Quantum computing

By exploiting the weird phenomena of quantum mechanics, a quantum computer could perform loads of calculations simultaneously – enough to solve problems far beyond the reach of today’s, and tomorrow’s, most capable supercomputers. ​

The power is in the qubit

The anticipated advantage of quantum computers over regular computers lies in the basic building blocks. In regular computers, the smallest information carrier is the bit which can take either the value 0 or 1. Generally, 1 is represented by an electrical voltage (typically 5 volts) being on, and 0 by no voltage.  

By contrast, a quantum computer uses quantum bits – qubits for short – which can be both 0 and 1 at once, due to the quantum property known as superposition​. The qubits are typically made of subatomic particles such as electrons or photons. 

Because each qubit can represent two values at once, the total number of possible simultaneous states doubles with each added qubit. Two qubits can represent four values at once, three qubits gives eight possible values, and so on. It starts slow, but grows faster and faster. Already 300 qubits could represent more values than there are particles in the entire universe. And it only takes 50–60 well-functioning qubits to exceed the computing power in today’s supercomputers.

The story begins

The famous physicist Richard Feynman came up with the idea of using quantum systems for calculations in the 1980’s. More precisely, he saw that it could be useful for simulations in physics research.  

But at that time, no serious attempts were made to realise the idea: The practical significance of a quantum computer seemed small compared to the fact that nobody knew to how to correct the errors that would inevitably arise in a quantum computer and the lack of useful algorithms (a quantum computer cannot be programmed in the regular way). 

The situation changed drastically in 1994 when mathematician Peter Shor published a quantum algorithm which rapidly finds the prime factors of a given large number – the key to breaking today’s encryption codes. A year later, he showed how a special error correction code can deal with the errors arising in a quantum computer. This sparkled a strong interest in realising a quantum computer. Today, great efforts are made all over the world, at universities as well as companies.

How to build a quantum computer

Unfortunately, there is no simple guide on how to build a quantum computer as it is a very difficult and complex task. But at least, this guide provides a rough overview of the very basics:

1. Select hardware
A quantum computer could be based on basically any quantum mechanical object, as long as it has two quantum states that can be designated as values 0 and 1. For example, an ion having two different energy levels, a superconducting circuit with or without oscillating energy, or a tiny semiconductor particle – a quantum dot – with different charge or spin states. Other alternatives are squeezed microwaves, Majorana particles, implanted ions, and photons.

The most promising and developed techniques this far are superconducting circuits and ions. Superconducting circuits are fabricated on a microchip, whereas ions are suspended by electromagnetic fields in a so-called ion trap.

2. Isolate from surroundings
Quantum states are extremely sensitive, and collapse if they are exposed to disturbances. Therefore, the qubits need to be thoroughly isolated from the surroundings, if not to “forget” their value immediately. For many types of hardware, this means placing the qubits in an isolated vacuum chamber cooled to just above absolute zero temperature, colder than outer space. Also, take other actions you can think of to reduce disturbances. 

3. Control the qubits
To make the qubits work for you, you need a way to manipulate them to put them in the desired input states, put pairs of qubits in the spooky condition, called entanglement, perform logic gate operations, and read out the results. In superconducting quantum computers, this is done using microwave pulses that are guided into the superconducting circuits that constitute the qubits. In ion trap computers, laser light of specific wavelengths is used to address and manipulate the qubits.

4. Improve and practice
Try running a quantum algorithm. Probably, you will find that the qubits forget their values long before the end of the algorithm. Go back to step 1 and try to remove any imperfections in your quantum hardware. Repeat step 2 and take every action you can think of to eliminate disturbances. Hopefully, this will increase the qubit lifetimes, that is the time that they properly keep their quantum state. Then go back to step 3 and remove all possible imperfections in the control equipment. Also, work on increasing the speed in all operations on the qubits. With longer qubit lifetimes and faster operations, you should now be in a better position to run your quantum algorithm.​

At the front

As mentioned before, superconducting circuits and ion traps are the most developed techniques for building a quantum computer.

In October 2019, Google was first to demonstrate a quantum computer solving a problem that is beyond the reach of a regular computer. This is a major milestone in quantum computing, generally referred to as quantum supremacy. The quantum computer in question is a 53-qubit superconducting quantum computer named Sycamore. Read more in our news article Big breakthrough for quantum computers and in Nature.

IBM have also built a 53-qubit superconducting quantum computer. It has not been reported to have outperformed a classical computer, but has been announced to soon be available for commercial and research activity via the cloud. Another front player in building superconducting quantum computers is Rigetti Computing, a venture-backed startup company in California. Their latest 32-qubit quantum processors are also available in the cloud, via Amazon Web Services. 

IonQ, a spin-off company from Maryland and Duke universities, is the current leader in building ion trap quantum computers. They have managed to put 160 ions in their ion trap, but can this far only connect eleven of them (which is still impressive – read more in Benchmarking an 11-qubit quantum computer). IonQ’s quantum computers are also available via Amazon Web Services. 

From WACQT’s point of view, it’s not yet time to go for large-scale systems. First, one has to construct a small-scale system that works extremely well. Going directly for large systems, without having good-enough qubits and inter-connections, will unavoidably result in large error rates.

Comparing different quantum computers

News articles often focus on the number of qubits in a quantum computer. However, this number alone tells very little about its performance. There are several other useful metrics to be taken into account:

  • the connectivity between qubits – the number of other qubits that couple to each qubit,
  • the types of quantum-logic gates that can be implemented, 
  • the reliability, often referred to as fidelity, of the gate operations, and
  • the number of parallel operations that can be implemented.

To avoid always having to compare large specification sheets, IBM has introduced a pragmatic single-value metric: quantum volume. It takes into account both the number of qubits (the “width”) and how long a program that can be run before errors have accumulated to render the computation useless (the “depth”).

Coming next

Google’s quantum computer Sycamore has certainly outperformed a conventional supercomputer in solving a specific problem. However, the solved task is completely useless, it was chosen solely because it was judged to be easy to solve for a quantum computer but very difficult for a conventional one. 

“The next big milestone in quantum computing is to find a useful problem that is beyond the reach of regular computers, but which a quantum computer with fifty to a hundred qubits can solve. We work intensively on this in collaboration with our industry partners. Probably, it will be within logistics or simulation of large molecules,” says WACQT researcher Göran Johansson.

Quantum computers are predicted to be particularly suitable for solving problems that involve a large number of possibilities, such as optimisation problems in logistics or machine learning, and calculation of properties of large molecules. Breaking today’s encryption codes is however further away, since running Shor’s famous algorithm requires about one thousand well-functioning qubits.

At least initially, quantum computers will most likely be part of hybrid computing systems, where a quantum computer operates as a co-processor to a conventional supercomputer. The conventional processors will do most of the work, whereas the quantum processor performs the specific calculations that a quantum computer is significantly better at.

Published: Mon 01 Jun 2020.