By Scott Hamilton
Senior Expert Emerging Technologies
We have all heard throughout the COVID-19 pandemic that we need to follow the science, but how many of us have realized that it actually means follow the scientist? I have a sad story about a well-known, large corporation who followed the science to attempt the rapid development of a new technology and lost three years of work and several million dollars as a result. We must all be careful when “following the science,” and do the work to prove the science before following it.
The story begins in the year 1937, when Ettore Majorana hypothesized the existence of a mysterious fermion particle that was its own antiparticle. For reference, positively charged electrons and negatively charge protons are anti-particles. Majorana suggested that these particles existed in a state that could be described mathematically by a real wave equation, which he named the Majorana equation. Particle physicists have been searching for this famed particle since he described it.
In 2008, Fu and Kane theoretically predicted that Majorana-bound states can appear between topological insulators and superconductors; this led to the experiments conducted over the next decade in search of the elusive particle. It was not until 2014 that scientists at Princeton University observed evidence of the Majorana particles using a low-temperature scanning tunneling microscope. This led to the suggestion that they appear at the edges of long chains of iron atoms. They were never found.
In 2016 researchers at Oak Ridge National Lab, in collaboration with Max Planck Institute and the University of Cambridge, observed evidence of the particles in quantum spin liquids, but once again the particles were never found.
In March 2018, Dutch physicist and Microsoft employee Leo Kouwenhoven published headline-grabbing, new evidence that he had observed the elusive particle. Microsoft had hoped, on hearing about his earlier research, that he would find the particle and, based on its complex quantum behavior, would allow them to develop a quantum computer based on the particle.
Microsoft planned to use this elusive particle to power a new type of qubit (the unit of processing power in a quantum computer). Microsoft’s new qubits, termed topological qubits, were special because they could be topologically placed, meaning that it would be possible to stack them or place them much closer than other qubits, allowing for tighter, error-free control not possible with other technologies.
Rivals IBM and Google had already built impressive prototypes using more established technologies, putting Microsoft behind, but this breakthrough was going to put them ahead of the game. After the announcement of finally observing this particle, Microsoft’s director of quantum computing business Julie Love told the BBC that Microsoft would have a commercial quantum computer in five years.
In May 2020, Sergey Frolov published a paper based on Kouwenhoven’s research stating the flaws in his discovery. His research showed that, while trying to experimentally validate his specific theoretical predictions, Kouwenhoven’s research led to a confirmation bias and effectively resulted in false-positive evidence. Kouwenhoven will be publishing a retraction of the original research in a coming issue of Nature magazine. This shows that even very trustworthy scientists make mistakes and following the science is not always the best of ideas. This announcement put Microsoft far behind the competition in quantum computing, so far behind they may, in fact, never recover. American physicist Sankar Das Sarma, a Distinguished Professor at the University of Maryland, and a member of the Joint Quantum Institute, says this latest paper puts Microsoft’s Majorana-based qubit at a stage comparable to 1926, when the first patent for a transistor was filed; the transistor was not successfully produced until 1947.
“I see no reason why a Majorana fermion cannot exist or that once it exists, you cannot control it,” he says. “But it may be 30 years away.”
Until next week stay safe and learn something new.