An Australian research team led by the renowned quantum physicist Prof Michelle Simmons has announced a major breakthrough in quantum computing, which researchers hope could lead to much greater computing power within a decade.
Simmons, a former Australian of the Year, and her team at the University of New South Wales announced in a paper published in Nature journal on Thursday that they have been able to achieve the first two-qubit gate between atom qubits in silicon, allowing them to communicate with each other at a 200 times faster rate than previously achieved at 0.8 nanoseconds.
A qubit is a quantum bit. In this design, it is built from single phosphorus atoms in silicon. In standard computing, a bit can exist in one of two states – 1 or 0. For qubits, it can be 1 or 0 or both simultaneously, which is referred to as a superposition.
By being able to exist in both states simultaneously, the qubit can solve problems much faster than bits. This allows for much faster processing than current computers, meaning complex problems can be solved much more quickly.
A two-qubit gate operates like a logic gate in traditional computing, and the team at UNSW was able to achieve the faster operation by putting the two atom qubits closer together than ever before – just 13 nanometres – and in real-time controllably observing and measuring their spin states.
A scanning tunnelling microscope was used to place the atoms in silicon after the optimal distance between the two qubits had been worked out.
The research has been two decades in the making, after researchers in Australia opted to build a quantum computer on silicon material.
Simmons told Guardian Australia it was “quite a bold move” to try to build a quantum computer on silicon, but was starting to pay off.
The research is still not as far ahead as Google or IBM, which have built 72-qubit and 50-qubit processors, respectively.
Reducing the error rate, however, is key before quantum computing can reach scale and what is being heralded as “quantum supremacy” where quantum computing can solve what can’t be solved by computers today.
In choosing silicon, Simmons said the research team had demonstrated that their atomic-scale circuitry has the lowest electrical noise of any system yet devised to connect to a semiconductor qubit.
The next stage of research for the team will be to get to 10-qubit in the next five years, and hopefully within a decade to commercialising.
Simmons said the work with the team of researchers at UNSW was “ruthlessly systematic” with no room for errors, but very rewarding.
“We do like to have fun. I think that’s one of the key things: we work hard but we play hard.”
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