The 2016 Nobel Prize for physics was awarded on Tuesday to a trio whose work paves the way for radical new materials that were previously unimaginable. The three UK-born scientists were awarded the prize “for theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter,” the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarding body stated in a press release, discoveries that could aid in the development of unimaginably more powerful computers.
Half of this year’s eight million Swedish kroner ($929,935) prize has been awarded to David J. Thouless at the University of Washington, while the other half has been awarded to both F. Duncan M. Haldane from Princeton University and J. Michael Kosterlitz from Brown University.
“I was, as everyone else is, very surprised, and very gratified,” Haldane said in a phone interview at the academy press conference. Haldane explained that a large amount of the process, working with theoretical concepts, meant a lot of time was spent unsure whether they were on the right track. “Once you see it, you think why didn’t anyone else realize that before?”
Their work focuses on strange and exotic materials that could form the basis of future technologies. An example of these strange materials are superconductors, which offer little electronic resistance and open the door to quantum computers capable of powering incredibly advanced forms of artificial intelligence.
The team used topological concepts, used in math to describe how materials change in steps, and applied them to physics to understand how materials like superconductors occur in nature. Previous models were insufficient for describing why these strange materials exist.
The development of quantum A.I. can transform how people interact with computers. Last month, Yuri van Geest, founder of SingularityU in the Netherlands, told an audience at Pirate Summit 2016 that, because these new machines will be able to consider multiple possibilities at once, they’ll perform analytical tasks faster than ever before.
Currently, research is looking into how new generations of superconductors could be developed. If new forms of material are discovered using the trio’s concepts, it could further aid development of even more powerful A.I.
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