Scientia Professor Michelle Simmons believes the future of computing lies in an entirely new system built with single atom engineering. Just one of these next-generation quantum computers will likely exceed the power of all the computers now on earth.
The international competition to build these super powerful computers has been described by the Australian government as “the space race of the 21st century”.
In order to get there, the Australian Laureate Fellow and her research team at the UNSW-based ARC Centre of Excellence for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology are using silicon to fabricate quantum bits or qubits, which are expected to form the main components of these future computers.
By manipulating single atoms and their electrons, Simmons’ team realised the world’s smallest single atom transistor in 2012, a decade ahead of the predictions of global chip manufacturers. They also fabricated the world’s narrowest conducting wires, 1,000 times narrower than a human hair. The feats were published in Nature Nanotechnology and Science respectively.
Just as significant is the team’s success in 2014 in controllably transferring individual electron spins from one dot to another placed just 10 nanometres apart – the basis of a future quantum integrated circuit.
So extraordinary has been the progress that Simmons was recently elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, joining the likes of Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking and Alexander Graham Bell.
Her long list of other honours include being named NSW Scientist of the Year (2011), listed by the Sydney Morning Herald as one of Australia’s 100 most influential people and, most recently, her appointment by the Nature Publishing Group as editor-in-chief of their new partner journal, Quantum Information.
The promise of these machines, once realised, is incredible. A quantum computer with just 30 qubits would exceed the power of today’s super computers and one with 300 qubits would exceed the power of all computers on Earth combined. This is because instead of being limited by the two positions of classical computers – the up and down, or zeros and ones of digital information – the electron ‘spin’ in a quantum computer can be partly up and down at the same time, exponentially increasing the amount of data that can be processed by enabling it to be processed simultaneously.
These ‘quantum’ leaps in functionality will operate across a wide range of applications, well beyond what even today’s supercomputers are capable of, says Simmons.
This includes performing modelling of complex systems, such as climate and economic systems; the design of new drugs and materials; face and speech recognition; data security and search engine optimisation, and simulations of protein folding and other advanced biochemical processes.
The challenge is working at the atomic scale, says Simmons. “Being able to accurately place individual atoms, initialise and read out the ‘spins’ of the individual electrons on these atoms puts us on the road to building a functional quantum computer. It is hugely exciting.
“Where will it take us? We don’t know yet, but there’s a massive international race to get there.”