A team led by Microsoft physicists retracted a high-profile 2018 article that the company touted as a major breakthrough in creating a quantum computer, a device that promises considerable new computing power by exploiting quantum mechanics.
The shrunken paper came from a lab run by Microsoft physicist Leo Kouwenhoven at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. He claimed to have found evidence of Majorana particles, long theorized but never conclusively detected. Elusive entities are at the heart of Microsoft’s approach to quantum computing hardware, which lags behind others such as IBM and Google.
WIRED reported last month that other physicists had questioned the discovery after receiving more comprehensive data from the Delft team. Sergey Frolov, of the University of Pittsburgh, and Vincent Mourik, of the University of New South Wales, Australia, said it appeared the data that cast doubt on Majorana’s claim did had not been disclosed.
On Monday, the original authors published a retraction note in the prestigious journal Nature, who published the previous article, admitting that the whistleblowers were right. The data has been “unnecessarily corrected,” he says. The note also states that repeating the experiment revealed a calibration error that skewed all of the original data, making Majorana’s sighting a mirage. “We apologize to the community for the lack of scientific rigor in our original manuscript,” the researchers wrote.
Frolov and Murik’s concerns also sparked an investigation in Delft, which on Monday released a report from four physicists not involved in the project. He concludes that the researchers had no intention of deceiving but were “caught up in the excitement of the moment” and selected data that matched their own hopes for a major discovery. The report sums up this violation of the standards of the scientific method with a quote from Nobel Laureate in Physics Richard Feynman: “The first principle is that you must not be wrong – and you are the easiest person to cheat.”
The Delft lab released raw data from its 2018 experiment on Monday. Frolov and Murik say it should also release full data from its Majorana hunting project dating back to 2010 for others to analyze.
In a statement, Lieven Vandersypen, scientific director of the Delft Center for Quantum Research, called the retraction of the article a “setback” and said that “reflection on the methods used must now take its course within the scientific community “. The center will continue to work with Microsoft.
In a statement, Microsoft vice president for quantum computing Zulfi Alam called the perpetrators’ handling of the incident a “prime example of the scientific process at work” and said the company remained confident in her approach to the development of quantum computers.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Nature said the journal aims to quickly update the scientific record when published results are called into question, but that “these issues are often complex and therefore, it can take time for editors and authors to fully elucidate them” .
No one seems close to building a quantum computer complex enough to do useful work, but in recent years large companies such as Google and IBM, and some startups, have demonstrated impressive prototypes. Microsoft pursued a different approach, saying that once it exploited Majoranas it could create practical quantum hardware faster than its competitors because the technology would be more reliable. The company has been working on its Maverick Quantum Project since 2004. He recruited Kouwenhoven to his team in 2016 after seeing encouraging results in his lab with support from Microsoft.
Microsoft’s Majorana mess adds a new chapter to the myth of particles, named after Italian theorist Ettore Majorana. He hypothesized in 1937 that subatomic particles should exist which are their own antiparticles, but seemed to disappear early the following year after boarding a ship.
More WIRED stories