Metro

Researchers make strides in developing quantum computers

Christine Daniloff, MIT
An illustration of the 51 atoms, which contain quantum bits, that make up the Harvard-MIT quantum simulator. The researchers used a system of lasers to trap the atoms and control their interactions.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University say they are one step closer to creating a quantum computer, a device that could easily outperform a traditional computer in processing data.

In a paper published Wednesday in the journal Nature, the researchers demonstrate a new way to manipulate quantum bits of matter, or qubits, one of the steps necessary to create a quantum computer, MIT said in a statement.

The team connected a chain of 51 atoms to form one of the largest quantum simulators to date — not quite a quantum computer, but a system that can be used to rapidly solve complex equations, by trapping the individual atoms in laser beams in order to control their interactions, said Vladan Vuletić, a coauthor of the study and physics professor at MIT.

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“Each quantum bit is stored in an individual atom,” he said in a telephone interview. “A major advance is to be able to align and arrange individual atoms so we can hold on to them and track them.”

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Bits, the basic units of information in traditional computers, can only have one of two values: zero or one. But qubits can simultaneously be in a state of zero and one. This allows them to process information much faster than regular bits because they can handle two streams of computation at once.

In order to create a quantum computer, scientists must be able to manipulate qubits so that they interact with each other but not with their environment, Vuletić said.

“They mustn’t touch anything, so we code them in a vacuum” where there is no gas for the atoms to collide with, Vuletić said.

“It’s very key,” he said. “The hardest task in building a quantum computer is keeping them separate from the environment, but also having them interact the way one wants them to interact.”

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The team’s quantum simulator is one of several competing systems that could be used to create a quantum computer, although research into the possibility of quantum computing only really took off about five years ago, Vuletić said.

“Before, it was mostly theoretical,” he said. “It was harder to imagine that it could be implemented.”

If developed, quantum computers could help people make strides in problem solving, decoding encryptions, and general communication, and could even lead to the creation of a “quantum Internet,” Vuletić said.

“When the first computers started, they were in large rooms, and people predicted they could never influence our everyday lives,” he said.

“We can never really imagine the consequences . . . if we have something that can outperform that,” he said.

Alyssa Meyers can be reached at alyssa.meyers@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ameyers_.