While it could be many years before quantum computing becomes a common presence in daily life, the technology already has been recruited to help search for life in deep space.
Quantum software company Zapata Computing is partnering with the U.K.-based University of Hull on research to evaluate Zapata’s Orquestra quantum workflow platform, to enhance a quantum application designed to detect signatures of life in deep space.
Dr David Benoit, Senior Lecturer in Molecular Physics and Astrochemistry at the University of Hull, said the evaluation is not a controlled demonstration of features, but rather a project involving real-world data. “We are looking at how Orquestra performs in actual workflows that use quantum computing to provide typical real-life data,” he told Fierce Electronics via email. “In this project, we are really aiming for real useful data rather than a demo of capabilities.”
The evaluation will run for eight weeks before the team publishes an analysis of the research. It is expected to be the first of several collaborations between Zapata and the University of Hull for quantum astrophysics applications, the parties said. The news comes as several giants in quantum computing, including Google, IBM, Amazon and Honeywell, among others, were set to attend a White House forum hosted by the Biden administration to discuss evolving uses for quantum computing.
In some cases, researchers have turned to quantum computing to tackle projects that classical computers would take too long to complete, and the University of Hull is in a similar situation, Benoit said.
He further explained, “The tests envisioned are still something that a classical computer can do, however the computational time required to obtain the solution has a factorial scaling, meaning that larger size applications are likely to take days/months/years to complete (along with a very large amount of memory). The quantum counterpart is able to solve those problems in a sub-factorial manner (potentially quartic scaling), but this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s faster for all systems, just that the computational effort is much reduced for large systems. In this application, we are aiming for a scalable way of performing accurate calculations, and this is exactly what we can obtain using quantum computers.”
Just how big is the task at hand? A statement from Zapata noted that in 2016 MIT researchers suggested a list of more than 14,000 molecules that could indicate signs of life in atmospheres of far-away exoplanets. However, little is currently known about how these molecules vibrate and rotate in response to infrared radiation generated by nearby stars. The University of Hull is trying to build a database of detectable biological signatures using new computational models of molecular rotations and vibrations.
Though fault tolerance and error correction remain a challenge for quantum computing models, Benoit said researchers are not concerned with the performance of such so-called Noisy Intermediate-Scale Quantum (NISQ) devices.
“Our method actually uses the statistical nature of the noise/errors to try and obtain an accurate answer, so we take the fact that the results will be noisy as a useful thing,” he said. “Obviously, the better the error correction or the less noisy the device, the better the outcome. However, using Orquestra enables us to potentially switch platforms without having to re-implement large parts of the code, which means that as better hardware comes along, we can readily compute with it.”
Benoit added that Orquestra will help researchers “generate valuable insights” from NISQ devices, and that researchers “can build applications that use these NISQ devices today with the capacity to leverage the more powerful quantum devices of the future.” The result should be “extremely accurate calculations of the key variable defining atom-atom interactions — electronic correlation — and thus could improve scientists’ ability to detect the building blocks of life in space. This is particularly important because even simple molecules, such as oxygen or nitrogen, have complex interactions that require very accurate calculations.”
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