Friday, April 16, 2021

British start-up breakthrough could help quantum computers search for exotic materials

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A small British startup has developed an algorithm that drastically reduces the level of quantum computing power needed to perform a computation that could pave the way for the development of new exotic materials.

Company scientists, Phasecraft, with researchers at the University of Bristol, showed that a significant problem in quantum physics – a problem too difficult to solve on today’s supercomputers – could be within reach of quantum computers within three years, given the current rates at which technology is developing. This is much earlier than most experts predicted before.

Quantum computers are machines that exploit the special properties of quantum physics to perform their calculations. This potentially makes them much more powerful than today’s fastest supercomputers.

Many companies are start experimenting with quantum computers, which are offered through cloud computing interfaces from companies such as IBM, Honeywell and Google, as well as a number of startups. But so far, most companies have only run proof-of-concept projects on these machines, which are not yet powerful enough to simulate many complex systems, such as modeling subatomic or molecular interactions.

Google last year claimed to have taken a step called “Quantum supremacy”, using a quantum computer to perform a calculation that a conventional computer could not perform in a reasonable amount of time. Last week, a group of Chinese researchers said they had achieved a similar breakthrough using another type of quantum computer.

“Toy problems”

But in both cases, the particular problems that quantum computers solved were what John Morton, co-founder of Phasecraft and professor of quantum physics at University College London, calls “toy problems” – calculations formulated only to show that the quantum computer could do something that an ordinary supercomputer cannot. They weren’t problematic with clear implications for real-world applications, like figuring out how to create more efficient fertilizer manufacturing processes or better batteries.

What Phasecraft shows in a peer-reviewed article published today in the academic journal Physical examination B, published by the American Physical Society, is different. This is a problem called the Fermi-Hubbard model which describes the behavior of a class of subatomic particles called fermions – a group that includes electrons – when they jump in a solid. Being able to calculate this model is an important step towards creating materials that will exhibit superconducting properties without the need to maintain them at ultra-freezing temperatures. But doing this for a system with more than a few dozen particle positions is beyond the reach of today’s conventional supercomputers.

Phasecraft researchers proved that some sort of algorithm combining quantum and classical elements could be used to solve the Fermi-Hubbard model for a large solid using a quantum computer with around 8,000 gates, a term that refers to the number of logical operations of a quantum. the computer can perform. This is a tenth of the number of quantum gates that were previously deemed necessary to solve the model.

“Their work suggests that surprisingly low circuits could provide useful information about this model, making it more accessible to realistic quantum hardware,” Andrew Childs, a computer scientist at the University of Maryland, said of the research.

Existing quantum computers already have enough quantum processing units – called qubits – to theoretically perform this number of logical operations, but so far scientists haven’t figured out how to build circuits of this size. Google’s quantum supremacy experiment, which it performed on its 54-qubit Sycamore quantum processor, used a circuit consisting of 430 two-qubit gates and 1,113 one-qubit gates.

IBM has already announced plans to have a 1000-qubit quantum computer by 2023. With a quantum computer of this size, scientists may be able to build a circuit with enough gates to solve the model. of Fermi-Hubbard using the demonstrated Phasecraft algorithm. “We think it’s plausible to do some exciting things over the next two to three years,” said Ashley Montanaro, one of the co-founders and directors of Phasecraft, as well as a quantum computing researcher at the University. from Bristol.

Funding agreement

Phasecraft, which has partnerships with Rigetti, a California-based quantum computer construction start-up, and Google, is focused on working with materials science and chemistry companies to design quantum algorithms that will allow them to start solve complex problems using quantum computers.

The startup, which currently employs around ten people, also announced on Thursday that it had received $ 5 million in seed funding as part of a funding round led by LocalGlobe, a London-based venture capital firm, with the participation of Episode 1, another London-based venture capital firm specializing in scenic investing. Ian Hogarth, the former founder of the concert discovery app SongKick and now a leading business angel and startup investor, joins the Phasecraft board of directors as chairman.

The new investment brings to $ 7.4 million the total amount that Phasecraft has raised, in venture capital funding and research grants, since its founding in 2018. The company had previously received funding from the UCL Technology Fund and Parkwalk Advisors and grants from InnovateUK.

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