Scientists use quantum computers to discover signs of life on other planets

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Scientists will use quantum computing tools to eventually identify molecules in space that could be precursors to life.

Image: Alan Dyer / VW PICS / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Quantum computers help researchers explore the universe in search of life outside our planet – and while it is far from certain that they will find real aliens, the results of the experiment could be almost as exciting.

Zapata Computing, a quantum software service provider, has announced a new partnership with the University of Hull, UK, in which scientists will use quantum computing tools to ultimately identify molecules in space that could be the precursors of life.

During the eight-week program, quantum resources are combined with classic computer tools in order to resolve complex calculations with greater accuracy, with the ultimate goal of finding out whether quantum computers can meaningfully advance the work of astrophysicists despite the current limitations of the technology.

See also: There are two types of quantum computers. Now a company wants to offer both.

Discovering life in space is as difficult as it sounds. It all boils down to finding evidence of molecules that have the potential to create and sustain life – and because scientists don’t have the means to observe the molecules themselves, they have to resort to alternative methods.

Usually, astrophysicists pay attention to light that can be analyzed through telescopes. This is because light – for example, infrared radiation generated by nearby stars – often interacts with molecules in space. And when this is the case, the particles vibrate, rotate and absorb some of the light, leaving a specific signature on the spectral data that can be recorded by scientists on Earth.

The only thing left for the researchers to do is recognize these signatures and trace which molecules they correspond to.

The problem? MIT researchers previously found that over 14,000 molecules could indicate signs of life in the atmosphere of exoplanets. In other words, there is still a long way to go before astrophysicists can create a database of all the different ways these molecules could interact with light – all the signatures they should look for when pointing their telescopes at other planets .

This is the challenge that the University of Hull has risen to: the institution’s astrophysics center hopes to create a database of verifiable biological signatures.

For more than two decades, explains David Benoit, Senior Lecturer in Molecular Physics and Astrochemistry at the University of Hull, researchers have been using traditional means to predict these signatures. Nevertheless, the process quickly runs out of steam.

The calculations made by the researchers at the Hull Center describe exactly how electrons interact with one another within a molecule of interest – think of hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and so on. “On classic computers we can describe the interactions, but the problem is that this is a factorial algorithm, which means that the more electrons you have, the faster your problem grows,” says Benoit ZDNet.

“We can do it with two hydrogen atoms, for example, but when you have something much bigger, like CO2, you lose your nerve a little bit because you’re using a supercomputer, and even they don’t. don’t have enough memory or processing power to do just that. ”

The simulation of these interactions with classical means is therefore ultimately at the expense of accuracy. But as Benoit says, you don’t want to be the one to claim you discovered life on an exoplanet when it was actually something else.

In contrast to classical computers, however, quantum systems are based on the principles of quantum mechanics – those that determine the behavior of particles on the smallest scale: the same principles that underlie the behavior of electrons and atoms in a molecule.

This prompted Benoit to approach Zapata with a “crazy idea”: to use quantum computers to solve the quantum problem of life in space.

“The system is a quantum thing, so instead of a classic computer that has to simulate all quantum things, you can take a quantum thing and measure it in order to try to extract the desired quantum data,” explains Benoit.

Quantum computers could therefore by their very nature allow precise calculations of the patterns that define the behavior of complex quantum systems such as molecules without the enormous computing power that a classic simulation would require.

The data on the behavior of electrons obtained from quantum computation can then be combined with classical methods to simulate the signature of molecules of interest in space when they come into contact with light.

It remains true that the quantum computers currently available for this type of calculation are limited: most systems do not break the 100 qubit number, which is not enough to model very complex molecules.

See also: Preparation for the “golden age” of artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Benoit explains that this didn’t deter the center’s researchers. “We take something small and extrapolate the quantum behavior from this small system to the real one,” says Benoit. “We can already use the data we get from some qubits because we know the data is accurate. Then we can extrapolate.”

That’s not to say the time has come to get rid of the centre’s supercomputers, Benoit continues. The program is only just starting, and over the next eight weeks the researchers will find out if it is even possible to extract this exact physics on a small scale with the help of a quantum computer for large scale calculations.

“She’s trying to see how far we can take quantum computing,” says Benoit, “and see if it really works, if it’s really as good as we think it is.”

If successful, the project could represent an early use case for quantum computing – one that could demonstrate the usefulness of the technology despite its current technical limitations. That in itself is a pretty good achievement; the next milestone could be the discovery of our exoplanet neighbors.


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