With Google joining the quantum computing race, how far are we from a game-changing breakthrough?

11 September 2014

by Dr Tristan Farrow

Dr Tristan Farrow has interdisciplinary research interests in experimental quantum optics and information, and in the role that quantum phenomena play in biological and complex molecules, aiming to develop a new methodology for overcoming the extre...

I Stock agsandrew Quantum
© Istock/agsandrew

Dr Tristan Farrow analyses Google's increase in its investment in quantum computing, and explains the Oxford Martin School's approach to technology that could create a 'second information revolution'.

The fact that Google is joining the race to build the first quantum computer that will outperform conventional computers is exciting news that will spur on our own research in the UK.

We have come very close to building quantum powered computers after 20 years of research, but the missing ingredient, which has proved so elusive and that we are addressing at the Oxford Martin School, is the inherent instability of the quantum states - the so-called qubits analogous to bits in conventional computers - required to unleash the power of quantum machines.

Google and its partners are building on existing test-machines that encode information in superconducting circuits, which they hope to scale up to 1,000 qubits to start rivaling conventional computers. At the Oxford Martin School, we are inverting this approach with an original top-down strategy where we are looking into the possibility of making qubits more stable using already-complex systems found in nature.

There are other approaches and all have their advantages and drawbacks, not least expense, but also their varying ability to increase the number of qubits in the processors. The problem switched from a mainly theoretical one 10 years ago to a largely technological and engineering challenge. And if history is anything to go by, we are confident that new breakthroughs will make quantum computers possible in the coming decade.

It is no exaggeration to say that their advent could drive a second information revolution because their power could be enormous. They work much faster than conventional computers, but more importantly they work differently, so could tackle whole new classes of problems. They would allow us to run simulations and applications vastly more complex than today's most powerful supercomputers are capable of tackling. For example, they could reduce the cost of developing new drugs to virtually zero, or could allow us to predict the weather and climate change with much higher accuracy.

Find out more about the Oxford Martin Programme on Bio-Inspired Quantum Technologies.