For the first time, physicists have demonstrated that machine learning can reconstruct a quantum system based on relatively few experimental measurements. This method will allow scientists to thoroughly probe systems of particles exponentially faster than conventional, brute-force techniques. Complex systems that would require thousands of years to reconstruct with previous methods could be wholly analyzed in a matter of hours. The research will benefit the development of quantum computers and other applications of quantum mechanics, the researchers report February 26 in Nature Physics. "We have shown that machine intelligence can capture the essence of a quantum system in a compact way," says study co-author Giuseppe Carleo, an associate research scientist at the Center for Computational Quantum Physics at the Flatiron Institute in New York City.
If you're not a physicist, the concept of "quantum" will likely confuse you, or simply put you off. But even for experts, the quantum world can be complex. Luckily, in a world where for nearly every challenge there's a bespoke robot ready to help, an AI now makes it easier to navigate quantum systems too.
The same type of artificial intelligence that mastered the ancient game of Go could help wrestle with the amazing complexity of quantum systems containing billions of particles. Google's AlphaGo artificial neural network made headlines last year when it bested a world champion at Go. After marvelling at this feat, Giuseppe Carleo of ETH Zurich in Switzerland thought it might be possible to build a similar machine-learning tool to crack one of the knottiest problems in quantum physics. Now, he has built just such a neural network – which could turn out to be a game changer in understanding quantum systems. Go is far more complex than chess, in that the number of possible positions on a Go board could exceed the number of atoms in the universe.
The groundwork for machine learning was laid down in the middle of last century. When your bank calls to ask about a suspiciously large purchase made on your credit card at a strange time, it's unlikely that a kindly member of staff has personally been combing through your account. Instead, it's more likely that a machine has learned what sort of behaviours to associate with criminal activity – and that it's spotted something unexpected on your statement. Silently and efficiently, the bank's computer has been using algorithms to watch over your account for signs of theft. Monitoring credit cards in this way is an example of "machine learning" – the process by which a computer system, trained on a given set of examples, develops the ability to perform a task flexibly and autonomously.