Top Invention of The Week #3 – Quantum Computing

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By
23 December 2015

Although this is a relatively new field of computing and not an “invention” per-say, I nonetheless feel this technology is an exciting addition to our Top Invention Segment. This article looks at Quantum computing. A theoretical study on ways we can have a computer use atoms rather than transistors as its processing unit, allowing it to conduct multiple complex calculations at once, and at high speed.

Australian researchers have demonstrated a breakthrough that a quantum version of computer code can be written on a silicon microchip with the highest level of accuracy ever recorded. It was reported in a Guardian newspaper.

In the race to build the first functional quantum computer scientists around the world have been trying to write quantum code in a range of materials such as caesium, aluminium, niobium titanium nitride and diamond.

But researchers at the University of NSW have long been basing their research around silicon, because silicon is the building block of all modern electronic devices, which would make quantum code in a silicon microchip easier, more cost-effective and highly scalable.

For the first time they managed to entangle a pair of quantum bits – units of quantum information also known as qubits – in silicon. Qubits allow computers to access code vastly richer than the digital codes used in normal computers which gives quantum computers their superior power.

Source: ExtremeTechQuantum Processor. Source: ExtremeTech

By “entangling” the two qubits, in this case an electron and the nucleus of a single phosphorus atom, the researchers showed that the particles remained connected even when separated so that actions performed on one still affected the other.

“Qubits are physical objects that have two typical states, so imagine a spin that can point north or south, or a circuit where current can flow clockwise and counterclockwise, all binary possibilities,” Professor Andrea Morello, who led the research, said:

“But if you entangle the two of them together, you get a superposition of the different combinations of binary choice, so a spin can now point both north and south, and the current can flow clockwise and counter clockwise. Two binary things are occurring at the same time.”

This entanglement meant a quantum computing language or code vastly richer than standard digital codes used in normal computers could be accessed, with these special codes giving quantum computers their superior power.

Andrea said: “You can think of it as having an additional vocabulary.”

Morello, program manager at the Centre for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology, said:

“When you speak, you have 26 letters and a few hundred thousand words available to you. In a classical computer, the vocabulary is a combination of zeros and ones that constitute its code.

“In a quantum computer, imagine that you have the same zeros and ones, but because entanglement of quantum bits allow you to combine them in a way impossible on normal computers, it would be the equivalent of suddenly have a billion new words available to you using those same 26 letters.

“This is why quantum computing is so powerful.”

To mathematically prove the entanglement of the two particles had occurred, the finding had to past the Bells Test, a stringent and unforgiving test that detects even the most minor imperfection.

The research passed the test with the highest score ever recorded in an experiment. The findings were published in the international journal, Nature Nanotechnology, on Tuesday.

Professor Andrew Dzurak, a silicon nanofabrication expert, said it demonstrated that silicon was a “fantastic” platform for quantum computing.

“We suspected that for some time, but this really clearly demonstrates it, and it also shows that these single-atom quantum bits can be very, very promising,” he said.

In the area of silicon-based quantum computing, Australia is clearly in the lead, and is now a good two years ahead of our nearest competition in the field.”

Morello said currently there was a fairly limited understanding of what a functional quantum computer could do since there was no prototype.

Implementation 

Recently, Google looked at getting a major upgrade to its D-Wave brand quantum computer, which has been the source of controversy over the past several years. The company has kept tight lip on just what it hopes to accomplish with quantum technology, and whether it has started to accomplish it. Now we know that the computer itself will be getting significantly more powerful and that D-Wave will maintain it with further upgrades for another seven years. If you believe D-Wave’s take on the technology, this newest version is exponentially more powerful than the last.

D-Wave2
D-WAVE Google Quantum Computer, Source: ExtremeTech

In a quantum computer of the type D-Wave manufacturers, the computational unit is called a quantum bit, or qubit. Each qubit doesn’t just add to the computational power, but expands the “search space” by a factor of two. This is the number of possibilities the computer can consider at once, and for Google’s current D-Wave Two, this figure came in at 512, allowing 2512 possibilities. This upgrade, to 1,000 qubits, thus allows a search of 21000 possibilities.

When Google and Lockheed Martin are willing to invest millions in the technology, you have to take it at least somewhat seriously. With this upgrade, Google has proven it still has confidence in the potential of D-Wave computers. With their seven-year contract to keep the project state of the art (as though it wouldn’t be if they just left it…) D-Wave can look back at doubters and rely on the name-recognition of its new corporate partners.

It could be that Google is simply investing in D-Wave as a research project, as Google has actually hired the author of the prior linked study and put them to work trying to make sure quantum computers can take real advantage of quantum phenomena. The company is fond of “moonshot” projects, and it could see enough potential in quantum computers to keep expanding the D-Wave for pure scientific reasons.

For a company like Google, which is constantly hungry for computing power to crunch its enormous datasets, the value of quantum computers is obvious. There’s no telling what valuable insights Google could draw from its slice of our lives, with virtually limitless computational power available.

But quantum computing also has the potential to collapse exponentially more computing power than ever before in one incredibly expensive machine, which doesn’t much work for the mass market. However, in the next-gen age of Google Fiber it might be possible to lease computation much like we do data today. If a true quantum computer really was many thousands of times faster than a conventional one, then perhaps it could serve many thousands of people simultaneously.

Images source Courtesy of ExtremeTech. Video source from NSWS and Guardian. 

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