Daily Archives: April 1, 2011

Quantum spring

Futurology and science fiction have a healthy interaction. Technology futurologists like me try to second guess what tech companies will design next, rather than just reporting things they have announced. It is pretty easy usually, at least for the next 10-15 years. You can spot a lot of stuff when it is still only a dream. Starting off with an infinite idea space, ideas can occur pretty much at random, and those that are obvious non-starters can be thrown away, things that noone would ever want to make or do for example, or things that violate laws of physics. But the fact the we haven’t finished physics yet makes the second filter a bit more fun. For example, we don’t think you can do time travel, but it is theoretically possible depending which physicists you believe, maybe just incredibly difficult and expensive, and probably constrained to travel to alternative universes or with other restrictions that make it almost certainly impractical, pretty much forever. It still makes good scifi though. But fields that are still developing allow speculative inventions, things that we don’t know how to do, or even if they are possible. And there is another escape clause too. Even if something violates a law of physics, that sometimes only applies if you try to do it in a particular way. There may be an alternative mechanism that allows you to walk right past an impenetrable law-of-physics barrier, never having to try to climb over it. An example here is the speed you can transmit data down a wire. Depending how you try to do it, different laws of physics apply. I was taught on my electronics course at university that you could never send more than 2.4kbits per second down a wire because of the laws of physics. My lecturer bragged at the time that he had managed to do 19.2kbits/sec, because he used a different mechanism. The law of physics still existed, it was just not relevant to that mechanism. Moore’s Law is always one step away from another wall imposed by the laws of physics too. But as we approach the limit, someone comes up with another way of doing it that isn’t limited in that way.

I watched a documentary last night, everything and nothing, about vacuums and quantum theory. I realised just how much I’ve forgotten. But I also remembered a few ideas I once had that seemed to violate the laws of physics so I threw them in the bin. But what the hell, maybe they don’t any more, and it is April 1st anyway so if I can’t discuss them today, when can I?

The first is a sort of virtual particle laser mechanism that could be the basis of a nice weapon or a means for high speed space travel. In any region of space, virtual particles pop in and out of existence all the time, randomly. Suppose the spontaneous generation of these virtual particles could be controlled. Suppose that they could be controlled to appear all in the same direction, maybe using some sort of resonance and reinforcement, like photons in a laser beam. Presumably then, the combined aligned fields could be used to propel a ship, or be directed in a particular direction as an energy weapon. Obviously we need a way to stop the virtual particles from annihilating before we can extract useful work from them. And of course, opposite particles also generate opposite fields, so we need also to prevent them just adding to zero. I’d like to have even a half baked idea here, but my brain stops well short of getting even as far as the oven on this one. But there must be some potential in this direction.

The second is a high speed comms solution that makes optical fibre look like two bean cans and a bit of string. I called this the electron pipe. The idea is to use an evacuated tube and send a beam of high energy particles down it instead of crude floods of electrons down a wire or photons in fibres. Initially I though of using 1MeV electrons, then considered that larger particles such as neutrons might be useful too, though they would be harder to control. The wavelength of 1MeV electrons would be pretty small, allowing very high frequency signals and data rates, many times what is possible with visible photons down fibres. Would it work? Maybe, especially on short distances via carbon nanotubes for chip interconnect.

The Pauli switch is a bit more realistic. The Pauli exclusion principle means two electrons sharing the same shell must have different spins. So if one is determined by an external device, the other one is too, giving a nice way to store data or act as a simple switch. I believe IBM actually have since come up with a workable version of this, the single electron switch, so I feel better about this idea.

Next is the Heisenberg resonator. Quantum computing is hard because keeping states from collapsing for any length of time is hard. The Heisenberg resonator is a device that quite deliberately observes the quantum state forcing it to collapse, but does so at a regular frequency, clocking it like a chip in a PC. By controlling the collapse, the idea is that it can be reseeded or re-established as it was prior to collapse in such a way that the uncertainty is preserved. Then the computation can continue longer.

The Heisenberg computer is more fanciful still. The idea here is that circuits for computation are set up using switches in a large array that are activated by various events that are subject to quantum uncertainty. Unlike a quantum computer that uses qubits, this computer would have uncertain circuitry, a large pool of components, some of which may be qubits, which may or may not be connected in any way at all. Ideally therefore, it would replicate an almost infinite number of possible computers simultaneously. Since those computers comprise pretty much the whole possible computer space, a Heisenberg computer would be able to undertake any task in hardware, instantly. Then the fun starts. One of the potential tasks it might address is to use trial and error and evolutionary algorithms to build a library of circuitry for machine consciousness. It would effectively bootstrap itself. So a Heisenberg computer could be conscious and supersmart. Food for thought.

To finish off and make the most of the closing hours of April Fool’s day, I wonder of there is any mileage in a space anchor? Unlike the virtual particle vacuum energy drive, this one would use the expansion and curvature of space as its propulsion mechanism. The idea came from watching Star Wars and the stupid fighters that manage apparently to turn quickly in space using wings, and you can even hear them do so. Vacuums are not high on the physics loyalty scale in Star Wars. Space fighters would have a lot of work to do to turn round, given the lack of medium. It would all have to be done by their propulsion systems. Unless. Unless, they had some sort of space anchor that could be applied to lock on to local space and used as an anchor point to swing around. Creating some sort of massive drag on the end of a tether (I don’t know, maybe  reliant on strong force interaction with virtual particles in the quantum foam), the ship would quickly find its angular momentum used to change direction. And if an anchor could be made that anchors into space, variations in expansion of space due to local curvature could be used to drag a ship along.

I doubt that any of these ideas hold much water, but they are fun, and who knows, someone smarter might take some stimulation from them and run with them into ideas that are better.