By David Kohn | Photo by John T. Consoli
As a teenager growing up just outside Detroit in the late ’70s, Chris Monroe did what a lot of his friends did: He bought an old car and fixed it up. His was a ’72 Ford Thunderbird, that quintessential muscle car; one summer he rebuilt the entire engine.
Thirty years later, Monroe is still tinkering. Now, though, instead of wrenches and clamps, he uses an array of lasers, mirrors and lenses. He monkeys with atoms, trying to get them to sit still and follow instructions.
A physics professor as well as a fellow at the Joint Quantum Institute, he is a leading researcher in the field of quantum computing, which uses arrangements of atoms rather than silicon chips to process information. In 2012, his team used 20 atoms to construct the most complex quantum device yet; it successfully modeled a complex physics problem, describing the interactions between 20 different magnets.
The problem itself was not especially difficult: a regular PC checked the atoms’ work, although it needed 48 hours to finish, while Monroe’s device required only a few minutes. But the experiment was a crucial step on the way to constructing machines that can calculate and store data exponentially faster than is now possible. Experts say that in theory, quantum computers could perform unimaginably complex tasks—for example, breaking every cryptographic code ever devised. (That’s one reason that federal agencies such as the Department of Defense and the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity help fund Monroe’s work.)
Monroe, who this month began moving into state-of-the-art labs in the new $128 million Physical Sciences Complex, is confident that quantum computing will eventually move from theory to reality. “It will work,” he says. “It’s a question of time and money.”