Anyone can try quantum computing experiments on Bristol’s public access two-quibit chip
Bristol University’s centre for quantum photonics has hooked up an honest-to-goodness quantum computer to the web, so anyone can play with it. The move, billed as the “Raspberry Pi of quantum computing” is a big curtain-raiser for next week’s British Science Festival 2013.
Anyone interested in quantum physics or computing can follow a link to Bristol’s Qcloud and try an experiment on a quantum simulator, before running it on a real quantum computer. The field of quantum computing has so far been limited to academic departments and research units, as well as one controversial venture capital backed startup, D-Wave, selling commercial systems. Now, it is open to schoolchildren or interested lay people, who could even use it on the bus, say the scientists.
The Raspberry Pi of quantum computing
“This is a test bed for new algorithms, and it is moving out of the lab,” said Professor Jeremy O’Brien of the centre. “There are a small number of quantum scientists compared to the number of computer scientists in the world.”
There are at least two major approaches to quantum computing. Quantum annealing systems being developed by D-Wave and others, use quantum bits (qubits) provided by superconducting magnets to produce a “quantum annealing” system which converges onto the best solution for a specific problem.
The D-Wave system claims to have more than 100 qubits (and recent research suggests it shows genuine quantum effects) but requires very low temperatures.
Meanwhile, teams in Bristol and elsewhere are working on more general-purpose systems, which use photons and work at laboratory temperatures, but so far only have a smaller number of qubits.
The Bristol team is giving access to a two qubit chip, which it built in 2011, and which has already enabled ground breaking research, including a demonstration of quantum behaviour greatly at odds with intuitive large-scale physics. The group demonstrated that quantum-entangled photons show the behaviour of particles or waves according to a user’s decision of how to observe them as predicted in Wheeler’s Delayed Choice Thought Experiment. The chip is also in use at a research lab in Nokia, and the centre is able to make more at a cost in the thousands of pounds.
“We’ve published four or five major papers using this chip, and now we are working in the lab on chips with four or more qubits,” said Dr Mark Thompson, deputy director of the Bristol Centre. Rather than retire its two-qubit machine, it decided to put it online, as an educational resource which Thompson described as “the Raspberry Pi of quantum computing.”
Win your Nobel prize?
The resource includes educational resources, and manuals, as well as links to the unit’s own research, and a simulator of the system, which visitors are encouraged to use first. The value of the simulator is that it encapsulates existing knowledge of quantum science, and predicts what the quantum computer should do. “If the quantum computer doesn’t do what your simulation suggests it will, there could be a Nobel Prize in it,” joked Dr Thompson.
More likely, of course, results like that would result in corrections to the simulation, or flag up errors in the real system’s inputs and outputs – and correcting these would also be immensely useful.
The front end of the system is hosted on Google’s App Engine, while the simulation and the actual machine are run from resources on the centre’s own computing resources.
A handful of people can use the actual system, while “hundreds of thousands” can use the simulation, said Jeremy O’Brien. The centre has not yet worked out how to manage the queue for access to the system, saying it does not know how popular it will be.
More public involvement
Professor Lisa Jardine, president of the British Science Association (BSA), called for greater involvement in science by the public, at the launch of the British Science Festival, which the Association is hosting in Newcastle from 7 to 12 September.
Public understanding of science is now higher than many people believe, she said, and it is time that policy debates about scientific issues were opened to lay participants at an early stage, to avoid the “fait accompli” of major policy decisions on issues like nuclear power and fracking: “There is a fissure between policy and its delivery,” she said.
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