IBM demonstrates superconducting quantum computer

New design detects both types of quantum errors and can be scalable to larger systems
April 30, 2015

Layout of IBM’s four superconducting quantum bit device. Using a square lattice, IBM is able to detect both types of quantum errors for the first time. The new quantum-bit circuit design allows for independent and simultaneous detection of X and Z errors on two-code qubits, shaded purple and labelled Q1 and Q3.  (credit: A.D. Córcoles et al./Nature Communications)

IBM scientists Wednesday April 29 unveiled two critical advances towards creating a practical quantum computer by detecting and measuring both kinds of quantum errors simultaneously. They also demonstrated a new, square quantum bit circuit design that they suggest is the only physical architecture that could successfully scale to larger dimensions.

Quantum computers promise to open up new capabilities in the fields of optimization and simulation that are not possible using today’s computers. If a quantum computer could be built with just 50 quantum bits (qubits), no combination of today’s TOP500 supercomputers could successfully outperform it, the scientists say.

The IBM breakthroughs, described in an open-access paper in the April 29 issue of the journal Nature Communications, show for the first time the ability to detect and measure the two types of quantum errors (bit-flip and phase-flip) that will occur in any real quantum computer*.

Until now, it was only possible to address one type of quantum error or the other, but never both at the same time. This is a necessary step toward quantum error correction, which is a critical requirement for building a practical and reliable large-scale quantum computer.

IBM’s quantum bit circuit is based on a square lattice of four superconducting qubits on a chip roughly one-quarter-inch square. It enables both types of quantum errors to be detected at the same time. Using a square-shaped design instead of the conventional linear array allow for detecting both kinds of quantum errors simultaneously and may offer the best potential to scale by adding more qubits to arrive at a working quantum system.

IBM Research scientist Jerry Chow conducts a quantum computing experiment at IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, NY (credit: Jon Simon/Feature Photo Service for IBM)

Dealing with decoherence

One of the great challenges for scientists seeking to harness the power of quantum computing is controlling or removing quantum decoherence — the creation of errors in calculations caused by interference from factors such as heat, electromagnetic radiation, and material defects. The errors are especially acute in quantum machines, since quantum information is so fragile.

Previous quantum-computing research, such as work in the John Martinis Lab at UC Santa Barbara (see “A quantum device that detects and corrects its own errors“), has been able to detect bit-flip or phase-flip quantum errors, but never the two together.

“This provided incomplete information on the quantum state of a system, making the designs inadequate for a quantum computer,” said Jay Gambetta, a manager in the IBM Quantum Computing Group. “Our four qubit results take us past this hurdle by detecting both types of quantum errors and can be scalable to larger systems, as the qubits are arranged in a square lattice as opposed to a linear array.”

Preserving information longer

Quantum information is very fragile because all existing qubit technologies lose their information when interacting with matter and electromagnetic radiation. Theorists have found ways to preserve the information much longer by spreading information across many physical qubits.

“Surface code” is the technical name for a specific error correction scheme which spreads quantum information across many qubits. It allows for only nearest neighbor interactions to encode one logical qubit, making it sufficiently stable to perform error-free operations.

With exponentially more power than today’s fastest supercomputers, quantum computers could herald a new era of innovation across industries (credit: IBM)

The IBM Research team used a variety of techniques to measure the states of two independent syndrome (measurement) qubits. Each reveals one aspect of the quantum information stored on two other qubits (called code, or data qubits). Specifically, one syndrome qubit revealed whether a bit-flip error occurred to either of the code qubits, while the other syndrome qubit revealed whether a phase-flip error occurred.

Determining the joint quantum information in the code qubits is an essential step for quantum error correction because directly measuring the code qubits destroys the information contained within them.

Because these qubits can be designed and manufactured using standard silicon fabrication techniques, IBM anticipates that once a handful of superconducting qubits can be manufactured reliably and repeatedly, and controlled with low error rates, there will be no fundamental obstacle to demonstrating error correction in larger lattices of qubits.

Quantum computing could allow scientists to design new materials and drug compounds without expensive trial and error experiments in the lab, potentially speeding up the rate and pace of innovation across many industries. Quantum computers could also quickly sort and curate ever larger databases as well as massive stores of diverse, unstructured data. This could transform how people make decisions and how researchers across industries make critical discoveries.

The work at IBM was funded in part by the IARPA (Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity) multi-qubit-coherent-operations program.

* Two types of errors can occur on such a superposition state. One is called a bit-flip error, which simply flips a 0 to a 1 and vice versa. This is similar to classical bit-flip errors and previous work has showed how to detect these errors on qubits. However, this is not sufficient for quantum error correction because phase-flip errors can also be present, which flip the sign of the phase relationship between 0 and 1 in a superposition state. Both types of errors must be detected in order for quantum error correction to function properly.

Abstract of Demonstration of a quantum error detection code using a square lattice of four superconducting qubits

The ability to detect and deal with errors when manipulating quantum systems is a fundamental requirement for fault-tolerant quantum computing. Unlike classical bits that are subject to only digital bit-flip errors, quantum bits are susceptible to a much larger spectrum of errors, for which any complete quantum error-correcting code must account. Whilst classical bit-flip detection can be realized via a linear array of qubits, a general fault-tolerant quantum error-correcting code requires extending into a higher-dimensional lattice. Here we present a quantum error detection protocol on a two-by-two planar lattice of superconducting qubits. The protocol detects an arbitrary quantum error on an encoded two-qubit entangled state via quantum non-demolition parity measurements on another pair of error syndrome qubits. This result represents a building block towards larger lattices amenable to fault-tolerant quantum error correction architectures such as the surface code.