Although the term “quantum computer” might suggest a miniature, sleek device, the latest incarnations are a far cry from anything available in the Apple Store. In a laboratory just 60 kilometers north of New York City, scientists are running a fledgling quantum computer through its paces — and the whole package looks like something that might be found in a dark corner of a basement. The cooling system that envelops the computer is about the size and shape of a household water heater.
Beneath that clunky exterior sits the heart of the computer, the quantum processor, a tiny, precisely engineered chip about a centimeter on each side. Chilled to temperatures just above absolute zero, the computer — made by IBM and housed at the company’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. — comprises 16 quantum bits, or qubits, enough for only simple calculations.
If this computer can be scaled up, though, it could transcend current limits of computation. Computers based on the physics of the supersmall can solve puzzles no other computer can — at least in theory — because quantum entities behave unlike anything in a larger realm.
Quantum computers aren’t putting standard computers to shame just yet. The most advanced computers are working with fewer than two dozen qubits. But teams from industry and academia are working on expanding their own versions of quantum computers to 50 or 100 qubits, enough to perform certain calculations that the most powerful supercomputers can’t pull off.
That vision of Web-connected quantum computers has already begun to Quantum computing is exciting. It’s coming, and we want a lot more people to be well-versed in itmaterialize. In 2016, IBM unveiled the Quantum Experience, a quantum computer that anyone around the world can access online for free.
With only five qubits, the Quantum Experience is “limited in what you can do,” says Jerry Chow, who manages IBM’s experimental quantum computing group. (IBM’s 16-qubit computer is in beta testing, so Quantum Experience users are just beginning to get their hands on it.) Despite its limitations, the Quantum Experience has allowed scientists, computer programmers and the public to become familiar with programming quantum computers — which follow different rules than standard computers and therefore require new ways of thinking about problems. “Quantum computing is exciting. It’s coming, and we want a lot more people to be well-versed in it,” Chow says. “That’ll make the development and the advancement even faster.”
One of IBM’s newest quantum computers has 16 qubits made of superconducting materials. Two columns of eight qubits can be seen on this chip. The zigzag lines are microwave resonators, which allow qubits to interact.
But to fully jump-start quantum computing, scientists will need to prove that their machines can outperform the best standard computers. “This step is important to convince the community that you’re building an actual quantum computer,” says quantum physicist Simon Devitt of Macquarie University in Sydney. A demonstration of such quantum supremacy could come by the end of the year or in 2018, Devitt predicts.
Researchers from Google set out a strategy to demonstrate quantum supremacy, posted online at arXiv.org in 2016. They proposed an algorithm that, if run on a large enough quantum computer, would produce results that couldn’t be replicated by the world’s most powerful supercomputers.