Scientific Discovery Sparks Shootout in Quantum Computing Space

Arguments in the scientific world are nothing new, from Galileo and Christoph Scheiner’s quarrel about sunspots to the three-way feud on oxygen between Joseph Priestly, Carl Wilhelm Scheele and Antoine Laurant Lavoisier. But now enters the ‘qutrit’, instigator of a contretemps in quantum computing

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Rivalry

With the way the quantum computing landscape is changing dynamically with new, fabulous discoveries within the realm of quantum physics occurring from week to week, there has been little fanfare so far — apart from the odd article on the internet (including this one) — of the latest breakthrough in the discipline.

Two research teams, one based at the Austrian Academy of Sciences and led by Anton Zeilinger; and the second — whose leader is Guang-Can Guo from the University of Science and Technology of China — have independently published articles on their research into the successful teleportation of a qutrit. So far, however, it is not possible to know who was first, as both publications are under the scrutiny of peer reviews. Whoever is over the finishing line first, though, will be able to stake a claim as to being part of groundbreaking work into the development of quantum computers.

‘Each of these [experiments] is an important advance in the technology of teleportation,’

— William Wootters, a physicist at Williams College

Calculus Controversy

This story, then, mirrors one that started more than three hundred years ago. Sir Isaac Newton was probably the greatest scientist who ever lived, some would say. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, an eminent German mathematician and philosopher. Their ‘priority dispute’, otherwise known as the ‘calculus controversy’, began on the cusp of the 18th century in 1699 and lasted until Leibniz’s death in 1716. The dispute, in its essence, came about as to who had invented calculus first. In fact, the German had published his paper first, but many supporters of Newton accused Leibniz of plagiarizing the ideas that Newton had yet to publish. Today, the consensus rules that Newton and Leibniz both worked out their ideas on the topic unaided, by independent means.

So a draw then.

Sir Isaac Newton

Though the current dilemma of whose research on the qutrit came first, it does bring up the subject of intellectual property rights and the belief that scientific research is important for those conducting it.

Yet, and maybe I should have presented this right at the very beginning — what the hell is a qutrit?

‘[…] if controversies were to arise, there would be no more need of disputation between two philosophers than between two calculators. For it would suffice for them to take their pencils in their hands and to sit down at the abacus, and say to each other (and if they so wish also to a friend called to help): Let us calculate.’

— Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, on the calculus controversy with Isaac Newton

Qutrits

Qutrits are very similar to qubits. For those of you not familiar with qubits, a qubit is to quantum computers what a bit is to classical models. Unlike bits which carry information in the binary system of 0s or 1s, qubits can be either a 0, or a 1, or any variation of these. This phenomenon is called ‘superposition’ and is one of the things that sets qubits apart from bits and other things ruled by classical physics. Qutrits, on the other hand, are even more complicated: a qutrit, or quantum trit, is a superposition of three mutually orthogonal quantum states and suitable for 3-level quantum systems. Basically, a qubit represents a 2n state while a qutrit a 3n state, in essence. This means qutrits have the potential to carry much more information along quantum gates than qubits. As you can see, the potential of this discovery is immeasurable for quantum computers.

However, this is only research. Without hard facts about what has been achieved — by either the Austrians or the Chinese — it cannot be proved to be scalable and effective for future quantum architectural systems, which means very little to the field.

Bits, qubits, qutrits, qudits or ququarts (amazingly four-level systems) — there are too many to name, and with all of them, the potential is in whether, with the current technology at hand, we can manipulate them to do what we require of them.

At the moment, the Austrian team doubts what the Chinese researchers have accomplished deserves any scientific credit. Teleporting a qutrit is still, in both countries, at its elementary stage.

‘I have never grasped at fame among foreign nations, but I am very desirous to preserve my character for honesty, which the author of that epistle, as if by the authority of a great judge, had endeavoured to wrest from me.’

— Sir Issac Newton in a letter to Swiss mathematician Johann Bernoulli on the his priority dispute with Leibniz

Placing personal ambition and national pride to one side for a moment, the potential animosity this discovery may cause when one side is named the discoverer could spark off — if either Guo or his Austrian counterpart Zeilinger mirror any of the personality traits of their esteemed 18th-century company did — a quantum intellectual war.

Is that something we want?