This week, Colorado-based startup ColdQuanta announced it has put “quantum matter on the cloud.” Which means — what exactly? To unpack this perfect pairing of buzz phrases: By “quantum matter,” ColdQuanta is referring to a collection of tens of thousands of rubidium atoms, cooled to near absolute zero. “On the cloud” means that by filling out an online application and gaining the company’s approval, you can poke and prod the atoms for free and from afar through its website.
These cold rubidium atoms, unlike the ones we palpate in everyday, room-temperature, macroscopic objects, exhibit distinctly quantum behaviour. For example, they possess properties of both particles and waves.
“We want to show that anybody can play with quantum matter,” said physicist Dana Anderson, chief technology officer of ColdQuanta. “This odd, esoteric thing that scientists and quantum computing researchers have worked on — it’s something you can have access to.” For now, ColdQuanta is limiting access to 100 users in the U.S. and Europe to sort out initial software bugs, although it plans to expand access later.
The cold atoms sit in a small glass terrarium inside a ColdQuanta laboratory in Boulder, Colorado. Scientists and engineers have connected the lasers, magnets, and other hardware for manipulating the atoms to the internet, so you can literally fiddle with this odd mass by clicking buttons in your browser. ColdQuanta refers to this system — the atoms and their supporting hardware and software — as Albert.
Actions you can take with Albert from your own home: magnifying and imaging the rubidium atoms in their glass cell; turning on electromagnetic force fields inside the glass and imaging the atoms as they tunnel through those barriers; and cooling the atoms from a gas to another state of matter called a Bose-Einstein condensate. You can also observe the wave-like nature of the atoms, for example, by making them interfere with each other, like water waves combining in a pond into a series of crests and troughs. With Albert, ColdQuanta has set up a combination nature cam and petting zoo, where the creature in question is a very cold quantum blob barely the width of a human hair.
This may sound exotic, but the company’s goal is to make quantum matter more mundane. Anderson says they’re striving for the public to gain familiarity with the material and its behaviour. They’d like people to be as comfortable with the idea of quantum matter as they are with the idea of a laser: to be able to picture it and how you might use it. “If I were to talk to you about lasers, you wouldn’t have any problem with that,” said Anderson. “But a laser is a very quantum system.”
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“This is amazing for teaching,” said physicist Lisa Wörner of the German Aerospace Centre, who isn’t affiliated with ColdQuanta. In the past, to study quantum matter, you would need to produce it yourself by building an entire laboratory of finicky equipment for cooling and trapping the atoms. With the material now available on the cloud, to show a classroom how it works, all you need is the internet.
Physicists already have some inkling of how to exploit cold atoms’ quantum-ness into useful devices. For example, quantum matter can be turned into a precise gravity sensor, explained Wörner. When the atoms slosh onto each other to form interference patterns, the precise patterns change depending on Earth’s gravitational field. NASA has already built a prototype sensor that uses cold atoms for mapping Earth’s gravitational field, which could help scientists more precisely monitor glacier masses and tsunamis. These tools could also be used to study the composition of other planets, said Wörner. Researchers have moulded quantum matter, cooled into Bose-Einstein-condensates, into miniaturized scale models of complex natural phenomena, such as black holes. By studying these models, they can develop informed hypotheses about the actual objects. These emerging cold atom technologies qualify broadly as “quantum technologies,” whose development has been promised billions of dollars of investment globally in recent years, as countries race to invent them.
Experts suspect that quantum matter may have applications beyond their own imaginations — which is why ColdQuanta wants more people from other backgrounds to play around with it. “The whole point is to bring people to the point where they can be creative and design their own quantum systems to solve their problems,” said Anderson. By getting people to figure out how quantum matter can work for them, ColdQuanta also creates a market for its precisely engineered chips and glass cells.
ColdQuanta’s Albert system is not the first quantum matter system capable of being remotely manipulated. In 2018, researchers at Aarhus University in Denmark invited 600 people to play a video game that puppeteered a Bose-Einstein condensate. In 2018, collaborating with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, ColdQuanta helped put a quantum matter laboratory on the International Space Station, where researchers on Earth monitored and controlled its behaviour remotely.
This push to educate the public about quantum technologies could offer long-term benefits for the industry. “There’s a shortage in the quantum workforce,” said quantum policy researcher Edward Parker of RAND, who is a physicist by training. “I think this will be useful for exposing people to the physics of cold atoms, without needing to commit to starting their own lab or starting a PhD program.”