WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Scientists have long wondered what the smallest unit that could sustain life and replicate itself would be, and now they know.
Scientists have created quantum artificial life for the first time using a revolutionary new quantum algorithm and IBM’s experimental quantum computing platform. The teams experiment combined the fields of artificial life, which, yes is a real “thing,” that’s dedicated to emulating the living behaviors of living biological organisms in artificial systems, and quantum computing, a new form of computing platform that will not only revolutionise how we process information, but also do it at a speed hundreds of millions times faster than today’s silicon based computing systems.
In the study, which was published in Scientific Reports, Lucas Lamata and his team from the University of the Basque Country in Spain developed a quantum algorithm that built on theoretical work set out in 2015. At that time, the team had wanted to find out the minimum size a system would need to be and still be able to self-replicate – the hallmark, according to many experts, of life.
“Is it more at the macroscopic scale, like in the DNA molecule, or could it be in small, few atom systems with quantum properties such as entanglement?” Lamata told Newsweek.
Their findings in 2015 suggested it could indeed exist on a quantum scale so they went about designing a computer algorithm that could show it happening that they then ran on IBM’s experimental IBMQX4 Quantum Computing as a Service (QCaaS) platform which indeed showed “life,” by their definition at least, could exist at this scale.
“We wanted to know whether emergent behaviors of macroscopic biological systems could be reproduced at the microscopic quantum level,” he said. “What we found in this research is that very small quantum devices with a few quantum bits could already emulate self-replication, combining standard biological properties, such as the genotype and phenotype, with genuine quantum properties, such as quantum entanglement and superposition,” he said.
The team first developed a model of a “minimal quantum system” that could self-replicate and then ran it on IBM’s system. In the model, one quantum bit, called a qubit, represented the genetic information, or genotype, while another qubit represented the interaction with the environment. The results showed the system could indeed self-replicate and that quantum properties, such as entanglement, are crucial for the full propagation, or passing down, of the quantum information to the subsequent generations – hence it was determined that the system was indeed self-replicating and met the criteria for artificial life.
“We also included mutations as random processes occurring to the quantum bits,” he added.
“Artificial life in general, not only the quantum one, is a broad research field in which different approaches are followed, ranging from self-assembling robots, to self-reproducing computing programs and chemical molecules, to real neurons that are artificially manipulated in the lab,” Lamata said. “It is a diverse area that may produce a wide range of applications in science and technology in the future. What we did it is to add the quantum ingredient, namely, we envisioned a minimal quantum system with self-replicating behaviour – a minimal quantum version of life, when combined with mutations and interactions to enable a quantum Darwinian evolution.”
While there are limitations to the work, such as the fact it only uses two qubits and each qubit was only capable of demonstrating one generation of the process, or evolution, the applications are needless to say potentially far reaching.
“We strongly believe that there are connections of our model with quantum game theory and quantum optimization algorithms. Namely, one may encode an optimization problem in quantum individuals that compete for resources, self-replicate, mutate, and interact.”
This sort of system, Lamata explains, could give rise to semiautonomous quantum devices that would have computing possibilities far beyond our current technology.
He also said you could eventually get a whole living artificial system that evolves which, from my perspective at least, would be amazing to see – albeit very very freaky. Sci fi eat your heart out. But all that said though there’s one big question on most people’s lips – could quantum artificial life become sentient?
“This is our main dream,” Lamata said, “and sentient artificial beings could also develop consciousness, of the same or different kind than ours. These are questions of today that may require a century to be answered.” And when we talk about the rise of sentient machines, well, it would be remiss of me not to mention another interesting algorithm that popped up recently that the designers think could one day, sooner rather than later, give rise to the first generation of sentient Artificial Super Intelligent (ASI) machines. And that’s another level of crazy right there…