Reality Isn’t What We Think It Is

Newton's laws were a good start, but quantum mechanics is now providing a mind-boggling glimpse at the building blocks of existence.

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Imagine all the things you could do if you could be in two places at once. Think about how much you could accomplish, and how quickly. This is reality for molecules and atoms. The field of quantum mechanics observes these very small systems, and shows us how the rules of nature can be vastly different from our everyday experiences. Raymond Laflamme, quantum physics researcher and Executive Director of the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo, explains that we typically think about things being either here or there, but quantum mechanics teaches us that things can be both here and there at the same time.

This may seem like science fiction, but there are many real world applications of quantum behaviour all around you.

Laflamme explains that understanding the special properties of systems at the atomic level allows us not only to predict quantum behaviour, but also to control it to create new technologies. The computers we have today store information using bits, and these basic units of information can have one of two values: 0 or 1. By storing information as bits with values of 0 and 1, quantum computers gain speed and capacity. This opens up the potential to manipulate and control all kinds of devices, from simple thermostats to lasers, making them more sensitive and precise than ever.

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Prof. Raymond Laflamme is originally from Québec City, where he studied Physics as an undergraduate at the Université Laval. After surviving Part III of the Mathematical Tripos at the University of Cambridge, he completed his PhD on aspects of general relativity and quantum cosmology in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics (DAMTP) under the direction of Stephen Hawking. Prof. Laflamme and his colleague Don Page are responsible for having changed Hawking’s mind on the reversal of the direction of time in a contracting universe (see Hawking’s book, A Brief History of Time). From 1988-1992, Prof. Laflamme held a Killam post-doctoral fellowship at UBC, and a post-doctoral fellowship at Peterhouse College, University of Cambridge. From 1992-2001, Prof. Laflamme worked as a research scientist at Los Alamos Research Laboratory, where his interests shifted from cosmology to quantum computing. Since the mid-1990’s, Prof. Laflamme has developed theoretical approaches to quantum error correction, and has given experimental demonstrations of these techniques. In collaboration with Emmanuel Knill, Prof. Laflamme gave conditions for quantum error correcting codes, and established the fault-tolerance threshold, thereby showing that quantum computing systems could be practically useful. He went on to perform the first experimental demonstration of quantum error correction. With colleagues, he has developed a blueprint for a quantum information processor using linear optics, and devised and implemented new methods to make quantum information robust against corruption in both cryptographic and computational settings. In 2001, Laflamme returned to Canada as the founding Director of the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC), and as a founding member of the Perimeter Institute For Theoretical Physics. Prof. Laflamme was the Scientific Director of QuantumWorks (2000-2011), and has been Director of the Quantum Information Program at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) since 2003, and a CIFAR Fellow since 2001. Prof. Laflamme holds the Canada Research Chair in Quantum Information, and is a Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Waterloo. Prof. Laflamme’s group holds the world record for the largest number of quantum bits manipulated using universal control.