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IBM takes giant step to faster, quantum computers

Scientists say quantum transistors can regulate and control electrical current flow like a commercial transistor.

Scientists say quantum transistors can regulate and control electrical current flow like a commercial transistor.

IBM researchers have taken a leap in computing by using quantum mechanics to harness the power of atoms and molecules, a move likely to lead to vast increases in speed and security of computers and other devices.

IBM researchers presenting the results at last week’s American Physical Society meeting in Boston said that quantum computing “has the potential to deliver computational power that is unrivaled by any supercomputer today.”

The new type of computing uses information encoded into quantum bits or qubits, putting into use a theory that scientists have been discussing for decades.

“The special properties of qubits will allow quantum computers to work on millions of computations at once, while desktop PCs can typically handle minimal simultaneous computations,” an IBM statement said.

“For example, a single 250-qubit state contains more bits of information than there are atoms in the universe.”

“The quantum computing work we are doing shows it is no longer just a brute force physics experiment,” said IBM scientist Matthias Steffen, manager of the research team that is working on applications for quantum computing systems.

“It’s time to start creating systems based on this science that will take computing to a new frontier.”

Quantum computing expands on the most basic piece of information that a typical computer understands – a bit. While a normal bit can have only one of two values: “1” or “0,” qubits can hold a value of “1” or “0” as well as both values at the same time.

“Described as superposition, this is what allows quantum computers to perform millions of calculations at once,” IBM says.

A problem for scientists is that qubits have a short life of several billionths of a second, but IBM has succeeded in developing “three dimensional” superconducting qubits which retain their quantum states up to 100 microseconds – an improvement of two to four times prior records.

“Based on this progress, optimism about superconducting qubits and the possibilities for a future quantum computer are rapidly growing,” says IBM.

To harness the power of quantum computing, scientists have had to work to minimise errors in calculations caused by interference from factors such as heat, electromagnetic radiation, and materials defects. The use of quantum computing “will have widespread 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,” IBM said.

“Other potential applications for quantum computing may include searching databases of unstructured information, performing a range of optimisation tasks and solving previously unsolvable mathematical problems.”

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