Sydney student’s code snapped up by Amazon quantum researchers

13 Apr 2021

Dr Ben Brown of the University of Sydney with undergrad student Pablo Bonilla Ataides. Image: Marcus Strom/Sydney Uni

‘Remarkable’ research from a University of Sydney student could bring scientists one step closer to large-scale quantum computing.

A 21-year-old student in Australia has caught the attention of quantum researchers at Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Yale.

Pablo Bonilla Ataides, a science undergraduate at the University of Sydney, tweaked some computing code in a way that effectively doubled its capacity to correct errors in quantum machines being designed in the emerging tech sector.

His work, published this week in Nature Communications, will now feature in AWS’s arsenal of error-correction techniques as it develops quantum hardware.

“Quantum technology is in its infancy, partly because we haven’t been able to overcome the inherent instability in the machines that produce so many errors,” Bonilla Ataides said.

“In second-year physics I was asked to look at some commonly used error-correcting code to see if we could improve it. By flipping half of the quantum switches – or qubits – in our design, we found we could effectively double our ability to suppress errors.”

One step closer to quantum

The area of quantum computing may still be in its infancy, but companies such as Google, IBM and AWS are investing and experimenting to find ways to bring more powerful computing closer to reality.

Unlike a traditional computer that uses binary bits, which can be either one or zero, a quantum computer uses quantum bits, or qubits, which can be one, zero or both at the same time.

By harnessing qubits in a quantum computer, it could be possible to solve computational problems far beyond the reach of traditional computers – something that would have applications across a range of industries.

Errors are rare in the digital transistors that classical computers use, however qubits are particularly sensitive to interference from the external environment. To make quantum machines work, scientists need to produce a large number of high-quality qubits, and this is where quantum error correction comes in.

Dr Earl Campbell, a senior quantum research scientist at AWS, said he was surprised by Bonilla Ataides’ research as it showed that just a slight change in a quantum error-correction code could lead to “a big impact in predicted performance”.

‘We might have just come up with the design that will help large-scale quantum computing take off’

Shruti Puri, an assistant professor at Yale who is part of the university’s quantum research programme, added that the work is notable because of its “sheer elegance”.

“It’s remarkable error-correcting properties are coming from a simple modification to a code that has been studied extensively for almost two decades,” she said.

“It is extremely relevant for a new generation of quantum technology being developed at Yale and elsewhere. With this new code, I believe, we have considerably shortened the timeline to achieve scalable quantum computation.”

Dr Ben Brown from the University of Sydney’s School of Physics was one of the people who worked closely with Bonilla Ataides on the research.

“Building a functional quantum computer is a bit like trying to build the Wright brothers’ plane, and we haven’t even gotten off the ground yet,” Brown said.

“Experimentalists are producing the strong, lightweight materials to build the plane, and we’ve just come up with a more aerodynamic design for the wings that have more lift. We might have just come up with the design that will help large-scale quantum computing take off.”

Sarah Harford was sub-editor of Silicon Republic