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Researchers use silicon to push quantum computing toward reality

Sharon Gaudin | Oct. 24, 2014
Researchers in Australia have developed silicon-wrapped quantum technology that could solve problems that have held back the development of powerful quantum computers.

Classic vs. quantum computing

Computer scientists and physicists say a quantum computer could surpass the top classic supercomputers in solving problems that involve analyzing huge quantities of data. The hope is that quantum computers would find answers to problems so complex it would take supercomputers like IBM's Blue Gene and Cray's systems hundreds of years to solve them.

Other practical applications for quantum computers include cancer and Alzheimer's research, advances in cryptography, and the hunt for distant Earth-like planets. They also could be used to simulate political and military situations, such as the unrest in the Middle East, enabling researchers or a government to test different options to see how they would affect the outcome.

Classic computers use bits — ones and zeroes — for processing instructions, and they work in a straightforward manner. Ask the computer a question, and it will move through the calculation in a linear, orderly way.

A quantum computer, however, combines computing with quantum mechanics, one of the most mysterious and complex branches of physics. Some of the world's top physicists say they don't understand how it works.

The field was created to explain physical phenomena, like the odd actions of subatomic particles, that classical physics fails to do. With quantum computing, it's about the possibilities.

Unlike a classic computer, which uses ones and zeroes, a quantum machine uses quantum bits, or qubits, that can be both a one and a zero. It doesn't work in an orderly or linear manner. Instead, its qubits communicate with each other and calculate all the possibilities at the same time.

If a quantum machine has 200 qubits, it's calculating at 2 to the 200th power at the same time.

In the computer science and the physics communities, there is contention over whether a quantum computer has actually been built.

D-Wave Systems Inc., a Burnaby, British Columbia-based quantum computer company, claims that it has built quantum computers, using its own quantum processor built with different metals, including niobium, a soft metal that becomes superconducting when cooled to extremely low temperatures.

One of the company's machines, the D-Wave Two, is being tested by Google and NASA.

The disagreement involves whether the D-Wave machines are performing in full quantum states and if they provide any real speedup over traditional machines.

"The type of quantum machine that D-Wave has built is not what the broader quantum community would term a quantum computer," said Dzurak, who focuses on nanoelectronics and quantum computing. "The broader research community is trying to develop a type of quantum computer in which one has greater control of the quantum bits. The D-Wave machine is designed to solve a particular class of problems, not the full class of problems that a real quantum computer could solve."


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