DURHAM – If there is a Holy Grail of research in technology these days it’s quantum computing – something that remains confined to development, testing and modest levels of achievement. Duke University admits as much n an announcement Tuesday that its researchers will team with scientists at six other universities with an “audacious goal.”

That goal is the world’s “first practical” quantum computer. They have $15 million to spend.

Kenneth Brown

Kenneth Brown, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, chemistry, and physics at Duke, will lead the effort. “Brown’s research interest is the control of quantum systems for both understanding the natural world and developing new technologies,” his university bio says. “His current research areas are the development of robust quantum computers and the study of molecular properties at cold and ultracold temperatures.”

IBM is among the global leaders in the race to develop the next generation of computing and is working with North Carolina State University to establish a quantum lab at NCSU.

‘Quantum Leap’ project

Now comes the National Science Foundation-funded effort called the Software-Tailored Architecture for Quantum co-design (STAQ) project.

“Quantum computers will change everything about the technology we use and how we use it, and we are still taking the initial steps toward realizing this goal,” said NSF Director France Córdova in announcing the project.

“Developing the first practical quantum computer would be a major milestone. By bringing together experts who have outlined a path to a practical quantum computer and supporting its development, NSF is working to take the quantum revolution from theory to reality.”

The project is part of the NSF’s “Quantum Leap” initiative that the NSF says has the aim to “accelerate innovative research and provide a path forward for science and engineering to help solve one of the most critical, competitive and challenging issues of our time. Researchers will design, construct and analyze new approaches to quantum computing and test algorithms at a scale beyond the reach of simulations run on classical computers. Quantum research is essential for preparing future scientists and engineers to implement the discoveries of the next quantum revolution into technologies that will benefit the nation.”

The goals

The four major goals of the project, according to the NSF, are:

  • Develop a quantum computer with a sufficiently large number of quantum bits (qubits) to solve a challenging calculation.
  • Ensure that every qubit interacts with all other qubits in the system, critical for solving fundamental problems in physics.
  • Integrate software, algorithms, devices and systems engineering.
  • Involve equal input from experimentalists, theorists, engineers and computer scientists.

Duke, the University of Maryland, University of Chicago, Tufts University, MIT, the University of California-Berkley and the University of New Mexico make up the coalition of physicists, computer sciences and engineers for the NSF Ideas Lab focused on the Practical Fully-Connected Quantum Computer challenge.

‘Ion trap’ focus

The mission is to “demonstrate a quantum advantage over traditional computers within five years using ion trap technology,” Duke said in the announcement.

Duke identifies the “ion trap” as “atoms with electrons stripped away to give them a positive electric charge. That charge allows researchers to suspend ultra-cooled atoms using an electromagnetic field in an ultra-high vacuum, where precise lasers manipulate their quantum states to form qubits.”

A qubit, or quantum bit, is the basic unit of quantum information — the quantum version of the classical binary bit physically realized with a two-state device, notes Wikipedia. Current computing relies on binary technology.

NSF image

An NSF illustration of quantum computing and managing quibits

“There’s a really clear path to getting to two-to-three dozen ion trap qubits working together in a quantum computer,” said Duke’s Brown. “But it will take at least twice as many to solve a challenging calculation, and achieving that within five years is no cakewalk.”

Duke notes that “robust quibits” have been built but “scaling them into large networks while detecting and correcting errors remains a challenge.”

“System-level research for quantum computers—such as architecture designs, operating systems, compilers and programming environments—have only been performed in an academic environment at an abstract level so far,” said Jungsang Kim, professor of electrical and computer engineering, physics and computer science at Duke. He will work with Brown on the project. “This project will enable these research activities to be carried out on a concrete experimental hardware system, so practical progress can be made.”

The project will involved development of new algorithms, better quantum computing hardware, and software to “optimize algorithm performance.”

Companies such as IBM and Google are researching other methods than ion trap, according to Duke.