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December 13, 2013

Einstein, IBM, and Data Workloads of the Future

Isaac Lopez

In the mid-1920s, scientists Satyendranath Bose and Albert Einstein predicted a quantum mechanical phenomenon known as the Bose-Einstein Condensate (BEC), a unique phase of matter that exists at temperatures close to absolute zero, and that has implications for quantum computing. This week, IBM announced a scientific breakthrough, saying it has produced the effect at room temperatures.

The BEC phenomenon essentially does for matter what coherence does for photons in the production of lasers. By getting atoms to vibrate uniformly, IBM hopes to be able to create a new class of energy-efficient lasers and ultra-fast optical switches that could have considerable implications for data workloads of the future.

Per IBM:

IBM scientists around the world are focused on an ambitious data centric exascale computing program, which is aimed at developing systems that can process massive data workloads fifty times faster than today. Such a system will need optical interconnects capable of high-speed processing of Petabytes to Exabytes of Big Data. This will enable high-performance analytics for: energy grids, life sciences, financial modelling, business intelligence and weather and climate forecasting. 

For more color on the BEC phenomenon, NOVA produced a documentary in which Daniel Kleppner of the MIT Department of Physics lays it out for the lay person:

Traditionally, the BEC phenomenon has thought to require extreme temperatures – nearly absolute zero (-273 Celsius, -459 Farenheit), and in 1995 this effect was first produced at these temperatures at the University of Colorado at Boulder’s NIST-JILA lab by Eric Cornell and Carl Wieman, who later received a Nobel Prize in Physics for the accomplishment. This week, IBM’s scientists published a paper in Nature Materials in which they contends they’ve produced the effect at room temperatures using mirrors, lasers, and a thin plastic film.

More from IBM:

In the experiment, a thin polymeric layer is placed between two mirrors and excited with laser light. This thin plastic film is approximately 35 nanometers thick, for comparison a sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick. The bosonic particles are created through interaction of the polymer material and light which bounces back and forth between the two mirrors… The phenomenon only lasts for a few picoseconds (one trillionth of a second), but the scientists believe this is already long enough to use the bosons to create a source of laser-like light and/or an optical switch for future optical interconnects. These components are important building blocks to control the flow of information in the form of zeroes and ones between future chips and can significantly speed up their performance while using much less energy.

“That BEC would be possible using a polymer film instead of the usual ultra-pure crystals defied our expectations,” said Dr. Thilo Stoferle, a physicist, at IBM Research. “It’s really a beautiful example of quantum mechanics where one can directly see the quantum world on a macroscopic scale.” 

The next step, says IBM, is for scientists to do more research in trying to control the properties of the unique state and “evaluate possible applications including analog quantum simulations,” which they say could be used to model very complex scientific phenomena such as superconductivity.

While the technology that may come from this is still in its theoretical phase, the breakthrough has the potential for computing well beyond our current imaginings. With all the recent talk of Moore’s law ending, could this be the shot in the arm that the theory needs? Time will tell.

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