Playing with the world’s most advanced technology

I took the control system for a quantum computer and made this picture of a rainbow. I also did important things.

I am a theoretical physicist. My job is to think about things. Actually doing things is left for more capable people.

The things I think about are quantum computers. In my head they are vast landscapes, populated with countless little things called called qubits. These are the quantum version of a bit, more fragile than the normal ones. So each constantly talks to its neighbours. They compare notes to try and spot signs of errors as they happen, and strengthen each other against the ravages of noise.

The qubits of my imagination are are always willing and able to follow my every order. By commanding the vast arrays of qubits, I can imagine doing all kinds of things.

One fun thing I like to do is confuse them. I give orders that aren’t entirely consistent. This makes patches of qubits that aren’t sure what to do. By changing my orders I can move these confused patches around. I can also smash them into each other and see what happens. It’s like my own little version of CERN with the confused patches as my particles.

The great thing about my particles is that they aren’t real, and so don’t need to obey the normal laws of physics. The sea of qubits acts as a new universe for the particles to live in, with its own exotic laws. With the right kind of qubit sea we can get particles that would be impossible in our universe. The most exciting of these are called anyons.

Well, that’s according to us theorists anyway. We have plenty of ideas of how you can get weird things acting as if they are impossible particles. But actually building them is another matter entirely. While I dream of a sea of countless qubits, experimentalists have to work hard to get just a handful of them to play nicely together.

But then one day, I realized that a handful would be enough. Just five qubits would be enough to dance some impossible particles around each other and see what happens.

Even so, I don’t have any qubits sitting around my office. I have to go and beg experimentalists to use theirs. It’s only in the last few years that they are able to offer more than a couple, but finally we’re at a point when five is a reasonable number. So I started to plan my begging.

But I didn’t have to plan for long. In May, IBM made a 5 qubit device. Not because they wanted to do something with it themselves. They made it for others to play with. Like me. Or you. Or anyone! All you need is internet access, and you can mess around with a little quantum computer on their website.

And so began my first experiment since I was an undergraduate. My first experiment that actually did something new and important. I made some particles of a type known as Majoranas. Then I moved them around. Then I looked to see if the results were what I expected. Other than the messiness inherent in reality, they were.

So I wrote it all up in my first experimental paper, and sent it off to a journal to get peer reviewed.

The judgement came back just before Christmas. It turns out that I am not an entirely incompetent experimentalist. The paper has now been published in the journal Quantum Science and Technology.

Now, what else can I do with this device? What can you do? You are also people who can think things. They won’t be the same as the things I think, but that is probably for the best. You can also turn your quantum thinking into action thanks to IBM. So why not go and have a play yourself? You might come up with something that we scientists would never dreamed of. If I can use it to make a new universe with impossible particles, what might you achieve?


For more info, check out my video in which I explain and repeat the experiment.