(Nature) Christopher Monroe, Distinguished University Professor & Bice Seci-Zorn Professor at the University of Maryland, Co-Founder & Chief Scientist of IonQ, and discusses his lab’s productivity during the COVID-19 panic and stresses “Remotely controlled experiments are the way forward”.
The COVID-19 pandemic and shutdown have been disastrous for many. But one research project in Monroe’s lab has been humming along, taking the best data my team has ever seen. It is an advanced ‘ion trap’ quantum computer, which uses laser beams to control an array of floating atoms. Monroe shared, “We spent three years setting it up to run remotely and autonomously. Now, we think more labs should run quantum-computing experiments like this, to speed up research.”
The quantum computer at the University of Maryland uses up to 32 identical atoms as the quantum bits, or qubits. Each is levitated by electromagnetic fields and cooled by lasers to sit almost at rest. Typically, such an apparatus has thousands of electronic and optical components, all aligned precisely on a 3-metre wide, 500-kilogram steel table damped against vibrations. It requires an army of people to tweak mirrors and adjust signals, and the components must continually be replaced, tested, calibrated and updated.
In 2016, Monroe’s team decided to redesign our system to run remotely — not just for convenience, but because that’s what our research goals require. We needed to add more qubits without increasing noise and errors, to test complex quantum gate operations, circuits and algorithms.
Monroe calls for for future components of quantum computers (especially used for researh) were simple ‘plug-and-play’ commodities, like the flash memory on a smartphone camera. Then, researchers wouldn’t have to build everything from scratch: they could insert a module, tweak a parameter or remotely reprogram a circuit. Such a system could be built by adapting a particular qubit technology and piling stacks of control hardware and software on top. Qubits could be swapped and systems redesigned as technology evolves — just as in conventional computing, the vacuum-tube switches of the 1940s gave way to germanium semiconductors and then silicon wafers in the 1960s.
Large quantum-computing initiatives in the United States, Europe, China, Canada, Australia, Singapore and Russia are investing in qubit research while also giving researchers access to commercial cloud services. But extensive research is needed between these extremes. Industry will ultimately mass-produce quantum computers, but the early ‘killer apps’ might well come from scientific discovery.