- By Pallab Ghosh
- Science Correspondent
Scientists have come a step closer to making multi-tasking “quantum computers”, far more powerful than even today’s most advanced supercomputers.
Quantum computers make use of the strange properties of subatomic particles.
So-called quantum particles can exist in two places at the same time and also strangely connected even though they are millions of miles apart.
A team from Sussex University transferred quantum information between computer chips with record speeds and precision.
Computer scientists have been trying to make an efficient quantum computer for more than 20 years. Companies such as Google, IBM and Microsoft have developed simple machines. But according to Prof Winfried Hensinger, who led the research at Sussex University, the new development paves the way for systems that can solve complex real-world problems that the best computers we have today are not capable of.
“Right now we have quantum computers with very simple microchips,” he said. “What we have achieved here is the ability to realize extremely powerful quantum computers that can solve some of the most important problems for industry and society.”
Currently, computers solve problems in a simple linear fashion, one calculation at a time.
In the quantum world, particles can be in two places at the same time, and researchers want to exploit this property to develop computers that can perform multiple calculations simultaneously.
Quantum particles can also be millions of miles apart and be strangely interconnected, mirroring each other’s actions instantaneously. Again, it can also be used to develop much more powerful computers.
A stumbling block has been the need to quickly and reliably transfer quantum information between chips: information degrades and errors are introduced.
But Prof Hensinger’s team has made a breakthrough, published in the journal Nature Communications, which may have overcome that hurdle.
The team developed a system that could transport information from one chip to another with 99.999993% reliability at record speeds. That, the researchers say, shows that chips could in principle be put together to make a more powerful quantum computer.
Prof Michael Cuthbert, who is director of the newly established National Quantum Computing Center in Didcot, Oxfordshire and is independent of the Sussex research group, described the development as a “really important enabling step”. But he said more work was needed to develop practical systems.
“To build the kind of quantum computer you need in the future, you start by connecting chips the size of your thumbnail until you get something the size of a dinner plate. The Sussex group has shown that you can have the stability and speed of that step.
“But then you need a mechanism to connect these plates to scale up a machine, potentially the size of a football field, to be able to perform realistic and useful calculations, and the technology for communication for that scale is not yet available.”
PhD student Sahra Kulmiya, who conducted the Sussex experiment, says the team is up for the challenge of taking the technology to the next level.
“It’s not just a physics problem anymore,” she told BBC News.
“It’s an engineering problem, a computer science problem, and also a math problem.
“It’s really hard to say how close we are to realizing quantum computing, but I’m optimistic about how it can become relevant to us in our everyday lives.”
One of Britain’s leading engineering companies, Rolls Royce, is also optimistic about the technology. It is working with the Sussex scientists to develop machines that can help them design even better jet engines.
Powerful supercomputers are used to model airflow in simulations to test new aircraft engine designs.
A quantum computer could in principle track airflow with even greater accuracy, and do it really quickly, according to Prof Leigh Lapworth, who leads the development of quantum computing for Rolls-Royce.
“Quantum computers would be able to do calculations that we currently cannot do and others that would take many months or years. The potential to do these in days would just change our design systems and lead to even better engines.”
The technique could potentially also be used to design drugs more quickly by accurately simulating their chemical reactions, a calculation too difficult for current supercomputers. They could also provide even more accurate systems for predicting weather and projecting the effects of climate change.
Prof Hensinger said he first had the idea to develop a quantum computer more than 20 years ago.
“People rolled their eyes and said, ‘that’s impossible’.”
“And when people tell me something can’t be done, I just love to try. So I’ve spent the last 20 years removing the barriers one by one to the point where you can now actually build a practical quantum computer.”
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