This is the latest in an occasional series of posts about A New Era of Computing. A monumental shift is coming. Computing will be ubiquitous and machines will learn from their interactions with data and humans–essentially programming themselves. This leap will be enabled by advances in artificial intelligence, data analytics, computing systems and nanotechnology. It will result in a smarter, better planet.
Quantum computing has been a Holy Grail for researchers ever since Nobel Prize physicist Richard Feynman in 1981 challenged the scientific community to build computers based on quantum mechanics. For decades, the pursuit remained firmly in the theoretical realm. But now scientists and entrepreneurs believe they’re on the cusp of building systems that will take computing to a whole new level. “The work we’re doing shows it’s no longer just a brute force physics experiment. It’s time to start creating systems based on this science,” says IBM scientist Matthias Steffen, part of a team at IBM Research that’s focused on developing quantum computing to a point where it can be applied to real-world problems.
Here’s Steffen explaining the latest breakthroughs:
The IBM team will present the results of some of its latest experiments at the annual American Physical Society conference in Boston this week. Using a variety of techniques in the lab, they established three new records for retaining the integrity of electrical charges in quantum bits, or qubits. The point is not to make a big deal of the records, though. Rather, it’s to make the point that scientists will soon be integrating small quantum devices together into larger ones capable of performing certain types of mathematical calculations much faster than what’s possible of conventional computing systems.
These advances have huge implications for the field of data encryption because quantum computers can, theoretically, factor large numbers like those used to make sensitive data undecipherable to prying eyes. They could impact other domains of computing in ways not yet foreseeable. One target: helping people to understand the complex systems of systems that underlie everything from the human body to cities to the global financial industry.
Here’s the one-minute lecture on how quantum computing works: A classical computer makes use of bits, where each bit represents either a one or a zero. A quantum computer, in contrast, makes use of qubits, A single qubit can represent a one, a zero, or both at once–which is called superposition. As a result, the use of qubits in computing makes it possible to process exponentially larger quantities of data than is possible with the the same number of conventional bits. One of the great challenges for scientists seeking to harness the power of quantum computing is controlling or removing quantum decoherence–the creation of errors in calculations caused by interference from factors such as heat and electronic waves. To deal with this problem, scientists have been experimenting for years to discover ways of reducing the number of errors and of lengthening the time periods when the electrical charges in the qubits are stable.
Which brings us to the present and the IBM Research advances. Building on top of discoveries by scientists at Yale University and elsewhere, the team has used superconducting electronics (and very low temperatures, nearing absolute zero) to extend the amount of time that qubits retain their quantum states up to 100 microseconds–which is long enough to suppress error rates and to perform trustworthy calculations. “We’re ushering in a new era where it’s not just about the physics. You have to couple the qubits together. How do you program them? How do you put them on a chip?” says Steffen.
A tremendous amount of hard thinking still has to be done. But Steffen and Mark Ketchen, another team member, hope that recent advances will inspire governments, universities and corporations to increase funding for quantum computing research–and convince more scientists to enter the field. Ketchen predicts that it may take another 15 to 20 years to produce practical machines. Still, the team operates with a sense of urgency. “Things are happening fast. They’re coming from weird directions. You have to be open minded and you have to be nimble,” he says.
Here’s Ketchen explaining how the team performs its experiments at the lab:
Like Ketchen says, things are happening fast and they’re coming from surprising directions. Whole new ideas could very well surface at this week’s ASP conference. That’s what it means to be at the bleeding edge of science.
By the way, the team at IBM Research has plenty of company when it comes to excitement about the potential of quantum computing. A few weeks ago, when the A Smarter Planet blog polled readers to see what they think the next IBM Research grand challenge should be, quantum computing was the top pick.
Extra credit viewing:
David DiVincenzo, who was then an IBM researcher, talks at MIT in 2006 about the origins and directions of quantum computing.