the phrase "quantum mechanics" alone invokes a panic reaction in nearly
anyone who hears it, it's a surefire thing an entire article about it
will be questionably all-encompassing. There's a stigma attached to the
remarkably tiny, remarkably ineffable motes of
matter-slash-energy-slash-nonsense--the quanta from which quantum
theory derives its name--that their counter-intuitive nature makes them
solely the domain of chess-grinding, basement-dwelling math
enthusiasts. While there's certainly no lack of math-love and more than
likely at least one chessboard in the black-walled basement laser lab
of Canada Research Chair in Experimental Quantum Information and U of C
professor Dr. Alex Lvovsky, the man himself speculates that the heady
children of Heisenberg and Schr√∂dinger matter more to us than we know.
The proof, he assures, is in the processor.
"Our computers get
faster because they get smaller," Dr. Lvovsky said, glancing
thoughtfully at his desktop PC and pausing. "Well, not the computers
themselves, but the individual transistors, they get smaller and, in
fact, they get exponentially smaller, by a factor of two every couple
Lvovsky was referencing an empirical computer
science result called "Moore's Law," which has accurately predicted how
fast our computers will be since the mid-'60s. Although technical in
statement, the law can be roughly viewed as "how much more badass
computer games get over time," or "how much more realistically pervy
Uncle Jack's thin moustache looks in the latest Pixar movie," and
although it seems intuitive that the law will continue to yield
successively better anthropomorphic animal movies to further entertain
and numb our children, it also predicts some disastrous results.
"The question is, what happens if the trend continues like this for
another ten or twenty years?" asked Lvovsky. "The line we extrapolate
will get to the size of the individual atom. Then we really get in
trouble, because we have to start dealing with elementary particles as
carriers of information and elementary particles are governed by
totally different laws of physics."
Lvovsky's group has been in
the news recently for researching these different laws and their
repercussions. His group, which studies the technology of the quantum
computer--the technology that will replace our own once Moore has led
us as far as he can--has recently performed a groundbreaking
proof-of-principle experiment demonstrating that one type of this new,
strange information can be rassled into holding still for a few
microseconds: quantum memory.
"One of our goals is to transport
information from one place to another," said PhD student Eden Figueroa,
whose thesis research is on the experiment in question. "The problem
is, we want to do it using information that is encoded in the quantum
properties of whatever we're sending--in this case, photons. Since they
have these quantum properties, they are very fragile. If you send it
through a normal fiber-optic, the properties will disappear. Then, we
have to think about the analogy of the repeater in our normal
fiber-optic technolo gy to be able to send the information encoded
through a long distance. There are several theoretical proposals on how
to [do this]. For those proposals, quantum memory is very important."
"As soon as we cross this boundary from macroscopic to microscopic,
from large to small, our whole intuition and experience will become
useless," he said.
Lvovsky explained just how unruly the little
smidgens of light can actually be¬≠--so hard a competing group
researching the same thing actually gave up.
suddenly you would come to a soccer game and discover that the ball
goes through two goals at the same time, or behaves differently just
because the audience is watching," he said. "The quantum world is like
this. It's better, though we aren't there yet, to prepare ourselves for
this future and develop the primitives of quantum information."
The question, then, is how to make something stay still that has no
clear concept of what staying still is. It is a question that Lvovsky,
Figueroa and the rest of the group feel they have found at least a
partial answer for.
"If you think about memory, you think about
something that is static," said Figueroa. "Light is anything but
static--I mean, the speed of light. Another part of our experiment has
been learning to address and manipulate atoms. The good thing about
atoms is that they can actually stay put. That's why we combine these
technologies. Then, we can start at some point with information in
photons and get the same information in the atoms, and be able to
Though it seems like quantum memory is in sight,
there's still much to do before a full-blown quantum computer lands on
our desks. If we use a process similar to our current one, there's
still the processor--far more complicated--to worry about. For the
moment though, Lvovsky and Figueroa are content to revel in their
"After finishing, we ended up with more questions than answers," said Figueroa. "For scientists, this fuels them."
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