Quantum computing is not easy. Researchers at IBM recently announced that they had taken a step toward solving one of its biggest challenges: developing a better way to detect and correct annoying errors. In a blog post, Mark Ritter, who oversees scientists and engineers at IBM?s T.J. Watson Research Laboratory, says: “I believe we?re entering what will come to be seen as the golden age of quantum computing research.” His team, he wrote, is “on the forefront of efforts to create the first true quantum computer.”
First, what that would mean: A quantum computer harnesses the science of the very small?the strange behavior of subatomic particles?to solve problems that are computationally infeasible for a classical computer or simply take too long. How molecules interact at the quantum level, for example, is difficult to study in a laboratory and impossible to simulate on a classical computer but could be simulated on a quantum computer.
“This (quantum simulation) has potential for things like drug discovery, drug design, chemical design, and hopefully applications in the bio-pharma realm,” says Jerry Chow, manager of IBM’s Experimental Quantum Computing group. A quantum computer could also crack the most sophisticated encryption in use today. The NSA has been investing in quantum computing research for this very reason.
Since the 1990s quantum computers have existed in, well, a quantum state, at once a highly theoretical field of physics and mathematics and a concrete engineering challenge progressing in fits and starts. Academic research labs around the world, governments, and companies including Google, Microsoft, and Lockheed Martin have been working on the basic building blocks of a quantum computer for some years. The Canadian company D-Wave claims to have already built one, but many researchers , including those at IBM, are skeptical about how quantum it really is.
Most researchers agree that many challenges remain in the quest to build a practical quantum computer. In a paper published in Nature, Chow’s team described its progress in tackling one of those challenges, by designing a way to detect errors on a two-by-two lattice of superconducting quantum bits.
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