If humans designed plants, they’d be black, and they would completely transform our world.
Green plants depend on a three billion year old technology. Everyone you have ever met, and everything you have ever eaten, exists because of oxygenic photosynthesis. But viewed through the lens of human technology, photosynthesis is a failure — only about 1% efficient. Why on earth is it green? Most of the energy in sunlight is in that part of the spectrum. Why do plants reflect and waste those photons?
The Purple Earth Hypothesis suggests that plants are green because of a three-million-year-old evolutionary battle royale between retinal (a light-sensitive chemical that is allowing you to read this sentence) and chlorophyll. Ancient Haloarchaea organisms used retinal to harvest the green-yellow energy-rich region of the solar spectrum. That strategy was a roaring success. They dominated the oceans, turning them purple. Cyanobacteria evolved chlorophyll and managed to survive on the scraps of red and blue photons that fell from Haloarchaea’s table, until the toxic oxygen that the Cyanobacteria produced slaughtered the Haloarchaea and other anaerobic life. Thus, the Cyanobacteria terraformed the oxygen-rich world that allows us to exist.
Our lives depend on a two-and-a-half-billion-year-old grudge match that just happened to work out in our favor. If we continue terraforming our world by deriving 80% of our energy from fossil fuels, we are headed the way of Haloarchaea.
We hardly understand most natural technologies, like photosynthesis, that support our modern lives. We cannot simulate photosynthesis on a classical computer. We don’t really understand how it works, nor can we create an artificial version that is anywhere near as good at turning sunlight into the most efficient form of energy storage — chemical bonds.
The fact is that humans exist at the grace of a suboptimal three-billion-year-old hack. And we’ve created an environment where all of it, including ourselves, is threatened. Photosynthesis is but one example of many natural technologies that are beyond value, something that we must learn lessons from, and then move beyond if we are going to survive.
The good news is that this is within our grasp. We’re finally building machines that actually use the quantum nature of the physical universe. We’re on the cusp of deploying quantum computers to tackle the very mechanism of capturing light and turning it into useful energy. Photosynthesizing plants do this with the help of a complex enzyme called RuBisCO. But RuBisCO evolved very early on in a carbon-rich atmosphere, and now that plants exist on an oxygen-rich earth — an environment that supports animals like us — the chemical pathway that RuBisCO kicks off is actually relatively wasteful.
A quantum computer could help us design new catalysts or enzymes, a simpler protein that could be orders of magnitude simpler than RuBisCO and more efficient in taking the energy of a photon and putting it into a chemical bond. Perhaps quantum computing will lead to an RNA-based, self-replicating molecule that we could carpet on ponds to sequester carbon dioxide directly out of the air and produce protein and carbohydrates for food — carbon nanotubes, even. Perhaps we could set it to work to create ammonia directly from sunlight and air producing green fertilizer or a versatile and entirely new fuel to store and transport renewable energy — liquid sunshine.
It’s not as impossible as it sounds. Making this quantum leap is not so different from any other leap that humans have made, like the one we made over a century ago into the air. When it came to creating aircraft, we didn’t copy birds. Birds are infinitely more complex than a 787, birds have feathers, metabolism, beaks etc. Yet 787s fly and have significantly more overhead luggage space. Artificial photosynthesis could be immeasurably simpler than its natural counterpart, and much more efficient once it shrugs off the technical debt of its evolution.
This may sound far-fetched, but the reality of building a better photosynthesizing catalyst with the help of quantum computers is closer than most believe. Step one is to develop tooling and algorithmic approaches. We need to know what problems we want answered, and we need to cast them in a form that can have quantum advantage, that makes them uniquely facile for quantum computers to tackle. These steps are already well-underway in academia, but increasingly in industry and at quantum-focused software startups.
At least one company has been quietly developing the underlying technology to create a large-scale practical quantum computer. By leveraging the trillions of dollars that have been previously invested in semiconductors and telecommunications technologies they are approaching their goal. In my estimation, they’re only a handful of years away from having a useful, fault tolerant quantum computer capable of designing the catalysts required to make various forms of artificial photosynthesis a reality.
Many Fortune 50 companies are already making investments in quantum algorithms and applications, and several are collaborating with the emerging hardware makers on applications across pharma, materials, chemistry and finance. If you want to dip your toe in the quantum pond, and get a sense of what it is like to develop algorithms and run software on a quantum computer, I might suggest an approachable 300-plus page primer on how to “kick-start a new computing revolution.”
Progressing from the current published state-of-the-art with ~100 physical qubit machines to truly powerful machines with millions or billions of physical qubits will be like moving from a doghouse to a cathedral. There are any number of ways you can take a pile of wood and a bunch of nails and bang together a shed for Snoopy, but to build Notre-Dame de Paris you need more sophisticated engineering and architecture—flying buttresses and vaulted ceilings, etc. While it seems we only have a few doghouses at the moment, quantum cathedrals and skyscrapers are much closer than most people realize.
But I do think it is a human imperative, that if we are going to spend money on technology, quantum computing is the singular place to put it. Facing climate change and other great challenges without it is somewhere between perilous and catastrophic.
We need to put aside our caveman tools of digging and burning. By embracing new tools that allow us to understand and orchestrate the beautiful quantum strangeness of nature, we can live equitably on this planet without relying on rapacious and disastrous consumption of resources. We can produce all the stuff we need to be fed and comfortable and wealthy, without making this place a dump. And with the tools to understand and re-imagine nature’s technology, we just might make it happen.
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