Emerging Technologies Segment 2 – Time Crystals
It was tough deciding what to write about, not because of a shortage of options but because there is a constant flood of new and exciting developments. I feel like a kid in a candy store. What could be cooler than ‘Time Crystals”? It sounds like a new addition to the Flux Capacitor from Back to the Future – the new and improved model. Since I have written about Quantum physics and quantum computing, this is a fitting extension of the theme.
If you recall, the equivalent of a transistor in a quantum computer is a Qubit. It provides for an infinite number of possible states between 0 and 1, rather than the binary options of 0 and 1 that a transistor offers. Moore’s law, which I am sure most of you are familiar with, first postulated in 1965 by Gordon Moore, the founder of Intel, is that the number of transistors per silicon chip would double every year. This has essentially held true since then but is fast approaching its limits, if not already at the limit.
A significant factor in increasing transistor quantities on a silicon die is the manufacturing scaling process which has shrunk from 800nm (or 800 millionths of a millimeter) down to 5nm in 2020 for mass production chips (Apple’s M1 is manufactured using a 5nm process). IBM claims to have developed a 2nm chip that is 45% more performant and 75% more power-efficient than a 7nm equivalent chip. For the sake of perspective, a human hair is 80,000-100,000 nm, and a silicon atom is 0.2nm wide. So 2nm is essentially the limit of what is possible with silicon.
Part of the reason for the quantum leap promised by quantum computing over transistor-based computing is that the almost infinite ‘states’ of a Qubit obfuscate the physical limitations of the traditional chip manufacturing process. The challenge is that maintaining the state of a Qubit is substantially more challenging than that of a transistor; it requires lasers to hold the position, something not easy to achieve on scale. Hence the tiny number of Qubits in today’s most powerful quantum computers.
So, given the long preamble above, what are ‘Time Crystals,’ and how do they feature in quantum computing?
In essence, all matter as we observe it comes in one of three states: solid, liquid, or gas. A Time Crystal is, in fact, another state of matter created using Google’s quantum computer. Still, in essence, a Time Crystal breaks some traditional laws of physics, most notably the third law of thermodynamics, in that it is a crystal where the atomic structure flips back and forth indefinitely (a form of perpetual motion), unlike a traditional crystal with a fixed molecular lattice of atoms (think of a diamond which is simply a lattice arrangement of carbon atoms). So, how is this useful in Quantum Computing? The thinking, and it is currently only theoretical, is that a time crystal could be the “new transistor” equivalent for a quantum computer where a laser could freeze and release the “flip-flop” structure of Time Crystals in an infinite range of positions rather like the way electricity is used to “switch” transistors on and off in a silicon-based chip. If Time Crystals prove to be the Holy Grail that unlocks the wider potential of Quantum computing, we will see a quantum leap in the development of technologies beyond our wildest dreams.