The Quest for the Golden Ring
The success of public-key encryption relies on how difficult it is to factor a product of two large prime numbers. Your credit card information, for example, can be encoded quite easily, but is nearly impossible to decode without having the key—a designated set of factors—because a classical computer would have to check an impossibly large number of possible solutions one at a time.
Everyone was feeling pretty good about this encryption technique until 1994, when Peter Shor, now a math professor at MIT, theorized that large numbers could be factored quite effectively with a quantum computer. It wouldn’t need to check solutions one by one, like a classical computer—a quantum computer could look at all the possible solutions at once, eventually converging on a likely answer.
Shor’s new algorithm, of course, had people snapping to attention. Public-key encryption was and still is used is to establish secure communications over the internet, and trillions of dollars of commerce are exchanged every day under its umbrella. There would be almost unimaginable national security implications if previously unbreakable code was suddenly as useful as a VHS tape or an overhead projector.
Governments and private companies started pumping money into the cybersecurity problem more than 20 years ago, each determined to be the first to have the quantum decryption technology in hand. Even if it would be decades away, it was critically important to know when such code-breaking technology might be available.
It was suddenly a race, and the collaborative work of Kim and Monroe set a brisk pace. The two have been competing not only with other academic research groups but also with large tech companies. In 2015, they co-founded their own company, IonQ, which now offers quantum computing via Amazon Web Services for a small class of commercial users. That computer is designed to run autonomously and focus on high performance, unlike the more experimental, highly reconfigurable machines they’re building in their academic labs.
On both fronts, they’re up against the biggest big-guys of corporate research. IBM has long-standing quantum research initiatives, and Google and Microsoft have been recruiting engineers and physicists from universities to assemble their quantum teams.
The tech giants have approached the challenge by storing information in the electrical states of circuits or superconducting currents. This circuitry can be etched onto chips and manufactured, so it makes sense that industry researchers would continue in the direction they already are traveling.
A few companies have so far successfully deployed small-scale quantum computers in the cloud. But etched qubits are susceptible to manufacturing defects, creating unreliable variability. This is no problem for conventional computing, but intolerable for quantum computing.
The academic researchers at Duke are betting that their approach—qubits made from individual atomic ions floating in a vacuum—will lead to the first practical, scalable quantum computer. The trapped ions Duke researchers are using are ytterbium atoms (a rare-earth element: atomic number 70, isotope 171) which Monroe deems perfect. “They’re a gift from Mother Nature. They’re absolutely identical.”
To transform atoms into qubits, the scientists need only to strip them of one electron, giving each a positive charge that allows it to be held in place with an electromagnetic field. The trapped ions form an atomically-perfect crystal, then specially-tuned lasers coax each into one of two electronic energy levels, the 0 and 1. Subsequent laser pulses prepare the qubit collection in an arbitrary superposition of their qubit values. In this way, the atomic qubits become ‘entangled’ with each other, with the state of one inevitably tied to the states of others. Quantum information can be encoded not just onto the qubits themselves, but also into their entangled correlations.
The qubit states are manipulated and interpreted with an array of precisely calibrated lasers controlled by custom-made software. The qubits can thus be written and read despite their complexity.