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Previous Programs

2020 Consciousness in the Physical World

2019 Intelligence in the Physical World

2019 Information as Fuel

2018 Agency in the Physical World
Awardees; RFP download

2016 Physics of the Observer
Awardees; RFP download

2015 The Physics of What Happens
Awardees; RFP download

2013 Physics of Information
Awardees; RFP download

2010 The Nature of Time
Awardees; RFP download

2008 Foundational Questions in Physics and Cosmology
Awardees; RFP download

2006 Foundational Questions in Physics and Cosmology
Awardees; RFP download

Jens Eisert
Freie Universität Berlin

Jörg Schmiedmayer
Atominstitut Vienna

Marcus Huber
IQOQI Vienna

Project Title

Fueling quantum field machines with information

Project Summary

It has long been noted that thermodynamic notions and those of information are intricately intertwined: The forefathers of thermodynamics such as Boltzmann and Gibbs were driven in their work by deep insights on how the information available about a system alters its meaningful description, a picture later augmented by seminal work of Shannon on abstract information theory. Indeed, information is at the heart of any thermodynamic machine, determining whether energy is directed (work) or undirected (heat). The idea that thermodynamics ultimately emerges from a lack of certain information was corroborated by the famous thought experiments by Maxwell and Szilard that perplexed the scientific community by coming to paradoxical conclusions when making hypothetical assumptions on obtainable information.

We aim at a disruptive alteration of that picture. We set out to turn the connection between information and thermodynamics upside down, by exploring how information that can actually operationally be acquired can be harnessed to achieve control over quantum machines. We do so at hand of introducing and exploring a key vehicle constituting what we call a quantum field machine. Once realized, together with a portfolio of new theoretical and foundational techniques, we will delve into uncharted territory of the interplay of information and thermodynamics in complex quantum systems.

At the heart of our endeavor stands a proposed quantum field machine in the AtomChip of Jörg Schmiedmayer, theoretically driven by Jens Eisert and Marcus Huber. Instead of cogs and wheels, our device is made from collective excitations of thousands of atoms, that are best described by quantum fields. It could be viewed as one of the first genuine quantum thermal machines: antum mechanics is crucially required to capture its very functioning, and unlike machines involving a few particles, one cannot eiciently predict all its properties. A broad range of experimental measurement techniques allow deep insights into quantum properties of the information gained. This delicate information can be exploited to manipulate these quantum scale machines to literally use information as fuel. While classical machines are indierent to observation, quantum measurements intrinsically alter the machines. This galvanizes the challenge of identifying ways of minimally invasive measurements to acquire control. This ability, which we envision to experimentally demonstrate, conjures an intriguing question: If information is fuel, how much fuel is needed to gain information? Indeed, perfect knowledge of micro-states would enable a deterministic manipulation and even cooling to absolute zero, ruled out by the third law. Does this mean that the laws of thermodynamics have to be revised, or rather that perfect knowledge is as impossible as reaching zero temperature? We aim at unraveling the philosophical and mathematical underpinnings of information acquisition, proving from first principles that as certainty of knowledge increases, the thermodynamic cost of establishing it diverges. The quantum field machines will be the first testing ground where these ideas can be flexibly tested, connecting operational thermodynamic machines to fundamental challenges in the philosophy of science.

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