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Bits for less or more for bits?
Recent advances in the formulation of the second law of thermodynamics have rekindled interest in the
connections between statistical mechanics and information processing. Now a ‘Brownian computer’ has
approached the theoretical limits set by the rejuvenated second law. Or has it?

Christian Van den Broeck

ur home and office computers fixed energy cost, it would still take another
happily churn away at information, 60 years (109 ≈ 230, hence 30 times 2 years)
day in, day out, and in doing so before we reach Szilárd’s lower limit. And
they consume an increasing amount of this is surely a very optimistic estimate.
our energy budget. We expect engineers So why should we care about
to do all they can to improve the energy information-to-energy conversion? A first
efficiency of such machinery. But is there observation is that in the microscopic
actually a minimum energy cost? The world, kT resembles a ‘unit of energy’:
Hungarian physicist Leó Szilárd was the kT/2 is the amount of energy contained
first to address this question, in 1929 in every (quadratic) degree of freedom.
(ref. 1, see also ref. 2). Szilárd realized that This so-called thermal energy plays an
to store one bit of information, a binary essential role in many physical, chemical
memory device needs to be compressed and biological processes. It is smaller
into one of its two possible states. According than, but comparable to, the energy of
to the second law of thermodynamics, a photon, of one ATP-hydrolysis event
© istockphoto / nikada
this disorder-decreasing process cannot or of one electron transfer across a cell
happen spontaneously. In fact, it requires membrane. There is, however, another
a minimum amount of work, Win, which powerful motivation to revisit Szilárd’s work:
Szilárd evaluated to be kTln(2) (where k is the study of the thermodynamics of small
the Boltzmann constant and T temperature). systems has led to a striking reformulation
Conversely, by letting the entropy of the of the second law of thermodynamics.
memory device increase as the information Szilárd’s result is in fact only correct for
is erased, an amount of work Wout can be Figure 1 | The only way is up. In the experiments of the average amounts of work, and should
extracted, which is maximally equal to Toyabe et al.3, particles made of polystyrene beads read <Win> ≥ kTln(2) ≥ <Wout>. The
kTln(2). Technologically we are still far are subjected to a potential resembling a spiral precise amount of work upon processing
away from the Szilárd limit, and one may staircase. The potential is interactively adjusted to one bit of information, Win and Wout,
wonder how or whether such a beautiful but make sure that the particles — which are driven will fluctuate from case to case and can
delicate result could be verified. One way by thermal motion — can only climb upwards and violate the bound kTln(2). Once we
is to perform computer simulations, where therefore constantly gain energy. consider these fluctuating quantities, the
results have been obtained that are in perfect second law of thermodynamics can be
agreement with the theoretical predictions3. formulated as an equality. In the context
But a real experiment is, of course, more the brain equals 1014 bits per second for an of the Szilárd problem, it is revealing
compelling. Now, writing in Nature Physics, energetic consumption of 100 watts (which to rewrite the previous inequalities as
Shoichi Toyabe and colleagues report exactly is around 1022 kT per second). Hence we are follows: exp(–<Win>/kT) ≤ 1/2 and
that: a direct verification of information-to- consuming about 108 kT per bit, far above exp(<Wout>/kT) ≤ 2. By moving the averaging
energy conversion4. Szilárd’s lower limit. brackets out of the exponentials, it turns
Why are these connections between Is kTln(2) then a quantity that engineers out that the inequality signs are replaced
energy and information of interest? After should worry about? For an average by exact equalities: <exp(–Win/kT)> = 1/2
all, kT is an awfully small quantity, about modern computer consuming, say, 10 W and <exp(Wout/kT)> = 2. These remarkable
4 × 10–21 joules. In this unit, the amount for a gigahertz processor, we get a rough results are a version of an equality
of energy stored in one litre of petrol is estimate of 1011kT per bit. One might argue formulated by Christopher Jarzynski in
equivalent to 1018 Gbit, much more digital that 99% of this energy requirement is due 1997 (ref. 5), adapted here to the question of
information than humanity has processed so to peripherals. But even taking this into information processing 3.
far. You may also wonder how this measure, account, 109kT per bit is still way above In their experiment, Toyabe et al.4
kT, compares with our own computational the Szilárd limit. And this is unlikely to use a slightly more involved set-up than
capacity. The human brain consists of some change soon: Moore’s law states that the the binary memory device considered
1011 neurons; assuming that it operates number of transistors per integrated circuit by Szilárd, in particular in that it
as a kilohertz binary processor (which I doubles every two years. If we assume — involves feedback control. They make a
hope is an under-representation of our unrealistically — that this can also be Brownian particle climb up a potential
capabilities), the computational power of achieved for the computational power at that resembles a spiral staircase (Fig. 1).

nature physics | VOL 6 | DECEMBER 2010 | 937

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news & views To ensure that the particle only moves Is such an efficiency too good to be Christian Van den Broeck is in the Physics up — thus gaining energy — they apply. optical pumping technique: first a partial which are those in which the composite The presence of negative eigenvalues initial coherent transfer of the electronic system is split into two parts. Sagawa. value of the partially transposed matrix qubits. composite system independently of the matrix associated with one side of the To study the decay of entanglement. & Ueda. Belgium. Toyabe. The probability that density matrix. For states which can take multiple forms. true? Have physicists achieved what Department. 3. When a system is subject distillation allows pure state entanglement to decoherence. the efficiency of the feedback control6. Two precise characterization of the quantum Figure 1 | Progression of entanglement properties users holding multiple copies of this state. 53. If a state is entangled Barreiro and his colleagues engineered a to consider the different ways a system can with respect to this partition. © 2010 Macmillan Publishers Limited. B-3590 Diepenbeek. C. Rev. But Nature Phys. and then optical pumping of the partition). forms of entanglement. As such. In energy from nuclear fusion in a reactor that 4. This multiple copies of the initial state. impulses. The huge peripheral apparatus (including the References generalized Jarzynski equality for this doctoral student who is operating the 1. the ion. Dev. Phys. 98. requires information. 2690–2693 (1997). however. others. whereas in the second they are local quantum information channel for auxiliary state back to ‘1’. Szilárd. & Van den Broeck. the qubits are divided unequally particular partition has direct consequences qubit and an auxiliary electronic state of between the two parts (called a 1:3 when two parties want to produce a non. T. T. M. For some states. Jarzynski.vandenbroeck@uhasselt. their experiment. The of decoherence. is negative. the scattered photon carries partial entanglement between the two parts split Such a channel requires the production information about the state of the qubit by the partition can be extracted from the of a pure bipartite entangled state (with into the environment. 102. Barreiro et al. This form of bipartite entanglement is Because entanglement refers to the is done by performing a partial transpose known as ‘bound’ entanglement.. Phys. the protocols such as quantum teleportation. the team is able to evolve ‘bound’ entangled. L. IBM J.. where only the part of the density only for multipartite mixed states2. R.. independently — is one of the most striking The two parties are restricted to using features of quantum mechanics. Lett. C. In the second divided equally (2:2). of this information-to-energy conversion e-mail: christian. 080602 (2007). electric-field engineers cannot? The true energetic cost Hasselt. E. 988–992 (2010). Z. University of at opportune moments. Phys. By engineering the type relevant part of the progression when the state is though their state is bipartite entangled. the engineers… ❐ Published online: 14 November 2010 QuANTuM ENTANGLEMENT Watching correlations disappear Engineered decoherence enables tracking of multipartite entanglement as a quantum state decays. In systems local quantum operations and a classical of more than two objects.28 × kT ln(2) per bit. which contains all possible one half of the state at each location) from an ion starting in the ‘1’ electronic state statistical information about the state. which is experiment lies somewhat hidden in its converted into energy in the process. and exists inability to describe individual parts of a operation. Rev. Res. however. M. With their work. Lett. the smallest particular form of decoherence to act on the be split into separate parts. 78. the system through states showing multiple unavailable as a resource for teleportation. with different entanglement properties. R. example is a state where 1:3 entanglement Julio Barreiro and co-workers report a exists without any 2:2 entanglement. they have also verified the on the peripherals to our good and reliable generalized Jarzynski equality. Parrondo. depending on Increasing produce a negative partial transpose with the elements between which the quantum Decoherence respect to this partition. where experiment). Rev. All rights reserved . Ueda. Sagawa. it evolves between states to be produced. under is transferred to the auxiliary state by the 938 nature physics | VOL 6 | DECEMBER 2010 | www. An Writing in this issue of Nature Physics. They invented an intricate two-step concentrated on two types of bipartition. been verified — we can leave the (real) work 6. the experiment is 2. 183–191 (1961). scenario reads <exp(Wout>/kT) > = γ. could multipartite entangled state comprising four state increases.. entanglement exists that is inaccessible. In the first for the partial transpose taken across a state of the ion between the ‘1’ state of the type. S. friends. R. convert information to energy at an the principles of Szilárd and Jarzynski have 5. 840–856 (1929). & Sano. Campus Diepenbeek.nature. a procedure called correlations exist. 6. Jonathan Home E ntanglement — the presence of Bell inequality Super 2:2 1:3 the restriction that all copies of the initial physical states of separate objects violation? activation? entangled entangled state must be partitioned between the where neither can be fully described two ends of the channel in the same way. Identifying ‘opportune’ moments. even trapped-ion qubits1. J. M. The blue oval indicates the not distil pure-state entanglement. 250602 (2009). the constant γ includes information on reminiscent of producing a tiny shot of Phys. 1:3 entanglement is tied up in the system. to identify entanglement we have partition is transposed. 5. In either case. Toyabe and colleagues is consuming considerably more energy. entanglement communication channel. Landauer. M. Muneyuki. amazing <Wout> = 0. states produced during decoherence of a as the decoherence of the four-qubit entangled each with two qubits from each copy. step.