The massive intersection of James Avenue and East Boughton Road in Bolingbrook, Illinois, looks like many other crossroads in suburban America. A drive-through Starbucks keeps watch over 15 lanes of turning and merging mid-size SUVs, most headed for the sprawling parking lots of the Promenade shopping mall to the south, a few others en route to the shooting gallery and gun shop across Interstate 355 to the east.
Few of the people in the SUVs realize they’re driving over part of America’s blossoming research into quantum information technology. Beneath the interstate, entangled photons—quantum particles moving at the speed of light— are teleporting to and from the Argonne National Laboratory in the next town over, through repurposed fiber-optic cables that make up one of the longest land-based quantum networks in the nation.
Researchers hope to use the 52-mile quantum test site in Bolingbrook and others like it to prove that you can trap information inside a quantum state of matter (like a photon) in one location, send it somewhere else, and access it completely intact on the other end. They need to factor in the challenges of frozen ground, the sun’s radiation, and vibrations from all those vehicles traveling overhead, but if they can prove it, they’ll have invented a way of communicating that makes 5G seem quaint. Researchers at other laboratories are simultaneously trying to feed algorithms into similar elementary states of matter, known as quantum bits, and have them come out transformed correctly at the end of the computation. If that’s successful, they’ll have an entirely new type of computer on their hands.
It’s been clear to physicists for years that the long-established principles of quantum mechanics can revolutionize computing and the internet. If quantum bits can be tamed, they could run algorithms in just a few seconds that would otherwise take years to complete. Stable photons could transfer information across the world instantly in a way that likely could never be hacked while in transit, since any disturbance would destroy the information.
To the rest of us, the quantum revolution might seem as if it has just transformed from a sleepy scientific theory into the sharpest of bleeding edges. It’s even possible that we’re currently experiencing something of a quantum bubble—and that it might be about to burst. In 2017, most of the quantum test loops were just dormant fiber-optic cables, and no one had been able to get quantum bits to reliably process information in the same way classical computers can. Now, there are more than a dozen functioning quantum computers around the world, a few of which any software developer can access via familiar services: say, an Amazon Web Services account. Within the past two years, America has committed more than $1 billion in government funds to quantum information research, quantum computing startups have closed multiple venture funding rounds, and IBM announced that it is forging ahead with plans to build a computer with more than a million quantum bits, up from a maximum of around 60 today.
Despite advances coming at a breakneck pace, many of the people working in the nascent field of quantum information science acknowledge that quantum states are not yet reliable or understood well enough to replace traditional computing and the internet. Some believe they never will be—that no one will ever buy a phone with quantum bits instead of an Apple A12 Bionic, and that quantum bits and other elementary particles will forever be relegated to scientific research.
QUBITS: WAY BETTER THAN ZEROES AND ONES
A computer made up of quantum bits (qubits, for short) is really a collection of circuits. As in a classical computer made up of bits, the input values proceed through a series of logic gates in the circuit, each of which modifies the value to produce an output. The most important difference between quantum computing and classical computing is that bits are binary. They are either up or down, open or closed, zero or one. Qubits, on the other hand, can be entangled—present in multiple states at once, a so-called superposition. If you’re trying to solve a complex algorithm, say, as part of a software application to run on a classical computer, you’ll need to string together multiple bits of zeros and ones. But if you’re running an algorithm using qubits, you might need only a single qubit in a superposition to replace all those classical bits. String multiple qubits together into a quantum circuit, and the possibilities are staggering. Theoretically, you could run an algorithm so complex that there’s no analog to classical computing as we know it.
The most difficult problem to solve in improving quantum computing and communications is the fragility of the quantum state of matter. We are starting to be able to protect traveling quantum particles against the effects of weather and road vibrations, but only in test loops—not over the thousands of miles required to replace the current internet. Likewise, no one has yet figured out how to make qubits function reliably, even in a controlled laboratory setting. They work well enough in small groups and confined to specific types of computations, as IBM demonstrated using a stable 27-qubit computer called Falcon earlier this year. They’re mostly useful for testing purposes: Researchers can feed them problems with known solutions and then validate their answers.
But so far, qubits have proven too fragile to function reliably in larger groups, which effectively limits their ability to graduate from beta and accurately perform any computation a classical computer would.
“As we push on the number of qubits, you’re able to explore a much more varied set of quantum circuits,” says Jerry Chow, the senior manager of the Experimental Quantum Computing Group at IBM. If only it were that simple. The “lossy qubit” problem, as Chow puts it, means that parts of each quantum computer that exists today are dedicated just to resolving errors in their computations, instead of performing the computations themselves. The quantum volume of a computer, a numerical value that describes its maximum potential to perform calculations, is always less than the number of qubits it contains. Likewise, the number of photons that begin their journey intact at the beginning of a journey through a test loop is always greater than the number that return.
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