Superconducting qubit array points the way to quantum computers

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Fully functional quantum computer is one of the holy grails of physics. Unlike conventional computers, the quantum version uses qubits (quantum bits), which make direct use of the multiple states of quantum phenomena. When realized, a quantum computer will be millions of times more powerful at certain computations than today’s supercomputers.

 Physicists have moved one step closer to making a quantum computer a reality by demonstrating a new level of reliability in a five-qubit array. Quantum computing it relies on aspects of quantum mechanics such as superposition. This notion holds that any physical object, such as an atom or electron — what quantum computers use to store information — can exist in all of its theoretical states simultaneously. This could take parallel computing to new heights.

“Quantum hardware is very, very unreliable compared to classical hardware,” says Austin Fowler, a staff scientist in the physics department, whose theoretical work inspired the experiments of the Martinis Group. “Even the best hardware is unreliable. Our paper shows that for the first time reliability has been reached.”

While the Martinis Group has shown logic operations at the threshold, the array must operate below the threshold to provide an acceptable margin of error. “Qubits are faulty, so error correction is necessary,” said graduate student and co-lead author Julian Kelly who worked on the five-qubit array.

“We need to improve and we would like to scale up to larger systems,” said lead author Rami Barends, a postdoctoral fellow with the group. “The intrinsic physics of control and coupling won’t have to change but the engineering around it is going to be a big challenge.”

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The five cross-shaped devices are the Xmon variant of the transmon qubit placed in a linear array.
Credit: Erik Lucero

The unique configuration of the group’s array results from the flexibility of geometry at the superconductive level, which allowed the scientists to create cross-shaped qubits they named Xmons. Superconductivity results when certain materials are cooled to a critical level that removes electrical resistance and eliminates magnetic fields. The team chose to place five Xmons in a single row, with each qubit talking to its nearest neighbor, a simple but effective arrangement.

“If you want to build a quantum computer, you need a two-dimensional array of such qubits, and the error rate should be below 1 percent,” said Fowler. “If we can get one order of magnitude lower — in the area of 10¯³ or 1 in 1,000 for all our gates — our qubits could become commercially viable.

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