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Quantum Computers, AI, and Beer

The author of Real Quanta sits down with Machine Design to talk about how quantum physics affects us every day.

To people with an inquisitive mind towards science and math, quantum physics might be a fun concept, but confusing to relate to in day-to-day life. Fortunately, this is a passion of Dutch scientist and writer Martijn van Calmthout. In this interview he discusses his new book, Real Quanta: Simplifying Quantum Physics for Einstein and Bohr, explaining how quantum physics is pervasive in everything from our smartphones to plants (and even beer).

Who are you, and what is your background?

I am a Dutch science journalist (56) and writer, working at De Volkskrant, a big national newspaper in The Netherlands. I am a physicist by training, but with a very broad interest in scientific subjects, from quantum physics to climate change.

Why did you write this book?

To most laypersons, quantum physics is the rocket science of today. Brimming with counterintuitive concepts and results, it is hard to imagine these are the inner workings of our reality. But quantum physics rules, and perhaps pointing out this is not just in lab experiments, but in most of real life as well, could mean people accept the weird deeper quantum realities. That was the mission.

What is a quantum computer, and what are its applications?

Quantum computers (QCs) are devices that in principle can do calculations no classic computer could do. It makes use of strange quantum rules that allow bits to be indefinite, instead of just 1 or 0. With these qubits many calculations can performed simultaneously. This can be very useful for cracking secret codes, calculating new pharmaceutical formulas, and even for understanding quantum physics better.

Would this play a role in machine learning and AI?

Yes, a big role, although it remains to be seen if and where QC can be applied. QC is at its best for problems that have overwhelmingly many possible solutions. Some AI problems are just like that. So one day we might be talking to a QC when we ask Siri a question.

Could this technology be used in manufacturing, and if so, how would it change the industry?

QC is not likely to be in everyday devices, mainly because usually the technology requires deep cooling and stable isolation. Most likely QC will be running in servers, which we will contact just like present servers. Other quantum technologies will be dominant in industry. Even now, display and lighting is feeling the quantum revolution.

Would a QC be controllable or predictable enough to trust to operate in our world, or is this the beginning of Skynet?

Quantum computers are in many ways just computers. If they scare you now, those will scare you too. But although quantum physics is weird and magic, it is not something particularly scary. On the contrary, I find quantum magic beautiful, and our discoveries in it even more so.

What do people need to understand about quantum mechanics?

People should remember atoms and smaller particles are not small billiard balls, bouncing around. They are more like waves in a pond, sailing to and fro and interfering with each other, conjuring up our everyday solid reality. They should accept it is confusing, and understand that we can use this in many fascinating and practical ways.

What do engineers need to know about quantum mechanics?

Engineers should understand stuff like transistors would not exist without quantum physics.

You said quantum physics is in everything, including beer. What does beer have to do with quantum physics?

Taste and smell are governed by single particles in tissues picking up aromatic molecules. The detection of those molecules, essential for enjoying your beer, is a quantum process—a subtle sensing of passing molecules without really binding them, like looking at passing waves without putting your boot in the water. Cheers.

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