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IBM develops world's most advanced quantum computer


NEW YORK (Reuters) -- International Business Machines Corp. said Tuesday it had developed the world's most advanced quantum computer, a device based on the mysterious quantum physics properties of atoms that allow them to work together as a computer's processor and memory.

IBM said the computer, which uses five atoms to work as its processor and memory, demonstrates for the first time the potential of such devices to solve certain problems at a rate remarkably faster than conventional computers. The experimental machine is considered the next step towards a new class of devices capable of superfast calculations.

"A quantum computer could eventually be used for practical purposes such as database searches -- for example searching the Web could be sped up a great deal -- but probably not for more mundane tasks such as word processing," said Isaac Chuang, the IBM researcher who led the team of scientists from IBM, Stanford University and the University of Calgary.

A quantum computer could also be used for cryptography, or the making and breaking of codes. This has drawn the interest of the U.S. National Security Administration and the Department of Defense, which are funding Stanford's efforts to build the quantum computer.

The current method of creating processors, which are becoming increasingly smaller and more powerful as described by an axiom known as Moore's Law, is expected to reach a barrier sometime in the next decade or so. This process, lithography, will not allow for the creation of microchips the size of molecules, prompting researchers to try to build computers by using genetic strands or developing other tiny technologies.

"Quantum computing begins where Moore's Law ends -- about the year 2020, when circuit features are predicted to be the size of atoms and molecules," said Chuang. "Indeed, the basic elements of quantum computers are atoms and molecules."

Chuang said in an interview that his team used the test quantum computer to solve a typical mathematical problem used in cryptography -- finding the period of a function. The computer was able to solve any example of the problem in one step, while a conventional computer would require repeated cycles to solve the problem.

Chuang said the experiment showed the viability of the quantum computer.

"I think this experiment shows we are on a pathway which is predictable and understandable, that quantum computers will be useful someday," he said.

The quantum computer is based on the spin of an electron or atomic nucleus, and the strange properties of quantum particles in which they can spin simultaneously in different directions if they are not observed.

When the spin of a particle is up, the atom can be read as a one, and the spin down can be read as a zero, corresponding to the digital ones and zeros that form the binary language of traditional computers. Such devices use transistors, which are turned on and off to represent the ones and zeros.

What makes quantum computers unique, however, is that quantum particles can also be in a state of "superposition" -- spinning simultaneously up and down.

"Due to their small size and if they are very well isolated, they can be spinning up and down at the same time," said Chuang.

This state would represent both zero and one and everything in between. Instead of solving the problem by adding all the numbers in order, a quantum computer would add all the numbers at the same time.

This phenomenon permits a quantum computer to have enormous power, Chuang said. For certain types of calculations, like complex algorithms for cryptography or searches -- a quantum computer using several hundred more atoms in tandem would be able to perform billions of calculations at the same time.

However, it is unclear when such a computer would be commercially available. Chuang said it is expected that between seven and 10 atoms will be used in tandem in more advanced quantum computers within the next two years.

Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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IBM Corporation
Stanford University
University of Calgary

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