Quantum Searching in Your Browser

If you’ve made it through the last two posts on quantum computing (QC), then you’ve seen the Quirk simulator, a little of IBM’s web-based offering, and how entanglement and superposition can do strange and possibly wonderful things. However, the superdense encoding I showed you didn’t really feel like a real computer algorithm. This time we will look at Grover’s algorithm which is often incorrectly billed as an “unstructured database search.” In reality, it is an algorithm for making a state — that is a set of qubits — match some desired state without simply setting the state.

By analogy, consider a web service where you guess a number. Most discussions of Grover’s algorithm will tell you that the service will only tell you if the number is correct or not. If the number was from 1 to 16, using traditional computing, you’d have to query the values one at a time to see which is correct. You might get lucky and hit the first time. Or it might take 16 times. With qubits you can get the same result in only four attempts. In fact, if you try more times, you might get the wrong answer. Of course, what you really get is an answer that is probably correct, because that how QC works.

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Quantum Communications in Your Browser

Quantum computing (QC) is a big topic, and last time I was only able to walk you through the construction of a few logic gates, but you have to start somewhere. If you haven’t read that part, you probably should, because you’ll need to understand the simulator I’m using and some basic concepts.

I like to get right into practice, but with this topic, there’s no avoiding some theory. But don’t despair. We’ll have a little science fiction story you can try by the end of this installment, where we manage to pack two bits of information into a single physical qubit. Last time I mentioned that qubits have 1 and 0 states and I hinted that they were really |1> and |0> states. Why create new names for the two normal binary states? Turns out there is more to the story.

What’s the Vector, Victor?

In Dirac notation, |1> is a vector. So is |hackaday> and |123>. You can get into a lot of math with these, but I’m going to try to avoid most of that. This is also called ket notation (the last part of the word bracket) so you’ll hear people say “one ket” or “hackaday ket.” Either way, the vector can represent one or more qubits and there are several ways to represent them.

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Quantum Weirdness in Your Browser

I’ll be brutally honest. When I set out to write this post, I was going to talk about IBM’s Q Experience — the website where you can run real code on some older IBM quantum computing hardware. I am going to get to that — I promise — but that’s going to have to wait for another time. It turns out that quantum computing is mindbending and — to make matters worse — there are a lot of oversimplifications floating around that make it even harder to understand than it ought to be. Because the IBM system matches up with real hardware, it is has a lot more limitations than a simulator — think of programming a microcontroller with on debugging versus using a software emulator. You can zoom into any level of detail with the emulator but with the bare micro you can toggle a line, use a scope, and hope things don’t go too far wrong.

So before we get to the real quantum hardware, I am going to show you a simulator written by [Craig Gidney]. He wrote it and promptly got a job with Google, who took over the project. Sort of. Even if you don’t like working in a browser, [Craig’s] simulator is easy enough, you don’t need an account, and a bookmark will save your work.

It isn’t the only available simulator, but as [Craig] immodestly (but correctly) points out, his simulator is much better than IBM’s. Starting with the simulator avoids tripping on the hardware limitations. For example, IBM’s devices are not fully connected, like a CPU where only some registers can get to other registers. In addition, real devices have to deal with noise and the quantum states not lasting very long. If your algorithm is too slow, your program will collapse and invalidate your results. These aren’t issues on a simulator. You can find a list of other simulators, but I’m focusing on Quirk.

What Quantum Computing Is

As I mentioned, there is a lot of misinformation about quantum computing (QC) floating around. I think part of it revolves around the word computing. If you are old enough to remember analog computers, QC is much more like that. You build “circuits” to create results. There’s also a lot of difficult math — mostly linear algebra — that I’m going to try to avoid as much as possible. However, if you can dig into the math, it is worth your time to do so. However, just like you can design a resonant circuit without solving differential equations about inductors, I think you can do QC without some of the bigger math by just using results. We’ll see how well that holds up in practice.

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Quantum Computing Hardware Teardown

Although quantum computing is still in its infancy, enough progress is being made for it to look a little more promising than other “revolutionary” technologies, like fusion power or flying cars. IBM, Intel, and Google all either operate or are producing double-digit qubit computers right now, and there are plans for even larger quantum computers in the future. With this amount of inertia, our quantum computing revolution seems almost certain.

There’s still a lot of work to be done, though, before all of our encryption is rendered moot by these new devices. Since nothing is easy (or intuitive) at the quantum level, progress has been considerably slower than it was during the transistor revolution of the previous century. These computers work because of two phenomena: superposition and entanglement. A quantum bit, or qubit, works because unlike a transistor it can exist in multiple states at once, rather than just “zero” or “one”. These states are difficult to determine because in general a qubit is built using a single atom. Adding to the complexity, quantum computers must utilize quantum entanglement too, whereby a pair of particles are linked. This is the only way for any hardware to “observe” the state of the computer without affecting any qubits themselves. In fact, the observations often don’t yet have the highest accuracy themselves.

There are some other challenges with the hardware as well. All quantum computers that exist today must be cooled to a temperature very close to absolute zero in order to take advantage of superconductivity. Whether this is because of a reduction in thermal noise, as is the case with universal quantum computers based on ion traps or other technology, or because it is possible to take advantage of other interesting characteristics of superconductivity like the D-Wave computers do, all of them must be cooled to a critical temperature. A further challenge is that even at these low temperatures, the qubits still interact with each other and their read/write devices in unpredictable ways that get more unpredictable as the number of qubits scales up.

So, once the physics and the refrigeration are sorted out, let’s take a look at how a few of the quantum computing technologies actually manipulate these quantum curiosities to come up with working, programmable computers. Continue reading “Quantum Computing Hardware Teardown”

Intel Rolls Out 49 Qubits

With a backdrop of security and stock trading news swirling, Intel’s [Brian Krzanich] opened the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show with a keynote where he looked to future innovations. One of the bombshells: Tangle Lake; Intel’s 49-qubit superconducting quantum test chip. You can catch all of [Krzanch’s] keynote in replay and there is a detailed press release covering the details.

This puts Intel on the playing field with IBM who claims a 50-qubit device and Google, who planned to complete a 49-qubit device. Their previous device only handled 17 qubits. The term qubit refers to “quantum bits” and the number of qubits is significant because experts think at around 49 or 50 qubits, quantum computers won’t be practical to simulate with conventional computers. At least until someone comes up with better algorithms. Keep in mind that — in theory — a quantum computer with 49 qubits can process about 500 trillion states at one time. To put that in some apple and orange perspective, your brain has fewer than 100 billion neurons.

Of course, the number of qubits isn’t the entire story. Error rates can make a larger number of qubits perform like fewer. Quantum computing is more statistical than conventional programming, so it is hard to draw parallels.

We’ve covered what quantum computing might mean for the future. If you want to experiment on a quantum computer yourself, IBM will let you play on a simulator and on real hardware. If nothing else, you might find the beginner’s guide informative.

Image credit: [Walden Kirsch]/Intel Corporation

Ion Trap Makes Programmable Quantum Computer

The Joint Quantum Institute published a recent paper detailing a quantum computer constructed with five qubits formed from trapped ions. The novel architecture allows the computer to accept programs for multiple algorithms.

Quantum computers make use of qubits and trapped ions–ions confined with an electromagnetic field–are one way to create them. In particular, a linear radio frequency trap and laser cooling traps five ytterbium ions with a separation of about 5 microns. To entangle the qubits, the device uses 50 to 100 laser pulses on individual or pairs of ions. The pulse shape determines the actual function performed, which is how the device is programmable. The operations depend on the sequence of laser pulses that activate it. Continue reading “Ion Trap Makes Programmable Quantum Computer”

Single Photon Source for Quantum Computing and Experimentation

One challenge to building optical computing devices and some quantum computers is finding a source of single photons. There are a lot of different techniques, but many of them aren’t very practical, requiring lots of space and cryogenic cooling. Recently, researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem developed a scalable photon source on a semiconductor die.

Using nanocrystals of semiconductor material, the new technique emits single photons, and in a predictable direction. The nanocrystals combine with circular nanoantennas made of metal and dielectric produced with conventional fabrication technology. The nanoantennas are concentric circles resembling a bullseye and is used to ensure that the photons travel the correct direction with little or no angular deviation.

A single IC could contain many photon sources and they operate at room temperature. We’ve talked about quantum tricks with photons before. Quantum mechanics is another popular topic.