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January 19, 2018

Quantum Computers: Time Crystals Explained

By Special Guest
Diane Keller, business strategist and finance columnist

“Can time translation symmetry be spontaneously broken?” poses Frank Wilczek, Nobel (News - Alert) prizewinning physicist, to Uppsala University students in his presentation on time crystals. Pointing to two recently-published and groundbreaking experiments concerning the observations of time crystals, “The answer is clearly yes.”



Only in the past year has it become evident that the answer is, as Wilczek puts it, is “clearly yes.” When he proposed the idea of time crystals, or spontaneously breaking time translation symmetry, it seemed to be science fiction. Only five years later, however, two labs have successfully synthesized it.

Why is the discovery of time crystals so groundbreaking? Scientifically, the discovery is more than just a little intriguing. When applied to applications in quantum computing, the discovery is even more astounding and immediate.

Powering quantum computers with time crystals could help us create immensely powerful programs, ones that could potentially disrupt finance with advanced financial modeling systems powered by AI, accelerate market research greatly, and optimize a slew of industries and tasks, from city planning to airline scheduling.

But what exactly is a time crystal? First, it’s important to understand time translation symmetry, a too-long term that describes a not-too-complicated concept.

Time translation symmetry is the principle that tells us that laws stay the same over time.

They are not liable to change in one moment to the next. “Symmetry is a dominant theme in modern physics,” Wilczek explains.

“It was very helpful in leading to fundamental equations we use in the description of nature’s basic laws.”

He continues,

“Among symmetries, perhaps the most fundamental of them all is time translation symmetry.”

Our common sense may tells us that this kind of symmetry would remain unbroken, regardless of the circumstance.

But, the idea of breaking these symmetries is nothing new. “Spontaneous breaking of spatial translation symmetry is commonplace,” Wilczek informs us. “Spatial translation symmetry tells us that the laws are the same at different places. [It] is often broken.

Most common materials like to form crystals at low temperatures, where space is not homogenous.” So, if crystals in space are possible, he ventures, does it not follow that crystals in time are also possible? That is, if we can arrange atoms in a certain pattern, like in a crystal, can’t matter be arranged in a pattern of time?

This question raises another: what would qualify as a time crystal? Wilczek provides an explanation for the idea in loose, non-technical terms, “Events that are periodic in time, that would be a time crystal.”

In this broad definition, a beating heart or a ticking clock would qualify as a time crystal. But these structures are complicated and imprecise. To test time crystals, researchers would need to test on a much smaller, simpler scale.

Researchers at the University of Maryland and a separate research group at Harvard University, only a handful of years after Wilczek proposed the idea, did just that to power their own quantum computing technologies.

The two teams synthesized time crystals in their own labs, using vastly different approaches. University of Maryland set up a chain of ions. Harvard’s team exploited a spatial crystal, a diamond, to arrive at their time crystal.

As a result, the idea of spontaneously breaking time translation symmetry, or time crystals, is one now closely related to quantum computers, computers far more powerful than our most advanced supercomputers, utilizing the quantum mechanics property of superposition, which is the ability, in this context, for a bit to be either 1 or 0, or a combination of these states.

“The recent breakthrough experiments,” Wilczek elucidates about the experiments conducted at University of Maryland and Harvard University, “were concerned with what are called ‘Floquet time crystals.’”

These experiments dealt with what are called discrete time crystals. “In those systems,” he elaborates, “there is a periodic driver term, so time translation symmetry is broken from the get-go.” Meaning the system is already not in equilibrium. “However, what happens is that the response of the system is less symmetric than the driving force… So we violate a discrete version of time translation spontaneously.”

In other words, discrete time crystals can exist. And, perhaps more interestingly, may have applications within quantum computing. It is in searching for a way to stably power this powerful and volatile quantum computing technology that researchers were able to create the previously-theoretically-impossible time crystals.

Quantum (News - Alert) computers are very delicate, their clock has to be very precise,” Wilczek explains. “Time crystals might provide nice global clocks, or even substrates, for quantum computing.” To create a reliable infrastructure for quantum computers, an incredibly precise global clock would be needed. Storing quantum memory, a frightfully difficult task, might be made easier with the use of time crystals as well, thereby circumventing major hurdles to the advancement of quantum computing.

“Time crystals,” Wilczek says succinctly about their use in quantum computing toward the close of his presentation to the Uppsala University students, “are just what the doctor ordered.”

About the Author: Dr. Diane Schleier-Keller is a business strategist and finance columnist. She has 3 years of experience in M&A and has been traveling the world to help train entrepreneurs to succeed in their business. You may also connect with her on Twitter.




Edited by Mandi Nowitz
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