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IBM advances bring quantum computing closer to reality

Sharon Gaudin | April 30, 2015
Scientists figure out how to detect errors in quantum calculations.

ibm quantum computing four qubit square circuit
Using a new square quantum circuit design, IBM scientists are able to detect quantum errors for the first time. Credit: IBM Research

IBM scientists say they have made two critical advances in an industrywide effort to build a practical quantum computer, shaving years off the time expected to have a working system.

"This is critical," said Jay Gambetta, IBM's manager of theory of quantum computing. "The field has got a lot more competitive. You could say the [quantum computing] race is just starting to begin... This is a small step on the journey but it's an important one."

Gambetta told Computerworld that IBM's scientists have created a square quantum bit circuit design, which could be scaled to much larger dimensions. This new two-dimensional design also helped the researchers figure out a way to detect and measure errors.

Quantum computing is a fragile process and can be easily thrown off by vibrations, light and temperature variations. Computer scientists doubt they'll ever get the error rate down to that in a classical computer.

Because of the complexity and sensitivity of quantum computing, scientists need to be able to detect errors, figure out where and why they're happening and prevent them from recurring.

IBM says its advancement takes the first step in that process.

"It tells us what errors are happening," Gambetta said. "As you make the square [circuit design] bigger, you'll get more information so you can see where the error was and you can correct for it. We're showing now that we have the ability to detect, and we're working toward the next step, which would allow you to see where and why the problem is happening so you can stop it from happening."

Quantum computing is widely thought to be the next great step in the field of computing, potentially surpassing classical supercomputers in large-scale, complex calculations.

Quantum computing would be used to cull big data, searching for patterns. It's hoped that these computers will take on questions that would lead to finding cures for cancer or discovering distant planets jobs that might take today's supercomputers hundreds of years to calculate.

IBM's announcement is significant in the worlds of both computing and physics, where quantum theory first found a foothold.

Quantum computing, still a rather mysterious technology, combines both computing and quantum mechanics, which is one of the most complex, and baffling, areas of physics. This branch of physics evolved out of an effort to explain things that traditional physics is unable to.

With quantum mechanics, something can be in two states at the same time. It can be simultaneously positive and negative, which isn't possible in the world as we commonly know it.

 

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