Sometimes I feel like quantum computing is like cold fusion. There’s been a lot of theoretical work around how it could possibly done and there have even been a few people peddling devices that claim to do exactly what the research says but the claims have never been quite substantiated. After posting about D-Wave selling one of their quantum computers in the middle of last year I did some further research and found that whilst they might’ve created a qubit (like many have done before them) their 128 qubit computer had not yet been verified as being a 128 entangled qubit computer, a critical difference between quantum and classical computing.
However news came to me today of another possible advancement in the world of quantum computing. Physicists for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have created a simulator capable of replicating a quantum computer with hundreds of qubits. This is an order of magnitude higher than other experiments have done (classical simulation of quantum computers has been limited to around 30 qubits) and the amount of computing power available with that many qubits is some 1080 greater than current processor technology. Critically the simulator is also able to replicate quantum entanglement between qubits, the bugbear that D-Wave has yet to put to rest. What’s really special about this simulator is that it allows researchers to alter properties that they couldn’t normally do with regular solids, something which will allow them to gain further insights into how to craft qubits for use in general computing.
Whilst this is unequivocally a major advancement in the field of quantum computing we’re still a long way off from seeing a working device based on those principles. Like many of its quantum computing brethren the NIST device still requires exotic cooling solutions for it to work (like D-Wave’s computer requiring liquid helium) relegating it solely to the lab for the time being. Additionally the NIST device isn’t much of a quantum computer at the moment, just a device which allows us to simulate what a quantum computer would be like. What this means is that for now we can’t really run any kind of computation on it, we can only explore how varying the properties affects things like the entanglement or coherency of the qubit. Such a device is still crucial to advancing the field of quantum computing however but its still a ways off from practical usage.
Thinking about it more there is one key difference between cold fusion and quantum computing: the latter has seen great progress (both theoretically and practically) whilst the former has not. It’s more akin to regular fusion in that way, being an incredibly complicated problem that we’ve demonstrated is possible to do but will take decades for us to perfect. The further we get into these fields the quicker the revelations come and I have no doubt that the next couple decades will see amazing advances in both those fields.