IBM claims fastest quantum computer

IBM Corp. said today it has developed the world's most advanced quantum computer at its Almaden Research Center in Silicon Valley. But don't expect to pick one up at Radio Shack anytime soon.

IBM's 5-qubit quantum computer is a research instrument, the company said, noting that commercial quantum computers are still many years away. Potential uses include functioning as a coprocessor for computer searches, cryptography and solving difficult mathematical problems.

"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 Isaac Chuang in an IBM press release. Chuang led the team of scientists from IBM Research, Stanford University and the University of Calgary. "Indeed, the basic elements of quantum computers are atoms and molecules."

IBM's quantum computing project is an effort to plan for a future beyond silicon semiconductors, which experts predict will reach a physical limitation on processing power in the next 10 to 20 years. The number of transistors that can be placed on an integrated chip doubles every 18 months, according to the computer engineering axiom known as Moore's Law.

IBM's quantum computer uses five fluorine atoms within a molecule that's specially designed so the fluorine nuclei's spins can interact with each other as "qubits." The fluorine atoms can be programmed by radio frequency pulses and be detected by nuclear magnetic resonance instruments like those used in hospitals and chemistry labs.

A quantum computer uses the direction of an atom's spin to count ones and zeros -- qubits -- rather than the electrical charge used in silicon computers. Atoms can also spin in two directions at once when unobserved.

Harnessing these properties for calculation enables quantum computers to process equations exponentially faster than a conventional computer by being able to do several computing steps at the same time.

Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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