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Quantum computing research gets funding from spy agencies

14 Dec 2015  | Larry Loeb

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IBM has obtained a major multi-year grant from the US intelligence community for the development of quantum computing technology, which could address issues such as safeguarding against cyberattacks and speeding up medical R&D. The US Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) programme has notified IBM that it will award the company's scientists the research grant to improve the building blocks for a universal quantum computer.

IBM is not disclosing further terms of the award because "it is subject to completion of final contract negotiations," according to the company.

IARPA is the research arm of the 17-member US Intelligence Community, which includes the CIA. We think a universal quantum computer could be great at addressing intelligence challenges such as deciphering encrypted data. IBM has other use-cases in mind. According to the company, "This type of leap forward in computing could one day shorten the time to discovery for life-saving cancer drugs to a fraction of what it is today; unlock new facets of artificial intelligence by vastly accelerating machine learning; or safeguard cloud computing systems to be impregnable from cyber-attack."

A quantum computer differs from a traditional computer, in which computational elements are represented by a 0 or a 1. Quantum computers have atom-sized bits that can represent 0, 1, or a superposition of both 0 and 1 at the same time. These quantum bits, or qubits, can allow a computer to perform multiple parts of a calculation at once. This makes them far more powerful than traditional computers.

This all comes at price. Qubits are unstable hardware and have to be shielded from heat and electromagnetic interference. They also need to be cooled to near absolute zero. Otherwise, they return damaging errors.

The IARPA award is funded under the Logical Qubits (LogiQ) programme of IARPA led by David Moehring. The LogiQ Programme seeks to overcome the limitations of existing quantum systems by building a logical qubit from a number of imperfect physical qubits.

According to an article in Quartz, the most powerful quantum computer that IBM has built contains only eight qubits. This machine represents qubits as Josephson junctions, which are two layers of superconductor separated by a thin insulating layer.

IBM has shown, by arranging the computer into a 2D array, the ways to correct for the two kinds of errors that can occur in this kind of machine: bit-flip and phase errors. This is a major step in getting useful, trustworthy output from a quantum computer.

Alternative approaches, as those one taken by D-Wave, NASA, and Google, which put the qubits in a line, can't detect both bit-flip and phase errors at the same time.

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