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Can we build a quantum computer?

Gavin Morley, Associate Professor in the Magnetic Resonance Group, Physics

Published May 2015

What would happen if the strange quantum behaviour of atoms could be harnessed into a computer? Quantum physicist Gavin Morley explains all.
What is quantum information?

Our normal computers store all of the information on there as “bits” which are ones and zeros. Whether it’s a song or a hilarious cat video it only looks like “...1010110101101...” to a laptop or a smartphone. But what if we stored this information on single atoms? Atoms can do really weird things, for example, they can try out being in two places at once! This means that they don’t have to simply store a one or a zero… they can try out storing a one and a zero at the same time. They are then storing “quantum information”.

Gavin MorleyWhat does your work in quantum information processing at Warwick entail?

My group in Warwick builds new experiments for quantum technology using magnetic resonance. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in hospitals can get an image of the atoms inside my brain, and extensions of this technique let us develop new ways to use atoms that store quantum information.

How has quantum science developed over the years?

Key parts of quantum science are over 100 years old, and have led to explanations of things all around us, like why glass is transparent, but metal is shiny and the sky is blue. The smartphones we have now are totally dependent on this understanding. At the same time, there are still big mysteries to solve, including whether it would be possible to build a quantum computer. Quantum experiments are still probing where the quantum weirdness goes when a large number of atoms are put together to make things in the everyday world that we are familiar with, like footballs, pencils or sunglasses.

How important is it to invest in this research?

This research is interesting science that is telling us about the unexpected richness of the world all around us. Investing in this blue-sky research leads to unexpected progress a long way in the future. No-one knew 100 years ago that trying to understand atoms would help us to develop the internet that has revolutionised our culture so much! A large quantum industry is now starting to build around the advantages that quantum information could bring over traditional devices. These benefits are not limited to quantum computing, but include secure communication and very sensitive detectors. The most important applications are still likely to be invented, based on how new technologies have developed in the past.

What does quantum information do for us?

If we could build a quantum computer it could solve certain problems that would take the lifetime of the universe on any of today’s computers to solve. It may become possible to run a computer program to see how new medicines would behave in patients, without having to actually try them out on real people.

What’s the future of quantum information processing?

Quantum information processing is still young, and it’s hard to know where it will go. What we can see is that it’s a vibrant area of new ideas and possibilities. Useful technologies are sure to follow as well as insights into our universe and its workings.

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