Quantum computers can, theoretically, be so much faster because they use a quirk in quantum mechanics and use “qubits” that can exist in 0, 1 or a superposition of the two, unlike the classical computers that use bits in 0 or 1. But while quantum devices with two or three qubits have existed for some time, it’s proved hard to scale the technology up to create devices with enough qubits to provide a meaningful jump in computational speed.
A team from University of Maryland in College Park has announced that they’ve created a versatile new five-qubit quantum computer module that will make the scale and allow them to string a series of the units together to create a genuinely powerful quantum computer.
The new device uses five ytterbium ions which are trapped in a row using strong electromagnetic fields. By firing laser pulses at the ions the researchers are able to tweak their electrical state, in turn encoding quantum information upon them. Now, because the atoms are all charged, they also exert a force on each other. By carefully tweaking the electromagnetic fields holding the ions in place, the team can vary the contribution these forces create, allowing them to also dictate how the quantum information the ions hold interacts across the device.
In a paper published on the arXiv server, the team explains that the device can already be used to implement a variety of different quantum algorithms. Most quantum computers tend to be limited to crunching though very specific tasks.
Further progress would be to string up a series of the chips to create a larger, modular quantum computer.