Portrait of Seth Loyd on a red couch; black-and-white-gradient

"The Universe is a quantum computer”

Seth Lloyd designed the first viable blueprint for a quantum computer 25 years ago, setting off a technological revolution.

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Pioneer, guru, even revolutionary leader: These are the words often used to describe Seth Lloyd. Lloyd is not only one of the most brilliant minds in his field – with his endearingly nerdy demeanor and enthusiasm for what he does, the professor of mechanical engineering and physics at MIT enchants both colleagues and laypersons alike. He is driven in his work by one of the most elementary questions of humanity: What does it all mean? But he is also driven by a desire to get to the bottom of questions about the Universe posed by his doctoral advisor, the world­renowned Heinz Pagels, at the end of the ’80s. 

The breakthrough came to the quantum mechanic, as Lloyd likes to call himself, in 1993: He designed the first viable blueprint for a quantum computer, setting off a technological revolution. What has become one of the central and most exciting research fields in the IT sector used to be a niche topic without hope for success. “Back then, I had 10 difficult years behind me. Despite having degrees from Harvard and Cambridge, no one wanted me. My topic – the interplay of information with complex systems, especially quantum systems – hardly interested anyone back then. Today it’s completely different, everyone wants to talk about quantum physics and quantum mechanics,” said Lloyd.

Parallel statt Linear

Portrait of Seth Loyd on a red couch

Seth Lloyd (58) studied at Harvard and Cambridge and received his doctorate from Rockefeller University in 1988 for “Black Holes, Deamons and the Loss of Coherence: How complex systems get information, and what they do with it.” He then worked as a postdoctoral fellow at Caltech and the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Since 2002 he has been Professor of Mechanical Engineering and since 2014 Professor of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute  of Technology (MIT). He deals with complex systems, particularly quantum systems, and has made significant contributions to the fields of quantum informatics, quantum communications, and quantum biology.

Today, quantum computers are looked at with great hope. “They solve certain problems that the best supercomputers can’t solve. Instead of classical bits, which can be in one of two possible states – 1 or 0 – quantum bits or ‘qubits’ are in both states at the same time. They compute in parallel instead of linearly,” explained Lloyd. A quantum computer with 50 qubits could therefore be in 2 to the 50th power states simultaneously. That equals 1,125,899,906,842,624 states. Experts predict that such a computer would reach “quantum supremacy”, or the moment in which a quantum computer exceeds the best conventional supercomputer in performing a task. IBM, Intel, Google, and other companies are investing a great amount of money in the area and have already been working on these types of computers with great success. The only problem is qubits are highly sensitive and lose their superposition state at the slightest disruption. This is what makes building quantum computers so difficult. 

“The problems they should be able to solve include special algorithms in cryptology as well as optimizing machine learning and artificial intelligence. Even real time systems that not only need to analyze and optimize a lot of data simultaneously but also work with pattern detection using AI to make predictions would have considerable help from the enormous computing capacity of quantum computers,” said Lloyd. Above all, quantum computers are superbly suited for use in industry 4.0, especially for optimization processes in IoT environments. Lloyd is currently working with a major German carmaker on a solution that prevents production errors in real time before they occur – in “predictive real time”, so to speak.

Groundbreaking Technology

Lloyd believes quantum computers will be ready for the market no sooner than five years from now. But engineers, technicians, and researchers can already develop the applications and algorithms of the future using what are known as quantum simulators. At any rate, companies need to address the topic to bring their IT security up to date, since quantum computers will be capable of cracking complex encryption technology. Quantum computers can be used to meet the great challenges of humanity, develop innovations to manage the infrastructure of megacities, cure diseases, or counteract climate change. In short: Quantum computing could become the groundbreaking technology of the 21st century. 

Lloyd takes it one step further. He argues the Universe itself is one great quantum computer running a cosmic program. “The Universe is constantly processing information at the fundamental level. Everything happening around us feeds information into this ongoing program – and what comes out is nothing less than reality itself,” summarized Lloyd. “If we can use quantum computing at the smallest level of atoms, photons, and elemental particles, we will also be capable of deciphering the Universe.” And somehow it would not be surprising if Seth Lloyd were to hack into the Universe one day – and come back with answers that would advance what is practically a standard work on quantum physics: “The Cosmic Code. Quantum Physics as the Language of Nature”. The publication, given the Science Writing Award by the American Institute of Physics, was written by Lloyd’s doctoral advisor, Heinz Pagels. The German­American physicist remains deeply connected to Lloyd to this day, well beyond his death. As a young doctoral candidate, Lloyd was there when, in the summer of 1988, his doctoral advisor died in a mountain climbing accident on Pyramid Peak in Colorado. Many of Pagels’ scientific questions have been left unanswered.

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Author: Sabine Waffenschmidt
Photos: Dimitry Rozhkow

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