Qcloud: quantum computing’s Raspberry Pi

Quantum computing has mostly been confined to research labs – but now any hobbyist can run experiments on a quantum chip from their browser.

Researchers at the University of Bristol have created “Qcloud”, giving the public access to their low-capacity, two-qubit quantum chip through the web, in an educational project they liken to the Raspberry Pi.

The project’s deputy director, Dr Mark Thompson, said that while a software ecosystem exists for standard PCs, there’s no equivalent for quantum computing.

We’re giving people access to hardware to see how it works and to start to understand the basics

“We’re the quantum hardware guys, we make the equivalent of the Intel microprocessor,” he told PC Pro. “But there’s a whole raft of people – computer architect guys, software guys, OS guys and app guys that we’d like to start engaging with.”

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The idea is that when the “real hardware” arrives, there’s already a generation of quantum software experts ready to make use of it.

Calling quantum coders

Bristol’s researchers have put together tutorials and a Qcloud simulator, to help newcomers grasp the basics of quantum computing. The tutorials are written with A-level science students in mind, but Thompson said anyone interested can register and submit their experiment ideas.

Unlike traditional silicon, a quantum chip processes information in qubits, or quantum bits. While a standard bit must always be coded as a one or a zero, a qubit can be either or even both at the same time.

Since a qubit can exist in multiple states at once, it can also generate multiple solutions to a problem simultaneously – making it much faster to solve queries.

Bristol’s two-qubit chip is, Thompson admits, little more than a “toy processor” but, like the Raspberry Pi, scales down and simplifies a more complex machine – even if that machine doesn’t exist yet.

“It’s very similar,” he told PC Pro. “Computers have become complicated, and the Raspberry Pi is trying to simplify it so people can understand them again.

“This is a little like a quantum Raspberry Pi – we’re giving people access to hardware to see how it works and to start to understand the basics,” he added. “But obviously there isn’t a fully universal quantum computer yet.”

Although the team want the first generation of quantum tinkerers to get cracking, the process won’t be as simple as teaching yourself Python.

“Quantum mechanics is completely counter-intuitive,” said PhD student Alex Neville. “We don’t get to see these quantum effects in everyday life and we’re not used to them. But if we give people access to a real device that shows these effects, that will give people a better idea of what’s going on at this level.”

Secure communications and faster drugs testing

According to Thompson, quantum computing has implications in four key areas: secure communications, simulators, quantum sensors and computing.

The first two, he says, are the closest to market, with several companies already offering fully secure mobile communications using quantum computing methods.

The second, quantum simulation, simply means recreating problems that are too complex for an ordinary computer. The speed with which that’s possible has implications for energy, biology and medicine – for example, simulating protein molecules to speed up drugs testing.

“Quantum simulators are, perhaps, five years away when we’ll get to the point of being able to run useful simulations,” said Thompson.

A full-scale quantum computer is, he says, up to 20 years away, though his team are working on more powerful six-qubit and eight-qubit chips which they’ll make available on Qcloud.

Qcloud is currently open for registration, but won’t run accept experiment submissions until 20 September.

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