US DARPA-funded research leads to breakthrough in quantum computing

Researchers from Harvard – supported by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, QuEra Computing, Caltech and Princeton, and funded by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), have made a breakthrough in quantum computing (QtC) technology.

Working under DARPA’s Optimization with Noisy Intermediate-Scale Quantum devices (ONISQ) program, the team created the first quantum circuit with logic qubits, a key breakthrough that could speed up fault-tolerant quantum computing.

QtC uses technology that obeys the laws of quantum mechanics to solve problems too complex to solve on classical computers. Just like the classical binary used in today’s computers, qubits operate in two distinct states: zero or one.

So far, no QtC has been invented that can achieve better results than a classical computer in the same amount of time.

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Preparing for QtC in defense

Although current QtC technology is not sufficiently mature to warrant more extensive global investment, GlobalData’s thematic research report on Quantum Computing in Defense (2023) identify several areas in which QtC has the potential to bring about transformative changes that will fundamentally alter the conduct of future conflicts.

Quantum capabilities are considered to have applications in sensing, communications, computing, navigation and electronic warfare, with the unique properties of quantum mechanics enhancing situational awareness and speeding decisions in all areas of modern warfare.

According to GloablData, the US Department of Defense held its first workshop on QtC as early as 1995. More recently, the UK Department of Defense published its Quantum Strategy in March 2023 and got her first QtCthe ORCA PT-1.

Preparing for such a quantum revolution, UK Defense Secretary James Heappey, speaking to the Chief of the Air Staff Aerospace Energy Conference in the summer of this year, he emphasized the importance of modularity in RAF systems, noting “the arrival of quantum. That’s the danger [today’s] generation of airplanes, none of them have quantum computing yet, they will all be up and running when the quantum computer arrives.”

The achievement of ONISQ

As of 2020, the ONISQ program has developed a hybrid concept to combine “noisy” — or error-prone — quantum processors with classical systems specifically focused on solving optimization problems of interest to defense and commercial industries.

The Harvard research team focused on exploring the potential of Rydberg Qubits, and during their research they made a major breakthrough: the team developed techniques to create logical error-correcting qubits using arrays of “noisy” physical Rydberg qubits.

Logical qubits are a critical missing piece of the puzzle for realizing fault-tolerant quantum computing. Unlike error-prone physical qubits, logical qubits are error-corrected to preserve their quantum state, making them useful for solving a variety of complex problems.

Harvard has built quantum circuits with about 48 Rydberg logic qubits to date in its lab, the largest number of logic qubits in existence.

“Rydberg qubits have the beneficial feature of being homogeneous in their properties – meaning that each qubit is indistinguishable from the next in how it behaves,” said Dr. Mukund Vengalattore, ONISQ program manager at DARPA’s Office of Defense Sciences.

“The homogeneity of Rydberg qubits allows them to scale quickly and also allows them to be easily manipulated and moved using lasers in a quantum circuit. This overcomes current error-prone methods of performing qubit operations by connecting them in series, which propagates errors throughout the chip.”

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