Quantum networks would allow for information to be created, stored and transmitted, potentially achieving "a level of privacy, security and computational clout that is impossible to achieve with today's Internet." Credit: Handout.

A quantum computer harnesses some of the almost-mystical phenomena of quantum mechanics to deliver huge leaps forward in processing power.

In fact, quantum machines promise to outstrip even the most capable of today’s — and tomorrow’s — supercomputers.

They won’t wipe out conventional computers, though. Using a classical machine will still be the easiest and most economical solution for tackling most problems.

But quantum computers promise to power exciting advances in various fields, from materials science to pharmaceuticals research.

Not only that, but get ready for the next step: the quantum internet, where quantum machines can be linked to each other to create powerful networks.

Thanks to QphoX, a Delft University spinout, the vision has moved closer to reality, according to a report in Sifted.eu.

Scientists there say they have created a quantum modem that can get these machines talking to each other.

It plans to be the first to take it out of the research lab and turn it into a commercial project — and has raised €2 million seed money to build the company.

“The €2 million is earmarked for moving the technology from the university research lab to a company, and hiring additional people,” said Simon Gröblacher, CEO and cofounder of QphoX.

“We need to mature the technology and create proper software around it.”

Gröblacher says they expect to have a working modem ready for customers to test within two years.

The seed funding round was led by Quantonation, Speedinvest and High-Tech Gründerfonds, with participation from TU Delft.

The secret to a quantum computer’s power lies in its ability to generate and manipulate quantum bits, or qubits. 

Today’s computers use bits — a stream of electrical or optical pulses representing 1s or 0s. Everything from your tweets and e-mails to your iTunes songs and YouTube videos are essentially long strings of these binary digits.

Quantum computers, on the other hand, use qubits, which are typically subatomic particles such as electrons or photons. Generating and managing qubits is a scientific and engineering challenge.

Some companies, such as IBM, Google, and Rigetti Computing, use superconducting circuits cooled to temperatures colder than deep space.

Even the great physicist Albert Einstein could not explain the machinations of what he called “spooky action at a distance.” Credit: Pixabay.

Others, like IonQ, trap individual atoms in electromagnetic fields on a silicon chip in ultra-high-vacuum chambers. In both cases, the goal is to isolate the qubits in a controlled quantum state.

Now comes the weird part.

Qubits can represent numerous possible combinations of and at the same time.

This ability to simultaneously be in multiple states is called superposition. To put qubits into superposition, researchers manipulate them using precision lasers or microwave beams.

Thanks to this counterintuitive phenomenon, a quantum computer with several qubits in superposition can crunch through a vast number of potential outcomes simultaneously.

Wait, it gets even gets stranger.

Researchers can generate pairs of qubits that are “entangled,” which means the two members of a pair exist in a single quantum state.

Changing the state of one of the qubits will instantaneously change the state of the other one in a predictable way.

This happens even if they are separated by very long distances (which suggests that our reality is not actually real — that distance is not real either, and perhaps, it is foldable, like a piece of paper).

Nobody really knows quite how or why entanglement works.

It even baffled Einstein, who famously described it as “spooky action at a distance.”

But it’s key to the power of quantum computers.

In a conventional computer, doubling the number of bits doubles its processing power. But thanks to entanglement, adding extra qubits to a quantum machine produces an exponential increase in its number-crunching ability.

Meanwhile, today’s biggest quantum computers have less than 100 qubits, but scientists say that the machines will need at least 1k qubits to be truly commercially useful.

“Scaling a quantum computer even beyond 100 qubits is hard at the moment, but you could link 10 together to get 1k,” says Gröblacher.

The modem is designed in the first instance to work with machines using superconducting qubits, but will in theory also connect to other types of quantum computer, such as those based on spin or topological qubits — anything that works with microwave frequencies.

The secret is in being able to convert the microwave frequency readouts from a quantum processor and turn these into signals that can be transmitted down fibre optic networks.

This all happens on a small chip that can sit just outside the quantum computing cryostat (the freezer that keeps the qubits at temperatures close to absolute zero).

It would be able to not only link quantum processors together but also link processors to quantum memory systems and other parts of the computer system.

“It is hard to see a winner-takes-all company in quantum computing — it is hard enough to build a quantum processor, and so it is likely you will have different companies developing different parts. They will need to be able to talk to each other,” said Gröblacher.

“We are clear on how to do it, it is just a case of engineering it and putting it together.”

Sources: Sifted.eu, MIT Technology Review, Wikipedia