- Breakthroughs move technology on ‘up to 1000 times’
- Scientists believe working quantum computer will happen within their lifetimes
- Described as ‘Holy Grail’ of computing
- Quantum computer could crack any encryption
By Rob Waugh
Last updated at 8:41 AM on 1st March 2012
PCs faster than any supercomputer on Earth could become a reality after IBM scientists achieved a breakthrough in ‘quantum computing’ – described as the ‘new frontier’ in computing.
IBM has created working components using the technology – its scientists say the next step is ‘creating systems’.
A working quantum computer would be capable of millions of calculations at once – and able to crack any computer code on Earth.
WHY QUANTUM COMPUTING COULD CHANGE THE WORLD FOREVER
The most basic piece of information that a typical computer understands is a bit.
Much like a light that can be switched on or off, a bit can have only one of two values: ‘1’ or ‘0’.
Qubits – or quantum bits – can hold a value of ‘1’ or ‘0’ as well as both values at the same time.
This is what allows quantum computers to perform millions of calculations at once.
While current computers can calculate very rapidly, they can only perform a limited number of calculations at the same time.
A fully functioning quantum computer could perform millions at the same time. It would instantly be the most powerful computing device ever created by mankind.
The machines could also solve mathematical problems that have remained impossible for humanity – until now.
The quest to create a ‘quantum computer’ has been a Holy Grail of computing ever since physicist Richard Feynman challenged scientists to create a computer based on quantum physics in 1981.
For decades, the work has been theoretical.
‘In the past, people have said, maybe it’s 50 years away, it’s a dream, maybe it’ll happen sometime,’ said Mark Ketchen of IBM’s Watson Research Centre.
‘I used to think it was 50. Now I’m thinking like it’s 15 or a little more. It’s within reach. It’s within our lifetime. It’s going to happen.’
The ‘qubits’ created by IBM scientists exploit a bizarre property of quantum physics that mean that a quantum computer ‘bit’, or unit of information – a ‘qubit’ – can be both 1 and 0 at once.
A 250-qubit array would contain more ‘bits’ of information than there are atoms in the entire universe.
IBM says that the next step ‘creating systems’ that exploit this power.
The scientists say that their experiments have moved forward by a factor of ‘100 to 1000’ times since they started in 2009.
‘The quantum computing work we are doing shows it is no longer just a brute force physics experiment. It’s time to start creating systems based on this science that will take computing to a new frontier,’ says IBM scientist Matthias Steffen.
‘These properties will have wide-spread implications foremost for the field of data encryption where quantum computers could factor very large numbers like those used to decode and encode sensitive information,’ says IBM.
The scientists are experimenting with several different quantum computing techniques.
Among the results, the IBM team extended the amount of time that the qubits retain their quantum states up to 100 microseconds – an improvement of 2 to 4 times upon previously reported records.
This value reaches just past the minimum threshold to ‘control’ errors in the data – and suggests scientists can now move on to engineering other aspects of a quantum computer.
IBM describes itself as being, ‘Very close to the minimum requirements for a full-scale quantum computing system as determined by the world-wide research community.’
‘The superconducting qubit research led by the IBM team has been progressing in a very focused way on the road to a reliable, scalable quantum computer. The device performance that they have now reported brings them nearly to the tipping point,’ says David DiVincenzo, professor at the Institute of Quantum Information, Aachen University and Forschungszentrum Juelich.