the miracle quantum computers requirement.
Nearly every futuristic tech we can imagine, from warp drive, like those we see in Stark Trek, to teleportation, from powering the world without fuels to artificial food, will need quantum computers.
These machines can solve complex issues. As we discussed, they are hard to build, maintain, and even harder to get them to do anything and interpret their results. And since time crystals are coherent, we can ensure quantum coherence by putting them inside a quantum computer and using them to conduct its processes.
Why Is It So Exciting?
Know these, since always, we mean since 2012, time crystals have been theoretical.
If Google has created time crystals, it can accelerate the timeline for quantum computer breakthroughs from “never” to “maybe within a few decades.” The most far-fetched optimism would create a working warp drive in our lifetime. Imagine taking a trip to Mars or maybe even The Kuiper Belt and returning home on Earth before dinner.
It is not hard to imagine quantum computing-based drug and chemical discovery on the realistic and more conservative end, leading to universally effective treatment that would cure virtually any disease.
The implications are so excellent, both at the computer level and the very foundations of Physics, no doubt that the researchers who have supposedly built time crystals are not even sure if it is real.
The Google-led experiment is preliminary, and we still have a lot of work to do. The published preprint paper is only the first step forward and needs further dissemination.
However, if the new study holds up under the scrutiny from the experts in the scientific community, and if anyone manages to use these time crystals in a practical manner, we may find ourselves in a world with powerful and practical quantum machines that can actually perform all the things we have been led to believe they would (16). If only Sheldon Cooper was still around to give his brilliant insights!
Nonetheless, we are super excited about what happens in peer review.