Intelligent Machines

The Experiment That Will Allow Humans to “See” Quantum Entanglement

We’ve puzzled over the nature of entanglement for almost a century. Now physicists have devised a way for us to “see” it for the first time.

Entanglement is the strange phenomenon in which two quantum particles become so deeply linked that they share the same existence. When this happens, a measurement on one particle immediately influences the other, regardless of the distance between them.

Entanglement has puzzled physicists for the best part of a century. At first, its very existence was disputed. But today, physicists create entangled particles in huge numbers in labs all over the world. They routinely use entanglement to send perfectly encrypted messages, to study quantum computation, and to better understand the nature of this profound phenomenon.

The ease with which particles such as photons can be entangled has led some physicists to ask an interesting additional question: will humans ever be able to “see” entanglement?

Today we get an answer thanks to the work of Valentina Caprara Vivoli at the University of Geneva in Switzerland a few pals. They’ve devised an experiment that should allow a human eye to directly detect entanglement. And they say the scene is now set for the first experiment of this kind.

Finding a way for a human eye to detect entangled photons sounds straightforward. After all, the eye is a photon detector, so it ought to be possible for an eye to replace a photo detector in any standard entanglement detecting experiment.

Such an experiment might consist of a source of entangled pairs of photons, each of which is sent to a photo detector via an appropriate experimental setup.

By comparing the arrival of photons at each detector and by repeating the detecting process many times, it is possible to determine statistically whether entanglement is occurring.

It’s easy to imagine that this experiment can be easily repeated by replacing one of the photodetectors with an eye. But that turns out not to be the case.

The main problem is that the eye cannot detect single photons. Instead, each light-detecting rod at the back of the eye must be stimulated by a good handful of photons to trigger a detection. The lowest number of photons that can do the trick is thought to be about seven, but in practice, people usually see photons only when they arrive in the hundreds or thousands.

Even then, the eye is not a particularly efficient photodetector. A good optics lab will have photodetectors that are well over 90 percent efficient. By contrast, at the very lowest light levels, the eye is about 8 percent efficient. That means it misses lots of photons.

That creates a significant problem. If a human eye is ever to “see” entanglement in this way, then physicists will have to entangle not just two photons but at least seven, and ideally many hundreds or thousands of them.

And that simply isn’t possible with today’s technology. At best, physicists are capable of entangling half a dozen photons but even this is a difficult task.

What’s needed is a way of amplifying the effect of a single entangled photon so it can be detected by the eye, but to do this without destroying the all-important entanglement.

Vivoli and co say they have devised a trick that effectively amplifies a single entangled photon into many photons that the eye can see. Their trick depends on a technique called a displacement operation, in which two quantum objects interfere so that one changes the phase of another.

One way to do this with photons is with a beam splitter. Imagine a beam of coherent photons from a laser that is aimed at a beam splitter. The beam is transmitted through the splitter but a change of phase can cause it to be reflected instead.

Now imagine another beam of coherent photons that interferes with the first. This changes the phase of the first beam so that it is reflected rather than transmitted. In other words, the second beam can switch the reflection on and off.

Crucially, the switching beam needn’t be as intense as the main beam—it only needs to be coherent. Indeed, a single photon can do this trick of switching more intense beam, at least in theory.

That’s the basis of the new approach. The idea is to use a single entangled photon to switch the passage of more powerful beam through a beam splitter. And it is this more powerful beam that the eye detects and which still preserves the quantum nature of the original entanglement.

That’s the theory. Vivoli and co say the technology is available to do this kind of experiment now. They say their work “convincingly demonstrates the possibility to realize the first experiment where entanglement is observed with the eye.”

Nevertheless, this experiment will be hard to do. Ensuring that the optical amplifier works as they claim will be hard, for example.

And even if it does, reliably recording each detection in the eye will be even harder. The test for entanglement is a statistical one that requires many counts from both detectors. That means an individual would have to sit in the experiment registering a yes or no answer for each run, repeated thousands or tens of thousands of times. Volunteers will need to have plenty of time on their hands.

Even so, it is possible that the first experiments of this kind are already underway, perhaps even in Vivoli and co’s labs. So we may soon find out the identity of the first person to “see” entanglement.

Of course, experiments like this will quickly take the glamor and romance out of the popular perception of entanglement. Indeed, it’s hard to see why anybody would want to be entangled with a photodetector over the time it takes to do this experiment.

One way to increase this motivation would be to modify the experiment so that it entangles two humans. It’s not hard to imagine a people wanting to take part in such an experiment, perhaps even eagerly.

That will require a modified set up in which both detectors are human eyes, with their high triggering level and their low efficiency. Whether this will be possible with Vivoli and co’s setup isn’t yet clear.

Only then will volunteers be able to answer the question that sits uncomfortably with most physicists. What does it feel like to be entangled with another human?

Given the nature of this experiment, the answer will be “mind-numbingly boring.” But as Vivoli and co point out in their conclusion: “It is safe to say that probing human vision with quantum light is terra incognita. This makes it an attractive challenge on its own.”


Ref: What Does It Take to See Entanglement?

Become an MIT Technology Review Insider for in-depth analysis and unparalleled perspective.
Subscribe today

Uh oh–you've read all five of your free articles for this month.

Insider Premium

$179.95/yr US PRICE

More from Intelligent Machines

Artificial intelligence and robots are transforming how we work and live.

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Insider Basic.

  • Insider Basic {! insider.prices.basic !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Six issues of our award winning magazine and daily delivery of The Download, our newsletter of what’s important in technology and innovation.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly home delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website.

    The Download. Our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation.

You've read of free articles this month.