Two Teams Create “Quantum Simulators”

By Bill Andrews | November 29, 2017 12:00 pm
Each horizontal line is a snapshot of a single atom, the dark and light indicating its magnetic state. (Credit: Data: J. Zhang et al.; graphic: E. Edwards)

Each horizontal line is a snapshot of a single atom, whether its lit up or not indicates the atom’s magnetic state. (Credit: Data: J. Zhang et al.; graphic: E. Edwards)

Science, especially these days, can move slowly. The days of big leaps in our understanding are mostly behind us, and the progress of scientists is typically slow, but steady. That’s why something like quantum computers, which you’ve probably heard a lot about, have been so slow to actually arrive.

Adding Up Qubits

The revolutionary new systems would harness the strangeness of the quantum world. Today’s “classical” computers use regular bits, with data encoded either as 0s or 1s, but quantum bits (qubits) could also be a mix of 0s and 1s, allowing for vastly stronger computing power. (It’s actually way more complicated, but this is a basic way to understand it.)

The thing is, qubits are hard to work with. They can often be as tiny as individual atoms, and it’s not easy getting them to interact with each other — but not the environment they’re in. Some engineers have announced limited successes with systems of a handful of linked qubits, but the process has been slow.

But two papers appearing in Nature today have shown just how far we’ve come. Neither describes a full-fledged quantum computer, but instead two teams have created a kind of precursor: “quantum simulators.” These can solve and simulate particular problems beyond the reach of classical computers, but don’t have the seemingly infinite potential of general quantum computers.

Two Approaches

In the first experiment, scientists from MIT and Harvard used a system of lasers as “optical tweezers” to set up a string of 51 rubidium atoms as a quantum simulator — creating many more qubits than previous attempts.

The second experiment used charged ytterbium atoms instead, manipulating them with electrodes and magnetic fields. The physicists, from the University of Maryland and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, managed to string 53 atoms together, apparently a new record.

Both teams are confident their models can scale up to the order of 100 atoms, which would put their devices in the realm of true general-purpose quantum computers. But already, even at the quantum simulator scale, these machines should be able to solve previously impossible equations and model complex new materials and drugs.

Basically, we’re now at the point where useful quantum computing can actually start to take place — and it’s only going to get better from here. Hopefully, we’ll start to see all that slow work pay off.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Technology
  • Uncle Al

    Slide rules, calculators, parallel computation…quantum superposition.
    Moore’s law is set to detonate. Yay team!

    • OWilson

      Hang on to your slide rule!

      If the stone age barbarians from without, and the Luddites from within, succeed in destroying our modern Western infrastructure of pipelines, and the cheap generation of power, the little occasional and unreliable electricity we will have from our back yard (and quickly deteriorating through lack of manufactured spare parts) windmill, will be far too little to send to plastic factories for making more plug in stuff, like computers.

      Besides computers won’t feed the cow or keep the goat warm in winter!

      • Uncle Al

        Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind,” Butlerian jihad! Destroy the thinking machines and all who find their gods within them. Rule contracted enslaved humanity in the name of The One True God and ecstasies thereby bestowed.

        Humanity must be pure in essence (never bathe, never think). Allow one abacus…assure eternal damnation. Didn’t we already do that?

        • Gadget Blaine

          What if the thinking machine allowed human kind to accelerate, being that the thinking machine is a by product of the mind that the human has used to construct or create it. Humans are the true hardware software technology and every exterior machinery is a manifestational or manifesto function of what the Human body and Mind can do. In conclusion, the more we speed Externally as a result. This grants a reflecting process in the Evolution of Humans and Their kind alike. Agreed?

      • Gadget Blaine

        A quantum leap will happen. And begin a world far more different that what we know it.


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