Quantum Leap

By Dag Spicer | November 14, 2023

Though still experimental, quantum computing is one of the most exciting technologies on the horizon today. 

A prototype of a quantum processor was donated to CHM during Infineon’s OktoberTech customer event at the Museum. OktoberTech is an annual fun day-long event of customer success stories, set up a bit like a Science Fair, showcasing advances across Infineon’s product portfolio, from AI-powered stethoscopes and farm tractors to partner Cerebras’ 2.6 trillion transistor Wafer Scale Engine.

The author with Infineon System Architect Stephan Schächer and the donated quantum processor prototype.

To dive a bit deeper, ion trap quantum processors like this one are a type of quantum computing technology that uses individual ions as qubits (quantum bits) to perform quantum computations. Qubits, in quantum computing, can exist in multiple states simultaneously, which allows quantum computers to perform certain calculations much faster than classical computers.

In an ion trap quantum processor, ions are typically trapped using electromagnetic fields. Laser pulses are then used to manipulate the quantum states of these ions, enabling the execution of quantum algorithms.

This delicate ballet of physics and engineering is done at 4 degrees Kelvin (-454 degrees Fahrenheit), nearly at 0K (“Absolute zero”—the coldest temperature possible in the universe, and the point at which all molecular motion stops).

The State of the Field

The development of a quantum computer is being pursued with great energy by a handful of institutions and companies, using a variety of approaches (eight at last count) that hold promise, including trapping ions. Each has its own set of advantages and challenges, but some of the main approaches include:

Superconducting Qubits

  • Superconducting circuits are used to create qubits that can carry an electric current without resistance.
  • Quantum bits are manipulated using microwave pulses, and the interactions are controlled by superconducting circuits.

Trapped Ions

  • Ions, typically individual atoms, are trapped and manipulated using electromagnetic fields.
  • Qubits are encoded using internal energy levels of the ions, and quantum gates are performed with laser operations.

Topological Qubits

  • Utilizes anyons, which are exotic particles with properties suitable for quantum computing.
  • Quantum information is stored in the braiding of these anyons, which can create a robust form of qubits less susceptible to errors.

Quantum Dot Qubits

  • Qubits are created by confining electrons in semiconductor materials, forming artificial atoms known as quantum dots.
  • The spin of these electrons serves as the qubit, and quantum operations are performed using electromagnetic fields.

Photonic Quantum Computing

  • Uses photons as qubits, taking advantage of their ability to exist in multiple states simultaneously.
  • Quantum gates are implemented using linear optical elements like beam splitters and phase shifters.

Adiabatic Quantum Computing

  • Quantum annealing is employed to find the global minimum of a problem's energy landscape.
  • Qubits are slowly evolved from their ground state to a solution state, following the problem Hamiltonian.

Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR)

  • Relies on the principles of nuclear magnetic resonance to manipulate spins of nuclei as qubits.
  • Typically used in small-scale quantum information processing.

Silicon-based Quantum Computers

  • Leverages the properties of electrons in silicon to create qubits.
  • Quantum gates are performed using the electron spin as the qubit.

Capturing the Future

While quantum computing is an active area of research with few real-world applications to date, it does hold great promise for complex calculations in the future, for example in cryptography—sending and receiving secret codes—in which trillions of possibilities can be explored in fractions of the time it would take a conventional supercomputer.

Berkeley computer science professor Dave Patterson estimates the first working real-world example quantum computers in about 2030, but CHM is proactively collecting in this area now so that we can capture the early steps people will have taken on the road to quantum computing.

Generations to come will look at these first early steps into quantum computing the way people look at the mainframe computers (or original Sony PlayStations) of days gone by. What will they think of quantum computing and how it will have shaped their world? Because of donations like the Infineon ion-trapping quantum processor prototype, CHM will hold many of the answers.

Main image: Senior Curator Dag Spicer (center) and Acquisitions Registrar Gretta Stimson (right) receive the chip and a quantum IC wafer from Infineon’s Chief Marketing Officer Andreas Urschitz (left) at CHM on October 25, 2023.



Caring for the collection and accepting donations like Infineon's would not be possible without the generous support of people like you who care deeply about decoding technology. Please consider making a donation.

About The Author

Dag Spicer oversees the Museum’s permanent historical collection, the most comprehensive repository of computers, software, media, oral histories, and ephemera relating to computing in the world. He also helps shape the Museum’s exhibitions, marketing, and education programs, responds to research inquiries, and has given hundreds of interviews on computer history and related topics to major print and electronic news outlets such as NPR, the New York Times, The Economist, and CBS News. A native Canadian, Dag most recently attended Stanford University before joining the Museum in 1996.

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