Scientists at IBM’s Almaden Research Center have performed the world’s most complicated quantum-computer calculation to date. They caused a billion billion custom-designed molecules in a test tube to become a seven-qubit quantum computer that solved a simple version of the mathematical problem at the heart of many of today’s data-security cryptographic systems.

“This result reinforces the growing realization that quantum computers may someday be able to solve problems that are so complex that even the most powerful supercomputers working for millions of years can’t calculate the answers,” said Nabil Amer, manager and strategist of IBM Research’s physics of information group.

In today’s issue of the scientific journal Nature, a team of IBM scientists and Stanford University graduate students report the first demonstration of “Shor’s Algorithm” — a method developed in 1994 by AT&T scientist Peter Shor for using the futuristic quantum computer to find a number’s factors — numbers that are multiplied together to give the original number. Today, factoring a large number is so difficult for conventional computers — yet so simple to verify — that it is used by many cryptographic methods to protect data.

A quantum computer gets its power by taking advantage of certain quantum properties of atoms or nuclei that allow them to work together as quantum bits, or “qubits,” which serve simultaneously as the computer’s processor and memory . By directing the interactions between qubits while keeping them isolated from the external environment, scientists enable a quantum computer to perform certain calculations, such as factoring, exponentially faster than conventional computers. When factoring large numbers using a conventional computer, each added digit roughly doubles the time to find the factors. In contrast, the quantum factoring time increases by only a constant increment with each additional digit.

The simplest meaningful instance of Shor’s Algorithm is finding the factors of the number 15, which requires a seven-qubit quantum computer. IBM chemists designed and made a new molecule that has seven nuclear spins — the nuclei of five fluorine and two carbon atoms — which can interact with each other as qubits, be programmed by radio frequency pulses and be detected by nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) instruments similar to those commonly used in hospitals and chemistry labs.

The IBM scientists controlled a vial of a billion billion (10**18) of these molecules so they executed Shor’s algorithm and correctly identified 3 and 5 as the factors of 15. “Although the answer may appear to be trivial, the unprecedented control required over the seven spins during the calculation made this the most complex quantum computation performed to date,” Amer said.

While the potential for quantum computing is huge and recent progress is encouraging, commercial quantum computers are still many years away. NMR-based quantum computers are laboratory experiments. The first quantum computing applications would likely to be co-processors for specific functions, such as solving difficult mathematical problems, modeling quantum systems and performing unstructured searches. Word processing or simple problem-solving tasks are more easily handled by today’s computers.

IBM’s demonstration of Shor’s algorithm also shows the value of quantum computing experiments using NMR, an approach pioneered independently in the mid-1990s by Chuang and Neil Gershenfeld of MIT and by David Cory and colleagues, also at MIT. “Our NMR experiments stimulated us to develop fundamental tools that can be used in many future types of quantum computers,” said Chuang. “Most important of these was a way to simulate and predict the signal degradation caused by ‘decoherence’ — unintended quantum fluctuations. This tool enabled us to minimize decoherence errors in our 7-qubit experiment.”

While NMR will continue to provide a testbed for developing quantum computing tools and techniques, it will be very difficult to develop and synthesize molecules with many more than seven qubits. As a result, new experiments at IBM and elsewhere are aimed at developing new quantum computing systems that can more easily “scale” to the large numbers of qubits needed for practical applications. Strong candidates today include electron spins confined in semiconductor nanostructures (often called quantum dots), nuclear spins associated with single-atom impurities in a semiconductor, and electronic or magnetic flux through supercoductors. Atomic and optical implementations continue to be evaluated.

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