Crystal boosts quantum computing

2012-05-07 12:26

Sydney - The latest excitement in quantum mechanics is over a tiny crystal in a laboratory in Boulder, Colorado, that Sydney University's Michael Biercuk created with fellow experimental physicists from the US and SA.

It holds within it the possibility of doing calculations that all the world's computers harnessed together would not have the power to do.

The crystal, less than 1mm across, is made up of just 300 atoms, and has more interacting elements than any other programmable quantum simulator.

"The breakthrough is not that just 300 atoms are involved [because] the community routinely does experiments with single atoms," Biercuk said.

"The breakthrough is that we have a controlled system with enough interacting quantum particles that the computational capacity of the system is larger than the most powerful supercomputer."

Critical threshold

Tests show this quantum simulator is the first to surpass the critical threshold of 30 - 40 particles where today's most advanced supercomputers choke. It could potentially do sums beyond the capability of a desktop notionally the size of the known universe.

"No classical computer could do what this simulator has the potential to do," Biercuk said.

Alas, the buzz is just within the quantum mechanics community. The simulator is only good for analysing magnetism and with all its supporting technology takes up a whole room so there will not be a home version from Dell in the foreseeable future.

Biercuk, co-author of the paper in the latest edition of the journal Nature detailing the first test results, sees lab work eventually giving way to less specialised work.

"In the next several years we hope to be able to perform specialised calculations that are actually impossible on any supercomputer," he said.

"Finding a more general use, and performing 'useful' calculations, will likely occur in the next 10 - 20 years."

The crystal at the core of the simulator is a pancake of 300 beryllium ions kept in place by a magnetic field and housed in a smartphone sized device called a Penning trap. Microwave and laser pulses rearrange the atoms inside the trap, their interaction mimicking the quantum behaviour of materials that otherwise would be too difficult to study in a laboratory.

The setup at Boulder's National Institute of Standards and Technology is complex and expensive but the computing power is mind-boggling - a whopping 80 orders of magnitude (a number with 80 zeroes behind it) larger than current computers.

The problem with this is that because the quantum processor has the power to outperform any existing computer, who knows whether it is coming up with the right answers?

"Once the system provides an answer, there's no straightforward way to know the answer is correct," Beircuk admitted. "That's why we've been performing benchmarking experiments, confirming the system performance for very simple problems that are easily checked."

  • Sam - 2012-05-07 13:20

    I'm too stupid to full appreciate this.

      tonyzr2tx - 2012-05-07 13:37

      I have to agree with you, me too.

      keith.gough - 2012-05-07 13:48

      Don't be silly. It only means that there are now cleverer ways of doing nothing.

      Peter - 2012-05-07 13:49

      I wasn't but I am now! Thanks guys

      Leon - 2012-05-07 14:16

      al they are saying is they've now actually built the processor that has the ability to outhink humans and take over the world

      E=MC2 - 2012-05-07 16:01

      so what they're saying is that they have no idea what they're excited about because "who knows whether it is coming up with the right answers?"

  • Sidney Gilroy - 2012-05-07 13:41

    It simply means that Planck was indeed correct and I fear the Singularity will move from speculation to Fact. Within our life-time, we will experience computing power much, much more powerful than the 20 Petaflops of the human brain.

      Leon - 2012-05-07 14:14

      no we may poses the potential but making it cost effective for mass production wont conform to planck's law anymore

  • helizna - 2012-05-07 13:42

    Help nie Suid Afrikaners veel nie...Ons internet is stadiger as 'n posduif...

      E=MC2 - 2012-05-07 16:01

      hahaha good point!

  • Peter - 2012-05-07 13:46

    But can it play solitaire?

      Leon - 2012-05-07 14:15

      it can play solitaire so quickly that it would appear it is hanging. while you curse and restart the thing, its beaten you a million times.

      E=MC2 - 2012-05-07 16:02

      i beg to differ Leon because they are still not sure if its actually doing anything correctly, only that it does something quickly...

  • Jonathan - 2012-05-07 13:51

    Fascinating stuff!!! Too think my Core i7 3960X 3.3 Ghz 6 core processor is gonna be obsolete very soon. Amazing!!! Wish I could get a glimpse of what the world is gonna be like 50 years from now

  • carike.staden - 2012-05-07 13:53

    Double cool.

  • Kobus Oosthuizen - 2012-05-07 14:22

    We have about 500 Petaflops in parliament, does that count! Performs calculations on tenders faster than any super computer as well!

  • craig.a.salter - 2012-05-07 14:26

    This is an amazing new tech. I am curious to see how it reshapes the future of the tablet, smartphone and the rest of the computing world. If technologies keep improving at the current pace, in the not to far future we will be be having holotech

  • Brian - 2012-05-07 15:05

    I wonder how much paper this monster will generate. The paperless system currently in use consumes more forests than any system prior to computers.

      Tony Lapson - 2012-05-07 15:37


      Luke - 2012-05-07 16:08

      ok, so whats the "goodnews" @Tony - *high-five* :D

  • Werner - 2012-05-07 15:59

    Look at how long it took to reach Pentium? Once that hurdle was crossed things started flying. Look at Hard drives sizes, if anyone asked you 5 years ago if you would have any use for a 3TB HDD, what would you say? Not even mentioning things like Petabytes ect to come, or might be in some super computers. I am sure they will overcome the size issue here and from there it's a new huge booooom!

  • Mandy Casey - 2012-05-10 23:38

    So in 10 years time you might be able to do some useful calcs, Bill will be proud.

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