Researchers will use models of biological molecules created by quantum computers to assist in the hunt for biosignatures in the atmospheres of distant worlds.
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“Is there life elsewhere in the Universe?”
It’s a question that has haunted mankind since we first discovered that the stars that populate the night sky are bodies just like our sun and that they possess planets just like the worlds of the solar system.
Asking these questions isn’t just the remit of daydreamers and science fiction authors, however. The search for life elsewhere in the cosmos is the subject of major and important scientific research.
One such endeavor is the collaboration between the University of Hull and software company Zapata Computing. The aim of this union is to leverage mutual expertise in the search for life in deep space.
In order to conduct this research, the collaboration will rely on the impressive computing power of quantum computers.
The aim of the team is not to follow the admirable work of the SETI Institute, which searches for life by hunting radio waves and other electromagnetic radiation that could indicate the presence of intelligent life.
Instead, the University of Hull will train this quantum platform to help in the hunt for something much more basic, namely the biological molecules passed into a planet’s atmosphere that could indicate that the work of life is occurring at the world’s surface, or even beneath it.
Looking For Life in the Universe Starts With Looking For Life in a Box
The team will begin their research by repurposing Zapata’s quantum workflow platform Orquestra, in order to develop it into a program that can facilitate the development of sophisticated astrophysical models and assist in their application.
Even though quantum computers are currently flawed devices, exceptionally vulnerable to data loss as the result of environmental factors, and limited in terms of the number of calculations that they can perform before running into significant errors, University of Hull researchers believe that of the current generation of Noisy Intermediate-Scale Quantum (NISQ) devices, Zapata’s has the capability to deliver valuable insights.
The NISQ era of quantum computing describes the current progress of this technology that relies on the associated phenomena of quantum physics to perform computational operations.
Whereas the fundamental units of classical computing are bits, capable of taking “on” and “off” states, the standard units of quantum computing, qubits, are capable of existing in a superposition of states, thus massively boosting their computational power.
The most common way of describing the concept of superposition is the thought experiment of Schrodinger’s cat. In this purely hypothetical experiment devised by Erwin Schrodinger, a cat is placed in a box with a diabolical device, a poison dispenser that is designed in such a way that it is triggered by the decay of an atomic nucleus.
When the box is sealed and the experimenter can no longer see the cat, if we treat it as a quantum system then the cat is described as being in a superposition of states, namely simultaneously dead and alive.
Opening the box causes a collapse of states—the superposition of states is gone and the cat is either dead or alive.
NISQ devices currently contain between 50 and 100 qubits but are still not robust enough to achieve what is quantum supremacy. That is because in terms of the Schrodinger's Cat thought experiment the “box” these qubits exist in is too easily opened, destroying their superposition.
Of course, the lifeforms that the University of Hull proposes to use quantum computing and NISQ devices to hunt for are slightly more exotic than Erwin Schrodinger’s unfortunate cat.
Hunting for the Building Blocks of Life With Quantum Created Models
To hunt for extraterrestrial life, the research team will build upon a 2016 list of biosignature molecules that Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers developed and published in the journal Astrobiology. The MIT team defines these molecules as potentially indicating the presence of life when detected in the atmospheres of extra-solar planets (exoplanets): worlds outside the solar system.
The problem with hunting for these biosignatures in the atmosphere of exoplanets is that the current generation of telescopes is not quite powerful enough to do this. This is something that is likely to change with the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) later this year.
Yet, even with this boosted observational power, researchers will still need to understand how the molecules that represent biosignatures rotate and vibrate. Thus, in order to prepare for data of exoplanet atmospheres delivered by the JWST a database of these rotations and vibrations would be immensely useful.
It just so happens that building highly accurate models on highly accurate calculations is one of the specialties of even the current, admittedly flawed, generation of quantum computers.
The University of Hull team intends to use the advanced quantum workflow platform Orquestra from Zapata to model the rotations and vibrations of these molecules. The process will lead to a database of detectable biological signatures.
In the process of doing this the University of Hull team, Zapata, and quantum computing could put mankind on a path that could redefine its place in the cosmos.
References and Further Reading
Zapata, (2021). https://www.zapatacomputing.com/
Seager. S., Bains. W., Petkowski. J. J., , ‘Toward a List of Molecules as Potential Biosignature Gases for the Search for Life on Exoplanets and Applications to Terrestrial Biochemistry,’ Astrobiology, [DOI: 10.1089/ast.2015.1404]