Have we just achieved the moon landing moment of quantum computing?

15 Dec 2017

Image: archy13/Shutterstock

One of the biggest stumbling blocks to the adoption of quantum computing on a grand scale may have just been overcome.

The onset of quantum computing on a scale of what we see today with smartphones could potentially usher in a new technological and scientific age, but getting there has proven extremely difficult.

While tech giants such as IBM and Google have their own quantum computers capable of performing millions of tasks a second compared with standard computers, they had yet to put this technology into a silicon chip.

That was until a team of researchers at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) published a paper in Nature Communications, revealing a new chip design that can be manufactured using mostly standard industry processes and components.

“We often think of landing on the moon as humanity’s greatest technological marvel,” said Andrew Dzurak, who led the research.

“But creating a microprocessor chip with a billion operating devices integrated together to work like a symphony – that you can carry in your pocket – is an astounding technical achievement, and one that’s revolutionised modern life.”

The design is capable of handling millions of quantum bits (qubits), but using the same turning on and off operations of bits in standard microprocessors.

Unlike a standard bit, a qubit can be either a one, zero or an arbitrary combination of the two at the same time, allowing for substantially more processing power at once.

To solve complex problems, a useful universal quantum computer will need a large number of qubits, possibly millions, because all types of qubits we know are fragile, and even tiny errors can be quickly amplified into wrong answers.

Corporations now tapping in

So, to overcome this, Dzurak and the team created error-correcting codes that employ multiple qubits to store a single piece of data.

“Our chip blueprint incorporates a new type of error-correcting code designed specifically for spin qubits, and involves a sophisticated protocol of operations across the millions of qubits,” he said.

“It’s the first attempt to integrate into a single chip all of the conventional silicon circuitry needed to control and read the millions of qubits needed for quantum computing.”

While there are more modifications to the design expected to come, the UNSW team’s breakthrough is still substantial to bring the power of a quantum computer into one chip, which can be scaled up without needing to create a massive unit to house it.

In the meantime, IBM has announced that 12 major corporations, research labs and industry giants have signed up to its early-access commercial quantum computing systems to explore practical applications to business and science.

“Working closely with our clients, together we can begin to explore the ways big and small quantum computing can address previously unsolvable problems applicable to industries such as financial services, automotive or chemistry,” said Dario Gil, vice-president of AI and IBM Q at IBM Research.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic