A Microsoft-led team of the physicists withdrew a sensational 2018 article retracting the business as a major breakthrough in the creation of a practical quantum computer, a device that promises great new computing power by typing quantum mechanics.
The withdrawn article comes from a laboratory led by Microsoft physicist Leo Kouwenhoven at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. It claims to have found evidence of Majorana particles, which have long been theorized but never definitively detected. The elusive entities are at the heart of Microsoft’s approach to quantum computing hardware, which lags behind those of others such as IBM and Google.
WIRED reported last month that other physicists questioned the discovery after receiving more information from the Delft team. Sergey Frolov, of the University of Pittsburgh, and Vincent Mourik, of the University of New South Wales, Australia, said it appears data that casts doubt on the Majorana claim is being withheld.
On Monday, the original authors published a withdrawal note in the prestigious magazine Nature, who published the previous article, and conceded that the bell-ringers were right. Data was “unnecessarily corrected”, it reads. The remark also says that the repetition of the experiment revealed an erroneous calibration error that distorted all the original data, which made the observation of Majorana a mirage. “We apologize to the community for the insufficient scientific accuracy in our original manuscript,” the researchers wrote.
Frolov and Mourik’s concerns also sparked an investigation at Delft, which on Monday released a report of four physicists not involved in the project. It concludes that the researchers did not intend to mislead, but were ‘caught up in the excitement of the moment’ and that they selected data that matched their own hopes for a great discovery. The report sums up the violation of the norms of the scientific method together with a quote from the Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman of physics: ‘The first principle is that you should not deceive yourself – and that you are the easiest person to fool. ‘
The Delft laboratory on Monday released raw data from its 2018 experiment. Frolov and Mourik say it should also release the full data from its Majorana hunting project by 2010 that others can analyze.
In a statement, Lieven Vandersypen, a scientific director at Delft’s quantum research center, called the withdrawal of the article “a setback” and said “reflection on the methods used must now take place within the scientific community”. The center will continue to work with Microsoft.
In a statement, Zulfi Alam, the vice president of the quantum computer, called the authors’ handling of the incident an “excellent example of the scientific process at work” and said the company remains confident in its approach to the development of quantum computers.
In a statement, a spokesman for Nature the journal aims to quickly update the scientific record when published results are called into question, but that ‘these issues are often complicated and that it can therefore take time for editors and writers to fully unravel them.’
No one seems close to building a quantum computing complex enough to do useful work, but over the past few years, big companies like Google and IBM, and a few startups, have shown impressive prototypes. Microsoft has taken a different approach, claiming that once it has deployed Majoranas, it can create practical quantum hardware faster than competitors, because the technology would be more reliable. The company has been working on its maverick quantum project since 2004. This assisted Kouwenhoven in 2016 after achieving encouraging results in his laboratory with Microsoft support.
Microsoft’s Majorana mess adds a new chapter to the myth of the particles, named after Italian theorist Ettore Majorana. He assumed in 1937 that there must be subatomic particles that are their own particles, but apparently disappeared early the following year after they went on board.
More great wired stories