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Deep beneath the Franco-Swiss border, the Large Hadron Collider is sleeping. But it won’t be quiet for long. Over the coming years, the world’s largest particle accelerator will be supercharged, increasing the number of proton collisions per second by a factor of two and a half. Once the work is complete in 2026, researchers hope to unlock some of the most fundamental questions in the universe. But with the increased power will come a deluge of data the likes of which high-energy physics has never seen before. And, right now, humanity has no way of knowing what the collider might find.

To understand the scale of the problem, consider this: When it shut down in December 2018, the LHC generated about 300 gigabytes of data every second, adding up to 25 petabytes (PB) annually. For comparison, you’d have to spend 50,000 years listening to music to go through 25 PB of MP3 songs, while the human brain can store memories equivalent to just 2.5 PB of binary data. To make sense of all that information, the LHC data was pumped out to 170 computing centers in 42 countries. It was this global collaboration that helped discover the elusive Higgs boson, part of the Higgs field believed to give mass to elementary particles of matter.

To process the looming data torrent, scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, will need 50 to 100 times more computing power than they have at their disposal today. A proposed Future Circular Collider, four times the size of the LHC and 10 times as powerful, would create an impossibly large quantity of data, at least twice as much as the LHC.

In a bid to make sense of the impending data deluge, some at CERN are turning to the emerging field of quantum computing. Powered by the very laws of nature the LHC is probing, such a machine could potentially crunch the expected volume of data in no time at all. What’s more, it would speak the same language as the LHC. While numerous labs around the world are trying to harness the power of quantum computing, it is the future work at CERN that makes it particularly exciting research. There’s just one problem: Right now, there are only prototypes; nobody knows whether it’s actually possible to build a reliable quantum device.

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Category: Science