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IBM researchers make quantum computing breakthroughs

Thor Olavsrud | April 30, 2015
IBM's Experimental Quantum Computing group's development has enormous potential for overcoming big data simulation and optimization challenges.

ibm jerry chow
IBM Research scientist Jerry Chow conducts a quantum computing experiment at IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Credit: Jon Simon/Feature Photo Service for IBM

IBM Research today announced that it has knocked down two of the key barriers to building a practical, working quantum computer.

The breakthroughs were described in the April 29 issue of the journal Nature Communications.

IBM scientists say they now have the capability to detect and measure two types of quantum errors (bit-flip and phase-flip) that will occur in any real quantum computer, opening the door for quantum error correction. The scientists also demonstrated a new, square quantum bit circuit design that they say is the only physical architecture that could successfully scale to larger dimensions.

"Just a few weeks ago was the 50th anniversary of Moore's Law," says Jerry M. Chow, manager of the Experimental Quantum Computing group at IBM's T.J. Watson Research Center and the primary investigator on the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) sponsored Multi-Qubit Coherent Operations project. "The whole world knows that Moore's Law is coming to an end."

Chow adds, "What's the next paradigm for computing? What's beyond Moore's Law?"

Quantum's effect on big data
Quantum computing may be the next frontier. The bit is the most basic piece of information typical computers understand. A bit can have one of two values: '1' or '0'. But a quantum computer understands quantum bits (qubits) that can hold a value of '1', '0' or both values at the same time (described as a superposition and denoted as '0+1'). In theory, the superposition property will allow quantum computers to choose a correct solution among millions of possibilities much faster than a conventional computer.

That property would make quantum computers especially well-suited to big data problems around optimization and simulation. Quantum computers would be able to quickly sort and curate ever larger databases and massive stores of diverse, unstructured data. For instance, Chow says quantum devices could completely transform areas like chemical design, drug design and other biopharma applications by allowing scientists to simulate how a particular molecule interacts with other molecules.

Until now, Chow says, one of the biggest stumbling blocks in quantum computing has been controlling or removing "quantum decoherence," or the creation of errors in calculations caused by interference from factors such as heat, electromagnetic radiation and material defects.

In conventional computing, you need to worry about bit-flip errors, where a bit that should be '0' presents as a '1' and vice versa. Error correction algorithms are used to detect and correct such errors. That's why, for instance, a compact disc with some minor scratches can still play.


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