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IBM Makes New Breakthrough In Quantum Computing, On the Cusp of Designing Actual Prototypes

Today, scientists at IBM have announced that they’ve achieved a breakthrough in quantum computing that may allow engineers to start working on actual quantum computer prototypes in the near future. To put it another way, up until now, quantum computing has largely been concerned with questions like “What kind of crazy stuff could we do if we had one of these?” and now thanks to this breakthrough, it’s barreling towards something more like “Okay, let’s figure out how to put one of these together.”

An actual, functioning quantum computer is still 10-15 years off, according to scientists, but recent discoveries are, for the first time, making such a computer actually feasible. Of course, to really understand what this progress means, it’s helpful to have a basic understanding of what quantum computing actually is. Consider this a refresher.

Conventional computers work by using bits, binary switches that can be on or off, 0s and 1s. Naturally, the more complex things you want to do, the more bits you need, and the more technological advances become little more than cramming more bits closer together and making them work faster. Quantum computing completely changes the paradigm. Quantum bits, or qubits, can have values of 0, 1, or a quantum superposition of both. In short, qubits can exponentially increase processing power.

The manager of physics of information at the IBM’s TJ Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, Mark Ketchen, explains it this way:

Suppose you take 2 qubits. You can be in 00, 01, 10, and 11 at the same time. For 3 qubits you can be in 8 states at the same time (000, 001, 111, etc.). For each qubit you double the number of states you can be in at the same time. This is part of the reason why a quantum computer could be much more powerful.

While all that is exhilarating, the breakthrough here is a little more mundane, and largely related to computational accuracy. Currently, IBM is using superconducting qubits with sapphire chips and, thanks to the recent breakthrough, can quantum compute single operations with 95% accuracy. Now that isn’t high enough that scientists run off and start building physical prototypes; it’s widely agreed that accuracy should be at least 99% before that happens. It is, however, high enough that thinking about complex architecture isn’t a complete fool’s errand.

It’s only a matter of time until qubit computation is sufficiently reliable, and then it’s off to the races. Redefining computer programming from the ground up isn’t something that’s going to happen overnight, of course, but it’s a process that could be starting in earnest very soon.

(IBM Quantum Computing via Computer World)

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