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October 19, 2018
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There’s now proof that quantum computers can outperform classical machines

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The hype around quantum computing is real. But to fully realize the promise of quantum computing, it’ll still take a few years of research and scientific breakthroughs. And indeed, it still remains to be seen if quantum computers will ever live up to the hype. Today, though, we got mathematical proof that there are really calculations that quantum computers will definitely be able to perform faster than any classical computer.

What we have today are quantum computers with a very limited number of qubits and short coherence time. Those limitations put a damper on the amount of computation you can perform on those machines, but they still allow for some practical work. Unsurprisingly, researchers are very interested in seeing what they can do with the current set of available machines. Because they have such short coherence time before the system becomes chaotic and useless for any computations, you can only perform a relatively small number of operations on them. In quantum computing speak, that’s “depth,” and today’s systems are considered shallow.

Science today published a paper (“Quantum advantage with shallow circuits”) by Sergey Bravyi of IBM Research, David Gosset of the University of Waterloo’s Institute for Quantum Computing and Robert König of the Institute for Advanced Study and Zentrum Mathematik, Technische Universität München. In this paper, the researchers prove that a quantum computer with a fixed circuit depth is able to outperform a classical computer that’s tackling the same problem because the classical computer will require the circuit depth to grow larger, while it can stay constant for the quantum computer.

There is very little that’s intuitive about quantum computing, of course, but it’s worth remembering that quantum computers are very different from classical computers.

“Quantum circuits are not just basically the same but different from classical circuits,” IBM Q Ecosystem and Strategy VP Bub Sutor told me. Classic circuits, […]they are bits, they are zeros and ones, and there’s binary logic, ANDs, ORs, NOTs and things like. The very, very basic gate sets, the types of operations you can do in quantum are different. When these qubit are actually operating, with this notion of superposition you have much, much more to operate elbow room, not just two bits. You actually have a tremendous amount of more room here.” And it’s that additional room you get, because qubits can encode any number and not just zeros and ones, that allows them to be more powerful than a classical computer in solving the specific kind of problem that the researchers tackled.

The question the researchers here asked was if constant-depth quantum circuits can solve a computational problem that constant-depth classical circuits cannot? The problem they decided to look at is a variation on the well-known Bernstein-Vazirani problem (well-known among quantum computing wonks, that is). You don’t need to jump into the details here, but the researchers show that even a shallow quantum computer can easily outperform a classical computer in solving this problem.

“We tried to understand what kinds of things we can do with a shallow quantum circuit and looked for an appropriate model for a type of computation that can be done on a near-term quantum device,” Bravyi told me. “What our result says is that there are certain computational problems for which you can solve on a quantum computer with a constant depth. So as you increase the number of input bits, the depth of the quantum algorithm that solves the problem remains constant.” A constant depth classical computer can not solve this problem, though.

Sutor was very quick to note that we shouldn’t over-hype the current state of quantum computing or this result, though. “We try to be extremely cautious and honest in terms of saying ‘this is what quantum computers can do today’ versus what classical computers will do,” he told me. “And we do this for a very specific reason in that that this is something that will play out over the next three to five years and decades — probably decades.” But what this result shows is that it’s worth exploring quantum algorithms.

As Sutor noted, “there is still this core question, which is, ‘why are you bothering?’” Today’s result should put that question to rest, but Sutor still stressed that he tries to stay grounded and never says quantum computing “will” do something until it does. “There’s a strategy through this, but there’s going to be little left turns and right turns along the way.”

News Source = techcrunch.com

This 3D-printed prosthetic hand combines speed and strength with simplicity

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Prosthetic limbs have come a long way from the heavy, solid hands and legs of yesteryear, but it’s still difficult to pack a range of motion into them without complex or bulky machinery. But new research out of Cornell uses a cleverly designed 3D-printed mechanism to achieve speed and strength with simple construction — and it costs a lot less, too.

“Developing prosthetic limbs requires designers to make difficult trade-offs among size, weight, force, speed, and cost of the actuation system,” the researchers say in their paper. For example, they point out, state of the art mechanical prosthetic hands can cost well over $10,000, with the high-end motors inside alone costing hundreds each. Cheaper hands use cheaper components, of course, which might mean that the hand can grip hard but not quickly, or vice versa.

This is partly because a mechanical hand needs to be able to adjust the force it’s applying very quickly on the fly, and this usually involves some kind of variable transmission or dynamic gear ratio. But Kevin O’Brien and his colleagues developed a new way to have the motor adjust its speed and force without using hundreds of finely machined components. In fact, it and the hand it actuates can be almost entirely 3D-printed.

It works like this: The fingers of the hand are controlled, like many other such hands and indeed our own, by flexible cords that run along their lengths. These cords can be tightened or slackened to make the fingers take different positions, and that’s often done by having a spool take up the slack or deal it out. It’s this spool that must move precisely and is the end point of the complex gearing mentioned above in other hands.

But in the ADEPT hand (adaptively driven via elastomeric passive transmissions — we’ll stick with the acronym) these spools have in their centers a flexible cylindrical core, the shape of which can be modified by tightening a separate “tendon” around it. When the tendon is loose, the core is wider and spins quickly, producing fast, responsive movement. When the tendon is tightened, the core is reduced in radius and correspondingly increases in torque while decreasing in speed.

There’s no switching of gears, no meshing of teeth — if the hand determines that it needs just a little bit more torque to hold something, it can get it by tightening the tendon just that little bit. And as soon as it needs to quickly release or catch something, the tendon can loosen up and the fingers move quickly and lightly.

This simplicity and the ease of manufacturing make this much cheaper than other options, while it still provides a great deal of versatility and responsiveness.

“The benefits of elastomeric transmission systems are that they can be 3D printed quickly (50 per hour), cheaply (<$1 per part), and in many compact form factors,” the researchers wrote. A whole hand could be built for less than $500, they estimate.

Unfortunately the materials aren’t quite up to the task just yet — the part that’s constantly having its shape adjusted tends to degrade, though they managed to get it to the point where it could be adjusted about 25,000 times before failing (not catastrophically, just not doing its job well enough any more). That may sound like a lot, but your fingers move a lot. So there’s still work to do before this is a realistic replacement for other mechanical parts.

Still, it’s a promising approach and general enough that it also could be used in artificial legs, arms and exo-suits. You can read more at Science Robotics.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Accion Systems takes on $3M in Boeing-led round to advance its tiny satellite thrusters

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Accion Systems, the startup aiming to reinvent satellite propulsion with an innovative and tiny new thruster, has attracted significant investment from Boeing’s HorizonX Ventures. The $3 million round should give the company a bit of breathing room while it continues to prove and improve its technology.

“Investing in startups with next-generation concepts accelerates satellite innovation, unlocking new possibilities and economics in Earth orbit and deep space,” said HorizonX Ventures managing director Brian Schettler in a press release.

Accion, whose founder and CEO Natalya Bailey graced the stage of Disrupt just a few weeks ago, makes what’s called a “tiled ionic liquid electrospray” propulsion system, or TILE. This system is highly efficient and can be made the size of a postage stamp or much larger depending on the requirements of the satellite.

Example of a TILE attached to a satellite chassis.

The company has tested its tech in terrestrial facilities and in space, but it hasn’t been used for any missions just yet — though that may change soon. A pair of student-engineered cubesats equipped with TILE thrusters are scheduled to take off on RocketLab’s first big commercial payload launch, “It’s Business Time.” It’s been delayed a few times but early November is the next launch window, so everyone cross your fingers.

Another launch scheduled for November is the IRVINE 02 cubesat, which will sport TILEs and go up aboard a Falcon 9 loaded with supplies for the International Space Station.

The Boeing investment (Gettylab also participated in the round) doesn’t include any guarantees like equipping Boeing-built satellites with the thrusters. But the company is certainly already dedicated to this type of tech and the arrangement is characterized as a partnership — so it’s definitely a possibility.

Natalya Bailey and Rob Coneybeer (Shasta Ventures) at Disrupt Berlin 2017.

A Boeing representative told me that this is aimed to help Accion scale, and that the latter will have access to the former’s testing facilities and expertise. “We believe there will be many applications for Accion’s propulsion system, and will be monitoring and assessing the tech as it continues to mature,” they wrote in an email.

I asked Accion what the new funding will be directed towards, but a representative only indicated that it would be used for the usual things: research, operations, staff expenses, and so on. Not some big skunk works project, then. The company’s last big round was in 2016, when it raised $7.5 million.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Weed in space is going to be a thing now

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Scientists interested in cannabis as a subject for pharmaceutical studies may find an unlikely new home for their research into the plant, its byproducts and biochemistry aboard the International Space Station.

Yes, weed is going to space thanks to the work of a small Lexington, Ky.-based startup called Space Tango.

The company makes a “clean room” laboratory in a microwave-sized box. Because space is tight on the International Space Station, companies that want to conduct experiments in microgravity have to do more with less. And Space Tango gives them a small environment in which to perform tests and monitor the results.

Using Space Tango’s “CubeLab” modules, which slot into the larger TangoLab containers, companies like Anheuser-Busch can send barley up to the space station to observe how the crop could be cultivated in environments approaching zero gravity.

Now, Space Tango is taking its own steps to develop experiments on how the zero gravity environment could affect cannabis cultivation.

Alongside two Kentucky hemp and cannabis cultivation and retail companies, Atalo Holdings, which provides hemp genetics, and Anavii Market, an online retailer of hemp-derived cannabidiol (CBD) therapeutics, Space Tango has set up its own subsidiary to research how microgravity can be used to better cultivate particular strands of hemp for medical compounds.

“For all entrepreneurial companies in this new space area everyone is trying to hone in [sic] on what is the actual business,” said co-founder and chairman Kris Kimel of Space Tango, in an interview. “We’re trying to figure out here what’s the business now… For us, the model is looking at low earth orbit to actually develop and design applications for life on earth.”

Kimel said the company now has two micro-laboratories installed on the International Space Station and has payloads launching to the space station for corporate and university customers about six times a year.

In its early stages, the company is mainly operating on existing income. “We’re able to meet our operating expenses off of revenue,” says Kimel. “Which is great for a company that is not just three years old.”

As it looks to create these kinds of joint ventures with other companies, Kimel said that additional revenue could come from a profit-sharing agreement rather than just straight contracts for services. The new subsidiaries enhance what the company sees as its broader mission, Kimel said.

“Each time a new type of physics platform has been successfully harnessed such as electromagnetism, it has led to the exponential growth of new knowledge, benefits to humankind and capital formation,” said  Kimel, in a statement. “Using microgravity, we envision a future where many of the next breakthroughs in healthcare, plant biology and technology may well occur off the planet Earth.”

Industrialized hemp production and research and development into the crop was enabled four years ago with the passage of the 2014 U.S. Farm Bill. It was the first time in 70 years that new rules were enacted to promote research into applications for the hemp plant as fiber, food or medicine.

By taking the plants to space, Space Tango hopes to study whether the growth of certain strains can be better controlled in the absence of gravitational stresses on the plant’s development.

“When plants are ‘stressed,’ they pull from a genetic reservoir to produce compounds that allow them to adapt and survive,” said Dr. Joe Chappell, a member of the Space Tango Science Advisory Team who specializes in drug development and design. “Understanding how plants react in an environment where the traditional stress of gravity is removed can provide new insights into how adaptations come about and how researchers might take advantage of such changes for the discovery of new characteristics, traits, biomedical applications and efficacy.”

Founded by former NASA engineer Twyman Clements and Kimel, who was serving as the president of the nonprofit Kentucky Science and Technology Corp., Space Tango was spun up to be the for-profit arm that would commercialize experiments in space as a service for large businesses that wanted to take advantage of the unique properties of manufacturing in microgravity.

There have been few commercially viable products that have come from microgravity research or production, in part because it’s expensive to bring products from space to earth.

That’s why Space Tango has focused on drug discovery and pharmaceuticals and why the company is spinning up its independent subsidiary that will focus exclusively on cannabis. Pharmaceutical compounds are lightweight and can be profitable in production without enormous volumes.

“That’s why biomedicine is attractive,” Kimel said. “You’re dealing with products that are incredibly high value and incredibly low weight.”

News Source = techcrunch.com

Nobel Prize goes to laser-wrangling physicists, including first woman to be honored in 55 years

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The 2018 Nobel Prize in physics has been awarded to a trio of researchers whose work in lasers enabled all kinds of new experiments and treatments. Arthur Ashkin is the primary recipient, sharing the prize with Gérard Mourou and Donna Strickland; notably, the latter is the first woman to receive the prize since 1963, and only the third in history.

“This year’s prize is about tools made from light,” the Swedish foundation said in its announcement of the prize. ”

The work that won the award stretches over decades. Ashkin’s began during his tenure at Bell Labs in the ’60s and ’70s,  where he discovered that tiny particles and in fact cells and monocellular creatures could be trapped and manipulated using microscopic lasers.

In 1987 he used his “optical tweezers” to capture a bacterium without harming it, opening the possibility of the tool being used for all kinds of biological applications.

Mourou and Strickland, meanwhile, were also making strides in laser technology. They approached the open question of how to compress a powerful laser into a brief but equally powerful pulse, publishing a breakthrough paper in 1985.

The CPA technique described by Mourou and Strickland’s landmark research.

By “stretching” the beam out, then amplifying it, then compressing it again (as you see in the diagram above), they created the first “chirped pulse amplification,” which would become a standard tool. If you’ve gotten laser eye surgery, for instance, you’ve enjoyed the benefit of their research.

“The innumerable areas of application have not yet been completely explored,” the Nobel press release reads. “However, even now these celebrated inventions allow us to rummage around in the microworld in the best spirit of Alfred Nobel – for the greatest benefit to humankind.”

Strickland joins the very small club of women who have received the prestigious prize. It was given in 1963 to Maria Goeppert-Mayer, who created the nuclear shell model of the atomic nucleus, and before that in 1903 to Marie Curie for, of course, her work on radium. (She won the Nobel for Chemistry 8 years later, making her the only woman to win two Nobels and the only person to win one in two different fields.)

Speaking to NPR, Strickland expressed surprise that so few women had been honored. “Really? I thought there might’ve been more,” she said. “Obviously, we need to celebrate women physicists, because we’re out there … I don’t know what to say, I’m honored to be one of these women.”

If you’re curious about the specifics of the research honored today, feel free to check out this writeup by the Nobel Foundation.

News Source = techcrunch.com

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