Celebrated physicist Richard Feynman first proposed it in 1982, and now it exists: the first universal, digital quantum simulator.
Austrian scientists, who published how they created the mind-blowing simulator in the September 1 issue of journal Science,
haven't yet returned my emails (they're probably popping champers), but they've got to be are pretty stoked.
"We show in our experiment that our method works and that we can virtually recreate and investigate many systems," said Benjamin Lanyon from the Institute of Quantum Optics and Quantum Information of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, in a press release. "When we want to study another phenomenon, we only need to reprogram our simulator."
Basically, they found a way to process a crapload of information - an amount that would require a supercomputer today - using just a few quantum bits of memory, at close to the speed of light.
The memory is in the form of a handful of trapped ions controlled by laser pulses that can be used to process giant mathematical descriptions of whatever phenomenon a scientist would like to study, such as protein folding, semiconductors, or any other mysterious behavior of super tiny things.
"This is one of those computations that can be done on quantum computers that always takes second fiddle to discussions about cryptography," said Christopher Slowe, the chief scientist at Hipmunk who has a Ph.D. in physics from Harvard. "Honestly, being able to factor huge numbers is pretty amazing, but being able to efficiently simulate other quantum systems is even more amazing."
Since Feynman's proposal in the '80s, others have made incremental progress on creating a simulator. In 1996, Seth Lloyd showed a standard quantum computer could be programmed to simulate any local quantum system efficiently. Two years ago, some of the same scientists who performed the current work showed an analog simulator was possible. In that experiment, they simulated Zitterbewegung (which means quivering motion, but that sounds way boring compared to Zitterbewegung) of relativistic particles, a phenomenon that had never been observed directly in nature before. In February that same group showed that a quantum computer was possible.
The fully realized simulator opens the door for incredible amounts of information processing.
"Think of it this way," Slowe said. "They did a calculation on a handful of qubits that would probably make your fans kick in on your gigaflop with gigabytes laptop."
The system is still in the prototype stage, Lanyon said in an email. To get a fully functioning device that other scientists can use, they will need to make it bigger. "Our digital simulator is currently quite small (compared to a future full scale device), and cannot outperform existing computers at quantum simulation."
The plan is to "scale up the size and complexity of our simulator. Specifically go from using a handful of particles (ions) to several 10's. This is when things should start to get really interesting."