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Demonstration of a small programmable quantum computer with atomic qubits

A close-up photo of an ion trap. Credit: S. Debnath and E. Edwards/JQI

Quantum computers promise speedy solutions to some difficult problems, but building large-scale, general-purpose quantum devices is a problem fraught with technical challenges.

In a paper published as the cover story in Nature on August 4, 2016, PFC-funded researchers introduced the first fully programmable and reconfigurable quantum computer module. The new device, dubbed a module because of its potential to connect with copies of itself, takes advantage of the unique properties offered by trapped ions to run any algorithm on five quantum bits, or qubits—the fundamental unit of information in a quantum computer.

The new module builds on decades of research into trapping and controlling ions. It uses standard techniques but also introduces novel methods for control and measurement. This includes manipulating many ions at once using an array of tightly-focused laser beams, as well as dedicated detection channels that watch for the glow of each ion.

At the module’s heart, though, is something that’s not even quantum: A database stores the best shapes for the laser pulses that drive quantum logic gates, the building blocks of quantum algorithms. Those shapes are calculated ahead of time using a regular computer, and the module uses software to translate an algorithm into the pulses in the database.

To test the module, the team ran three different quantum algorithms, including a demonstration of a Quantum Fourier Transform (QFT), which finds how often a given mathematical function repeats. It is a key piece in Shor’s quantum factoring algorithm, which would break some of the most widely-used security standards on the internet if run on a big enough quantum computer. Two of the algorithms ran successfully more than 90% of the time, while the QFT topped out at a 70% success rate.

S. Debnath, N.M. Linke, C. Figgatt, K.A. Landsman, K. Wright, and C. Monroe
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