Quantum Artificial Life Created for First Time

Scientists have created quantum artificial life for the first time. The proof-of-principle experiment combines the fields of artificial life—dedicated to emulating living behaviors in artificial systems—and quantum computing, which could revolutionize the way information is processed.

In a study published in Scientific Reports, Lucas Lamata and colleagues from Spain's University of the Basque Country developed an algorithm built on theoretical work set out in 2015. At that time, the team wanted to find out what the minimum size of a system was that could undergo self-replication—a hallmark of life.

"Is it more at the macroscopic scale, like in the DNA molecule, or could it be in small, few atom systems with quantum properties such as entanglement?" Lamata told Newsweek.

Their findings in 2015 suggested it could indeed exist on a quantum scale, so they went about creating a computer algorithm that could show it happening. This cloud computer, IBM ibmqx4, showed it could exist at this scale.

"We wanted to know whether emergent behaviors of macroscopic biological systems could be reproduced at the microscopic quantum level," he said. "What we found in this research is that very small quantum devices with a few quantum bits could already emulate self-replication, combining standard biological properties, such as the genotype and phenotype, with genuine quantum properties, such as entanglement and superposition," he said.

The team developed a toy model of a minimal quantum system that could undergo biological behaviors like self-replication. They implemented this into the IBM computer. In the model, one quantum bit (qubit) represented the genetic information, or genotype, while another qubit represented the interaction with the environment. Findings showed the system could self-replicate and that quantum properties (like entanglement) are crucial for the full propagation of the quantum information to the subsequent generations. "We also included mutations as random processes occurring to the quantum bits," he added.

Representative image. Quantum life could one day become sentient. iStock

"Artificial life in general, not only the quantum one, is a broad research field in which different approaches are followed, ranging from self-assembling robots, to self-reproducing computing programs and chemical molecules, to real neurons that are artificially manipulated in the lab," Lamata said. "It is a diverse area that may produce a wide range of applications in science and technology.

"What we did it is to add the quantum ingredient, namely, we envisioned a minimal quantum system with self-replicating behavior: a minimal quantum version of life, when combined with mutations and interactions to enable a quantum Darwinian evolution."

While there are limitations to the work—it only uses two qubits and each only demonstrated one generation of the process—the applications are potentially far-reaching. "We strongly believe that there are connections of our model with quantum game theory and quantum optimization algorithms. Namely, one may encode an optimization problem in quantum individuals that compete for resources, self-replicate, mutate, and interact."

This sort of system, Lamata explains, could give rise to semiautonomous quantum devices that would have computing possibilities far beyond our current technology.

He also said you could eventually get a whole living artificial system that evolves. But could quantum artificial life become sentient? "This is our main dream," Lamata said, "and sentient artificial beings could also develop consciousness, of the same or different kind than ours. These are questions of today that may require a century to be answered."