Toward Defining Qubits

IEEE working on standard lexicon to talk about next-gen computing technology.

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Quantum computing, by many accounts the future of high-performance computing, will be blazing fast, state-dependent, and it will require extremely cold operating temperatures. But beyond some general areas of agreement, comparing progress made by companies or different research groups is confusing.

What’s missing is a simple nomenclature to define some of the basic technology used in quantum computing. To that end, IEEE’s Quantum Computing Standards group is developing a common lexicon for this area of research—in particular, how to define a qubit, quantum computing, or even a quantum computer, as well as quantum tunneling, entanglement and super position.

“The goal is to drive nomenclature standards, which will help with communication and development,” said William Hurley, chair of IEEE’s Quantum Computing Working Group. “Why does D-Wave claim to be working with 2,048 qubits while IBM says it hopes to get to 50 qubits?”

Hurley noted that a big concern involves when is the right time to begin defining standards. This has been a particular problem on the semiconductor side, where early efforts have created ineffective or competing standards that have impeded rather than accelerated progress. He said that being able to communicate consistently across companies or research organizations will enable development efforts, not slow them down.

“We’re going to start with the nomenclature,” he said. “After that we will move into software, and then into hardware.”

There are a number of company-based efforts underway already in quantum computing by Google, IBM, Microsoft, 1Qbit and Rigetti Computing. There also are a handful of open-source efforts from Linux, Rugetti and IBM. And there is research by involving a number of universities, as well as Leti, Imec, and the Tokyo Institute of Technology.

At this point there appear to be several major thrusts to this work. One is focused on cryptography, which is being driven by intelligence agencies. A second involves communications and quantum entanglement. The third involves what typically has been done with supercomputers in the past, such as large-scale modeling and simulations.

There also are efforts to allow quantum computing to happen at room temperature, and there is work underway to develop quantum chips. Stanford University, for one, is reworking the lattice structure in silicon to confine a spinning electron. When a laser hits the electron it shows which way that electron is spinning, which represents states equivalent to ones or zeroes.


Fig. 1: Stanford’s laser-based approach.

Regardless of which approaches finally win out, the underlying message is that computing with qubits opens up a massive new capability for computing. “A 100-qubit computer would be more powerful than all the computers in the world,” said Hurley. “It would dramatically change life sciences drug discovery and CRISPR genome editing. You could do full climate models for all data ever collected.”

No date has been given for the rollout of IEEE’s P7130 standard.

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