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After Hours

Quantum Computers in Our Lifetime? IBM Says It's Likely

Quantum Computers in Our Lifetime? IBM Says It
February 28, 2012 10:44AM

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IBM's experiments are part of a series of advances in quantum computing that have taken place at IBM and other labs, particularly since mid-2009. IBM said in a statement that this trail of quantum experimental successes worldwide are very close to providing "the minimum requirements for a full-scale quantum computing system."

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If you are wowed by quad-core smartphones and high-powered laptops, hold on to your hat. IBM has announced a breakthrough that could lead to quantum computers within 15 years.

IBM researchers are presenting on Tuesday the results of successful experiments that could go a long way to solving some of the critical problems for quantum computing to become a reality, including increasing the lifetime of quantum informational bits.

'Within Our Lifetime'

The presentation, occurring at the American Physical Society in Boston, could represent a tipping point in whether quantum computing could happen within most people's lifetimes.

Mark B. Ketchen, manager of the physics of information group at IBM's famed Thomas J. Watson Research Center in upstate New York, told news media that people have usually thought of quantum computing of being perhaps "50 years away, it's a dream, maybe it'll happen sometime."

Now, he said, he thinks it will happen in 15 years "or a little more." In any case, he said, it will happen "within our lifetime."

IBM scientist Matthias Steffen said in statement that "it's time to start creating systems based on this science."

A key obstacle for quantum computing has been that qubits -- a quantum bit that can simultaneously be a digital one and a zero -- have extremely short lifespans when researchers use supercomputing circuits, which is their preferred construction.

Previously, qubits' information disintegrated within a few billionths of a second, which is too short for computing. But the IBM researchers, building on a technique pioneered at Yale, have developed what they described as 3D qubits that last up to 100 microseconds. Researchers said this lifespan is just past the minimum threshold where error correction can capture and correct the information, making computation possible.

More Than Atoms in Universe

Separately, IBM has also demonstrated a 2D qubit device that implements a two-qubit logic operation, in the form of a controlled-NOT logic sequence. The experiment had a 95 percent success rate, and a lifespan of about 10 microseconds.

These experiments are part of a series of advances in quantum computing that have taken place at IBM and other labs, particularly since mid-2009. The company said in a statement that this trail of successes worldwide, coupled with the recent results, are very close to providing "the minimum requirements for a full-scale quantum computing system."

Al Hilwa, program director for application development at IDC, said that since it's IBM making these predictions about when quantum computing might become a reality, "it's something we have to take seriously" because the company has a "terrific research organization and track record."

But, he cautioned, "15 years can be a very long time," and conventional computing could have taken "an entirely new direction by then."

The potential power of quantum computing is difficult to fathom. One estimate is that exceptionally difficult computational problems that might take years, or even billions of years, on the the most powerful current computers could theoretically be solved by quantum computers in days or possibly seconds.

Because a qubit can contain multiple bits simultaneously, millions of computations can be handled at the same time. According to IBM, a single 250-qubit state "contains more bits of information than there are atoms in the universe."

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