- Quantum computing promises to revolutionize calculation speeds
- New architectures bring scientists closer to practical quantum machines
- Quantum programming language available now to practice for the future
Every computer in use right now, from the one in your phone to China’s Sunway TaihuLight, works by manipulating the fundamental building block of modern computing: The bit.
Based on Alan Turing’s 1930s theory, a bit is the smallest unit of data in a computer. It can exist as a one or a zero. That binary value is used to manage all the information of our digital age.
But quantum computing could change everything.
Based on quantum theory, which posits that subatomic particles exist in multiple states at once, a machine that manipulates quantum bits won’t be limited to the two states of a conventional computer.
Quantum bits, or qubits, can exist as both one and zero, and all points in between, simultaneously. Thanks to this inherent parallelism, a quantum machine could work on millions of computations at once, performing calculations that are too large or too complex for even today’s fastest computers.
Scientists expect quantum computing will lead to huge breakthroughs in areas such as medical research and artificial intelligence.
Where it all began
A relatively new idea, quantum computing was first theorized in 1981 by Paul Benioff, a physicist at Argonne National Laboratory. The following year, Richard Feynman suggested using nature’s own quantum systems, and in 1985, David Deutsch of Oxford described the first practical quantum computer.
In 1994, Peter Shor developed an important algorithm that could be used as software on a quantum computer to defeat the encryption that makes internet commerce possible. The first working 2-qubit quantum computer was demonstrated in 1998 by scientists at the University of Oxford.
Until earlier this year, the largest quantum computer in existence possessed only 16 qubits, limiting its use to basic calculations. But this summer, researchers at Harvard announced that they had created and successfully tested a 51-qubit machine.
Quantum computing is gaining momentum, and other recent breakthroughs suggest that the quantum horizon could be nearer than we thought.
Last month, researchers at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) revealed a new silicon-based architecture for quantum computing that could make the large-scale production of quantum chips much more feasible.
The UNSW ‘flip-flop’ qubit utilizes both the electron and the nucleus of an atom. Because they can be controlled by electrical signals rather than magnetic ones, the qubits can be placed up to 1000 nanometers apart. The greater distance permits the incorporation of necessary controls and connectors while retaining the essential entanglement.
This novel design can be produced using the same technology as existing computer chips. Australia hopes to build the first 10-qubit silicon quantum integrated circuit by 2022.
Faster than light
In Japan, scientists are recruiting photons to serve as qubits. Devised in 2013, this method, known as optical quantum computing, typically allows only a single light pulse per machine — limiting its functionality.
The same circuit would sustain multiple light pulses, each carrying separate information, revolving indefinitely. Just one circuit could then perform multiple tasks through manipulation of the light pulses.
Takeda and Fukisawa believe their loop circuit model will be able to process more than a million qubits, and now plan to start working on the hardware.
If this all sounds a bit esoteric and out of reach, take heart. Experimenting with quantum computers is no longer just for scientists with fancy research labs and multi-million dollar grants.
IBM allows public access to a quantum computer. You can head over to their Quantum Experience website and run your own quantum experiments.
Microsoft announced last week that not only is it developing a programming language for quantum computers, but it will release those tools to the public.
The idea is that when quantum computers do arrive in a practical capacity, programmers are going to need to know how to work with them.
Individual users will be able to practice writing quantum subroutines and simulate problems that require up to 30 qubits of quantum capacity, with more advanced options for businesses and those with previous quantum experience.
It’s time to build your skills and prepare for the future.