An accidental innovation has given a dark-horse approach to quantum computing a boost. For decades, scientists have dreamed of using atomic nuclei embedded in silicon—the familiar stuff of microchips—as quantum bits, or qubits, in a superpowerful quantum computer, manipulating them with magnetic fields. Now, researchers in Australia have stumbled across a way to control such a nucleus with more-manageable electric fields, raising the prospect of controlling the qubits in much the same way as transistors in an ordinary microchip.
“That’s incredibly important,” says Thaddeus Ladd, a research physicist at HRL Laboratories LLC., a private research company. “This could potentially change the game for nuclear qubits in silicon.”
An ordinary computer flips bits from 1 to 0 and back again. A quantum computer employs qubits that can be set to 0, 1, or, thanks to the bizarre rules of quantum mechanics, 0 and 1 at the same time. This enables a quantum computer to crunch a huge number of inputs simultaneously, which is one reason why a big one should able to solve certain types of complex problems that would swamp any conventional computer. Last year, researchers with Google claimed their small quantum computer performed an abstruse calculation that would have taken conventional supercomputers millennia.