Exploring the subatomic computing frontier with the 12-Qubit System

This article was originally written and submitted as part of a Canada 150 Project, the Innovation Storybook, to crowdsource stories of Canadian innovation with partners across Canada. The content has since been migrated to Ingenium’s Channel, a digital hub featuring curated content related to science, technology and innovation.

Quantum computing is a term getting thrown around a lot these days, tossing out classical bits for cool new qubits. But as hot of a topic quantum computing may be right now, Dr. Raymond Laflamme, a professor at the University of Waterloo, helped create a 12-qubit computer system way back in 2006.

Qubits are as cute as they sound. They’re photons, protons, electrons, atoms and even nano-sized electrical circuits; whatever behaves according to quantum mechanics and can be tamed. Computer components are getting smaller each year, and the transistors inside them can be just a dozen nanometres in length – which is even smaller than a blood cell. At this scale, quantum effects start to appear and they interfere with computations, creating quite a headache for scientists and engineers.

Naturally, scientists began to look into how to use these new effects to their advantage. So, with the marriage of quantum mechanics and computer science came quantum computing.

Classical bits are those ones and zeroes you always hear computers are made of. They really just reference the allowance or interruption of electricity. A “one” represents electricity flowing through. A “zero” represents electricity being blocked. Different combinations of bits can be programmed to compute different things, and more bits mean more possibilities.

Quantum bits, or, qubits, are quantum objects that can be controlled to perform computations, but following the rules of quantum mechanics. So, what makes qubits so special? They can enter a state called quantum superposition, which is a fancy way of saying that they can be in multiple states at the same time. What this means for computers is that the qubit can not only represent a one or a zero but any combination of both of them at the same time. This allows for much more sophisticated processes and efficient computations.

Although the idea of quantum computing is sound on paper, its physical realization is a real challenge. In 2006, Laflamme, his team at the University of Waterloo and a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) were able to combine the mathematical clout of a dozen qubits to create the first 12-qubit system.

At the time, this system was the largest and most powerful quantum computer in the world and paved the way for further advancements in the field. And still, newer contributions to the science are still being produced in Canada. With a critical mass of researchers in Waterloo, Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Sherbrooke, Canada is at the forefront of the quantum computing revolution.

By: Jassi Bedi

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