Snow falls. Snow melts. Water evaporates. Snow returns.
Simple, no? Well, time crystals would beg to differ.
As the Laws of Thermodynamics go, atoms and molecules tend to settle in the state which costs them the least energy to hold. This is why you see snowflakes look the same over and over, why ice doesn’t show up from the freezer wearing fancy outfits, and why water is water and plasma is… plasma.
But that’s matter as we know it. Time crystals are something entirely different — they are the next phase of matter — one we have never seen before.
Google’s researchers and a team of physicists at Stanford, Princeton, and other universities published a paper (you can read the paper here) that used Google’s quantum computer at Sycamore to demonstrate one of the first ever genuine time crystals.
But, what are time crystals?
A time crystal is a newly discovered phase of matter in which particles can move in a regular, repeating cycle without burning any energy. They can do this forever, essentially rendering the Second Law of Thermodynamics useless. A time crystal absorbs no energy from its surroundings to keep going; it just simply does.
And this brings us to snow. Snow is cold when it lands on Earth, but the heat around it gradually fills it and melts it back into water. This water—subject to the right amount of heat—evaporates and the cycle repeats. Time crystals do all this, but without needing any external heat. They go from being snow to water to snow and back again without using any energy at all.
Richard Feynman. In the 1980s, Richard Feynman was hunting for a window into the quantum universe but ran into a major roadblock. The cost of the computing power he needed for quantum calculations rose exponentially as he dove deeper into the problem.
But then, as genius physicists usually do, he hit a breakthrough. He reasoned that classical computers, despite rising R&D investments, would never scale fast enough to keep pace with quantum physics’ calculations. So what if we built a computer made of quantum particles?
The idea of the quantum computer was born. But quantum computers are a finicky lot. They run on qubits—the basic unit of quantum information. A classical bit holds information in binary—0 or 1. But qubits can hold information in 0 and 1 at the same time.
This gives it the ability to align with subatomic rules but also makes it a hard to control and highly error-prone particle that decays easily. But time crystals can replace these capricious qubits, probably making them just the update quantum computers needed.
So how do you make a time crystal?
The phase of matter which can exist as a time crystal can be prepared with three special ingredients:
Take a row of small particles and assume that each has its own magnetic orientation or “spin”. Normally, if these particles are asked to settle into an arrangement, they will form one that costs the least energy to maintain. But, sometimes, random interference can throw water on their parade and leave these particles stuck in patterns that cost high energy to hold—like a tough yoga asana. This phenomenon is called many-body localization.
Now, if we take these many-body localized particles and flip each one’s spin, you can get another stable many-body localized state — a special pattern called the eigenstate order.
Now, if you tickle these particles with a laser, they will start moving around and flipping their spins in a repeating cycle. This cycle will require no energy to happen and nor will it ever stop or overheat. It will constantly keep changing and regaining its configurations without using the slightest iota of energy.
And once you make this happen, pause and congratulate yourself. You have just built a time crystal. Also, this is one of the few recipes where the special ingredient isn’t ‘love’—another cause for celebration.
Where to from here?
Google’s time crystal discovery is so big that we don’t really know what it spells for mankind. What we know for sure is that it rubbishes a couple of Newton’s laws, defies Einstein’s theories, and proves Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek right.
Quantum computers powered by time crystals can also pave the way to future breakthroughs. Consider the quantum supremacy experiment Google ran in 2019, which showed that a qubit-powered machine finished a calculation in 3 minutes 20 seconds that would have taken one of the world’s most powerful supercomputers—the IBM Summit—thousands of years (IBM says it would have taken only 2.5 days).
Nonetheless, the possibilities it opens up are limited only by our imagination. Teleportation? Maybe. Warp drives? Uh huh. Trips to Mars? Solar System hikes? Medical technology that can cure any disease — especially with the advances Big Data has already made? Count. Us. In.
innovation labs chase the next big breakthrough and not profits. But time crystals can change that. If the team’s discovery holds true, time crystals will transform computing forever and turn out to be humanity’s biggest ever eureka moment.
Although Google may have moved the needle from ‘maybe never’ to ‘maybe in a few decades’ with this discovery, they did set the ball rolling on sustainable computing. But the discovery’s magnitude is so staggering that it almost flips the tale of humanity’s fate. The good old prehistoric Neanderthal rubbed stones together to spark fire. Today, we have time crystals to rub together—and it is entirely up to our collective intelligence to choose which fires we spark.
Ever since smartphones kicked up a storm a decade or so ago, Mutual Mobile has been leading the charge with app and digital innovation. Nothing excites us more than solving tomorrow’s impossible question today. And that’s key, because if recent times are anything to go by, early movers have all the pros and none of the cons.
So if you’re looking to discover your business’s time crystal—that differentiating edge which lets you scale big and fast—reach out and talk to us. We may just hit upon something.