It’s alive! Scientists create ‘artificial life’ on a quantum computer

Here is a sentence that sounds like it’s come fresh off the pages of a Michael Crichton techno-thriller: Scientists have created “artificial life” on a quantum computer for the first time ever. And that could turn out to be kind of a big deal.

The work was achieved by researchers from the University of the Basque Country in Spain. With the aid of an IBM QX4 quantum computer, they created tiny simulated life forms capable of carrying out many of the behaviors seen in real-world life forms — including reproduction, mutation, evolution, and death. They hope that doing so will help researchers to better understand the origins of life and whether it can be explained through quantum mechanics. This is something that has been hypothesized for decades, dating back to Erwin Schrödinger’s influential 1944 book What is Life?

IBM Q quantum computer
IBM Q quantum computer IBM

“Our research connects two previously unrelated areas as are artificial life and quantum computing,” Lucas Lamata, one of the researchers on the project, told Digital Trends. “The former is an extensive research field where the aim is to reproduce biological behaviors in artificial systems, while the latter is an area that is growing fast in the past few years and could revolutionize computation and communication. We mainly posed the fundamental question: Which is the smallest physical system that can undergo self-replication and other biological behaviors attributed uniquely to living beings?”

The researchers were interested in whether these behaviors happen at the macroscopic level of a DNA module or at the few-atom level where quantum physics dominates. In their work, simulated “individuals” were represented using two quantum bits, or “qubits.” These are measures of information which can represent one, zero, or any quantum superposition of the two states. Their demonstration suggests that a small quantum system can reproduce biological behaviors and that the quantum principle of “entanglement” plays a crucial role in this possibility.

“We may easily find several applications, still to be developed, around quantum game theory and optimization problems,” Enrique Solano, another researcher on the project, told us. “The latter are a common place for applications in economy, design, aerodynamics, and complex biological systems. The natural merge of this research with artificial intelligence methods will create a novel paradigm for exploring the growth of complexity, an important asset of present and future studies from molecular systems to astrophysical objects and social behaviors.”

A paper describing the work was recently published in the journal Scientific Reports.

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