What you’re looking at is a hermetically sealed glass laboratory.
Scientists here are engineering special chips that could power the next computing revolution:
a universal quantum computer.
Chances are you’ve heard of quantum computer and that they’re going to change everything.
“So quantum computers have the potential to completely change how we use technology
in the future.”
“The computational power is off the charts.”
“What’s about to happen with quantum computing is about to make the past look incredibly
Quantum computer are new kinds of machines that promise an exponential growth spurt in
processing power, capable of tackling problems our computers today can’t solve.
While an encryption busting/global problem solving quantum computer doesn’t exist yet,
the field has gained some serious momentum.
“We've reached a point where it's pretty clear that those performance numbers are good
enough now you could build a real product, a real piece of technology out of this idea.
When that threshold got crossed, people started to place their bets.”
Tech giants like IBM and Google, and startups like Rigetti Computing are all in something
of a scientific race to building the first universal quantum computer.
But to understand what makes a quantum computer so uniquely powerful, you’ll need to know
a bit about quantum mechanics.
“Quantum mechanics is the field that describes the simplest things around us, individual
electrons or atoms, or particles of light like photons.
The fascinating thing is, when you look at these very simple systems, they don’t really
obey the same rules that the world around us does.
We use sort of two very important properties of quantum mechanics.
One of them is superposition of states and the other one is entanglement.”
“When we talk about classical computing, we often hear the word ‘bit’ and bit can
refer to 0 or 1.
You can also think it as a binary state.
You have a switch, it can be on or it can be off.
For instance, when you’re physically typing commands into your computer to write an email,
each letter you strike on the keyboard is translated to a unique string of 0s and 1s
that are being switched on and off to digitally represent your words.”
But with superposition, quantum computer can do things differently.
“Instead of using these bits, these zeros or ones, we use what’s called qubits, which
are quantum bits and these bits instead of being a zero or a one, can either be any combination
of a zero and a one…
This is something that arises because of quantum mechanics and allows us to do more tricks.”
“Now, there’s a very special form of superposition known as entanglement, which is even more
What you have is the ability to have two qubits in superposition states.
Essentially, they can only be understood with a collective element of both quits.
“In the quantum computer you can use that lingering interaction to do all sorts of really
interesting types of calculations where different qubits have this persistent ghostly connection
with each other and if you flip this qubit around, this one over here will feel it.
If you do that in a controlled way, you can move lots and lots of information around within
your quantum mechanical system really efficiently.”
But controlling qubits and constructing the right quantum architecture are today’s major
engineering challenges which is why quantum computers and the labs that house them today,
look like this.
“It's right where computers were in the '50s or '40s….where you had technicians
plugging and unplugging things all over the place on some wall of electronics.
You want things when you're first building them to be really modular and reconfigurable.”
To build a quantum computer, you need to start with a quantum chip and Rigetti, IBM, and
other tech companies are investing in something called superconducting qubits.
“A superconducting qubit is just metal on a silicon chip.
That metal is arranged in such a way that when you cool it down to a low enough temperature,
the metal becomes superconducting.
All the electrons can flow without electrical resistance, they can actually take on individual
They're six inches in size, so it's about this big.
There's typically anywhere between a few dozen to a few hundred chips on this wafer.
They get packaged into a circuit board that lets us make connections onto that chip.
When you're making circuits on silicon, you have to have the environment be really free
of dust and contaminants, because we have very small features on these chips, and a
piece of dust can screw them up.”
“In order to cool them down, you need an entire infrastructure of refrigeration, and
for that we rely on something called dilution refrigerators.
we cool these chips down to around 10-15 milikelvin.
The most noticeable sound you hear is the cryocoolers.
They work by pulsing helium gas into and out of this refrigerator system in such a way
that it's just continuously drawing heat out of the interior of the fridge.
Besides the refrigerator there's an entire suite of hardware components... coaxual cables,
attenuators, microwave amplifiers, circulators, a whole bevvy of components that all need
to function at low temperatures.”
“In order to sort of control the qubits we have a lot of hardware that sends pulses
and signals to the qubits.
We use this thing which we call a resonator which is sort of sensitive to the state of
We like to say it's like a middleman and its state will change depending on the state of
the qubit and we can read it and talk to it more easily than we can talk to the qubit.”
Though the teams have different approaches, they’re respectively finessing their techniques:
tweaking the intensity of microwave pulses, the temperature, the manufacturing of the
superconducting qubits and testing new quantum algorithms.
There’s a lot of work to do because at this stage, the amount of time a quit can retain
its quantumness is still pretty short.
“The single biggest challenge all the time is always how do you make these qubits last
as long as possible?
Coherence times is how long quantum information lasts inside of a qubit.
If you put a qubit from the zero-state to the one-state, and you just wait 100 microseconds,
200 microseconds, at some point that extra little bit of energy will decay out of the
“All of the noise that we actually have in physical systems results in error rates
that are still not quite good enough to perform these proven quantum algorithms.”
In a head to head match between quantum computers and classical computers today, our laptops
still dominate, at least for now.
“Today's quantum computers aren't big enough or high-performing enough to actually do something
better than a classical computer.
That's going to change pretty soon.
An example of this is, it is impossible for a computer to anticipate what a molecule would
do in the human body, right?
This is something that the drug development industry has to spend billions of dollars
figuring out by just guessing and checking.
Nature doesn't store information in zeros and ones.
The operating system of nature is quantum mechanics.
If you want to simulate a quantum system, you need something that can do it quantum
That's the kind of problem that a quantum computer can solve.
Because quantum computers can analyze large quantities of data & spot patterns quickly,
they could tackle optimization problems for transportation and industry, advance climate
modeling, and boost artificial intelligence research one day.
But for those wondering when they’ll be able to pick up a quantum laptop…
“You won't have a personal laptop that is a quantum computer.
A quantum computer will be a little bit more behind the scenes.”
Quantum computers are still in the experimental stage, but their raw potential and imminent
arrival are sure to cause a paradigm shift in computing physics, and potentially our
understanding of the world we live in today.
“You're working on an extremely challenging and hard problem where every day you're thinking
about really hard physics, debugging experiments, working with hardware, writing a lot of code,
“Much like the development of classical computers, where no one would have probably
predicted where we are today with the technologies that emerged from classical computers such as with our mobile phones, laptops.
That it’s really hard for us to even predict what are going to be the off shoot technologies. Where is quantum computing
actually going to bring us into the future?”
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