A practical method for automatically correcting data-handling errors in quantum computers has been developed and demonstrated by physicists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).
An ions quantum state can be spin up (top), spin down (middle) or a superposition state, represented graphically as any one of many possible spin directions in between up and down (bottom). Superposition states in which the spin is depicted as horizontal will be measured as spin up 50 percent of the time and spin down 50 percent of the time. Graphic credit: Kelly Talbott/NIST
Described in the Dec. 2, 2004, issue of the journal Nature, the NIST work is the first demonstration of all the steps of error correction for quantum computers, a futuristic, potentially very powerful form of computing that uses the quantum properties of atoms or other particles as 1s and 0s for processing data. The method was implemented using ions (electrically charged atoms) as quantum bits (qubits). Ions are arguably the leading candidate for use as qubits in a quantum computer.
Conventional computers use electronic switches that are either on or off to represent 1s and 0s that then can be stored or manipulated to make calculations. Quantum computing would use the quantum states of matter (such as magnetic properties) as 1s, 0s---or even both at once. The unusual features of the quantum world provide extra computational power, offering the prospect of carrying out a massive number of simultaneous calculations to solve problems that are impossible to solve today. Specific applications could include code-breaking of unprecedented power, faster database searching, fraud-proof digital signatures and optimization of everything from communications systems to airline schedules. But unless data-handling errors are corrected, "noise" caused by environmental disturbances, such as fluctuating magnetic fields associated with electrical equipment, could diminish any gains over todays computers.
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