Quantum computers promise to crack some of the world’s most intractable problems by super-charging processing power. But the technical challenges involved in building these machines mean they’ve still achieved just a fraction of what they are theoretically capable of.
Now physicists from the UK have created a blueprint for a soccer-field-sized machine they say could reach the blistering speeds that would allow them to solve problems beyond the reach of today’s most powerful supercomputers.
The system is based on a modular design interlinking multiple independent quantum computing units, which could be scaled up to almost any size. Modular approaches have been suggested before, but innovations such as a far simpler control system and inter-module connection speeds 100,000 times faster than the state-of-the-art make this the first practical proposal for a large-scale quantum computer.
The technology at the heart of the individual modules is already well-established and relies on trapping ions (charged atoms) in magnetic fields to act as “qubits,” the basic units of information in quantum computers.
While bits in conventional computers can have a value of either 1 or 0, qubits take advantage of the quantum mechanical phenomena of superposition, which allows them to be both at the same time.
This is not the first time a modular system like this has been suggested, but previous approaches have recommended using light waves traveling through fiber optics to link the units. This results in interaction rates between modules far slower than the quantum operations happening within them, putting a handbrake on the system’s overall speed. In the new design, the ions themselves are shuttled from one module to another using electrical fields, which results in 100,000 times faster connection speeds.
The system also has a much simpler way of controlling qubits. Previous designs required lasers to be carefully targeted at each ion, an enormous engineering challenge when dealing with billions of qubits. Instead, the new system uses microwave fields and the careful application of voltages, which is much easier to scale up.
“The availability of a universal quantum computer may have a fundamental impact on society as a whole,” said Hensinger. “Without doubt it is still challenging to build a large-scale machine, but now is the time to translate academic excellence into actual application, building on the UK’s strengths in this ground-breaking technology.”
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