Quantum Processor Hooks Up with Quantum Memory

Connecting the two could make it possible to perform complex calculations
that are far beyond the power of conventional computers. THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 1, 2011
BY
TOM SIMONITE
Audio » Researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, have become the
first to combine a quantum processor with memory that can be used to
store instructions and data. This achievement in quantum computing
replicates a similar milestone in conventional computer design from the
1940s. Although quantum computing is now mostly a research subject, it holds out
the promise of computers far more capable than those we use today. The
power of quantum computers comes from their version of the most basic
unit of computing, the bit. In a conventional computer, a bit can represent
either 1 or 0 at any time. Thanks to the quirks of quantum mechanics, the
equivalent in a quantum computer, a qubit, can represent both values at once. When qubits in such a “superposition” state work together, they can
operate on exponentially more data than the same number of regular bits.
As a result, quantum computers should be able to defeat encryption that is
unbreakable in practice today and perform highly complex simulations. Linking a processor and memory elements brings such applications closer,
because it should make it more practical to control and program a quantum
computer can perform, says Matteo Mariantoni, who led the project, which is
part of a wider program at UCSB headed by John Martinis and Andrew
Cleland. The design the researchers adopted is known as the von Neumann
architecture—named after John von Neumann, who pioneered the idea of
making computers that combine processor and memory. Before the first von
Neumann designs were built in the late 1940s, computers could be
reprogrammed only by physically reconfiguring them. “Every single
computer we use in our everyday lives is based on the von Neumann architecture, and we have created the quantum mechanical equivalent,” says
Mariantoni. The only quantum computing system available to buy —priced at $10 million —lacks memory and works like a pre-von Neumann computer. Qubits can be made in a variety of ways, such as suspending ions or atoms
in magnetic fields. The UCSB group used more conventional electrical circuits,
albeit ones that must be cooled almost to absolute zero to make them
superconducting and activate their quantum behavior. They can be
fabricated by chip-making techniques used for conventional computers.
Mariantoni says that using superconducting circuits allowed the team to place the qubits and memory elements close together on a single chip, which
made possible the new von Neumann-inspired design.
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